Richard John Neuhaus: A Life in the Public Square
By Randy Boyagoda
Review Author: Elizabeth Hanink
Richard John Neuhaus could fairly be called the best-known Catholic public intellectual of his era. Whatever else one might say, Neuhaus was a complicated man for a complicated time. His early reading of Lutheran Scripture scholar Oscar Cullmann, who advocated for the Gospel-driven necessity of Christians engaging with the secular state, helped Neuhaus form a view of public encounter that he lived throughout his life. Whether meeting with governors, presidents, cardinals, or popes, he relished the idea of influencing the powerful. Whenever the debate grew fierce, Neuhaus wanted to have his say. And we got it. With books, sermons, talks, and his magazine First Things, Neuhaus was front and center.
The sixth son of a Missouri Synod pastor, Neuhaus learned early on that words make a difference. He was blessed with high energy and an entrepreneurial spirit, but his early school years did not promise much. His first teacher pronounced him “uneducable,” and he never finished high school. Still, from childhood his goal was to become a Lutheran minister, forsaking marriage but not the companionship of his loving family, with whom he maintained close ties. He had an intense relationship with his father; the influence of the senior Neuhaus was long lasting, though the two often differed in substance and style.
From the very beginning, Neuhaus was open to ecumenical efforts, and throughout his life he was committed to healing the 16th-century breach that gave rise to Protestantism. During his seminary years and early ministry, he found himself in the thick of controversies that plagued the Missouri Synod, and was once accused by a colleague of heresy. His concern about U.S. involvement in southeast Asia led him to become a founding member of Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam, and the civil-rights movement drew him in. For many years — both as a Lutheran minister and later as a Catholic priest — he served at inner-city New York parishes with all their attendant problems. Through it all, he collected a wide circle of friends and collaborators. At times he could inflate his connections and importance but, according to biographer Randy Boyagoda, the aggrandizement was more a result of boyish glee than calculated maneuvering. Who wouldn’t like to claim friendship with Pope John Paul II or imply that he had the ear of Martin Luther King Jr.?
Neuhaus’s split from leftist causes was gradual and came not from disagreement about what was “wrong with America, but rather from how far the Left moved from his concerns as primarily a clergyman,” Boyagoda writes. That religion and politics should mix was never in doubt. How and when was open to question. By 1990 Neuhaus founded the Institute on Religion and Public Life and its flagship publication First Things. He served as the journal’s editor-in-chief until his death in 2009.
Neuhaus was not afraid to let everyone know what he was thinking. Fortunately, he was gifted with a wonderful sense of humor and had a knack for just the right rejoinder, which kept him from becoming a pedantic bore. Many First Things readers started with its back pages to see his deft analysis of current happenings. In just a few lighthearted words, he could skewer an entire profession or national movement: “Thousands of medical ethicists and bioethicists, as they are called, professionally guide the unthinkable on its passage through the debatable on the way to becoming the justifiable until it is finally established as unexceptionable.”
Neuhaus was prescient about societal trends before the general public recognized dangers lurking in the corners of public-policy debates. He famously said, as long ago as 1979, in reference to growing acquiescence to homosexual rights and the demands of radical feminists: It is absurd to spend “millions of dollars recommending the overhaul of family law in America on the basis of such ‘revolutions'”; he called these movements part of “a long list of absurdities by which desire is disguised as a declaration of fact.”
When First Things published a symposium titled “The End of Democracy? The Judicial Usurpation of Politics” (Nov. 1996), there was no end of grief. In it Neuhaus and others posed the provocative question of whether the government retained legitimacy: Was it true that the laws of the country were no longer set by its people? Close editorial collaborators like Peter Berger and Midge Decter took offense, as did outsiders. Norman Podhoretz of Commentary was outraged, and National Review also joined the fray. Christopher Hitchens described the whole brouhaha as the “‘Civil War’ on the Right.” In the end, more than 200 articles from across the political spectrum covered the issue and the questions it raised. Influential people did listen to Neuhaus.
More worrisome was the manner in which Neuhaus’s publication appeared to be a mouthpiece for the Republican administrations of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. After 9/11, Neuhaus, who unabashedly articulated the neoconservative agenda in his books and magazine, became a cheerleader for the Bush administration’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, claiming, against all evidence, that it qualified as a just war. Critics accused Neuhaus of selective readings of Church documents in other areas as well, especially economics. His support for John Paul II’s 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, which he mischaracterized as “a ringing endorsement of the market economy,” juxtaposed with his criticism of the U.S. bishops’ 1986 pastoral letter on social justice “Economic Justice for All” gives credence to that charge.
Neuhaus would come to be labeled a “theocon,” by a former associate editor of First Things, but in his mind he was not one. “To too many the term inevitably implies theocracy, which is the very opposite of what my friends and I have been contending for these years,” he wrote. Instead, his efforts had been “to renew the liberal democratic tradition by, among other things, opening the public square to the full and civil engagement of the conviction of all citizens, including their religiously-informed moral conviction.” He stated, “America is a nation under God, but not even at its best is it God’s nation.” That distinction was not always clear in the pages of his magazine.
With his increasing public prominence, Neuhaus became a go-to media spokesman, reliably pro-Church (when her teaching didn’t clash with the neoconservative agenda), insightful, and articulate. Big happenings in Rome usually entailed his commentary in various American media outlets. When the crisis surrounding priests’ sexual abuse of minors erupted, he was forthright in recognizing the mess as not simply muckraking on the part of a hostile press but rather a failure of vocation at several levels, making for the Church’s “Long Lent.” Still, his support for Fr. Marcial Maciel, disgraced founder of the Legionaries of Christ, was extensive, and the need to acknowledge his error in judgment, long after it had become obvious to less enthralled observers, probably made for his own “Long Lent.”
Not all was public-policy debate. Neuhaus left a legacy of priestly ministry of the more usual sort. His Death on a Friday Afternoon: Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross offers insight into some of his more intimate judgments: “None of our sins are [sic] small or of little account. To belittle our sins is to belittle ourselves…to belittle their forgiveness, is to belittle the love of the Father who welcomes us home.” Neuhaus also wrote a moving spiritual memoir, As I Lay Dying: Meditations Upon Returning, about his close brush with death in the early 1990s.
Randy Boyagoda says in his author’s notes that while writing the book he often was asked whether he planned a hatchet job or a hagiography. What he wrote is a balanced biography. Without having known Neuhaus well during his lifetime, Boyagoda skillfully portrays the private and public, the inane and serious sides of a figure large in his own mind and, justifiably, in ours too.
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