By Fr. George Welzbacher
January 18, 2009
On Thursday, January the eighth, at about half past nine in the morning (Eastern Standard Time), at the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, a life that had made a notable contribution to the Church in America came to an end.
I am speaking, of course, of Father Richard John Neuhaus, who was many things to many people: founder and for many years the editor of the intellectual journal First Things; author of many books and articles; a distinguished pastor and theologian in the Lutheran communion who in 1990, on September the eighth, the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, made his profession of faith in the Catholic Church and was ordained a year later into the Roman Catholic priesthood by John Cardinal O'Connor; thereafter a commentator for EWTN on events of importance for both the Church and the world (such as the death of Pope John Paul the Great and the election of Pope Benedict as his successor, followed this past April by Pope Benedict's visit to the United States); a much sought-after speaker on the academic lecture circuit, and on matters bearing on religion and morality an adviser to successive presidents, including President George W. Bush, who described "Father Richard" as "a dear friend". Perhaps most conspicuously, Father Neuhaus was the driving force in organizing a nation-wide collaboration of Catholics and Evangelicals in opposition to abortion, embryonic stem cell research, cloning, euthanasia and same-sex "marriage". Erudite, courteous, and displaying an elegant wit, he was a persuasive critic of the Church's critics. Dead from cancer at the age of 72, Father Neuhaus will be greatly missed. Requiescat.
May I share with you one of the many obituary notices that appeared over the last few days in leading newspapers and magazines. Perhaps the most moving of them all was the tribute paid by Stephen Miller in the Wall Street Journal for January the tenth. I reprint it here.
* * * * *Richard John Neuhaus, Intellectual Yoked Catholics and Evangelicals
By: Stephen Miller
From: The Wall Street Journal, January 10, 2009
The Reverend Richard John Neuhaus, a Catholic priest, author and editor of the journal First Things, experienced at least three conversions in his life-from Canadian to U. S. citizen, from Lutheran to Catholic, and from liberal to conservative-as if he were simply too intellectually questing to stay still.
Father Neuhaus, who died Thursday [January 8] at age 72, was a crusader for everything from school vouchers to limiting judicial activism. "The Public Square," his monthly column in First Things, was laced with sarcasm, idealism and the sheer joy of intellectual engagement, and he helped pioneer the religious right through a distinctly Catholic strain of neoconservatism.
Most salient was his 1984 book The Naked Public Square, in which he argued that religious values have a crucial place in American politics. Although critical of the Moral Majority and other conservative Christian groups, the book also welcomed them to the national dialogue and became a touchstone among conservative intellectuals. Columnist George Will blurbed it at the time, "The book from which further debate about church-state relations should begin."
In Father Neuhaus's writings the free market was wed to Christian values, and the Catholic broke bread with the Evangelical Protestant. Each association represented an amelioration of historic tensions. His 1994 book "Evangelicals and Catholics Together, " co- authored with born-again former Watergate figure Charles Colson, has been credited with helping to forge an ecumenical alliance that translated into votes for Republicans.
"What Richard John Neuhaus helped a lot of us to understand is that whatever differences Catholics and Evangelicals had, they paled into insignificance compared to the pervasive darkness that was enveloping the broader culture," said Ralph Reed, former director of the Christian Coalition.
"This infrastructure of ecumenical conversation that he helped to create will last," said Deal Hudson, director of Inside Catholic.com, formerly Crisis magazine. He added, "His legacy will equal or surpass [that oi] any bishop of the late 20th century "
Father Neuhaus wrote just a month after the September 2001 terrorist attacks that the West "is now being compelled to recognize itself for what most Muslims perceive it to be-the Christian West, or CHRISTENDOM. " [Emphasis added]. He was a close if informal adviser to President George W. Bush, who referred to him, as did many, simply as Father Richard.
Even though he was not himself Evangelical, Time magazine named Father Neuhaus one of America's most influential Evangelicals in 2005 and noted that the President cited him more than any other living authority when interviewed by religious publications. A senior administration official told Time that Father Neuhaus's views had been influential on abortion, stem-cell research, cloning and the defense-of-marriage amendment.
By the turn of the millennium, Father Neuhaus had traveled a long distance from the gritty young ghetto pastor who made headlines in the 1960s, leading demonstrations against the Vietnam War and getting arrested as a [Eugene] McCarthy delegate at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago.
"Friends teased him that Martin Luther nailed a mere 95 theses in one manifesto on a church door in Wittenberg, whereas Father Richard seemed to draft whole manifestos every three or four years" said Michael Novak, a fellow at the American. Enterprise Institute and a council member at Father Neuhaus's Institute on Religion and Public Life, in a remembrance published Friday in the National Catholic Reporter.
The sixth son of a strict Canadian Lutheran preacher who visited parishioners on horseback and bicycle, Father Neuhaus grew up in rural Pembroke, Ontario. Ordained a Lutheran pastor himself in 1960, he volunteered to take over a dwindling parish in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. "We sometimes called the parish St. John the Mundane in order to distinguish it from St. John the Divine, the Episcopal cathedral up on Momingside Heights," he wrote in 2000.
He revitalized the parish and turned to the pressing issues of the day, including civil rights and war. Along with activists Father Daniel Berrigan and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel he co- founded Clergy Concerned about Vietnam ....
Yet there were things about the young reverend that didn't sit well with his allies on the left. He insisted that his draft-card-buming parishioners sing "America the Beautiful" during a 1967 protest, displayed the flag prominently and was vocal in condemning abortion. Although he supported presidential candidate George McGovern (and the Evangelical Jimmy Carter), he began turning away from the left. In 1971, he published "In Defense of People: Ecology and the Seduction of Radicalism," which argued that environmental activitists had put nature before humanity. He was particularly appalled by the 1973 Roe v. Wade that extended the right to abortion.
By 1980, Father Neuhaus had switched parties and backed Ronald Reagan for president. If the term political liberal was no longer a comfortable fit, he told Crisis magazine in 1988, "that's the culture, not me."
"For Barry Goldwater, small government is the individual vs. the government," says Robert P. George, a Princeton professor [of political science] and council member of Neuhaus's Institute on Religion and Public Life. "For Neuhaus it's a different story. Small government is to protect the church and the family. His fear of big government is that it will violate the autonomy of institutions of civil society."
Father Neuhaus's conversion to Catholicism was perhaps prefigured by his publication of "The Catholic Moment" in 1987. Lutheranism, he had contended since his seminary days, had historically been a reform movement of Catholicism, and he was simply rejoining the mother ship.
He was an ardent supporter of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI and a subtle critic of [much that was being done in the name of] the Second Vatican Council, which he contended had been "gravely distorted" so that "much of what is called Roman Catholic Christianity is in fact apostate." He formulated Neuhaus's Law: "Whenever orthodoxy becomes optional, it will sooner or later be proscribed."
Yet such proclamations belied the ecumenical quality of the intellectuals he gathered, both in print in First Things and in person at monthly colloquies he sponsored at New York's Union League Club. "He believed everybody's voice should be heard in politics. He was probably the greatest humanist of our age," said Robert P. George....
Mr. Novak has written that Father Neuhaus "bore with grace the charge of having become 'neo-conservative,' when the term was intended as an insult, and even turned that charge into a positive advantage, carving out a new blend of Christian orthodoxy and political realism."
Mr. Reed recalls attending multiple meetings in the mid-1990s at the Union League Club, where Catholics and Evangelicals met under Father Neuhaus's aegis.
"That was an epochal moment in the history of Protestant and Catholic relations," said Mr. Reed. "He had the ideas and the thinking, but he didn't have the troops. And those of us in the grassroots organizations did. So it was a very happy marriage to a sublime intellect. I loved the guy."
For the February, 2000 issue of First Things Father Neuhaus wrote a long article on the secularist's effort to evade the inescapable, to wit, the fact that we are, all of us, mortal. May I share with you an excerpt from that article.
* * * * *"We are born to die. Not that death is the purpose of our being born, but we are born toward death, and in each of our lives the work of dying is already underway. The work of dying well is, in largest part, the work of living well. Most of us are at ease in discussing what makes for a good life, but we typically become tongue-tied and nervous when the discussion turns to a good death. As children of a culture radically, even religiously, devoted to youth and health, many find it incomprehensible, indeed offensive, that the word 'good' should in any way be associated with death. Death, it is thought, is an unmitigated evil, the very antithesis of all that is good. Death is to be warded off by exercise, by healthy habits, by medical advances. What cannot be halted can be delayed, and what cannot forever be delayed can be denied. But all our progress and all our protest notwithstanding, the mortality rate holds steady at 100 percent.
* * * * *Meanwhile this past week a brutal war raged on in Gaza. The following report, appearing in The New York Times for January 9th, conveys both the horror of what is currently going on in Gaza and the ruthless fanaticism that is its ultimate sustaining cause.
* * * * *In a Hospital. Pain, Despair and Defiance
By Taghreed El-Khodary
From: The New York Times of Friday, January 9, 2009
The emergency room in Shifa Hospital is often a place of gore and despair. On Thursday, it was also a lesson in the way ordinary people are squeezed between suicidal fighters and a military behemoth.
Dr. Awni al-Jar, 37, a surgeon at the hospital, rushed in from his home here, dressed in his scrubs. But he came not to work. His head was bleeding, and his daughter's jaw was broken.
He said Hamas militants next to his apartment building had fired mortar and rocket rounds. Israel fired back with force, and his apartment was hit. His wife, Albina, originally from Ukraine, and his 1-year-old son were killed.
"My son has been torn into pieces," he cried. "My wife was cut in half. l had to leave her body at home." Because Albina was a foreigner, she could have left Gaza with her children. But, Dr. Jar lamented, she would not leave him behind.
A car arrived with more patients. One was a 21-year-old man with shrapnel in his left leg who demanded quick treatment. He turned out to be a militant with Islamic Jihad He was smiling a big smile.
"Hurry, I must get back so I can keep fighting," he told the doctors.
He was told that there were more serious cases than his, that he needed to wait. But he insisted "We are fighting the Israelis," he said. "When we fire we run, but they hit back so fast. We run into the 'houses to get away.' He continued smiling.
"Why are you so happy?" this reporter asked. "Look around you."
A girl who looked about 18 screamed as a surgeon removed shrapnel from her leg. An elderly man was soaked in blood. A baby a few weeks old and slightly wounded looked around helplessly, a man lay with parts of his brain coming out. His family wailed at his side.
"Don't you see that these people are hurting?" the militant was asked.
HIS SMILE WAS INCANDESCENT. "THEY LOST THEIR LOVED ONES AS MARTYRS. THEY SHOULD BE HAPPY. I WANT TO BE A MARTYR, TOO!"