The death of Father Richard John Neuhaus in 2009 constituted an immediate and irreparable loss for American political and religious life. He brought Christianity into the public square with unique intellectual rigor, cultural erudition, and brio; no obvious successor has emerged in the years since his passing. Neuhaus’s rich and noteworthy life deserves a reliable biography; it now has one in Randy Boyagoda’s readable Richard John Neuhaus: A Life in the Pubic Square.
Born in 1936 in Pembroke, Ontario, where his American-born father, Clemens Neuhaus, was the pastor of St. John’s Lutheran Church, Neuhaus grew up in a pious, bustling home filled with siblings. His education ran into difficulty in high school in Texas, where he dropped out. (As Neuhaus later acknowledged: “I knocked about.”) He subsequently found his stride at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, where he studied from 1955 to 1960. There he came under the influence of the formidable Arthur Piepkorn, who taught Neuhaus that Lutheranism was essentially a reform movement designed to foster unity. As Neuhaus wrote of Piepkorn’s influential—and controversial—theology: “The Reformation was not against the Church catholic but to make the Church more catholic.”
Once ordained, Neuhaus soon began his work as a pastor of St. John the Evangelist, a Missouri Synod Lutheran church in Brooklyn, New York, that had seen better days. In that racially mixed urban congregation, Neuhaus flourished. Moreover, he energetically pursued matters well beyond his congregation, becoming a major Protestant figure in the civil-rights movement. He was also a salient opponent of the war in Vietnam; indeed, he was a founder and leader of Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam and worked side by side with all the prominent clerical radicals of the period.
Neuhaus famously moved to the political right after the activist frenzy of the 1960s. Decisive in this movement for him was the catastrophe of Roe v. Wade in 1973. Boyagoda captures the impact of the new abortion-on-demand arrangement on Neuhaus well:
Powerfully motivated in his ministry, writings, politics, and activism by a sense that the right-ordered purpose of liberalism was to defend the weak from the powerful, by the early 1970s Neuhaus began to understand his commitment to the rights of the poor and the racially oppressed as of a piece with his commitment to the rights of the unborn, which would occupy an ever greater primacy in the coming years. From the beginning, however, this integration of rights for the poor and rights for the unborn placed him at a critical distance from a Left in which private rights—made possible by and indeed protecting implicit race and class privileges—trumped responsibilities for others.
Always a prolific writer, Neuhaus published in 1984 the book that placed him at the national center of the question of religion in American public life, The Naked Public Square. Subsequent discussion on the complexities involved in the interplay of religion on public issues would be shaped by this important book for many years.
As his intellectual stature and influence continued to increase, Neuhaus was received into the Catholic Church in 1990 and ordained a priest after a short period of formation. (I recall a friend commenting accurately at the time that Neuhaus’s conversion would prove to be the most important of our time.) Neuhaus’s statement on his conversion is a model of gracefulness and illustrative of the ecumenical outlook that enabled him throughout his life to work so closely with those who did not share his faith on issues of common concern:
I cannot begin to express adequately my gratitude for all the goodness I have known in the Lutheran Communion. There I was baptized, there I learned my prayers, there I was introduced to Scripture and creed, there I was nurtured by Christ on Christ, there I came to know the utterly gratuitous love of God by which we live astonished. For my theological formation, for friendships beyond numbering, for great battles fought, for mutual consolations in defeat, for companionship in ministry—for all this I give thanks and know that I will forever be in debt to the Church called Lutheran. Most especially I am grateful for my 30 years as a pastor. There is nothing in that ministry that I would repudiate, except my many sins and shortcomings. My becoming a priest in the Roman Catholic Church will be the completion and right ordering of what was begun 30 years ago. Nothing that was good is rejected, all is fulfilled.
It was during this time that First Things was launched. This monthly journal rapidly became the forum for the best contemporary writing on church, state, and all related matters. Of course, the back of the magazine was Neuhaus’s space, and each month he would publish thousands of words on a vast range of subjects, invariably leaving the reader in awe at his rhetorical skill and his capacity to provide a deeper understanding of whatever was under discussion. It was an extraordinary achievement—a true intellectual tour de force; it is difficult to think of anyone who could do anything similar today.
Naturally, much of Neuhaus’s writing during this time addressed political concerns that have come and gone. But his writing on the great issues retains its resonance and cogency. Two pieces especially come to mind. First, his pro-life address, “We Shall Not Weary, We Shall Not Rest,” first delivered in 2008 to the annual convention of the Right to Life Committee, is as stirring today in its eloquence and moral urgency as it was then. (“Nobody is a nobody; nobody is unwanted. All are wanted by God, and therefore to be respected, protected, and cherished by us.”)
Second, Neuhaus’s brilliant essay, “The Return of Eugenics,” which was published in Commentary in 1998, is still the best critique available on the recrudescence of this great evil. His closing paragraph was—and is—grimly arresting: “And so, quite suddenly it seems, we are facing questions for which we have no ready answers. The questions are being answered, however. Most of us, probably because we want to live with a clear conscience, prefer not to think about the answers that are being given. Later, we can say that we did not know.”
Neuhaus’s writing, however, consisted of much more than his adroit arguments about and insights into Christianity and American public life. His book, Death on a Friday Afternoon: Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross (2000), is a small classic of theological reflection; one returns to it again and again with great benefit. And truly riveting prose is found in his short book on nearly dying of a misdiagnosed tumor, As I Lay Dying: Meditations upon Returning (2001).
These days, First Things remains a vital journal under the editorship of R.R. Reno, and Catholicism does not want for able apologists and religion-and-public-life thinkers. Still, I am sure I am not alone in often thinking about a major issue (the impact of Pope Francis, for example) and wondering: What would Father Neuhaus have thought and written? Boyagoda’s book soundly presents the life of this extraordinary Christian man.
Richard John Neuhaus: A Life in the Public Square
By Randy Boyagoda
New York: Image, 2015
Hardcover, 459 pages