Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, R.I.P.
By the Editors
January 8, 2009 3:00 PM
Richard John Neuhaus, who died earlier today in New York, was the most influential Catholic and Christian theologian and writer in America during the second half of the 20th century. His influence can be compared to that of Archbishop Fulton Sheen, with one important distinction: Fulton Sheen exercised his sway over the public directly, through his radio and television sermons. Father Neuhaus did so less directly, through his books and articles, through his editorship of two important magazines devoted to religion and politics, through his friendship with Pope John Paul II, and through his impact on other theologians both in the Catholic Church and in other Christian congregations. Partly for those reasons, however, Neuhaus’s influence is likely to be the deeper, longer-lasting and more extensive one.
Neuhaus began his adult life as a Canadian, a left-winger, and a Lutheran. He never lost his love for his country of birth — he spent six weeks of every year vacationing, reading, and reflecting in the Quebec countryside — his respect for a liberalism shaped by charity, or his admiration for the Lutheran tradition. He became nonetheless an American, a conservative, and a Catholic. And from these three conversions he forged for himself a distinctive religious identity that was conservative and generous, traditional and open, charitable and — yes — combative.
Neuhaus was a superb, natural controversialist. His two regular columns in the magazine he founded and edited, First Things, commented on the overlapping topics of religion, culture, and politics both in long, thoughtful articles and in short, brilliant squibs. Both profound and witty, they were required reading for morally serious people. His wit was a vehicle for important truths, and some of his epigrams have entered the language.
Thus: “For the New York Times the only good Catholic is a bad Catholic.”
Or: “Whenever orthodoxy becomes optional, it will sooner or later be proscribed.”
Neuhaus never shrank from what he considered a necessary fight — even one with friends — when the issue was important enough. He abandoned his original allies on the Left over Roe v. Wade. On the same issue he later devoted a special issue of First Things to an attack on judicial supremacy that questioned whether an American political regime that tolerated mass abortions was a legitimate one. That formulation divided the Right and led to the Left inventing the term “theocons” to demonize him and the Christian conservatives. To the end of his life Neuhaus continued to fight passionately for the thousands of innocents we kill annually.
But fighting and controversy, though necessary to the propagation of religious truth in our age, were secondary themes in Neuhaus’s life. His achievements were essentially creative. He was a natural organizer who did not stop at reshaping his own religious identity. Along with Michael Novak, George Weigel, and others, he established First Things and made it the focus for an intellectually respectable resistance to the theological liberalism of the 1960s in Judaism and all Christian denominations. That achieved, he worked successfully to bring together Catholics and evangelicals — traditionally not the friendliest of fellow-Christians — in a new, unified political constituency for “Life” issues and other concerns of traditional believers. He reshaped that old-time religion.
Without Richard John Neuhaus, the Christian conservatives in America would have been politically much weaker and intellectually far less formidable.
Much more could be written about his influence on Christianity in America and worldwide. But we at National Review also knew Richard as a valued colleague — our religion editor for many years — and a dear friend. Most of us have enjoyed dinners with him that would begin with a strong Beefeater martini and end with equally strong draughts of laughter. Some of us sought his pastoral advice and benefited from his wisdom. That he was just a few streets away in New York was itself a source of consolation.
We feel sorrow at his passing, but mainly for ourselves. He has gone to the Savior he served so well and faithfully. R.I.P.
By Ramesh Ponnuru
Thursday, January 8, 2009
Although he would probably not have taken this description as a compliment, Fr. Neuhaus's "The Public Square" feature in First Things was an extraordinary journalistic accomplishment. Every month he read everything from Lutheran newsletters to the New York Review of Books and added comments of his own that rarely failed to enlighten, entertain, or, frequently, both.
The Naked Public Square is probably his most influential work, but the one I value most highly is Death on a Friday Afternoon. On hearing the news of his death, I looked up this passage:
When I come before the judgment throne, I will plead the promise of God in the shed blood of Jesus Christ. I will not plead any work that I have done, although I will thank God that he has enabled me to do some good. I will plead no merits other than the merits of Christ, knowing that the merits of Mary and the saints are all from him; and for their company, their example, and their prayers throughout my earthly life I will give everlasting thanks. I will not plead that I had faith, for sometimes I was unsure of my faith, and in any event that would be to turn faith into a meritorious work of my own. I will not plead that I held the correct understanding of "justification by faith alone," although I will thank God that he led me to know ever more fully the great truth that much misunderstood formulation was intended to protect. Whatever little growth in holiness I have experienced, whatever strength I have received from the company of the saints, whatever understanding I have attained of God and his ways—these and all other gifts I have received I will bring gratefully to the throne. But in seeking entry to that heavenly kingdom, I will, with Dysmas, look to Christ and Christ alone.
Then I hope to hear him say, "Today you will be with me in paradise," as I hope with all my being—because, although looking to him alone, I am not alone—he will say to all.
01/08 01:47 PM
A Tribute to Father Neuhaus
By Peter Wehner
Thursday, January 08, 2009
The death of Father Neuhaus is a terrible blow. Not for him, who is now united with his Savior and his Redeemer, in whom Father Neuhaus placed all of his trust and all of his hope; but for us, who have lost one of America's leading public intellectuals, a man of profound wisdom and learning, and a great champion for the unborn. It was Father Neuhaus, along with his dear, long-time friend George Weigel and just a handful of others like Michael Novak, who not only championed the pro-life cause for so many years, but who gave the rest of us both the grounding and the vocabulary to speak on this issue.
They made the pro-life cause the cause of those seeking justice and protection for the weakest and most vulnerable members of the human community.
Father Neuhaus was author of one of the most important, debate-changing books in the history of modern conservatism: The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America (published in 1984). He penned many other books, before and after, and they were unfailingly intelligent, well-argued, elegantly written, and often moving. He was editor in chief of First Things and author of its very popular column "The Public Square," Neuhaus's monthly survey of religion, culture, and public life. And he was a central figure in finding common ground among Catholics and evangelicals. Father Neuhaus's influence was quiet, profound, and virtually without boundaries. A former, very influential member of Congress wrote me just yesterday, saying, "When I first ran for Congress I read everything I could from him to formulate my thinking on social policy."
Beyond his influence in our national life, Father Neuhaus was a wonderful and delightful man. Many knew him better than I, but what I did know of him led me to conclude he was an exceptional man. When I would travel to New York City while serving in the White House, I would make it a point to drop in to see Father Neuhaus, to benefit from his wisdom, to gain perspective, and to experience the joy of his company. I helped arrange to have him come to the White House, so others, including the President, might as well. Over the years he was always very kind and supportive of me. And I would always delight in receiving e-mails from him, often in response to something I had written, many times offering an insight which I wish I had thought of, and sometimes offering a gentle corrective.
I accepted every one of them.
Richard John Neuhaus was many things, and people will dilate on them in this space and in other places in the coming hours and days. But he was, above everything else, a man of faith who loved his church and loved his Lord. He served Him honorably and well all the days of his life.
In The Imitation of Christ, Thomas a Kempis wrote,
How greatly I long for the dawning of this day, and the end of all worldly things. On the Saints this day already shines, resplendent with everlasting glory; but to us who are pilgrims on earth it appears but dim and distant. The citizens of Heaven now taste the joys of this day. Having excluded all worldly things from his heart and life, he will be worthy to take his place in the choir of Angels.
A few hours ago, Richard John Neuhaus went from being a pilgrim to becoming a citizen of Heaven, taking his place in the choir of Angels.
He is at peace; and they are now blessed to receive him.
01/08 12:33 PM
Richard John Neuhaus, 1936-2009
John Podhoretz - 01.08.2009 - 11:23 AM
Richard John Neuhaus, perhaps the most important and influential religious intellectual in the United States since the passing of Reinhold Niebuhr, died last night. A Canadian by birth, he was a Lutheran pastor who came to the United States and served as the minister of a congregation in a poor Brooklyn neighborhood. A liberal in the model of Niebuhr, Neuhaus found himself migrating rightward once the Supreme Court inaugurated the age of abortion on demand with the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. In 1984, he wrote the book for which he will be remembered, The Naked Public Square — a concise masterpiece about the role of religion in a democracy and the danger posed to a democratic society in the notion that public life should be effectively atheistic.
He was ever a man of principle. As an official of the Rockford Institute, he could not hold his silence when the magazine published by that institute, Chronicles, began running barely veiled anti-Semitic work (much of it aimed at COMMENTARY and his contributors). His breach with Rockford led to the creation of the Institute on Religion and Public Life and the creation of First Things, the brilliant monthly he edited and then supervised until his passing. At the same time, he completed his own religious journey when he converted to Catholicism and became a priest of the church and an intimate of Pope John Paul II.
His conviction that abortion was the great crime of the age and his disgust with the American system’s failure to expunge the crime led to the most controversial act of his editorship, the publication of a symposium entitled “The End of Democracy?” in which he and other participants flirted with the notion that the United States had lost its legitimacy. COMMENTARY’s editors responded in part with a symposium entitled “On the Future of Conservatism,” in which various contributors argued heatedly against what they perceived to be an unacceptable radicalization of conservative discourse.
The breach was never fully healed, and yet, through it all, there was Richard, a man of great personal good cheer and bonhomie, always in possession of a terrific piece of gossip he always knew exactly when and how to drop in order to cause the biggest commotion, who somehow found the time to crank out thousands of words a month while jetting back and forth from Rome, engaging in plots and subplots and side bets. He was an exemplar of the truism that a righteous man need not be or conduct himself as though he were holier-than-thou. But in the end, his work was his life, and whether he was ministering to fatherless youths in Brooklyn or offering his considered and always highly informed opinion on the matter of stem-cell research, Richard John Neuhaus did what he did and said what he said for the betterment of humankind and for the greater glory of God.
Fr. Richard Neuhaus, 1936-2009
By Tony Esolen
January 8, 2009
A few days ago, after saying a few prayers for Father Neuhaus, I stopped to consider the man's remarkable life and work. Who is there like him who is with us still? He was a boy during the Second World War and came of age as a faithful Lutheran in the 1950's, just when the liberal theological poison was about to pass that liminal point beyond which it sets its hosts into irreversible decline. He did not join that party, but when the Civil Rights Movement rocked the country, Reverend Neuhaus joined his voice to those who fought for justice for blacks in America, as he soon afterwards joined the movement to protest the most poorly commanded war in American history.
The easy journalistic interpretation of Reverend Neuhaus' prominence in these movements is that he was a "liberal" who when he grew older rejected his youthful political indiscretions. No such thing; he was in his youth what he was to the end, a passionate defender of human liberty, based upon man's having been created in the image and likeness of God. The man who detested Communist crushing of the human spirit was the man who detested war as bureaucratic maneuvering of bodies for geopolitical purposes, and the man who defended American democracy and a public square wherein people could speak from the deepest wellsprings of their convictions; the man who defended the incomparable worth of every human life; who loved art and music and poetry, and who loathed -- and laughed heartily at -- artistic impostors. He remained, in the truest sense of the words, profoundly conservative and liberal to the last.
But other people can speak with fuller knowledge of these things. I know only that here was a man who counted the likes of Martin Luther King and the Reverend Ralph Abernathy among his associates and friends; he knew and wrote about and dined with cardinals in the Roman Curia and heads of state. His reading was, to all appearances, omnivorous. Indeed, to read his monthly essays in First Things was to embark upon a kind of vicarious education; there did not seem to be any subject that the now Father Neuhaus could not discuss, from Dostoyevsky criticism to Brahms, from the Eastern Fathers to Jacques Maritain, from Plato to the Federalist to Robert Nisbet and Christopher Lasch.
Yet for all that he wore his learning lightly enough. He did not lecture; he elucidated. He indulged himself in much laughter at the folly, ignorance, and intolerance of his favorite prigs, the journalists -- especially those at the fish-wrapper he called "Mother Times" and "Our Parish Newsletter." But, and I hope he'll forgive me for saying so, he was himself an ideal journalist, everything that his satirical targets failed to be. His essays are less whimsical than those of Chesterton, but, on the whole, every bit as incisive, and perhaps, given what he has meant to conservative thought in America, more influential. I hope that they will not be left to the archives of First Things. They are, as journalistic essays ought to be, those strange creatures of the day that retain the power to speak to us time and again.
I never met Father Neuhaus, but First Things -- and that means, principally, Neuhaus' reflections -- was important in my reversion to the Catholic faith, fifteen years ago. For that I owe him a debt of deep gratitude. We shall not see his like again. And now he sees the face of Him whom he loved with a quiet and unassuming love that yet beat warmly in everything he wrote. Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him.
The Public Square
By Mark Steyn
Thursday, January 08, 2009
I would like to second Ramesh's praise: "The Public Square" in First Things was, indeed, "an extraordinary journalistic achievement". Every issue, Father Neuhaus pulled an array of surprising and often apparently trivial items from the world's media and addressed the deeper currents running underneath. A few years ago in that space he noted with regret an emerging post-Zionist fatalism regarding Israel's prospects. Here are five sentences from that long-ago squib that sum up what's happening in Gaza:
As too many people are eager to remind us, Israel is doing bad things to the Palestinians. And, as too many fail to say, Palestinians are doing bad things to Israelis, and it is not always easy to sort out which is action and which reaction, which is aggression and which defense. There should be no difficulty, however, in sorting out the difference between the one party that has the declared purpose of destroying or expelling the other party, and the other party that wants only to live in security and peace. This, I think, we know for sure: there could be a real peace process and a real peace if the Arabs believably accepted a sovereign Jewish state in their midst. This, sadly, does not seem to be in the offing.
And, in the end, that last point is the only one that matters — the one that keeps this thing going. Here he is again, getting to the heart of the matter, this time in response to a New York Times editorial:
The editors are also exercised that religious institutions are exempt from regulations having to do with religious and gender discrimination in hiring and promotion. But the key point, invoked over the years by opponents of free exercise, is that tax exemption is actually a government subsidy.
The underlying, and nascently totalitarian, assumption is that everything in the society belongs to the state and should be under state control. Government exemptions from tax and control are a privilege granted, not a right respected. From which it follows that an exemption is, in fact, a subsidy. This is a long way from the Founders’ understanding of the independent sovereignty of religion that the government is bound to respect.
Richard John Neuhaus was profound, civilized and witty, and "The Public Square" was one of my favorite features anywhere in the world's media. It was, as Ramesh says, a brilliant achievement.
01/08 06:49 PM