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‘He proclaimed the Truth’ – friends and colleagues pay tribute to Fr Richard Neuhaus

First Things Editor Fr Richard John Neuhaus during a pre-tape of "Meet the Press" (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images for Meet the Press)

Friends, colleagues and intellectuals influenced by the late author, editor and public figure Fr Richard John Neuhaus gathered Wednesday to discuss his contribution to American Christianity and public society.

Fr Richard John Neuhaus “was a master of words mastered by The Word,” said Matthew Schmitz, senior editor and author at the journal First Things. For Neuhaus, “the art of conversation was a civic responsibility”, Schmitz explained. “Real conversation is marked by discipline and continuity.”

Schmitz also noted that, nearly ten years after his death, Fr Neuhaus still has much to add to today’s public discourse: namely, an example how to have constructive dialogue in the midst of disagreement. “I think Neuhaus had a singular genius,” said Schmitz of Neuhaus’ ability to nurture conversation.

Schmitz spoke at the March 7 symposium, “Catholic Witness in the Public Square: Celebrating the Life and Letters of Father Richard John Neuhaus,” held at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. The event corresponded with the donation and cataloguing of Fr Neuhaus’ papers to the university’s American Catholic History Research Center. The donated papers include personal correspondence, photographs, articles, personal artefacts and writings by the priest and author.

Neuhaus wrote and spoke as an advocate for Christianity in the public square over the course of four decades, helping to reshape the conversation on Christianity and public life in America over the course of his lifetime. A convert from Evangelical Lutheranism to Catholicism, Neuhaus was a prolific author and editor, the founder of the ecumenical religious journal, First Things, and co-convener of “Catholics and Evangelicals Together.” In addition to these efforts, Neuhaus was an advocate for the unborn and the pro-life movement, the Civil Rights movement and interfaith dialogue.  

Rusty Reno, editor of First Things said that while Neuhaus may not have been a leading systematic theologian, such as the late Lutheran theologian, Robert Jensen, Fr. Neuhaus was nevertheless a powerful public voice for Christianity. Like other Christian ministers and authors, such as Baptist minister Walter Rauschenbusch, Neuhaus “was an exemplary participant in a particularly American tradition,” of applying Christian thought to the cultural and political issues of his day.

Most importantly, Neuhaus spoke truths in a way that many academics or defenders of American democracy avoid. “When you’ve been to a seminary, you’re trained to proclaim Christ crucified and risen,” Reno said. While many public thinkers try to avoid proclaiming error, Neuhaus’ training led him to proclaim the truth, directly and succinctly, within the public square. “It’s useful to be trained to not say things that are wrong, but it’s different than being trained to say what is true.”

While Neuhaus was trained to speak truth in the seminary, his intellectual formation was self-directed. Thus, said First Things author Robert Wilken, Neuhaus did not treat academic positions as seriously as he did the ideas that people expressed. “He had no deference to academic standing. He respected it, when it was good,” Wilken said. “It gave him a tremendous freedom that most academics don’t have.” This freedom enabled the pastor turned priest to see links that others did not, such as the similarities between the Civil Rights movement and the then-nascent Pro-Life movement. “He had the gift of prescience,” Wilken commented.

This presence and public prominence helped to boost the visibility of the Church in America and, at the same time, the American Church across the world. Biographer of St Pope John Paul II George Weigel noted that Pope Benedict was familiar with Neuhaus’ work, and appreciated “what Richard meant in the American context.”  

“He saw in Richard someone who could practice the apologetics of persuasion in a very serious way,” Weigel offered.

One of his most important contributions to American Christianity was Neuhaus’ work on philosophical liberalism and the “American Experiment”, Weigel noted. “I think Richard was quite aware of the distinction between liberal institutions and liberal culture,” said Weigel. “He was quite aware that if by liberal culture you meant expressive individualism… that [it] would kill liberal institutions.” Thus, Fr Neuhaus was deeply invested in the role of Christianity and religious expression more broadly within society, warning against “state-endorsed, and state-enforced secularism,” when its absence became the norm, Weigel elaborated. He also warned against “decadence,” pushing back not only against consumerism and libertinism but also declining intellectual engagement with morality and religion.

Matthew Rose, former First Things Junior Fellow and the director Georgetown University’s Berkeley Institute also reflected on Neuhaus’s commitment to classic liberal thought, a “relativized but not relativistic,” form of engagement. Fr Neuhaus thought liberal “tolerance is intelligible only with some presumed and shared understanding of a transcendent truth,” Rose expounded. This led Fr Neuhaus assert his unwavering belief that “God is not indifferent toward the American experiment,” and furthermore, that people of good faith “who are called to think about God and his ways through time dare not be indifferent to the American experience.”

As the past decade has brought numerous changes – and challenges – to Neuhaus’ vision of religion within American public life. “Thirty years ago we had a sense that this was still a religious country,” noted legal scholar and First Things author Hadley Arkes. “Right now that task of restoring a religious [societal understanding] to this country will take steady work.” Now, perhaps more than ever, there is still a role within American public life for the “calm confidence” and intellectual engagement and moral witness Neuhaus exemplified.