From Anti-War Pastor to Pro-Life Priest

Published March 28, 2015

Wall Street Journal


By Randy Boyagoda
Image, 459 pages, $30

Richard John Neuhaus, a Lutheran pastor turned Catholic priest who died six years ago at the age of 72, was one of the most important American religious figures of the postwar era. Possessed of intellectual range, boundless energy, a graceful pen and the resonant baritone of a first-rate preacher, he was both an active clergyman and a man of ideas operating in the public realm. In “Richard John Neuhaus: A Life in the Public Square,” Randy Boyagoda captures his subject’s deep sense of vocation and the complexity of his personality, offering a comprehensive biography and, along the way, a thoughtful introduction to some of the “culture wars” of the past several decades.

As Mr. Boyagoda notes, Neuhaus (1936-2009) wanted to be “a bold Christian and a bold intellectual and a bold cosmopolitan and a bold operator, all at once, all as one.” His political involvements began in the 1960s, with his support of civil rights and opposition to the Vietnam War, and culminated in a passionate commitment to the defense of human life and the moral renewal of American society, a goal he pursued by forging an alliance of evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics and by fostering a deepened level of “Jewish-Christian collaboration.” This “ecumenical orthodoxy” of different religious traditions joined in a common purpose could be found in First Things, the monthly magazine Neuhaus edited for many years.

Neuhaus’s journalism combined rigor with an ingratiating stylishness. Far from going easy on his prey out of Christian piety, he took obvious pleasure in taking down poseurs and other public nuisances. He did the job so engagingly that he developed a following among secular readers who admired his writing for its rapier precision.

But his most enduring legacy will inevitably be a longer work, “The Naked Public Square” (1984), in which he argued for the indispensable role of religion in sustaining America’s moral and civic health. Neuhaus intended the book as a reformulation of one of the Founders’ convictions: that America should have not a naked public square in which religion is proscribed; nor a sacred public square in which religion is imposed; but a civilpublic square in which the culture-forming energies of our religious traditions are given full expression—“free exercise,” in the language of the First Amendment—in ways that would nurture the humane pluralism of our diverse culture.

Mr. Boyagoda, a novelist and a professor of American studies at Ryerson University in Toronto, finds an overarching unity and nobility in Neuhaus’s varied career—in his effort to “bring Judeo-Christian concepts of human dignity, worth and purpose to bear on every dimension of American life.” His chronicle is winsomely written, sympathetic to its subject but responsible and fair-minded. Mr. Boyagoda does not flinch from calling his subject out on his errors of judgment.

Neuhaus’s father was a Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor, originally from Illinois, whose ministry had taken his family to tiny Pembroke, Ontario, 90 miles west of Ottawa. It was perhaps inevitable that Neuhaus would become impatient with the insularity and political quietism of the Missouri Synod Lutherans, a sect whose opposition to ecumenism had caused it to break away from the larger Lutheran community in the mid-19th century.

Beginning in his seminary days, in the late 1950s, Neuhaus was drawn to a more “catholic” view of Lutheranism, one that would seek a more active role for the church in the world. He found in the political left a vehicle for his social-reform passions and in time began to espouse radical positions, although always with a religious inflection. The Vietnamese people, he declared in one 1969 speech, were “God’s instrument for bringing the American empire to its knees.”

But Neuhaus did not stay on the left for very long, because his own activism was always grounded in his Christian beliefs, and liberal Christianity, he came to feel, was betraying itself by uncoupling the Gospel’s call to fashion a more just world from the Gospel’s revelation of God in Christ. In addition, this new liberalism was hardening into a tool of the elite classes, mirroring their obsessions with personal autonomy while showing a strange indifference to the moral sensibilities of poor and common people—and proving shockingly indifferent to the dignity of the very weakest group of all: the unborn. The causes that had drawn Neuhaus to the left—antidiscrimination, antipoverty, antiwar—were being overwhelmed by an agenda of cultural revolution, epitomized by an increasing commitment to unrestricted abortion rights. The religious left, he concluded, had lost sight of first things, of the foundational premises to which a just and humane society must be committed.

Such insights led Neuhaus to gravitate to the political right, though not always smoothly. He founded First Things magazine in 1990 after breaking with the Rockford Institute, a Midwest-based foundation that had funded Neuhaus’s Center on Religion and Society. The break was acrimonious and ended up being reported on the front page of the New York Times. Neuhaus had detected in Rockford’s own magazine, Chronicles of Culture, a set of views that—as he put it in a letter—“intelligent persons might reasonably understand to be xenophobic, racist, and nativist.” The charge was emblematic of a general shift within the intellectual culture of the right—a rebellion against what is now called paleo-conservatism. By this time, Neuhaus had also grown disillusioned with mainline Protestantism and had gravitated toward Roman Catholicism, which he embraced as both a convert and a priest.

On these events, and on Neuhaus’s ever-widening influence, Mr. Boyagoda’s account is detailed and informative. We see Neuhaus influencing the economic thinking of John Paul II (to the irritation of the church’s American bishops) and serving as an adviser to George W. Bush. Mr. Boyagoda’s portrait of Neuhaus’s last days, as cancer advanced, is stabbingly poignant. But Neuhaus, who had described an earlier brush with death in his beautiful 2002 book “As I Lay Dying,” was unsentimental about his earthly end. He wrote that he was reading a “collection of stories about people preparing for good deaths, in the tradition of the ars moriendi manuals of the Middle Ages.” Far from fearing his demise, he found that its approach stimulated his intellectual curiosity.

Mr. Boyagoda does not refrain from faulting some of Neuhaus’s more questionable judgments, such as his playing down of the clergy sex-abuse scandal, which led him to undertake a fierce and misguided defense of Father Marcial Maciel, the founder of the Legion of Christ, who would eventually be exposed as a prodigious sexual abuser and disciplined by Pope Benedict XVI.

Mr. Boyagoda also gives a detailed account of the controversy over Neuhaus’s incautious words accompanying a First Things symposium called “The End of Democracy?,” in which he indirectly compared America to Nazi Germany, words that led to an angry exodus from his editorial board and ruptured lifelong friendships. His ardent public support of the Iraq War was another source of division. Critics of Neuhaus cannot complain that anything has been glossed over by Mr. Boyagoda. But in the end, the book is more admiring than not, its criticisms tempered by an awareness of the burdens of being, in Theodore Roosevelt’s words, “the man who is actually in the arena.”

My only complaint about Mr. Boyagoda’s chronicle is that it stops abruptly with Neuhaus’s death and thereby fails to sum up the meaning of such a consequential life. Perhaps such reticence reflects the author’s instincts as a novelist who wishes to show rather than tell. In any event, it is not hard to see that, even in the churning whirlwind of Neuhaus’s career, there was a still point—a first thing that neither left nor right can claim exclusively as its own: the inalienable dignity of the individual person, grounded in the image of God.

—Mr. McClay teaches history at the University of Oklahoma.

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