Published January 17, 2009
One of the premier Catholic public intellectuals in the English-speaking world, Fr Richard John Neuhaus, died in New York City on 8 January.
Richard Neuhaus was born in Pembroke, Ontario, the seventh child of a Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor. As a young adult he moved to the United States, where his parents had been born, and ran a small general store in Cisco, Texas. When it became clear, within six months, that commerce was not his calling, he entered Concordia Lutheran College in Austin, Texas. He then took his theological degree at Concordia Lutheran Seminary in St. Louis, where his mentor, Arthur Carl Piepkorn, taught him to think of Lutheranism as a reform movement within the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. During his Lutheran seminary years, Neuhaus came under the influence of the mid-century Catholic liturgical movement, represented in St. Louis by Mgr. Martin Hellriegel, who teased Lutheran visitors to his parish that Luther’s 95 theses, posted at Wittenberg on 31 October 1517, were “the first Halloween prank.”
After brief service in a Lutheran parish in Messina, New York, Neuhaus moved to New York City, where he came into his own as pastor of St. John the Evangelist, a desperately poor, predominantly black parish in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. An activist in the civil rights movement of the early 1960s, he marched in Selma with Martin Luther King Jr., and shared King’s opposition to US involvement in the Vietnam war. At the same time, Neuhaus was one of the first major civil rights activists to identify the pro-life cause with the moral truths on which the civil-rights movement had staked its claims. He became a major figure in American pro-life activism, providing ideas and arguments to the pro-life movement for 40 years.
The American Left’s embrace of lifestyle libertinism, his own commitments to religious liberty, and a deepening worry about the corrosive effects of the “secular city” school of theology on Christian faith and witness gradually led Neuhaus into a break with many of his Sixties colleagues. In the aftermath of the American withdrawal from Vietnam, he challenged the Communist Vietnamese Government’s denials of religious freedom. In 1975, he helped orchestrate the Hartford Appeal for Theological Affirmation, an ecumenical call for a recovery of classic Christian conviction. By the late 1970s, he was one of the leaders of what was termed religious “neoconservatism.” In the mid-1980s he founded what would become the Institute on Religion and Public Life in New York; the institute’s journal, First Things, of which Neuhaus was editor-in-chief, became one of the premier journals of religiously informed thought. In this period, Neuhaus also forged new theological contacts between evangelical Protestants and Catholics, even as he continued his work on developing a deeper theological dialogue between Christians and Jews. Throughout the pontificate of John Paul II, Neuhaus (who entered into full communion with the Catholic Church in 1990 and was ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of New York in 1991) was one of the late pope’s leading interpreters in the American media.
John Paul named him a non-bishop member of the 1997 Synod on America, an experience that Neuhaus found excruciatingly dull, but which produced Appointment in Rome, a book the pope much appreciated, even if the synod authorities did not. Among his dozens of other works, the 1984 bestseller, The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America, is best known, as it set the terms of debate for the contemporary Church-State argument in the United States. Neuhaus’ personal favourites, however, included his spiritual writings, including As I Lay Dying, and Death on a Friday Afternoon, his meditations on the “seven last words” of Christ on the Cross. His last book, to be published posthumously, is entitled American Babylon: Notes of a Christian Exile, and unfolds his most recent thought on the promise and perils of American democracy, especially during the impending Obama years.
Neuhaus was a gifted preacher who believed that congregations, populated by those whom others might consider “simple,” nonetheless deserved intellectually stimulating homilies. He had a great capacity for friendship, was a gentle and wise counsellor of the young, and had the marked ability to bring out of others the best they had to give, as thinkers and writers. Running through a rich, varied, and productive life was the bright thread of Christian conviction, which informed every aspect of Richard Neuhaus’ work. Like John Paul II and John Cardinal O’Connor, his two Catholic spiritual fathers, he was a genuine Christian radical and a deeply committed priest.
— George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.