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In Memoriam: Our Friend, Richard John Neuhaus


Yesterday, Father Richard John Neuhaus, a great American and Catholic, passed into the eternal hands of the Father he served so long and so well. He was not only a singular man and thinker, but a personal friend of almost all the writers for The Catholic Thing, most of whom also often write for First Things, the splendid journal he founded and edited for many years. The good padre was also a friend to our efforts on this site, which he immediately welcomed with generosity when we set out in mid-2008. Many extended obituaries and analyses of his work will appear in the coming week. But today, instead of our usual morning column, we thought it only fitting for several of us to set down some brief personal reminiscences, and to give you one long reflection by Hadley Arkes at the end of the queue, on a man who was even greater than his work.

A More Excellent Way
, Robert Royal

Someone once said to me of a forceful person we both knew that he came on strong and stayed strong. That about sums up the Fr. Neuhaus I first got to know in the early 1980s when he was still a Lutheran pastor and serving on the board of a think tank where I worked for almost twenty years. That perfectly pitched and paced baritone, and the even authoritative manner, might put you off – at first – because you’d never heard or seen anything like it. But once he worked the magic on you, you never got tired hearing him exhort an audience to fulfill our secular duty “to deliberate how we should order our lives together” or his various ways of building an argument towards St. Paul’s, “But I shall show you a still more excellent way.” Many people have been called born preachers. Richard John Neuhaus redefined the category.

His books on death and Good Friday show a side of him that those who only knew him as a courageous public voice might not have suspected. When he decided to become a Catholic, I sent him a letter commending his public calm and dignity in difficult circumstances, and his touching respect towards his longstanding Lutheran friends, some of whom were – to say the least – upset. He wrote back to say thanks, but also that, although he knew it was the right thing, he had never felt more that he was taking a step into the unknown. Still, at his ordination as a Catholic priest, I remember Cardinal O’Connor humorously reminded him several times that he (Fr. Neuhaus) was becoming a priest, but he (Cardinal O’Connor) would remain in charge as Cardinal Archbishop of New York. When he was settled as a Catholic, I once or twice kidded Fr. Neuhaus that people were saying he was the most important convert since John Henry Newman. Of course, Chesterton and many others who have appeared since the great English Cardinal make any such claim a tough call, but we’d both chuckle about it, and I was never quite sure I was entirely joking.

He did have a few limitations. As a Canadian, he had only a weak hold on the fact that there is a National and an American League in baseball, and that grave moral questions hang on the distinction. His political judgments were so clear as to be almost clairvoyant, with one notable exception. We were staying in the same hotel in Havana during the pope’s visit in 1998 when the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke and he confidently instructed several of us to note the date of Clinton’s demise in our journals – but who in those days truly knew the dark arts of the Comeback Kid? Other than that, he pretty much saw where things were going, but all evidence to the contrary, he could never give up on his firm belief that in publishing magazines, organizing seminars, and entering into debates we were actually doing for our time what the medieval universities did in theirs.

I was saying Morning Prayer after the news of Richard John Neuhaus’ death and came upon this Latin line from Jeremiah in the canticle, which describes what will happen when the Israelites finally return from captivity: Et inebriabo animam sacerdotum piguedine, “And I will feast the souls of the priests with abundance.” We may have a reasoned hope, as he used to say, that Fr. Richard John Neuhaus is indeed now enjoying that feast.

Random Memories of Richard, Ralph McInerny

When Father Neuhaus was preparing for ordination he was tutored by Avery Dulles. Surely these were two of the most formidable Catholic converts of recent times. I first met them in Hartford at a conference meant to show that political differences did not affect the common faith of Christians. A statement was issued. Richard liked statements. At the meeting there was a hybrid liturgy on a Saturday. I asked a theologian if he thought it fulfilled one’s Sunday obligation. A waffling response. I asked Avery Dulles. He thought a bit, then said, “I’d go to Mass if I were you.”

At the Second Extraordinary Synod of 1985, Richard and I were there as journalists. The Sala di prensa provided lush inspiration for future fiction. Once, standing in the Via della Conciliazione, Richard said, apropos of I don’t remember what, “Of course the pope is the head of the Church.” He was still a Lutheran then – Richard, not the pope – and I thought his conversion was inevitable.

It took me a while to appreciate the capaciousness of his mind. Once in Claremont, he gave a talk on Richard Rorty that was one of the best analyses I ever heard. And who can forget his chairing of those seminars at the Union League Club with the portrait of U.S. Grant on the wall behind? He made one believe that “dialogue” could signify a worthwhile activity. I was privileged to be at his ordination and his first Mass. I gave him as a gift St. Thomas’s commentaries on all the epistles of Paul. Only afterward did I wonder if he read Latin. No matter. Now he has gone to the source. Requiescat in pace.

Lunches with Richard, Brad Miner

I first met Fr. Neuhaus in 1989 shortly after I became literary editor at National Review, where he was religion editor. Over lunch we talked about a lot of things, and he was especially interested in the story of my conversion to Catholicism. He was still Pastor Neuhaus then, a Lutheran, although it wasn’t long after that when he made his transit to Rome. We also talked about his break with the Rockford Institute and about the difficulty of charting a Christian course through choppy political seas.

Jump ahead to 2006 when we broke bread another time, in this case so I could interview him for a book I was writing —specifically about the torpedoes fired at him by those who claimed his position about the political context of the abortion question made him a revolutionary theocrat. What struck me about him then — as it had nearly twenty years earlier (and was the refutation of the hot-headed charges against him and First Things) — was his temperance. This man about whom intemperate words were written was still steering true.

Now he has sailed into port.

A Brother Dies, Michael Novak

It has been a very long time (if ever) since any American Catholic priest had as much influence in the Vatican, in the highest reaches of American life, on the intellectual culture of Christianity here and abroad, on Christian-Jewish conversations of the deepest and warmest sort, on the relations of Evangelicals and Catholics in this land, and on the intellectual life of his beloved New York City, as Father Richard John Neuhaus.

Friends teased him that Martin Luther nailed a mere ninety-five theses in one manifesto on a church door in Wittenburg, whereas Father Richard helped draft not quite as many whole manifestos for different social necessities – on the non-negotiables of Christian Faith, on what was morally wrong with the conduct of the war in Vietnam, on ecumenical study and conversation, on Evangelical-Catholic cooperation, on abortion and other pro-life issues, and so forth.

Brought up as the son of a Lutheran pastor, the younger Neuhaus was nourished from his seminary days by the community of those Lutherans who hold that the aim of Luther was to bring the Catholic Church back to fidelity to its origins, and to contribute themselves to a much-desired reunion of the two separated communities. Painfully, the younger Pastor Neuhaus came to judge that nowadays the Catholic Church was ever more serious about such self-reform, just as a wide body of Lutherans was drifting toward not concretely wanting such unity, in any case not soon. He felt obliged to follow his vocation to join the Catholic Church, not as a conversion, but as a public declaration of what he had always believed. He did so despite a certain cultural resistance from others, even in his new communion.

Father Neuhaus was the most consequential American Christian since Reinhold Niebuhr. He was the most consequential American Catholic since John Courtney Murray, S.J., and Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen. He was a worthy successor in a long chain of great witnesses.

“Everything is Ready Now”, Austin Ruse

Some years ago I got into the habit of sometimes taking one of Father Neuhaus’s books with me when I would travel to Europe. I have countless times sat in some Roman, Parisian, or Viennese cafe reading or re-reading Neuhaus and simply marveling at his mind and his ability to express himself. I have been moved many times to drop by a nearby church to light a candle for him, and to pray God to grant him a long life. Every time I did, I would send him a postcard to let him know. Though he obviously wrote fast, I would ask him to write faster because I wanted more.

I loved this man. He changed my life, though I only met him a handful of times and spoke to him over the phone a few times more. He knew my work. He mentioned it a few times in First Things and from time to time he would send a check to support my work. I must admit I liked it the most when he was giving it to the Catholic Left, always with good humor, always winsomely (did he teach us that word?). During the Long Lent, which he named so well, he served the Church profoundly, in his unique way, by distilling the issue beautifully. He growled in that warm fire of a voice, “Fidelity, fidelity, fidelity” and let everyone know that the homosexual abuse problem sprang from the culture of disobedience that had grown up in recent decades and there was only one way out of it, which was faithfulness to the teachings of the Church.

Perhaps his most important work, though, was bringing Catholics and Evangelicals together, a long-time project he shared with his friend Charles Colson. The fight for the unborn and the family has brought Catholics and Evangelicals together, and while God wants abortion to end and He wants marriage restored, more than anything He wants His children as one and with Him in Heaven. At no time since the Reformation have Catholics and Protestants been closer than we are now, and this is due in no small measure to Father Neuhaus.

I sat in a Roman park last summer reading his book about dying. I had never read it. I was struck by the scene in his hospital room where he was visited by two “presences” who said to him only this: “Everything is ready now.” Neuhaus said he understood this as an invitation to come with them and by saying yes he would have died. He chose to stay. It so happened that I had just read the passage in St. Luke’s Gospel about a certain man who hosted a great supper and told his servant to invite everyone and tell them “everything is ready now.” One assumes that those who turned down the invitation were in trouble. So, I was stunned when I read these two passages together. Had Neuhaus turned down the invitation? I emailed Neuhaus and asked if this worried him. He said he had not thought about it. But I suspect that he had and I wish I knew what he thought. Neuhaus thought about everything and beautifully.

Yesterday morning the Heavenly “presences” returned and this time Father Neuhaus said “yes, take me to the supper” and he will be sorely missed by all of us who have loved him.

Faithful and Extraodrinary, Mary Eberstadt

Unlike fellow writers for The Catholic Thing, I never knew Fr. Neuhaus personally. We shook hands once, quickly, at a noisy cocktail party a few years back. Nothing more than a smile and nod and an e-mail or two ever passed between us. It didn’t matter. We were friends nonetheless, and whether he knew it or not, just as he was to so many thousands of others: by virtue of his faithful and extraordinary literary company.

About the Maker he served with such gifts, Fr. Neuhaus presumably knows more now than any of us do. About his personal mark in the world, the eulogies to come will tell us more. But about his public legacy – all those writings that have comforted, cheered, and emboldened the rest of us – this single unknown friend knows one thing. His Catholic mark will outlast all the personal memories. It will outlast all of us reading these notes. A hundred years from now, Fr. Neuhaus will still be making and teaching friends among people who never knew him, or needed to. His true and brilliant prose will be all they need, just as it’s been more than enough for the rest of us, too.

A Tug on a Line, William Saunders

In the first issue of First Things, in the very first of Father Neuhaus’s “Public Square” columns was a reference to the Eucharist that, like Father Brown’s hook on the invisible line, caught in my religious imagination and stayed there until, several years later, I came into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church. My ultimate decision was due in no small part to Neuhaus’s own conversion and the reasons for it he sent in a brief note to all who asked. One of the great privileges of my life was to get to know Father Neuhaus and to collaborate with him on several projects. One of his greatest projects was “Evangelicals and Catholics Together,” which he started with Chuck Colson. This is, in my judgment, the most important development in American politics in the past fifty years, and as a Catholic working at the evangelical Family Research Council, I have been proud to participate in it. American political life, American religious life, and American intellectual life are immeasurably diminished by his passing.

Eloquentia Perfecta, James Schall, S.J.

Jesuits in the old days were said to educate for a goal known as eloquentia perfecta. Fr. Neuhaus, untouched by anything Jesuit, possessed this perfect eloquence. He knew, moreover, that eloquence was useless if not based on truth. What always struck me about Fr. Neuhaus was his voice, his words. He could move souls. He could explain things even to intellectuals. Not only could he explain in his speech, he did so in almost every conceivable forum, print, radio, television. His voice was always the one that said what needed to be said, what was true to say, yet with a wit that made it seem – what? Well, obvious.

In the Shadow of Great Men, Michael Uhlmann

One would be hard-pressed to name anyone during the past thirty years who had a deeper or more lasting influence on our nation’s cultural life than Richard John Neuhaus. His only real competitor in that sense was Bill Buckley, who worked somewhat different, if allied, precincts of a more overtly political sort. They are both gone now, and the void they left behind reminds us that we are but Lilliputians laboring in the shadows cast by great men.

Richard’s mind was learned, deep, and subtle, an organ of multiple registers that could alternately inform and entertain an audience, rally the faithful to a cause, or, as occasion might require, gain the attention of the heavenly host. He was a superb preacher (even when he wasn’t formally preaching) and a writer of surpassing power and eloquence. How many millions of words he poured out, I do not know; but essays he wrote twenty-five or thirty years ago seem as fresh today as when first beheld. He not only left his mark; he will continue to do so, on our hearts no less powerfully than on our minds.

The suddenness of his passing compounds our sense of loss. It was only yesterday, was it not, that he sat right there, at the end of the table, orchestrating the talk, brandies, and the cigars, as only he could over the course of a long evening. To think that we shall not be graced by that warm and vigorous presence again reminds us of how weary and stale the world would have been without him – and of how lonely we shall be.

It is altogether fitting that his death should have come so soon after that of his great, good friend Avery Cardinal Dulles. One suspects that more wisdom was shared in their random private conversations than most of us would likely encounter, working full time, over the course of three or four lifetimes. In the midst of our present sadness, we can take great joy in the knowledge that the two are together again, taking up where they left off and – let us pray – shining a light so that we who are left behind can find our way.

Memories through the Sadness, Hadley Arkes

Only one week into the New Year, Fr. Richard Neuhaus has succumbed to the cancer that struck him hard as we neared Christmas. For his friends this is the kind of loss that tilts the world on its axis; for so many things marking the world around just cannot be the same. How could it be that we’ll never have those evenings again in the townhouse in New York with the wine and cigars, and Richard presiding with gravitas and brotherly affection? It has become a cliché, but in this case it hits with a sad, jolting force: His loss just creates a void in the world; how could anyone fill it?

Somewhere in the 1990s, after one of our legendary Ramsay Colloquia, when we were having drinks before dinner, David Novak waxed nostalgic about the years we had all been together. He remarked to Richard that he could take a satisfaction in this “family” he had woven together. The center of it all was the Institute for Religion and Public Life, the institution that sprang from the genius and love of Richard Neuhaus. The remarkable thing was indeed that “family” woven together, drawn from the various religious strands: Catholics, Protestants, Mormons, Jews, with so many variants, and yet all standing against the currents of relativism; all persuaded that there were truths of revelation and reason to declare, and in that sense, standing together against the currents of our own age.

We’ve heard of that formula before, cast as an aspiration. But Richard actually made it work: He brought together, in some cases, people who would not ordinarily agree to be in the same room with one another. He would bring together the late Christopher Lasch or Stanley Hauerwas with Jean Elshtain, George Weigel, Michael Novak, Robert Wilken, Robert Jenson, Robert George. He would bring in the lawyers on opposite sides of the argument over religious “establishment” and the question of driving religion from the public square. He would bring in Henry Kissinger. For he moved in heady circles in New York; he was respected in circles literary and religious, and people would come when he invited them. And what they found, when they came, was a conversation that was penetrating, serious, theologically informed, philosophically demanding – but civil through and through. No venom, no unbridled attacks. There was a tendering of respect that counseled restraint and kindness even as it enjoined us not to hold back from asking the question that pierced to the core of someone’s argument – or his claim to standing in the world of letters.

In my own case, the invitation to join the discussion came in the fall of 1987. Thomas Derr, at Smith College, gave Richard a copy of the book that became my own signature tune, First Things. That title would become the source of ribbing that would go on, even as late as a few weeks ago, because Richard borrowed the title and the font for a new journal that we would all make our own. But of course, in taking the name for the journal, he gave that title “First Things” an enduring resonance in our public life that my own book would not have produced.

At the twentieth anniversary of Richard’s own signature work, I imagined us, thirty years hence, settled in homes for the aged, and celebrating that important journal, The Naked Public Square. We thanked Richard for his large nature in letting us make use of that title for a new journal. I came into a group that included Ralph McInerny, Marvin Fox, David Novak, Fr. Ernest Fortin. (I recall us going around the table, with people introducing themselves: Ralph introduced himself as “a peeping Thomist from Notre Dame,” and Ernie remarked, “I was a Thomist – when I was a teenager.”) In any case the chemistry was magnificently right, and I was invited back again, and again, until it became clear, as David Novak recognized one day, we really had been woven together as something close to a family.

If we had to condense the account of the experience, it would run roughly in this way: No one would get away with arguments that were just not good enough, just not up to the standard. But the corrections would come in a jesting, loving way from friends who knew you shared the sense that you could do better. At the same time, nothing was ever lost or forgotten. I recall Bob Jenson (“Jens”), in the midst of a discussion, suddenly pointing out that people were backing into an argument I had sought to press on the group three years earlier. That was a measure of how closely people listened, and how arguments, seriously framed, could linger as we kept weighing them. I had never seen anything like this seminar, even in my days at the University of Chicago, and I’ve seen nothing like it since.

With the demise of the journal This World, Richard launched First Things, and we all signed on. We worried initially as to whether we could actually generate enough material to sustain a serious – and I mean serious – journal touching theology, law, and political philosophy. The results speak for themselves. Richard’s own writing and editing attracted other writing trying to meet that standard. We discovered that there were even more talents, more possibilities out there than we had imagined. In other words, Richard built it, and they came.

I think the word came to us from Ralph McInerny, the first word, discreetly conveyed, that Richard was on the path of leaving the Lutheran Church and moving to Rome. That could not be a complete surprise. Not at least for anyone who had kept up with his writing and his involvement in the project of bringing Protestants and Catholics together. So much of this was figured in his book, The Catholic Moment – the dynamism had clearly shifted to the Church under the leadership of John Paul II. The main axes, the main questions were defined still, defined ever, by Rome. Richard was off to Rome on different embassies, and so the step, when it finally came, was a short step.

But before there had been any announcement, and while the benign gossip had been making its way within “the family,” I phoned: “Richard, I just wanted to tell you that I’ve heard the news, or I’ve heard versions of it, and I want to be among the first to congratulate you. For the word is that you are about to join the Lubovachers.” He said, “Hadley, I’ll never forget this conversation.” About a year or so later, we were gathered at the seminary at Dunwoodie for his ordination, and Cardinal O’Connor, with his characteristic humor, said, “Richard, you don’t deserve this ….any more than I deserve the honor of being here, ministering to you.” Richard was just lit up that afternoon, with a freshness and sparkle rare even for him, as we all gathered in the garden after the ceremony. I noted again “the family” gathered around – George Weigel, Bob Royal, David Novak, Midge Decter, Norman Podhoretz.

And I couldn’t help wondering what Cardinal O’Connor would make of it all: Who was this man, with so wide a reach, bringing in with him this contingent so varied that it included Jews? He would offer his prayers to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; it was the Catholicism of John Paul II, which incorporated the Jewish tradition. Were the Jews on the way to Rome? Or was it that Rome had brought the Jewish ethic to the rest of the world? As one friend put it, When you’re Catholic, you are at least Jewish. And that sense of things, nurtured by Richard, has marked the cast in which I too would find myself moving.

With the journal First Things, the testimony came in from every quarter: people read the back of the magazine first. They began with Richard’s “Public Square,” and “While We’re At It.” Just a few years ago he was doing an extended essay on his readings over the summer, including a biography of Benjamin Franklin and books on the American Founding. The breadth of his interests rivaled the reach of people who made the study of the Founding their main specialty. But with this difference: his touch was subtle and deft, his judgments quite sound; and his grasp of the issues, in their philosophic root, ran beyond the understanding of most people in the academy who had made this subject their professional work.

Here he was approaching seventy, and it seemed to me that he was getting stronger and stronger. He was not slowing down; he seemed to be on some remarkable roll. The rest of us could look on with a certain wonderment and joy. Even Justice Scalia, himself an engine of productivity, never wanting in wit, asked me, of Richard, “How does he do it?” How did he do so much so well every month, marking that journal ever more as his? So much so, that we’ll be faced with a serious question of what First Things could be like in his absence. My own thought is that we could still set aside a section of the journal, reprinting some of his many writings from the past, just to keep his voice and his stance present in the pages. But whatever is done, it would be done with the surety that, in sustaining Richard’s genius, the journal – and the project – must continue.

When Tom Derr made him a gift of my book, Richard twitted me in print for an argument I had made about the logic of “supererogatory acts,” acts beyond the call of duty. We could not define an act as “good” solely because people acted out of a heedless disregard of their own safety. The willingness of commanders in the Wehrmacht to die for Hitler was an expenditure of their lives for a wrongful end. I imagined then Pope John XXIII falling on a hand grenade to save people gathered around him, and the people happened to be Vito Genovese, Sam Giancana, and assorted Mafiosi. It would have been, I argued, an unjustified and wrongful sacrifice. Richard pronounced me theologically wrong. But he was so taken with the book that he wanted to see me making my arguments within this ongoing project he had been shaping.

And so I came, without realizing how deeply I would be woven in with the family he had formed. I still think I was right on that matter of John XXIII falling on the grenade. One edge of consolation is that I may see him again, as he expected, and to steal a line from him, he may have discovered in the meantime, that I had been right after all. But none of that would matter so much as the prospect of being with him again.