The death of Father Richard John Neuhaus on January 8, 2009 from complications of cancer, less than a month after the death of his dear friend, Cardinal Avery Dulles, SJ, has left a large void in American Catholic, indeed, American public life. If Cardinal Dulles was the touchstone for Catholic and ecumenical theological inquiry, Father Neuhaus was something else.
While theologically minded, he was not exactly a theologian. While his ecumenical initiatives, like the dialogue “Catholics and Evangelicals Together,” were immensely important, calling him an ecumenist in these days gives the wrong impression—his ecumenical initiatives aimed not at ecumenism, but truth in Jesus Christ. Nor does the term “journalist” quite fit, no matter how many millions of words he poured into print, often controversially, but always clearly, provocatively, and seemingly effortlessly. Joseph Bottum, editor of First Things, of which Neuhaus was founder and editor-in-chief, has remarked that for his monthly “Public Square” column alone, Neuhaus produced an average of 12,000 words per month. Because of that column, composed of several mid length essays, as well as several dozen smaller comments on topics ranging all over the cultural and intellectual map, many writers have referred to him as the “first blogger.”
Perhaps the best definition for Neuhaus’ public work was given by his friend Father George Rutler, who tended him spiritually on his deathbed. Father Neuhaus was, he said, a “public philosopher.” What Neuhaus did was not merely to think deeply about the philosophical and theological “first things” in public, but about how the public square should be ordered in light both of those first things and of the myriad cultural and political contingencies that make each period of time different. He did this un-self-consciously as an American, but more importantly as a Christian and a priest. It was because of this combination and his own personal history that he became an advisor to American presidents as well as bishops and popes.
Neuhaus was born in Canada on May 14, 1936, one of eight children of a Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor affectionately called “Pope Neuhaus” for his Lutheran doctrinal rigor and accompanying “indisputably authoritative manner.” Young Richard shared both his father’s concern for truth and his self confidence. Although possessing dual citizenship he decided early on that he was American, dropping out of high school and becoming proprietor of a gas station in Cisco, Texas at age 16. He later enrolled at Concordia College in Texas and afterwards Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, where he studied under the brilliant Lutheran theologian Arthur Carl Piepkorn. From Piepkorn Neuhaus took his orientation as an “evangelical catholic,” a Lutheran who emphasized the Catholic nature of the Lutheran reformation. The Lutheran “Church” was, in their eyes, simply a reform movement in the one Catholic Church, temporarily separated from full communion with Rome until the desired reforms penetrated there.
Upon ordination as a Lutheran minister in 1960, Neuhaus became pastor of the mostly black St. John’s Lutheran Church in Brooklyn, affectionately dubbed “St. John the Mundane” in contrast to the magnificent but never finished Episcopal Cathedral St. John the Divine in Manhattan. During the next decade Neuhaus became associated with “liberal” causes like the civil rights movement, collaborating in one of the closer circles with Martin Luther King, Jr. With Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Father Dan Berrigan he also founded the anti-war group Clergy Concerned about Vietnam. However, as the 1960s became “the Sixties,” Neuhaus began to sense that liberal politics was slipping away from the Christian moorings that underpinned causes like the civil rights movement. In a 1968 article in Commonweal Neuhaus wrote about the irony that conservatives were embracing the movement to defend the unborn while liberals remained silent or worse on the issue. Though his position on Roe v. Wade marked a break with the Left, Neuhaus was still associated with liberal politics to an extent, supporting and occasionally advising Jimmy Carter in 1976. In 1977 he founded the Communitarian movement with sociologist Peter Berger, emphasizing the need for “mediating structures” between the individual and the state in order to have a healthy society. As in 1968 Neuhaus was somewhat surprised that Communitarian themes were embraced mostly by conservatives. By the mid 1980s Neuhaus began to accept the increasingly used “neo-conservative” label.
Theologically Neuhaus was changing as well. In 1975 he and Berger had convened another group that would produce the Hartford Declaration, an ecumenical manifesto demanding that Christians treat Christian doctrine as a first thing and politics as a second, a ratio mainline Protestantism increasingly inverted. Here Neuhaus extended or developed friendship with Orthodox priests like Alexander Schmemann and Thomas Hopko, as well as Catholic intellectuals like Ralph McInerny and Avery Dulles, SJ. Despite the chaos of the post-Vatican II era, Neuhaus seemed to be moving toward the position that in the council’s documents themselves all legitimate ecclesial concerns raised by “evangelical catholics” had been answered. McInerny recounts Neuhaus’ flat declaration during the 1985 Extraordinary Synod of Bishops, “Of course the pope is the head of the Church.”
1984 saw the publication of Neuhaus’ most important book. The Naked Public Square contended that the continued stripping of religion from public life was not only inconsistent with the American founding but deleterious to the continued success of the American experiment. In the book Neuhaus defended, albeit cautiously, the growing movement of the “religious right,” but asked if a strong theological and intellectual American backbone was possible in the wake of the decline of mainline Protestantism. In 1987 Neuhaus answered his own question, to much less acclaim, with The Catholic Moment. The Catholic Church under John Paul II, he argued, was particularly well-suited to take the place of the Protestant mainline as the intellectual backbone and moral conscience of the nation.
In 1990 Neuhaus’ newly founded Institute on Religion and Public Life began its journal, First Things. Also that year, convinced that existing Lutheranism did not think of itself as a reform movement in the one Church, but simply as several (increasingly liberal) Protestant denominations, he was received into full communion as a Catholic by Cardinal O’Connor with Avery Dulles as his sponsor, and was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of New York the following year.
First Things became the premier American ecumenical and conservative opinion journal, and was the vehicle for many of Neuhaus’ political and ecclesial projects. On the political side, First Things’ 1996 symposium “The End of Democracy?” highlighted the role of the “judicial usurpation of democracy,” that is, judges increasingly invalidating democratically made laws or crafting laws themselves based on a notion of an unstable and “living” Constitution. Ecclesially, his most important initiative was “Evangelicals and Catholics Together,” which he co-founded with Charles Colson to be a grassroots ecumenical venture introducing the two groups to each other for the sake of Christian unity and especially an alliance in the Culture Wars. Neuhaus met somewhat frequently with Pope John Paul II and was named to the Extraordinary Synod for America in 1997. In the last eight years
Father Neuhaus served as an advisor to George W. Bush on religious and ethical issues. President Bush was quoted saying, “Father Richard helps me think through these things.” Father Neuhaus was nothing if not a lightning rod for criticism. His ecumenical ventures were perceived by some Catholics as a compromise of Catholic truth and by some Evangelicals as simply another sly Roman attempt at take-over. Similarly with his political activism. Some, like Catholic journalist Michael Sean Winters in The New Republic, accused him of attempting to reunite throne and altar in a sort of modern confessional state. On the other side, many traditionalist Catholics damned his liberalism in not acknowledging the need for a confessional state. While he may have been, as the London Times suggested, the most important convert since Newman, he was also, they said, “among the most reviled, despised, and denounced figures in modern public intellectual life.”
His final book, American Babylon: Notes of a Christian in Exile, provides a sort of final apologia for Neuhaus’ views on how a Christian should approach life in modern America. America is Babylon, he asserts, “not by comparison with other societies but by comparison with that radically new order sought by all who know love’s grief in refusing to settle for a community of less than truth and justice uncompromised.” America is neither to be regarded as an unqualified evil nor confused with the New Jerusalem. Instead, writes Neuhaus, the proper attitude to America is found “in discontented gratitude for the promise, which is to say one lives in hope.” The promise is not ultimately American, but Christian.
Neuhaus’ prose, as always, delights with both witticism and seriousness, controversial stands and generous readings. It also importantly corrects many misreadings of his earlier work. To charges that his ecumenism compromises Catholic teaching, one observes his statement that Christians cannot avoid the question of whether Jews “should be Christians” and “cannot, out of a desire to be polite, answer that question in the negative.” Against the criticisms of an overweening liberalism on church-state issues he reaffirms the great genius of the Constantinian arrangement but, like Newman, refuses to say that this is the best arrangement for today. Against the view that he overestimates the American founding he repeats Leo Strauss’ verdict on the founders’ principles—“low but solid”—adding for himself, “Perhaps too low, not solid enough.” Here we have witticism, seriousness, affirmation, and correction.
Nevertheless, substance for real arguments appear. Neuhaus’ affirmation of John Courtney Murray’s belief that natural law and the Church can provide a coherent US public policy can be questioned on numerous levels. His attention to Richard Rorty’s liberalism will be thought by some to be a rabbit-hole best ignored. But the thrust of Neuhaus’ argument seems unassailable.
Christians are people of exile upon whom God has placed an “awkward duality of citizenship.” Much prayer and much hard thinking must go into figuring out when we can “go along” with the ways of our American Babylon and when we must say no. At all times we must pray for the peace of our city, but remember that we are exiles whose hope is not in this life. Richard John Neuhaus knew that. He is, God willing, an exile no more.