Published January 10, 2009
Father Richard John Neuhaus’s work will be remembered and debated for decades. As a Lutheran pastor, he was one of the first civil-rights activists to identify the pro-life cause with the moral truths for which he and others had marched in Selma; he set the terms of the contemporary American church-state debate and added a new phrase to our public vocabulary with his 1984 bestseller, The Naked Public Square. As a Catholic priest, he helped define new patterns of theological dialogue between Catholics and evangelicals, and between Christians and Jews. The journal he launched in the early 1990s, First Things, quickly became, under his leadership and inspiration, the most important vehicle for exploring the tangled web of religion and society in the English-speaking world. All of this suggests that Richard Neuhaus was, arguably, the most consequential public theologian in America since the days of Reinhold Niebuhr and John Courtney Murray, S.J.
He was also a marvelous human being, with the convictions of a true Christian disciple and the heart of a spiritually insightful pastor. In the retrospect of the death of my closest professional friend on Jan. 8, his living room — in which we prayed, argued, laughed and planned for more than 30 years — strikes me as a concise summary of the man.
Over the fireplace hung an old etching of Jerusalem, identical to that which once adorned the office of Teddy Kollek, the city’s longtime mayor: for Neuhaus lived, thought and wrote within a thoroughly biblical cast of mind, in which the earthly Jerusalem represents the New Jerusalem of the Book of Revelation — the fulfillment of humanity’s deepest spiritual longings. On one wall was an abstract, modernistic print of a boy riding a Chagall-like bird: “That’s little Dickie Neuhaus,” he once told me, “riding the Holy Spirit.” A Byzantine icon of his patron, the apostle John, marked another wall, with a vigil light burning before it; Richard used to joke that his Lutheran pastorate, the church of St. John the Evangelist in the then desperately poor Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, was “St. John the Mundane,” as distinguished from the Episcopalian Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Morningside Heights. There was a colossal sound system, for he loved music, especially Bach; there were bookcases containing the Lutheran Book of Worship, from which he and the ecumenical Community of Christ in the City, with whom he lived, prayed vespers every evening, before and after his reception into the Catholic Church; and there were ample supplies of bourbon and cigars, both of which Richard regarded as essential complements to the ongoing, boisterous conversation that was his intellectual and spiritual lifeblood.
For a man of sharply expressed opinions, he was also a skilled listener and a gentle counselor, with a particular care for helping young men and women figure out what God had in mind for their lives. In the Catholic phase of his ministry, which began after his ordination by Cardinal John O’Connor in 1991, an act which he regarded as completing his commitment to Lutheranism as a reform movement within the one Church of Christ, he served a working-class parish, as he had done as a Lutheran; in both cases, he declined to preach “down” to his congregations, such that his challenging sermons deepened many people’s faith. He was generous in supporting the poor throughout the world, giving away a significant portion of his lecture fees and book royalties.
Richard Neuhaus was also an American patriot with a critical love for the country to which he moved, permanently, at age 15, after a rambunctious childhood and adolescence in Pembroke, Ontario, where his father was a Lutheran pastor. As a teenager, he ran a filling station in Cisco, Texas — likely the only counselor of two popes and several presidents who ever joined the Texas Chamber of Commerce at age 16. His distinguished career as a public intellectual led some to think that he was embroidering things a bit when he claimed he had never graduated from high school; but he hadn’t.
He had the remarkable, and mathematically counterintuitive, ability to multiply his enthusiasm and energy while dividing it with others. That was a grace. And that is one of the many reasons why so many of us will miss him as we shall miss few others.
–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.