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In Defense of Richard John Neuhaus


By Janet Holl Madigan | July/August 2001
Janet Holl Madigan, of Marshfield, Massachusetts, is writing her doctoral dissertation in political philosophy.

In the January issue of the NEW OXFORD REVIEW, Dale Vree levels a serious charge against Richard John Neuhaus, claiming that Father Neuhaus, in his book Death on a Friday Afternoon, promotes universalism — the theory that all men ultimately will be saved. According to Vree, Fr. Neuhaus quotes the Bible selectively and out of context, and Neuhaus concludes that the mission of the Church — the conversion of souls — is not necessary, insofar as all human beings, regardless of their behavior or beliefs, will be saved in the end. The consequence of universalism, says Vree, is moral relativism. If there is no mortal sin, or mortal sin has no eternal consequences, then the Church, in prohibiting homosexual behavior, abortion, euthanasia, etc., is cruel and sadistic, and “a cunning power structure based on a Big Lie whose real purpose is to repress and oppress people” (NOR, p. 35).

This is quite a load to heap upon a man well known for being an orthodox Catholic, so I felt prompted to read Neuhaus’s book. But the more I read, the more astonished I was at just how much Fr. Neuhaus’s book has been misrepresented by Vree. Although Vree accuses Neuhaus of quoting scripture selectively and out of context this is the very approach he himself takes with Death on a Friday Afternoon, in an apparent effort to glean evidence for his case against Neuhaus. Sometimes statements are taken out of context sometimes Vree misses the point entirely. In fact, Vree’s misinterpretation of Neuhaus’s book is so glaring that it is difficult to decide where to begin a critique, for nearly every one of his assertions is proven false by a careful reading. In the interest of space, then, let me focus on Vree’s interpretation of Chapter Five of Death on a Friday Afternoon, which concerns the missionary activity of the Church in response to Christ’s thirsting for souls, for Vree assures us that this is “surely the key to understanding why, after much beating around the bush, Neuhaus the man embraces universalism” (NOR, p. 30).

Vree locates the source of Neuhaus’s alleged universalism in an autobiographical story in Chapter Five, where the author recalls being traumatized as a seven-year-old Protestant boy over a preacher’s assertion that 37,000 souls went to hell every minute without a “saving knowledge” of Jesus. Vree suggests that Neuhaus, in order to alleviate his guilt over not doing enough to save them, subscribed instead to universalism — the idea that everyone will go to heaven in the end. Regarding Neuhaus’s abandonment of his boyhood dream of missionary work, Vree says:

Dreams of giving one’s life in spreading the Gospel, Neuhaus continues, are “dreams for little boys and girls…. They are among the ‘childish things’ we put away when we grow up.” Tactlessly, Neuhaus says this right after a brief discussion of St. Isaac Jogues and the other North American Martyrs who gave their lives bringing the Gospel to the Indians in the 17th century. (p. 31)

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