In New Book, Father Neuhaus Minds His Matters

Since his reception into the Catholic Church in 1990, Father Richard John Neuhaus has emerged as a leading voice of faith-based intellectual inquiry. The editor-in-chief of the monthly journal First Things, a former Lutheran pastor, spoke with Register correspondent Judy Roberts about his latest book, due out in March, Catholic Matters: Confusion, Controversy and the Splendor of Truth.

You say in the book that you entered into communion with the Church fully aware of its problems, confusions and conflicts. In spite of that, has anything happened since then to cause you to be disappointed or to regret your decision?

Oh, no, not for a second. Not for a nanosecond. I think the confusions and controversies within the Church were very familiar to me from my many years of being involved in Lutheran-Catholic dialogues of various sorts and writing as I did about the general “American Church.”

What about the sexual-abuse crisis?

Of course it was a great disappointment, particularly in the leadership of the bishops, not all of them, needless to say. Yet at the same time, I cannot say it was a terrible surprise. The book is very much about the years of John Paul the Great and my personal relations with him and, more importantly, the leadership he provided for the whole Church. Yet in that time we always were keenly aware that there were problems that were not being addressed.

And, you know, we have to hope that they are being more effectively addressed today under the leadership of Pope Benedict XVI and with a more sobered episcopate here in this country. But, on the other hand, to be a Catholic is always to be braced for disappointment, not to be shattered by it.

You write about how being a Catholic in America is increasingly viewed as a “personal preference.” What implications does this have for the Church in the United States?

If personal choice means simply a consumer preference among the various spiritualities in the religious marketplace, that, of course can be very superficial indeed. It can radically reverse the whole direction of devotion so that it is not your commitment to the Church [that matters] but rather the utility of the Church in supporting your other commitments.

But, at the same time, the fact that it does require personal deliberation and decision to be a serious Catholic today can be a plus. Certainly we see today many young Catholics who are discovering the Catholic faith as a high adventure and a great challenge in terms of living fully the splendor of truth.

Could we be doing more to reach such people?

Oh, yes. John Paul and Benedict have spoken a great deal on the New Evangelization. The spirit of the New Evangelization is one of not only re-evangelizing the Catholic population, but also of helping that community to more effectively propose to the world around them the invitation and the challenge of the fullness of Christian life that is to be found in the Catholic Church.

That assertive dimension — having a proposal for living a Christian life in its fullness — is frequently lacking among Catholic priests and bishops. Therefore it is also lacking among the laity, especially in areas where there are very large Catholic populations and many priests and bishops think they’re doing very well if they can simply keep up with the supply of sacramental services.

In Catholic Matters, you quote the frequently heard statement, “Yes, I am a Catholic, but I think for myself.” How does one think with the Church and still think for oneself?

Thinking with the Church begins with thinking. It’s not simply a matter of hearing or reading “That’s what the Church teaches and thinks; therefore that’s what I think.” That’s not what the assent of faith means, or at least it’s not all that it means. It means, rather, that one enters into the discipleship of the mind and of the heart so that one receives the Church’s teaching as an invitation to explore a truth, not simply to say Yes and salute the papal flag.

This, of course, is a great challenge for priests and bishops and teachers in the Church: to help people understand that the magisterial teaching of the Church is not something that is imposed upon them from without and to which they are simply to render obedience, but an invitation to grow in grace.

How would you explain to those who have grown up hearing that the Church’s teachings and practices are subject to the will of “the people of God,” why the Church cannot be a democracy?

Good question. Pope Benedict, when he was Cardinal Ratzinger, wrote a great deal on how the image of “the people of God” — which was in many ways a very fresh and exciting expression from the [Second Vatican] Council — became subject to a misinterpretation that displaced the focus from Christ and his body the Church to simply the sociological reality of a human association called “the Church.”

The theological and spiritual and even mystical dimensions of the Church, which have been so richly articulated in theology, liturgy, devotional life and Catholic literature, were shunted aside and the Church became for many Catholics pretty much what the church is for most Protestants — namely, our religious association to be tailored to our tastes and preferences and convictions, rather than being a mystery into which we are incorporated by the grace of God.

Would it harm the Church if lay people became more involved in its governance?

Governance belongs to the apostolic ministry of the Church. Having said that, I do think there are still, in my experience, too many bishops and pastors who do not understand that, especially here in the democratic ethos of America, effective leadership is leadership that is participatory, that is able to incorporate other people into the vision and into the directives that attend the vision being proposed. I think that is a problem.

It strikes me that pastors and bishops particularly do so many administrative things in the Catholic Church that in other communities, such as the Lutheran church from which I come, were done by laypeople and can be done as competently or more competently by laypeople.

In some ways, Catholic leadership — bishops and pastors — in this country are still living in a reactive mode to the trusteeship controversies of the 19th century, and I think its past time for us to get past that.

Judy Roberts writes from

Graytown, Ohio.


Catholic Matters: Confusion,

Controversy and the Splendor of Truth

by Richard John Neuhaus

Perseus, 2006

272 pages, $25

To order: (800) 371-1669

(Available in March)