A True Pastor

Published January 13, 2009


The conventional story line on Father Richard John Neuhaus, who died on Jan. 8 at age 72, is that his eventful life was defined by change, transition, even rupture: Lutheran pastor’s kid becomes teenage hellion becomes Lutheran pastor becomes Catholic priest; Democratic congressional candidate becomes adviser to Republican presidents; Sixties’ radical becomes ’80s neo-conservative. And truth to tell (as he would say), there’s at least something to this.

The early influences on his religious thought and sensibility included the Lutheran theologian Arthur Carl Piepkorn (who taught him to think of Lutheranism as a reform movement within the one Church of Christ) and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (from whom he drew the idea that Christianity and Judaism were necessarily locked into a conversation from which both ought to benefit); his later interlocutors in matters theological shifted to include the German Lutheran Wolfhart Pannenberg (whom he introduced to the English-speaking world), Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI), and Pope John Paul II.

He worked with Martin Luther King, Jr., and Ralph David Abernathy in the classic period of the American civil-rights movement; his chastisement of William F. Buckley, Jr., in a letter complaining about the National Review‘s stance on civil-rights legislation, led to lunch and then to 30 years of friendship, conversation, and collaboration.

He was typically labeled a “conservative” Catholic in his latter years; yet for more than four decades, he was at the intellectual center of both the ecumenical and inter-religious dialogues, in partnership with a diverse crew that included, at various moments, Cardinal Avery Dulles, the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Jr., Charles W. Colson, Alexander Schmemann, Rabbi David Novak, and Rabbi Leon Klenicki.

He was an early supporter of Jimmy Carter who became a counselor to George W. Bush; with the sociologist Peter Berger, he pioneered a new way of thinking about “mediating structures” (or voluntary associations) in society, thereby providing the intellectual foundation for Bush’s faith-and-community based initiative.

He was a vocal critic of America’s war in Vietnam who helped cause a major rift in the post-war peace movement by criticizing the new communist government’s persecution of religious believers.

His friends and familiars included prominent American public intellectuals of all faiths and no faith; on two different days, he could be found arguing amiably and intensely with Henry Kissinger about morality and foreign policy, and then with Norman Podhoretz about the proper interpretation of Isaiah and St. Paul. In tandem with colleagues like Michael Novak and Robert Benne, he made a Christian moral case for the superiority of the free market over socialism; yet by his own choice, most of his pastoral work as both Lutheran pastor and Catholic priest was in poor and working-class parishes. He loved music, especially Bach, and he loved to sing; but he couldn’t carry a tune to save his life. He was a brilliant preacher and a wonderful raconteur who also suffered through his dark nights.

Anyone whose journey through this world spanned that range of experiences and touched that wide a cast of characters obviously went through some changes over time. Yet, as I reflect back on 31 years of friendship and common work with Richard Neuhaus, I am far more impressed by the consistencies than by the discontinuities in his life and thought.

To begin with, he was a thoroughgoing Christian radical, meaning that he believed that the truth of Christian faith was not just truth-for-Christians, but the truth of the world, period. As with his hero, John Paul II (and contrary to the conventional wisdom on “tolerance”), that conviction opened him up to serious conversation with others, rather than shutting down the argument. Yet his basic theological and philosophical convictions, and the intellectual sophistication he brought to their defense, had resonances far beyond the boundaries of the religious world, for those convictions also undergirded the two big ideas that he put into play in American public life.

The first of these ideas, laid out in his 1984 bestseller, The Naked Public Square, involved that hardy perennial in the garden of American controversy, church and state. Neuhaus’s position was that the two pieces of the First Amendment’s provisions on religious freedom were in fact one “religion clause,” in which “no establishment” of religion served the “free exercise” of religion. There was to be no established national church, precisely in order to create the free space for the robust exchange of religious ideas and the free expression of religious practices. In making this case, Neuhaus changed the terms of the contemporary American church-state debate, arguing that the Supreme Court had been getting things wrong for more than half a century by pitting “no establishment” against “free exercise,” with the latter increasingly being forced into the constitutional back seat. It was a bold proposal from a theologian that has increasingly been vindicated by much of the recent legal and historical scholarship on Supreme Court church-state jurisprudence.

Neuhaus’s convictions about the meaning of religious freedom in America also reflected his consistent defense of popular piety and the religious sensibilities of those whom others might consider “simple” or “uninformed.” If 90 percent of the American people professed belief in the God of the Bible, he argued, then there was something profoundly undemocratic about denying those people–a super-majority if ever there was one–the right to bring the sources of their deepest moral convictions into public debate, even if they sometimes did so in clumsy ways.

That populism was also at the root of Neuhaus’s second big idea: that the pro-life movement was in moral continuity with the classic civil-rights movement, because pro-life claims were rooted in the same moral truths for which he had marched with King and Abernathy across the Edmund Pettis Bridge outside Selma, Alabama. The pro-life position, Neuhaus insisted, was a matter of the first principles of justice, and those principles could not be sacrificed to what some imagined to be the imperatives of the sexual revolution. Thus as early as 1967, he warned his liberal and radical friends that their advocacy of “abortion rights” was a betrayal of their previous commitments. For to deny the unborn the right to life was to shrink the community of common protection and concern in America, whereas the whole point of the civil-rights insurgency had been to enlarge that community by finally including African-Americans within it.

On a related set of questions, Neuhaus was also concerned with elitism and its corrosive effects on the poor people he served. He often spoke of his experience of reading an early essay on “quality of life,” back in the embryonic days of what would eventually come to be known as bioethics. The author described “quality of life” in terms of income, education, recreational opportunities, and so forth; then, as Neuhaus told the story, “I got into my pulpit on Sunday, looked out at the congregation, and realized that not a single person there had what was being described as ‘quality of life.'” Something was seriously wrong; and so the dignity of every human life, not its alleged “quality,” became the conceptual basis on which he entered the bioethics struggles that now define such a significant part of the national agenda.

Both of these Big Ideas–no war between “free exercise” against “no establishment,” and the pro-life movement as the natural moral successor to the civil rights movement–intersected in what Richard Neuhaus, public intellectual, thought of as his life’s project: the creation of a “religiously informed public philosophy for the American experiment in ordered liberty,” as he frequently put it. Understanding each of the pieces of that puzzle is i
mportant to understanding the man.

A “religiously informed public philosophy” was one that took account of the American people’s abiding religiosity, but “translated” biblically informed moral convictions into a language that people of different faiths or no faith could engage in. The American “experiment,” for Neuhaus, was an unfinished, and indeed never-to-be-finished, political project. American public life, as he understood it, was a constant testing of whether a nation “so conceived and so dedicated” could “long endure:” thus Lincoln’s question at Gettysburg was a question for every generation of Americans, not just the generation of the Civil War. And then there was “ordered liberty,” in which the adjective captured Neuhaus’s conviction (which paralleled that of the classic English liberal and historian of freedom, Lord Acton) that political liberty was not a matter of doing whatever we like, but of having the right to do what we ought.

Richard John Neuhaus’s lifelong habit of serious conversation–typically complemented by bourbon and cigars–was fed by his voracious reading. The breadth of his professional reading was on display every month in his personal section of First Things, the magazine he launched in the early 1990s; fittingly enough, the section was styled, “Public Square,” and its large readership marveled at the amount of material Neuhaus, read, digested, and commented on every four weeks. Our 22 years of vacationing together at his cottage on the Ottawa River introduced me to the more personal side of my friend’s unquenchable thirst for challenging ideas, preferably couched in good writing: one year, he would read Macauley’s history of England; another year, it would be Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; yet another, Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae. And on at least three occasions during those two decades, he read through virtually all of Shakespeare. Yet the same man could spend the late evenings howling with laughter over DVDs of Talladega Nights, Best in Show, or A Mighty Wind. (Lest I create scandal, I should add that he also appreciated serious movies, and that his leisure reading included mystery writers such as P.D. James and Ellis Peters. If memory serves, he also claimed to have read Scoop, Evelyn Waugh’s send-up of journalism, at least 10 times.)

The public world, where he spent much of his working life as writer and editor, thought of him as a controversialist, which he surely was (and a very skillful one at that). But what the public world rarely saw was the man who spent countless hours counseling young people, or receiving unannounced and uninvited visitors to his office who just “had to meet Father Neuhaus,” or hearing confessions and saying mass in his parish. He could be fierce, rhetorically; but those whom he led through the thickets of religious quandaries, vocational discernments, or psychological crises knew him to be remarkably patient and gentle. And so, while he was arguably the most consequential American religious intellectual since Reinhold Niebuhr and John Courtney Murray, his memory will long be cherished by people who knew little of his public life, but did know him to be a man of conviction, conscience, and compassion–a true pastor.

Which is no bad way for the man who dubbed his poor Bedford-Stuyvesant parish “St. John the Mundane” to be remembered.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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