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Neil McCaffrey and the Conservative Book Club

He was a man of letters who pondered Catholicism, criticized neoconservatism, and traded a barb or two with friend Bill Buckley.
neil mccaffrey

For those of us who remember the American conservative movement in its earlier manifestation, the recently published articles and correspondence of Neil McCaffrey make for stimulating reading. 

For those who don’t recall McCaffrey (1925-1994), it might be mentioned that he was the founder of the Conservative Book Club, the owner of the conservative press Arlington House between 1964 and 1988, and a longtime friend and correspondent of Bill Buckley’s. A native New Yorker who worked as an editor at Doubleday, McCaffrey left behind a promising career at a leading commercial press to devote himself to his two lifetime passions, popularizing conservative ideas and fighting for traditional Catholic beliefs.

In his case, as his published letters indicate, the two were often intertwined. Although several of his authors and close friends, like Victor Gold, Victor Lasky, and Will Herberg, were Jewish, McCaffrey never hesitated to take on Jewish critics of Christian influence in America and engage them in polite but firm debate. He was also unsparing in going after “civil libertarians” whose real interest seemed to be in removing any traditional religious symbols and religious memories from American civil society. 

At the same time, McCaffrey could be cutting in his remarks about the anti-American tendencies on the Catholic Right. His correspondence with contributors to the magazine Triumph in the 1960s make clear his skepticism about certain tendencies that he found there, particularly selective appeals to papal authority. McCaffrey was amused by how some would change their loyalties as soon as the Bishop of Rome made a pronouncement they didn’t approve of. He famously quoted the 16th-century Spanish Jesuit Francisco Suarez on the natural limits of papal power: “Suarez was asked whether a pope could be a schismatic. His response must have struck contemporaries as another exercise in dry Scholastic speculation, but it hits us today like the kick of a mule. Yes, he said, if a pope moves too radically to change Catholic tradition.” 

McCaffrey also assumed that just as often as not, modern popes would move toward “modern aberrations,” leaving traditionalists in the Church unhappy. Neil may have been at his sarcastic best in responding to an overly zealous Catholic convert, Bill Marshner (who was my close friend at Yale graduate school in the mid-1960s), regarding Bill’s ritualistic practice of invoking “Catholic social doctrine.” According to McCaffrey: “I think we should be chaste in using a term like Christian economics, lest we accord to it a place of honor beside that other eminent discipline, Christian mathematics.” 

Like his close friend Bill Buckley, however, McCaffrey hoped that “the new Mass” would be dropped and that the Church would return to its Tridentine Latin form. “In time,” he wrote, “I think this experiment will be recognized as the failure it is, and some future pope will restore the Mass in its classic form.”

Considering all his other preoccupations, including the raising of six children (his son Roger seems to have continued most of his father’s battles), it is remarkable how attuned Neil was to what was happening in the American conservative movement. His steady correspondence with Buckley, although the two were usually only a few miles apart within the New York metropolitan area, is remarkable given how unreservedly McCaffrey addresses the recipient of his missives. He offered his frank judgments about prospective reviewers and columnists, and he occasionally corrected Buckley’s statements in National Review about Catholic moral theology. 

He also sent his son Roger an acidic memorandum on December 31, 1991, signaling what may have been the end of a friendship. It begins: “Re. Bill Buckley’s attempt to undermine Pat Buchanan’s presidential campaign by implying in National Review that he was anti-Semitic. The only effective way to deal with Buckley is not to deal with him at all.” 

Clearly McCaffrey took the side of the Old Right against the neoconservatives. But although both of us were on the same side in those conservative wars, I knew very little about McCaffrey, except for what his onetime assistant Lew Rockwell and his longtime friend Murray Rothbard told me about him. (He died of lung cancer in 1995 at the age of 69, soon after Murray.)   

Although the correspondences that were shared with me only include McCaffrey’s responses, I do have an idea of what some of the recipients of his letters had written him. This is especially true of a letter sent to Murray in August 1994, in which McCaffrey defends the “accommodation of liberal anti-Communists” during the Cold War, but explains that “we are in a new situation, and the notion of making common cause with Sydney Hook types is not far from grotesque.” Allow me to note that I had the same conversation with Murray many times, and for what it’s worth, had expressed the same view that he had. 

Unlike us, however, Murray thought it was still possible to reduce the neoconservative sway over the conservative movement, symbolized by the stature of the anti-communist “social democrat” Sidney Hook. Neither I nor Neil McCaffrey believed that would happen. We were right, and for better or worse, Murray was wrong.

Paul Gottfried is the editor-in-chief of Chronicles. He is also Raffensperger Professor of Humanities Emeritus at Elizabethtown College, where he taught for 25 years, a Guggenheim recipient, and a Yale Ph.D. He is the author of 13 books, most recently Fascism: Career of a Concept and Revisions and Dissents.