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The genius of Richard John Neuhaus

Fr Neuhaus on an episode of 'Meet the Press' in 2006 (Getty)

On the 10th anniversary of Fr Neuhaus's death, Matthew Schmitz remembers how he used conversation to draw people to God

Richard John Neuhaus, who died 10 years ago this week, was a master of words who was mastered by the Word. Whether he was speaking at anti-war rallies alongside Joan Baez, preaching to his congregation (Lutheran before his conversion, Catholic after), or holding forth at the table, he used his eloquence to point men toward God.

I will never forget walking into his apartment at age 22 and being asked, “So, Matthew, what is it you intend to do?”, as he cocked his head and held his cigar. Neuhaus drew you out. He wanted to know what you had to say. He wanted you to write it up. He promised to review your first book.

He did the same in the pages of First Things. Month after month, year after year, he found fascinating interlocutors, drew out their arguments and added his own (sometimes cutting) comments. The world must be peopled – and the same is true of good prose. It must be populated with personalities, events and drama. Neuhaus was always referring to his friend Avery Dulles or to “Amy, who lives next door”. Neuhaus’s copy brimmed with his friends and enemies, people who had something to say or needed a good talking-to. When I first sat down with Neuhaus at dinner, I experienced in person what I had relished in his prose for so many years: a real conversation.

Neuhaus’s love of conversation was not a simple social preference. It reflected his deep beliefs about the nature of civic life. He liked to quote John Courtney Murray’s claim that “Civilisation is formed by men locked together in argument.” For Murray, good conversation was a kind of civic responsibility, a way of sustaining common life. As he put it, “the specifying note of political association is its rational deliberative quality … its dependence on argument among men.” In the founding editorial of First Things, Neuhaus wrote that “the key word is conversation. … A real conversation, as distinct from intellectual chatter, is marked by discipline and continuity.”

Of course, conversations have a way of breaking down, giving way to monologue or side talk. Towards the end of that first dinner, the back-and-forth yielded to Neuhaus talking about … well, everything: politics, the necessity of adding The Brothers Karamazov to the biblical canon, but above all the love of God. By the end, he was preaching to us from the head of the table. He spoke of Christ’s sacrifice with something approaching holy tears. Neuhaus the conversationalist had given way to Neuhaus the preacher.

Drawing you out was a prelude to his holding forth. In his 1979 book Freedom for Ministry, Neuhaus defined preaching as “the communication of truth through sanctified ego and sanctified rhetoric”.

The best example of his sanctified rhetoric is “We Shall Not Weary, We Shall Not Rest”. Delivered in 2008 to the National Right to Life Committee, it is one of the great American speeches. “Against what St Paul calls the principalities and powers of the present time,” Neuhaus said, “we shall not weary, we shall not rest, until the culture of life is reflected in the rule of law and lived in the law of love”.

Neuhaus had such an authoritative manner of speaking and writing that some people came to think he was infallible. (He once said, “I have a way of saying, ‘Good morning’ that makes people think I am issuing a dogmatic definition.”) Inevitable disappointment turned a few admirers into bitter critics. His friends had a more realistic view. As Fr Raymond de Souza observed at Neuhaus’s funeral 10 years ago, “No one has shown up with signs saying santo subito.”

Toward the end of his life, Neuhaus confessed that he mishandled accusations against Marcial Maciel: “I went too far in trying to defend him. I can only plead that it was a good faith effort to put the best construction on a particular circumstance when many priests were victims of reckless, unsubstantiated, or false charges.”

Critics and admirers alike should be able to recognise Neuhaus’s singular genius. More than anyone else, in his life and in his writing he made real Murray’s vision of a civil pluralism, in which differing parties were “locked in argument”. That it took a genius to sustain this form of conversation is perhaps one reason why, with time, Murray’s influence has waned as that of other Catholic figures – notably Alasdair MacIntyre and various unwhiggish Thomists – has waxed. Neuhaus came of age at a time when liberal and Catholic ideas seemed especially compatible. In what he came to call “American Babylon”, they no longer do.

Neuhaus’s style was inimitable, his moment unrepeatable. But those who live in different times can still learn from him. He once wrote: “After the millions of words I have written, and the millions I may yet write, I will have hardly begun to tell my story of his love.” In his love of conversation, his readiness for the fray, his willingness to be egotistical and rhetorical if it might bring glory to God, Neuhaus has much to teach those who seek, as he did, to use words for the Word.

Matthew Schmitz is senior editor at First Things and a Robert Novak journalism fellow