‘History Will Celebrate What He Did’
Neuhaus’ Conversion Vexed His Friends, Then Blessed Us All, Together
BY CHUCK COLSON
February 8-14, 2009 Issue | Posted 1/30/09 at 9:02 AM
Over the 25 years that I’ve known Father Richard Neuhaus, whenever I asked him how he was doing, he invariably answered: “Remarkably well!” He would say it almost lyrically, with a wonderful lilt in his voice.
It didn’t matter whether he was in the hospital or hard at work deep in a conference. It was always the same. Because my dear friend Richard Neuhaus was always “remarkably well.”
Even when he was on the verge of death in 1993, he was at peace, because he so intimately knew his Lord. Future historians will no doubt recognize Richard Neuhaus as one of the towering Christian figures of this age. I knew him intimately, both as a cultural warrior and as a defender of the faith in our ongoing religious dialogues.
We first met when Richard was a Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor.
In years past, he had been a civil-rights activist and an anti-Vietnam protester. I had been in the Nixon White House, manning the ramparts against the surging mobs. But when we first met, we bonded instantly. I had read Naked Public Square (which I consider to be the finest work ever on religious influence in public life) and had invited Richard to speak at a gathering of congressmen, senators and Cabinet members assembled at the guest house of Prison Fellowship.
That night, Richard gave one of the most eloquent defenses of the Christian faith I had ever heard.
The battles he and I fought together over the years in defense of life and religious liberty made us brothers in the truest sense. I felt as close to him as I could to anyone.
Which is why I was so shocked when he called me to tell me that he had embraced Roman Catholicism. I had no indication it was coming.
For a time, I must confess, I was vexed.
One day he was a close brother in the evangelical faith; the next day, he was a Roman Catholic priest. Yet over the next months, I came to realize that he was the same guy who was a brother to me as a Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor. Why shouldn’t I consider him a brother now?
So Father Richard and I continued to work together just as closely as we had in the past. In fact, in some ways, I admired him all the more, because he had the courage to do something he believed in deeply, though it cost him dearly in terms of support and relationships.
No doubt it was the path that Father Richard had taken — from Lutheran pastor to Catholic priest — that prepared him for what was a pivotal moment in his life. In 1991 he invited 12 evangelical leaders and 12 Roman Catholic leaders to a meeting in New York sponsored by his Institute of Religion and Public Life.
A Remarkable Experience
The purpose was to discuss how evangelicals and Catholics were hurting one another by aggressive proselytizing in South America. Evangelicals were shamefully destroying sacred objects of art in Catholic churches. And Catholics, in some cases, were using the force of law to oppress the Pentecostals and Baptists who were making such aggressive inroads into areas long dominated by Catholic influence. The open hostility was damaging the witness of the Church.
I was struck during the two days of meetings by the incredible collegiality among us and the genuine desire we all shared to do what was good for the Christian faith, while remaining, of course, faithful to our own confessions.
On the second day of the conference, I had an experience which I am convinced was from the Holy Spirit.
I looked across the table at Father Richard and realized how much I loved and appreciated this brother. So I got up out of my chair, walked around the table during the afternoon break, and told him that we should not simply have a meeting like this, air our differences, and then go our separate ways. We should keep working together, trying to find common ground, trying to find ways to work together to advance the cause of Christ.
Father Richard’s eyes lighted up. That was the beginning of Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT).
Many of the same people at that conference convened for subsequent meetings, which Father Richard and I cochaired. We decided after two meetings to write a joint paper in which we would openly acknowledge our theological differences, enumerate the things we held in common (like the great creeds), and profess that our Christian faith informed our common view of all of life.
It was, I thought, a very good starting point for Evangelicals and Catholics Together — not ecumenism in the usual sense of reducing things to the lowest common denominator, but rather an open, frank, discussion about our differences and commonalities. All in pursuit of the truth.
While the paper was being prepared, Father Richard fell gravely ill. And for a while, many of us thought we would lose him. But quite miraculously, he survived a series of operations, and after a year, came back as strong as ever. It was during that time in the hospital that he wrote his classic As I Lay Dying, a book I have given away to many friends.
In 1994, Father Richard and I held a press conference in New York during Holy Week. We thought that was an appropriate time to issue the ECT joint statement of the truth we could affirm together. Although we had hoped that one or two reporters might show up, we had a room full of them.
Neuhaus and I spoke carefully and deliberately. I thought we might make the religion columns of some of the papers for Easter weekend.
After the press conference, I traveled to Colgate University to deliver a speech. The next morning, I was startled when I picked up the Albany, N.Y., newspaper to see a front-page, above-the-fold photograph of me in a business suit standing next to Father Richard. The headline read: “Evangelicals and Catholics to Unite.”
As it happened, it was a slow news day, and the press had put an overreaching headline on the story.
It overreached indeed.
There was a backlash in the evangelical ranks like nothing I had seen before. Old friends and colleagues wouldn’t talk to me. Donors were calling Prison Fellowship, threatening to withdraw their support. Some of my best friends in the evangelical movement, respected theologians, told me that I had made a serious mistake to hold anything in common with Rome. In fact, I was exposed to the evangelical equivalent of an Inquisition.
But I couldn’t back down. I believed deeply in Evangelicals and Catholics Together.
We survived that first skirmish, though for a few years most of my evangelical friends continued to believe that I had made a grave error.
Statement on Justification
In 1997, after two years of discussions in which Cardinal Edward Cassidy from the Vatican participated, Evangelicals and Catholics Together issued its most important paper: “The Gift of Salvation.” And in it, as evangelicals and Catholics together, we agreed to the following statement:
“We agree that justification is not earned by any good works or merits of our own; it is entirely God’s gift, conferred through the Father’s sheer graciousness out of the love he bears us in his Son, who suffered on our behalf and rose from the dead for our justification. . . . Faith is not merely intellectual assent but an act of the whole person, involving the mind, the will, and the affections, issuing in a changed life. We understand that what we here affirm is in agreement with what the Reformation traditions have meant by justification by faith alone (sola fide).”
It was a remarkable moment. Cardinal Cassidy said that even though ours was an informal group, not having official Church recognition, the “The Gift of Salvation” was so thoughtfully written that he would use it as a teaching paper for the upcoming synods in Rome, gathering for the millennium.
Under Father Richard’s guidance, ECT issued a number of other papers, including one of my personal favorites, “That They May Have Life,” a powerful defense of the sanctity and dignity of human life. We affirmed that the defense of life is integral to the Gospel, and cautioned that those Christians who are pro-choice must “consider whether they have not set themselves against the will of God and, to that extent, separated themselves from the company of Christian discipleship.”
What makes the timing of my beloved brother’s death so poignant is that he followed another faithful participant in Evangelicals and Catholics Together, Avery Cardinal Dulles, who died in December.
Both men were instrumental in writing “The Gift of Salvation.” And both men lived long enough to read the homily given by Pope Benedict at his Nov. 19 general audience in St. Peter’s Square.
The Holy Father said, “That is why Luther’s expression sola fide is true if faith is not opposed to charity, to love. Faith is to look at Christ, to entrust oneself to Christ, to be united to Christ, to be conformed to Christ, to his life. And the form, the life of Christ, is love; hence, to believe is to be conformed to Christ and to enter into his love. That is why, in the Letter to the Galatians, St. Paul develops above all his doctrine on justification; he speaks of faith that operates through charity” (cf. Galatians 5:14).”
This is why historians will well remember Father Richard Neuhaus.
He was a gifted, prodigious author, the editor of First Things, one of the liveliest, most significant and thoughtful journals of Christian thought published in America.
But, most of all, he will be remembered as the courageous man who was willing to take on five centuries of division — the scandal of the Christian Church — and take bold steps to bring us closer together as we defend the faith against the common enemies of rampant secularism, heterodoxy and radical Islam.
It was in God’s good timing that he began our dialogue in 1992, gave Father Richard Neuhaus a “second life,” and allowed him to continue the work long enough to see an emerging consensus built between the Church in Rome and the evangelical church at large over the greatest single issue that brought about the Protestant Reformation.
Richard was taken from us after only a mercifully short illness. I was out of the country the day I learned that he had died.
I felt the strangest sense of loss — not just that my friend was gone, but that the cause of true Christian unity in service of truth had lost such a great proponent. We shared the desire that the cross become the scandal of the Church, not our divisions.
The night he died, I lay in my bed thinking about Father Richard, and a passage from As I Lay Dying came to mind. This was what he wrote:
“In the destiny of Christ is my destiny; and so it had been all along, and so it would be forever. This, too, broke through: That when I die in his body, the Church, of which I am a part, and in his body in the Eucharist, which this body has received times beyond numbering, body and soul are already reunited, however imperfectly. What is now imperfect will one day be perfected in resurrection. The maggots should enjoy me while they can; they will not have the last word. Mortal dust already stirs with its longing for that great reunion. So he promised, and so I came to believe more surely than I had ever believed before.”
That’s the hope of all of us. We don’t know what’s beyond this life, but we know that Christ has gone there first, and we will follow him with faithfulness. That is but one of Father Richard’s many gifts to the Church and the world.
Along with Father Richard
John Neuhaus, Chuck Colson is cofounder of Evangelicals and Catholics Together. Colson, former special counsel to President Nixon, is also the founder of Prison Fellowship, the world’s largest Christian outreach to prisoners
and their families.
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