That Mosquito on the Tuxedo

October 2001By Dale Vree

You may recall our May editorial wherein I discussed Fr. Richard John Neuhaus’s oddly curt and out-of-character response (First Things, March) to my article (NOR, Jan.) critiquing his support for universal salvation — the view that all men will be saved — as expressed in his book, Death on a Friday Afternoon. My words: “Neuhaus said…that I ‘misread’ and ‘misrepresented’ his book and that what I wrote about his being a believer in universal salvation is simply ‘false.’ Now, those are serious charges. But strangely, especially for a man given to arduous self-defense, he gave not one example of how I had ‘misread’ or ‘misrepresented’ him; nor did he explain why what I said was ‘false.’…How strange for such a skilled debater — someone who is Johnny-on-the-spot with devastating rebuttals to those who differ with him in public! That’s not the Richard John Neuhaus we all know.”

Neuhaus also made this pointed remark about me in that brief response: “I have no need, interest, or intention of engaging in extended public polemics with Mr. Vree.” In my mind’s eye I could just see him brush the mosquito off his tuxedo as he typed that. Well, in the intervening months, Fr. Neuhaus has obviously had second thoughts. In the lead article in his “Public Square” section in the August/September First Things, he offers an extended (four-page) explanation of what he was trying to say in his book.

Why the delay? Says Neuhaus: “I confess to being caught off guard by the vehemence of some criticisms” of the book, and he makes it clear that the criticisms came from others besides the Editor of the NEW OXFORD REVIEW. Apparently, that pesky mosquito just wouldn’t go away.

Neuhaus says that his critics have “misunderstood” him. But nonetheless he wishes to offer “a clarifying word.” So maybe — just maybe — the problem was indeed with the messenger, not the reader.

Now, Neuhaus does make some helpful clarifications: (1) “The hope that all will be saved is precisely that, a hope. It is not a doctrine….” (2) “Yes, certainly, people who live that way [as described in Mt. 25] until the very end will go to hell.” (3) “All are found [by Christ], and therefore are not lost. That some may choose not to accept the gift of being found is quite another matter.” (4) “Must we not hope that, according to God’s desire (2 Peter 3:9), all will repent?” (italics added). These are welcome clarifications, and I hope that if Fr. Neuhaus’s book is to be released in a new edition he will, at a minimum, make those same assertions in a new Preface, and, even more, will change the numerous affirmations of universal salvation in the book in light of those four assertions.

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