Rorate Caeli

Announcing And Rightly So—Selected Letters and Articles of Neil McCaffrey

The name of Neil McCaffrey (1925–1994) will be familiar to those who have followed the fortunes and trials of the conservative movement in the United States, as well as to long-time readers of Rorate Caeli, which has featured a number of his outstanding occasional writings: his ever-relevant “Memorandum on Papal Cheerleaders” from February 1976; his incisive essay “Archbishop Lefebvre, Pope Paul VI, and Catholic Tradition” from 1977; a couple of his personal letters (1, 2) on the meaning of true charity and how it coexists with right judgment; and a letter exchange with Msgr. Eugene Clark on the superiority and insuppressibility of the old Mass.

Born in Rye, NY and a lifetime resident of Pelham, Neil McCaffrey was the founder of Conservative Book Club and Arlington House Publishers, which he ran for decades, and a respected behind-the-scenes political organizer who knew everyone, collaborating especially with William F. Buckley, Jr., and others at National Review. Neil was also a knowledgeable enthusiast of old films and the music of the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, an enthusiasm reflected in his founding of the Nostalgia Book Club in 1968 and his leading of the Movie Entertainment Book Club from 1978. Above all, Neil was a faithful and well-educated Catholic who saw what was happening to the Church because of the Vatican II revolution, and who spoke with unusual eloquence in defense of the orthodox Faith.

I was therefore delighted when his son, Roger, asked me a few years ago to comb through thousands of documents in his father’s archives and to select the best for an anthology. Many months spent with these archives taught me that Neil McCaffrey was an exceptional observer and wordsmith—clear-eyed, unsentimental, urbane, realistic, passionate, and (almost always) relentlessly logical. He was a man of deep personal integrity determined to be intelligently Catholic in an age marked by an increasing flight from both faith and reason. He exposes errors without apologizing for hurting feelings, and yet one senses a friendly glint in the eye, because his motivation is not to score points but to tell the truth for the other’s benefit. I almost have the sense that many things he wrote were written as if to restore a sort of cosmic balance: if one could soundly refute nonsense or perversity, one had made the world a better place for the moment. And he could speak with breathtaking bluntness: “When a Church that subsists on tradition bans this Mass, abruptly and even ruthlessly, we are faced with a phenomenon that ought to unsettle a high-grade moron.”

Roman Catholic Books has now published the edited collection: And Rightly So—Selected Letters and Articles of Neil McCaffrey, a 386-page volume of McCaffrey’s best letters and articles ranging over four decades (1955 to 1994). The book is divided into five thematic sections: Politics and Economics (pp. 15–132), Reformation and Deformation in the Catholic Church (pp. 133–220), Philosophical and Theological Musings (pp. 221–50), Writers, Publishers, and Friends (pp. 251–329), and Music, the Good Old Days, and Life in the City (pp. 331–70). The book includes a preface by Roger, a tribute by Msgr. Donald Pryor, and a preface by me, as well as a Glossary of Names. It is a volume that anyone interested in the history of American conservatism and of Catholic traditionalism will want to read, with many surprises along the way.

We meet the young Garry Wills; we hear arguments over the wisdom of Brent Bozell’s Triumph; we find out about the back story to the “dissent” over Mater et Magistra; we see a prescient op-ed for The New York Times called “Society’s Future: A Liberal Zoo.” We get to see Neil’s thoughtful list of the best conservative books published between 1944 and 1994, and his comments on favorite works by Newman, Waugh, Knox, Sheed, Benson, and other writers of the 20th-century Catholic renaissance. There are keen analyses of the Kennedy, Nixon, and Reagan years, the failed Goldwater campaign, and the eternal enmity of right-thinking men to Communism and Socialism. We get a ringside seat at the raging debate over birth control around the time of Humanae Vitae, and hear about shifting attitudes on war, drugs, crime, and civility. Occupying a prominent place in the book are McCaffrey’s wide-ranging speculations on the nature and limits of papal authority and infallibility (the book is worth having for these golden pages alone!); the canonical and theological “weight” of the Missal of Paul VI; the unexpected resistance offered by Archbishop Lefebvre and the questions of conscience it raised; the crisis of identity in parishes and parochial schools; the rise of lay-driven Catholic journalism and activism. And, as an added bonus, he does not hesitate to explain why jazz is superior to rock.

(The articles published earlier at Rorate Caeli are, of course, included in this collection.)

There is so very much in these documents, even from decades ago, that strikes the reader as uncannily pertinent to our battles today, whether we are political conservatives or Catholic traditionalists (or both). Many of the issues McCaffrey dealt with are fundamental and unavoidable, and the stakes have only gotten higher. Moreover, in a way few could have predicted, the relatively stable (if still problematic) pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI have given way to the chaotic circus of the pontificate of Pope Francis, who seems a Paul VI redivivus, only worse. The great confusion, anxiety, and scandal through which McCaffrey and faithful Catholics of his generation had to pass is now being repeated in a penitential déjà vu for us who are alive today, and when we read what he wrote in the 1960s and 1970s, we recognize ourselves, our church, our pope and bishops, in his vivid (and, at times, withering) critiques.

With his gritty New Yorker’s knowledge of human nature and his many-sided catholicity, McCaffrey still has much to say to us today. This collection, reaching from the late 1950s to the mid-1990s, is a historical, cultural, and intellectual treasure, and reminds us of what a Catholic “man of parts” looks like—a man of broad interests, serious commitments, and versatile mind.

And Rightly So—Selected Letters and Articles of Neil McCaffrey may be ordered directly from Roman Catholic Books. (Mail orders may be sent to Roman Catholic Books, PO Box 2286, Fort Collins, CO 80522. Please include $4 for shipping 1 copy and $2 for each additional copy under ten. Write to for bulk purchases.)