A gaping hole in the public square.
by Joseph Bottum
The Weekly Standard
01/19/2009, Volume 014, Issue 17
Robert George, Joseph Bottum, Robert Wilken, Richard John Neuhaus after a board meeting in June 2008.
He was the greatest reader I ever met. The greatest reader, and a cigar smoker, and a walker, and a preacher, and a brewer of some of the worst coffee ever made. What odd items the mind latches onto in moments of grief: the tilt of a friend's head, the way he used his hands when he spoke, an awful meal shared a decade back, a conversation about a book only a month ago.
Only a month ago--it was only a month ago that he was still whole, still sharp, still himself. Novels and movies always seem to me to get it wrong. Grief doesn't conjure up ghosts. Grief renders the world itself ghostly. The absent thing alone is real, and in comparison, all present things are pale, gray, and indistinct: a vague background to the sharp-edged portrait of what is gone.
And, oh, what sharp edges Richard John Neuhaus had. He wrote and wrote and wrote--a discipline of writing that almost every other writer I know has told me feels almost like an indictment: 30 books, and innumerable essays, and all those talks he flew around to give. And, just as an incidental, 12,000 words a month poured out in the column, The Public Square, that anchored every issue of First Things, the magazine he founded.
He loved to tell the story of the time when he was complaining--boasting, really, in the guise of complaining, the way young men do--about how busy he was and how he didn't want to fly to Cincinnati to give again the speech he had just given in Chicago. And his friend and mentor Abraham Joshua Heschel said to him, "You think you're such a big shot, they know in Cincinnati what you said in Chicago? Go to Cincinnati, Richard."
That was back in his radical 1960s days, of course, when he was the Lutheran pastor of a large, mostly black congregation in Brooklyn and, together with Rabbi Heschel and Fr. Daniel Berrigan, had founded one of the largest antiwar groups, Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam. He was a friend of Martin Luther King Jr., a McCarthy delegate to the 1968 Democratic convention, and a radical candidate for Congress in 1974. He was also, in those days, the author of an essay called "The Thorough Revolutionary," which proclaimed: "A revolution of consciousness, no doubt. A cultural revolution, certainly. A non-violent revolution, perhaps. An armed overthrow of the existing order, it may be necessary. Revolution for the hell of it or revolution for a new world, but revolution, Yes."
He could always turn a phrase, couldn't he? But it's a long way from there to being the Catholic priest of whom, on all the life issues, George W. Bush would say, "Father Richard helps me articulate these things." This journey from left to right has become the received account of Fr. Neuhaus's life: the narrative you can read in all the obituaries over the last few days, the problem of his biography that so many commentators have set themselves to explain since he died on January 8.
But in his autobiography--the internal narrative by which he understood himself--Richard John Neuhaus didn't think he had changed all that much. Oh, "The Thorough Revolutionary" embarrassed him a little, and the loss of his friends on the left hurt him a lot. But, generally, he imagined that the world had done more changing than he had.
Take abortion, for instance. In 1968, he won the award for best editorial of the year from the Catholic Press Association--Catholics liked giving awards to a Lutheran in those days; they thought of it as being bravely trendy and ecumenical--for an essay in which he cried, "The pro-abortion flag is being planted on the wrong side of the liberal/conservative divide." It ought to be those heartless conservatives who want to define the fetus as a meaningless lump of tissue; it ought to be caring liberals who want to expand the community of care to embrace the unborn.
If he later came to have a kinder view of conservatives, that was because he finally met some of them. But the pattern established by abortion continued through to his death. His work in founding the communitarian movement in 1977 came not because he thought he had changed but because he thought the United States was abandoning its commitment to families and all the voluntary associations that Tocqueville observed as a defining part of a liberal republic. He wrote his most famous book, The Naked Public Square--his 1984 argument against the attempt to secularize every part of shared life--because he thought the nation was in danger of losing the religious dynamism that had fueled everything from Abraham Lincoln's speeches to Martin Luther King's protests.
Even his conversion to Catholicism in 1990, and his ordination as a Catholic priest the next year, could be understood as a standing-still while the world altered around him. This was a man, after all, who titled his account of conversion "How I Became the Catholic That I Was."
Still, all such pilgrimages have costs, and one of the great things about Fr. Neuhaus was that he was always willing to pay them. His mind was a grown-up mind, and when he decided on a position, he advanced it with the same rhetorical power and energy with which he had advanced his earlier positions.
I remember him, sitting on the couch, taking me through the argument of a book he had just finished reading--and making the argument clearer than the author had ever managed. I remember his puffing on his cigars, and his constant jaywalking across the streets of Manhattan in utter confidence that the cars would stop, and his Lutheran-style preaching, and his bad coffee. I remember the way he would tilt his head when he smiled, and the way he used his hands when he talked, and the brilliant conversation about a book only a month back.
Only a month. But in that time, for those who knew him, the world has been inverted. Present still are all the noise and bustle of New York, the work in the office, the ringing phones, the demands for attention. But they all seem weak and gray and ghostly. Only his absence now is real.
- Joseph Bottum, a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD, is editor of First Things.