RICHARD JOHN NEUHAUS
A Life in the Public Square
By Randy Boyagoda
Image Catholic Books, 2015
480 pages, $30 (hardcover)
To order: imagecatholicbooks.com
The author of this fine book on Richard John Neuhaus identifies Father Neuhaus as the most influential Catholic in America from the time of his conversion in 1990 to his death in 2009, and I agree that he is a strong finalist in this category.
I had the privilege of knowing Richard Neuhaus, both when he was a Lutheran minister and after he became a Catholic priest. From time to time, I enjoyed his company with many others in New York City, where he was a provocative and enjoyable host.
Randy Boyagoda’s book is complete and thorough, taking the reader from his subject’s childhood as the son of a Lutheran minister with a large family in Canada and his time as a Brooklyn pastor and newsmaker to his finish as a Catholic priest, who, in the last decades of his life, battled the cancer that finally caused his death.
I found this book absorbing reading, as Boyagoda depicts this fascinating figure, complete with both virtues and foibles, as a man who was driven and defined by the love of Christ.
Throughout his life’s journey, Neuhaus clearly followed his conscience, wherever it led, and, of course, it ultimately led to his conversion to the Catholic Church — a conversion that shocked many but nonetheless made his presence all the more visible in the public square. It was influential not simply in a spiritual sense, but also in a political one. He even ran for Congress.
Boyagoda also deals in detail with his work as a writer and editor of the pre-eminent Christian journal First Things.
And, of course, the book covers his campaign against the “naked public square,” insisting on the importance of religion in American life, which he prophetically protested was being marginalized. (He would be sorry to see that even in the half-dozen years since his death this marginalization has gained alarming speed!)
During all this time, he was also writing a number of books, as if his labors at First Things were not enough.
Poignantly, Boyagoda recounts Neuhaus’ first bout with cancer (which prompted his fine book As I Lay Dying), his long remission, and then his death, surrounded by many friends.
Would that he were with us today! We sorely miss his commentary on Pope Francis and many other matters.
This book, I predict, will stand for many years as the definitive biography of this great, holy and very human man.
Father C. John McCloskey is a Church historian and
research fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington.