We talked about everything for 31 years, Richard John Neuhaus and I did: families, friends and adversaries; hopes dashed and hopes fulfilled; popes and presidents; religious freedom and the just war; magazines, books, and movies; Churchill’s loo at Ditchley House; the relative merits of Jack Daniel’s, W.L. Weller, and Woodford’s; you name it.
Part of the reason, I suspect, that a few crabbed souls seemed to resent our collaboration (even as they imputed to it powers and influence beyond our wildest imaginings) is that we were clearly having such a good time. Happily, that’s what happens when you fight the good fights together.
Thus the gap left in my life by Father Neuhaus’s death on Jan. 8 is a large one. Yet if, in the providence of God, it was time for RJN to be called home, I am grateful that the divine mercy arranged things so that the last thing we did together was pray together. And, as his former student, Deacon Vince Druding, told me of the moment of his death, the last thing Richard Neuhaus did in this vale of tears was smile. Perhaps he had been given a glimpse of what awaited him.
I’ve written elsewhere of the enormous impact Father Neuhaus’s ideas had on American public life. One of those ideas – RJN’s argument that the First Amendment’s “no establishment” provision serves its “free exercise” provision, which led logically to the claim that “separation of Church and state” did not mean eradication of religiously-informed moral conviction from public life – reset the default positions in the American Church/state debate.
Then there was RJN’s signal contribution to the pro-life movement, in which he was a leader for 40 years: by insisting that the pro-life movement was the moral heir of the classic civil rights movement (in which he had also been a leader), he inserted the story of the pro-life movement into the most compelling moral narrative of contemporary American history – and thereby gave it a chance to prevail.
So let me focus here on two other aspects of Father Neuhaus’ enduring legacy which have gotten relatively little attention since his death.
First, ecumenism. In the early 1990s, an evangelical intellectual worried aloud to me about the lack of serious theological encounter between the two growing ends of American Christianity, Catholicism and evangelical Protestantism. I mentioned this to Father Neuhaus, whose credentials as a former Lutheran would, I thought, give him a unique brokerage position in any such encounter.
Neuhaus contacted Chuck Colson, and the result was the ongoing project, “Evangelicals and Catholics Together,” which has evolved from a forum for discussing common concerns in public life into a bold exercise in ecumenical theology. Go to www.firstthings.com, punch “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” into the search engine, and you’ll see joint statements on salvation, the Bible, and the communion of saints that most of us never expected to see in our lifetimes.
While the bilateral ecumenism of the post-Vatican II years was running into one stone wall after another, Neuhaus was pioneering the next phase of ecumenical encounter, and in ways that could shape the future of Christian witness throughout the world.
Then there was RJN’s unique role in Christian-Jewish dialogue. Its roots lay in his friendship with the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, out of which Neuhaus developed the conviction that the divinely mandated entanglement of Christians and Jews of which St. Paul spoke in Romans 9-11 ought to be explored theologically – and that New York City was the divinely mandated place to do it.
So while the conventional Jewish-Christian dialogue was running along its well-worn post-Vatican II grooves (and, to be sure, producing good work), Neuhaus and colleagues like Rabbi David Novak and Rabbi Leon Klenicki launched a theological encounter between serious Christians and faithful Jews. The conversation was of such depth that, one evening, one of our rabbinical partners observed, “You know, Christians and Jews haven’t been talking to each other like this for nineteen hundred years.”
That was RJN. His work will go on. It’s the very least we owe him.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.