Father Richard John Neuhaus: Catholic Conservative Commentator
Father Richard Neuhaus was the most visible, prolific and influential Christian thinker in the US, and he was, in natural consequence, among the most reviled, despised and denounced figures in modern public intellectual life.
A convert from Lutheranism to Catholicism, he may have had his most obvious parallel in the Anglican-turned-Roman Catholic John Henry Newman, whose conversion struggles enthralled and enraged England in the 1840s. Neuhaus belonged, however, to a distinctly American line of thinkers, and his death seems to bring to a close the long run of America’s theological writers — from Jonathan Edwards to Ralph Waldo Emerson to Orestes Brownson to Reinhold Niebuhr — with the strange gift of inspiring, infuriating and fascinating the intellectual class of the nation.
Richard John Neuhaus was born in Pembroke, Ontario, in 1936, the son of a Lutheran pastor who had emigrated from the US to answer a call from a Canadian church. From the beginning of his public career in 1961, as the radical 25-year-old Lutheran pastor of a largely black parish in an impoverished section of New York, to his conversion to Catholicism in 1990 and his phrasings of the Republican candidates’ statements on abortion during the 2008 presidential campaign, Neuhaus had a genius for controversy.
He marched with his friend Martin Luther King in the civil rights battles of the early 1960s. Together with Father Daniel Berrigan and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel — a deliberate invocation of the American triptych of Protestant, Catholic, and Jew — he helped to found Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam, one of the most significant anti-war groups. In 1968, his Brooklyn neighbourhood elected him a delegate to the Democratic Party’s famously contentious convention in Chicago, where he was arrested for directing illegal demonstrations.
In 1975, however, he demanded that his fellow American leftists denounce the human-rights violations of the victorious Vietnamese Government, which outraged his radical friends and divided the remnants of the anti-war movement. That same year, Neuhaus assembled the Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox signers of the Hartford Appeal for Theological Affirmation, a strongly worded rejection, in the name of liberal democracy, of the increasingly unchristian modernism that was beginning to characterise many American churches.
By this point, however, the liberal ledge on which Neuhaus was trying to stand was growing narrower, eroded by the anti-religious elements of the radical forces he had once helped lead. He made one last attempt to hold on, joining the sociologist Peter Berger to establish the communitarian movement in 1977 with their widely discussed essay To Empower People, which argued for the necessity of “mediating structures” (family, church and neighbourhood) to protect individuals from the tyranny of an allencompassing government.
The result was not what he expected, as communitarianism was generally rejected by thinkers on the Left and embraced by those on the Right, both for the same reason: because they perceived it as a device for resisting cultural revolution.
By 1984 Neuhaus had ceased to resist being labelled a neoconservative, and he published his best-known book, The Naked Public Square, an argument against the attempt to secularise every part of national life, which successfully reversed the direction of the American discussion about the role of religion.
Admitting his place among the conservatives, he set himself to policing the Right with the same vigour that he had policed the Left. In 1989, while editing a journal called This World for the conservative Rockford Institute, he and his staff were summarily fired and locked out of their offices after he attacked what he called “the racist and anti-Semitic tones” of the magazine Chronicles, another of the Rockford Institute’s publications.
He immediately founded his own magazine, First Things, which grew by the time of his death to a circulation of 35,000, the largest of any such conservative and religious monthly journal. Soon afterwards, he completed the journey that many had long predicted for him. For years his flirtations with Catholicism were watched with horrified interest by his fellow Protestants, much as Newman’s had been a century and a half before. In 1990 Neuhaus at last gave up on the Lutheranism as a vehicle for the Universal Church of Christ and became a Catholic, receiving his ordination as a priest the next year. It was during his First Things years that Neuhaus achieved his most visible public influence. He was one of the moving forces behind Centesimus annus, Pope John Paul II’s 1991 encyclical that acknowledged, for the first time in a papal document, the wealth-creating possibilities of capitalism.
Though he had been consulted (or, at least, listened to politely) by all the US presidents from Jimmy Carter on, Neuhaus found George W. Bush the most sympathetic. On abortion and the other life issues, President Bush publicly declared, to the consternation of the nation’s editorialists, “Father Richard helps me articulate these things.”
In 2005 Time magazine named him one of the nation’s 25 most influential evangelical Protestants — in one way, a bizarre identification for a Catholic priest, but, in another way, an accurate recognition of his influence on building the coalition of Evangelicals and Catholics that had won the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections for the Republican Party.
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