Yesterday morning, I asked my 16-month-old daughter to pick out one of her books and bring it to me. Instead of "That's Not My Bunny . . ." or some similar book, she picked up my latest copy of First Things and went through it page by page. It made me laugh but also made me immediately wonder how the journal's founder Richard John Neuhaus was doing. I knew he'd been in poor health and had received last rites. When I heard shortly thereafter that Neuhaus had, in fact, died, my heart sank. What a giant. Or, as religion reporter Gary Stern of the Journal News put it:
Let's be honest: Most people never heard of Neuhaus. He wasn't really a public figure, in the modern celebrity sense.
But among those who care about Catholic thought, the larger realm of Christian thought, the political school of thinking that's become known as neo-conservativism, and the role of religion in the public square, he was really an intellectual giant.
Writing an obituary is always a difficult task. How do you sum up a life in a few short paragraphs? And for someone such as Neuhaus, with his prolific writing and activism, the challenge is greater. For the most part, mainstream media coverage was pretty good. Stern led with "The Public Square," Neuhaus' regular column in First Things:
It was page after page after page of acerbic insights about the religious news of the day, sharp critiques of those he disagreed with, numerous books reviews (of the most demanding books), harsh assessments of the secular press, and Neuhaus' clear and unafraid declarations of faith.
I was glad to see this as "The Public Square" regularly revealed so much about Neuhaus' theology, political views, wit, wisdom and humor. More on what has been called "the first blog" here and here. Stern also dealt with Neuhaus' regular criticism of media bias.
Michael Sean Winters, who blogs about Catholicism from the left for America magazine, also praises Neuhaus, saying, "I remember the first time Father Neuhaus attacked me in print: I felt on top of the world. For a left-of-center person like me, being attacked by Father Neuhaus was a badge of honor. To gain the notice of someone with whom you disagree is much more flattering than to gain the praise of a mentor or an acolyte. . . .
The New York Times whipped up a thorough one quickly. Religion reporter Laurie Goodstein efficiently delivers the facts and paints a beautiful picture of the man:
Father Neuhaus underwent several conversions in his life. He was born in Pembroke, Ontario, and emigrated to the United States, which he came to love fervently. He was a Lutheran minister, like his father, but at the age of 54 was ordained a Roman Catholic priest. Politically, he evolved from a liberal Democrat and admirer of Senator Eugene J. McCarthy to a conservative and occasional adviser to President Bush.
No matter which side he was on, Father Neuhaus was always a leader. The Rev. Max L. Stackhouse, a professor emeritus at Princeton Theological Seminary, said he first glimpsed Pastor Neuhaus marching in Selma, Ala., in a row of clergy members flanking the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
"He thought that somebody ought to be out front carrying the ball, and he designated himself, and he was pretty good at it," Dr. Stackhouse said. "He was not poverty-stricken when it came to confidence, and he did a lot of his homework and made judgments and felt very secure in them. He did enjoy controversy."
In the 1960s, he was pastor of St. John the Evangelist Church, a predominantly black and Hispanic Lutheran congregation in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. He was arrested at a sit-in at the New York City Board of Education headquarters, demanding integration of the public schools.
The article led with the notion that Neuhaus had changed -- from liberal to conservative, from Lutheran to Catholic -- and repeated the charge but didn't really explain any of these changes. As in, the words "abortion," "Roe v. Wade," or "pro-life" are nowhere to be found.
The fact is that Neuhaus didn't change altogether that much. It may seem like that to the casual observer. But to put this all on Neuhaus' shoulders omits the major changes in liberalism that occurred over the last few decades. Neuhaus long considered abortion to be the greatest civil rights issue of our time. And this coming from a man who marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. There was a time when vigorous opposition to abortion was compatible with being a liberal Democrat. Perhaps that time will come again. And anti-war activism in the 1970s and 1980s became increasingly tied into Marxist ideology that was at odds with his Lutheranism.
Ross Douthat probably explained this idea best:
In reality, Neuhaus as an archetypal post-Vatican II figure, whose deepest intellectual interests lay in finding compatibilities and building bridges - between Jews and Christians, Protestants and Catholics, faith and the free market, and above all between Christianity and liberalism. His chief political cause, the pro-life movement, he always saw as a continuation of his years as a civil rights activist (and man of the Left); it's entirely appropriate that what I take to be his final Public Square, in the January First Things, kicked off with a discussion of "The Pro-Life Movement as the Politics of the 1960s."
The Associated Press noted that Neuhaus was motivated in large part by the abortion issue and had a very good obituary.
The Washington Times, which mentioned multiple motivations for Neuhaus' shift to the right, also explained Neuhaus' conversion to Catholicism. Neuhaus was a member of my church body, the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod, before he joined the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. In 1990, he converted to Catholicism:
He explained his conversion in a 2002 First Things essay by saying that "I became a Catholic in order to be more fully what I was and who I was as a Lutheran."
In a 1991 interview, he explained that ecumenical dialogue in previous decades meant that "the original intentions of Lutheranism - to be a reforming movement within the Catholic Church - can now be advanced in full communion with Rome."
Indeed, last year my First Things-loving daughter was taken by her babysitter to Vespers at Father Neuhaus' apartment. They used the Lutheran Hymnal and sat underneath a huge Luther tapestry. And reading him after his conversion to Catholicism, one could definitely find eloquent expressions of Lutheran theology. It probably doesn't seem important to include these theological nuances in an obit, but I'm glad the Washington Times broached the topic.
Anyway, there's so much more. Cathy Lynn Grossman, religion reporter at USA Today, writes about the relationship between Neuhaus and religious journalists. National Review's obituary gets the man. The best Missouri Synod Lutheran obituaries come from journalist Anthony Sacramone and publisher Paul McCain. For more critical and probing examinations of Neuhaus' life, you may want to read Damon Linker and Rod Dreher. Please let us know if you see any other noteworthy remembrances.