What We Can Still Learn From Father Neuhaus

COMMENTARY: Official papers of the founder of the Institute for Religion and Public Life now archived at Catholic University of America.

Father Richard John Neuhaus tells of his conversion of The Journey Home on EWTN.
Father Richard John Neuhaus tells of his conversion of The Journey Home on EWTN. (photo: YouTube screenshot)

In his 2012 book What Money Can’t Buy, Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel notes that our politics are polarized and overheated today because they are “mostly vacant, empty of moral and spiritual content.” Yet before Harvard professors got around to noticing, Father Richard John Neuhaus (1936-2009) prophetically announced that America was facing just this problem of “the naked public square.” 

Father Neuhaus’ official papers are now archived at The Catholic University of America, and we have a great deal to learn from them, not only about how he faced increasing levels of conflict between American liberalism and Christianity, but also how Catholics can light the way out of our crisis of national identity. 

Instead of a “naked public square,” Father Neuhaus believed America was built upon more than liberal procedures; it was built upon the habits and customs of a fundamentally religious people who were drawing upon what noted political scientist James Q. Wilson called “a great seedbed of virtue.” Neuhaus believed this seedbed could be renewed with God’s help.

Celebrating the gift of his papers, Catholic University recently held a symposium on his life and letters, where one of the symposium speakers, R.R. Reno, the current editor of First Things, observed that Father Neuhaus began formulating a response to the problem of a “naked public square” when, in 1974, he and others drafted the “Hartford Declaration,” an ecumenical document that insisted that the loss of a transcendent moral vision would be disastrous for both the Church and nation. It was the beginning of his lifelong fight “to turn this thing around,” first as a Lutheran, then as a Catholic, and always as an ecumenist, patriot and public intellectual.

Father Neuhaus believed that America depended upon a civilizing fabric, a “sacred canopy,” which covered the public square of our liberal democratic way of life with common faith in God and clothed it with the pre-political goods of the family and the dignity of the human person.

For a republic to work, a “city in speech” would have to be rooted in a people who have the confidence that truth can be known, that liberty is ordered and that happiness isn’t just about self-interest, but is inextricably bound up with the fostering of virtue and the common good of “one nation under God.”

As a young Lutheran pastor in the 1960s, Neuhaus was confident that the whole nation understood itself in this light. His activism in the civil-rights movement, marching arm in arm with Martin Luther King Jr., flowed from the presupposition that the fight for human dignity would be won not simply because of a liberal theory about equal rights, but because the nation could draw upon the seedbed of virtue he thought everyone shared: the belief in the sacredness of every human being, created in the image and likeness of God. 

But immediately after the great moral victory of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, there came a deadly thunderbolt of social upheaval.

By 1973, the Supreme Court would disastrously find in the constitutional right to privacy a very specious invention: “abortion rights.” Convinced that a decision so fundamentally at odds with human dignity could be turned around, Neuhaus helped lead the fight for the unborn, eventually becoming for many the unofficial chaplain of the March for Life. Yet many of those with whom he marched in the 1960s no longer shared his presuppositions. The sexual revolution, and subsequently Roe v. Wade, had shifted the tectonic plates of the nation’s culture.

Neuhaus thought the deep fissure which Roe v. Wade represented could only be explained as a consequence of losing what sociologist Peter Berger called “the sacred canopy.”

George Weigel observed at the recent symposium that Father Neuhaus saw the pro-life movement as the natural successor to the civil-rights movement. But the fact that so many could view “abortion rights” as the heir apparent to “civil rights” gave him ample evidence that the public square had been stripped of those civilizing garments that he believed essential for liberal orders. 

Even as Father Neuhaus observed a crack in the American political consensus, he also began to see cracks in his presuppositions about religion.

As his lifelong friend Robert Wilken observed at the same symposium, Father Neuhaus was taught to think of his “high-church” branch of Lutheranism as a reform movement inextricably united to, if not in full communion with, the Catholic Church.

The steady liberalizing of the Lutheran Church taught him that this “catholic view” was held by an ever-dwindling number of his co-religionists. In 1990 Neuhaus was received into full communion with the Catholic Church, which Wilken noted was less of a “conversion” and more of a fulfillment of where Neuhaus was always headed. 

It was also in 1990 that Neuhaus began a project to recover the seedbed, and the sacred canopy, by founding the Institute for Religion and Public Life and the magazine First Things. And so it was as a Catholic that Father Neuhaus began his most important and constructive project, to reinvigorate the “conversational polity” and to renew the American experiment by returning to the “first things.” This project would necessarily be ecumenical in the broadest sense, both Jewish and Christian, and fearless in taking on the big questions. He helped found the ecumenical movement “Evangelicals and Catholics Together,” which should be understood as part of his broader vision of renewing the public square with precisely the right moral and theological vision. 

Though he was not an academic, he delighted in piercing the false pretensions of academic giants whose relativistic ideas were part of the problem rather than the solution to the naked public square. As Wilken observed, Neuhaus respected good arguments, but he paid no deference to professors with bad ones. 

Father Neuhaus had already been an influential figure on the national stage before becoming Catholic, having been a frequent guest of William F. Buckley’s Firing Line, but as a Catholic he also became a frequent guest at the White House. President George W. Bush regularly sought out his advice. Yet while his influence among political conservatives grew ever wider and deeper, Neuhaus never thought partisan politics were the key to American renewal. 

Party politics mattered, but they were not enough to restore the sacred canopy. The threats were not only political, but also judicial and cultural. Long before the 2015 Obergefell decision that redefined marriage in the United States, Father Neuhaus hosted the nation’s most important conversations about the threat that the “judicial usurpation of politics” poses to America. 

It’s unclear what Father Neuhaus would say to us today, almost a decade after his death, about America’s present trials. The ruptures have only widened, the public square is still naked with raw cacophonous power, separated from virtue and truth. Yet we should continually return to Neuhaus for wisdom and wit, for he had both in spades. He saw the tectonic plates shifting before many others did, and he knew that sitting idly by as the nation falls into disarray is not an option for the Catholic, who is to be a hydraulic force in every nation and culture. 

In response to grave threats to the common good of a nation he loved, Richard John Neuhaus began the work of building human institutions of hope, which fostered good habits in the public square. He deserves to be an American civic saint, lauded as much as Billy Graham and Martin Luther King Jr. We must honor his memory and learn from his distinctly Catholic witness in the public square. 

C.C. Pecknold is an associate professor of systematic theology at The Catholic University of America.

Father Neuhaus’ archives are accessible 9am-5pm every day at The Catholic University of America.

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