Father Richard John Neuhaus died this morning at the age of 72, following a long battle with complications from cancer.
Neuhaus was the founder, editor, and publisher of First Things, the flagship journal for Catholic neo-conservatism, and the only right-of-center magazine to which I have ever regularly subscribed. Neuhaus, a former Lutheran pastor who converted to Rome and was ordained as a priest, was an extraordinary writer. It was the quality of his prose that drew me to him many years ago, when my friend Steve gave me a copy of the wonderful Death on a Friday Afternoon. Steve was — and is — a strong evangelical conservative with latent Catholic tendencies, and he hoped to bring me “over to the dark side” by playing on my fondness for first-rate writing. “Death on a Friday Afternoon” is a book I have returned to again and again in recent Lents, and though I am too progressive in my politics to have much taste for most atonement theories, Neuhaus’ case for the efficaciousness of Christ’s suffering on the cross is as good as any I’ve read. (And I’ve read a lot on atonement theory, having worked on the subject for a year or two in graduate school.)
Neuhaus was a vigorous defender of the idea that faith was vital to how we participated in the struggle for the common good, a point he made in his earlier and very influential The Naked Public Square. His greatest wrath was reserved for those who tried to excise religious motivations from political discussions. He ridiculed the idea that any serious believer (be he or she Christian or Muslim or Jewish or Hindu or what-have-you) could so compartmentalize his or her life so that politics and faith had no influence upon each other. Our faith, Neuhaus reminded his readers again and again, shapes our world view — and we participate in public life based upon that world view. Respect and tolerance had their place (and Neuhaus proved it by having friends across the ideological and theological spectrum, including, famously, the radical Methodist Stanley Hauerwas), but respect and tolerance did not preclude the obligation to bring one’s own most deeply held convictions into the political sphere. Father Neuhaus was an influence on many important conservative Catholic voices, and was, without question, the priest closest to the upper echelons of the Bush Administration. George W. Bush called him simply “Father Richard”.
Neuhaus, partnering with Chuck Colson of Watergate fame, was a linchpin of the movement known as Evangelicals and Catholics Together. A former Protestant, Neuhaus retained deep and abiding affection and respect for those churches not in communion with Rome. A keen culture warrior, Neuhaus was eager to overcome decades of distrust and hostility between conservative Catholics and right-wing Protestants. Some of his motive was political: American conservatism needed unity rather than division in the struggle against liberalism. Some of his motive was theological: like most serious Christians, the divisions in the body of Christ wounded and saddened him. ECT, as it is known, has been an important project, and has brought in moderates and progressives as well as traditionalists. In recent years, Neuhaus took an interest in Catholic-Mormon dialogue, and published several pieces in First Things sympathetic to the LDS movement. Continue reading