Father Richard John Neuhaus, 1936-2009

(photo: CNS)

Catholic Priest’s
‘Unexpected Life’

By Father Raymond J. de Souza

With the death of Father Richard John Neuhaus on Jan. 8, the Catholic Church lost one of its greatest public intellectuals, a theologian who brought the light of the Gospel to the world of public life.

More than that, though, Father Neuhaus made possible a new world of intellectual engagement with the culture.

Father Neuhaus died after having been afflicted by the sudden appearance of a cancer that weakened him rapidly. Having maintained his regular schedule until early November, Father Neuhaus was hospitalized later that month, and after returning home, he was unable to visit his parish or office.

The last public appearance was his painful and determined concelebration of the funeral Mass of his great friend and fellow theologian, Avery Cardinal Dulles, on Dec. 18 at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

He was admitted to the hospital in New York for the final time on Dec. 26, and he died two weeks later at the age of 72.

Public Square

By the 1990s, Father Neuhaus had, along with his friends George Weigel and Michael Novak, wrought a sea change in Catholic intellectual life. With the obvious favor of Pope John Paul II, Father Neuhaus and his colleagues articulated a new, confident Catholicism which sought less to adapt to the secular culture as it did to challenge it with a fresh application of the Catholic tradition.

As a Lutheran pastor in the 1980s, Father Neuhaus wrote two landmark books that shifted the debate for religious intellectuals in America and abroad.

In 1984, he authored “The Naked Public Square,” an argument against the idea that American constitutional law required the banishment of religion from public life. The separation of church and state, Father Neuhaus argued over several decades, was precisely to allow maximum freedom for the free exercise of religion, and in a democratic, pluralist society, that meant plenty of room for religious voice in public life.

In Richard John Neuhaus, America found its ablest opponent of secular fundamentalism, and he provided the arguments now widely used to beat back the idea, as he put it, “that everywhere government goes, religion must retreat.”

In his second landmark book, “The Catholic Moment,” published in 1987, the still-Lutheran pastor argued that after the Second Vatican Council, and particularly under Pope John Paul II, the Catholic Church was uniquely positioned to provide public arguments in favor of a free and just society, replacing the public role of the oldline Protestant denominations.

Three years later, Father Neuhaus entered the Catholic Church, received by Cardinal John O’Connor on Sept. 8, 1990. His sponsor was Father Avery Dulles. Exactly one year later, Cardinal O’Connor, to whom Father Neuhaus was exceptionally devoted, ordained him a Catholic priest; Father Dulles vested him in the ordination ceremony.

A few months before his reception into the Catholic Church, Richard John Neuhaus launched a new journal, First Things, which became the most prominent and influential “journal of religion and public life” in America.

Read by religious leaders both Catholic, Protestant and Jewish, influential figures in theology, law and politics, and bright students in universities all over, First Things made widely available the thought of its editor in chief, but also a whole cadre of established Catholic thinkers: Avery Dulles, George Weigel, Mary Ann Glendon, Russell Hittinger, as well as new voices such as the current editor, Jody Bottum.

A generation of orthodox, engaged Christian writers was launched by First Things.

‘First Blog’

Yet, it remains true that for most readers, the first thing about First Things was Father Neuhaus himself, who pioneered in print what today might be called the first blog.

His original commentary on the back pages on various issues weighty and whimsical — sometimes running to a dozen pages or more — made many First Things readers begin reading from back to front. 

Father Neuhaus’ “The Public Square” was likely the most popular religious commentary anywhere. In it, he championed the cause of cheerful orthodoxy, and the influence of the column was enormous. During the long sexual abuse scandals of this decade, Father Neuhaus repeatedly used his commentary to argue for the rights of the priests to due process and the failure of bishops to act as shepherds rather than managers. His was a lone voice at times.

By the late 1990s, the recent convert was among the most popular figures among young Catholic intellectuals, seminarians and pro-life activists. He articulated for the “John Paul II generation” the combination of cultural sophistication, charming wit, and Catholic confidence they were looking for.

He returned the favor, encouraging young people to embrace the “great adventure of orthodoxy.” At First Things he worked mostly with people two or three generations younger than himself, producing an alumni group already making its mark in Catholic letters.

He spent two weeks each summer teaching with his friends an intensive course in Catholic social doctrine to young Americans and Eastern Europeans in Krakow, Poland. And for the last several years, he preached the Sunday afternoon Masses at Columbia University’s chaplaincy. As a result, he leaves not just the intellectual legacy of his writing, but a living legacy of men and women he guided in the ways of Christian discipleship.

Martin Luther King

It was an unexpected life, and Father Neuhaus would often suggest, one only explained by Providence. He was born in 1936 in Pembroke, Ontario, a small town in the Ottawa Valley, when his father was stationed as a Lutheran missionary pastor. He grew up in Canada but returned to the United States in his teens, first working in Texas — “the youngest member of the Texas chamber of commerce,” he would often say — before finding his way to the Lutheran seminary, following in his father’s footsteps.

While working in New York as a inner-city pastor, Richard John Neuhaus exploded on the intellectual and activist scene of the 1960s. Active in the civil rights movement, he worked with Martin Luther King and often called it one of the great blessings of his life. He organized clergy against the Vietnam War and was a leading figure in the progressive movements then sweeping America.

He broke definitively with his former colleagues on the left over the question of abortion. He argued in the 1970s that the civil rights movement should be on the side of the unborn. He found himself distanced from his former activists and became instead one of America’s great pro-life champions.

In that work, he pioneered closer relations with evangelical Protestants. Fundamentally a theologian, he sought to ground that cooperation in theological agreement, founding the groundbreaking initiative Evangelicals and Catholics Together. It was but part of his intensive ecumenical and interreligious work; for a generation, he was the leading Christian theological interlocutor with American Jewry.

By the end of his life, he was often characterized as one of many thinkers who abandoned the liberalism of the 1960s for the conservatism of the 1980s and beyond. Like many so characterized, he responded that it was not he who changed as much as those who changed around him. His public ideas could be summarized by means of his “quadrilateral” — the four points of his framework: “religiously orthodox, culturally conservative, politically liberal and economically pragmatic.”

In the last decade, he turned himself more to devotional and spiritual works, revealing the heart of a Christian disciple rather than cultural polemicist. He lived his life according to the principles of his journal’s title, namely that the “first things” were the things of God.