Friday, January 9, 2009

Father Richard John Neuhaus: A Man Animated by His Faith

Raymond Arroyo's editorial from today's Wall St. Journal:

On April 11, 2005, I entered St. Peter's Basilica in Rome with my friend Father Richard John Neuhaus to pay our respects to the recently deceased Pope John Paul II. After kneeling before the pontiff's body, I remarked at how small the pope appeared. "That wasn't him. He isn't there," I said. "No," Father Neuhaus said. "He is there. These are the remains, what is left behind of a life such as we are not likely to see again, waiting with all of us for the Resurrection of the dead, the final vindication of the hope he proclaimed."

As was his wont, Father Neuhaus was capable of delivering impromptu corrections with an eloquence and precision that would elude the best of us. When I learned of his passing yesterday at the age of 72, his words echoed in my memory. He was not only a great intellectual and an exemplary man of letters but, as his remark to me illustrates, he was a man who put his mind and his literary skill at the service of his church and the truths it protected. He was first and last a man animated by his faith.

Richard Neuhaus was born in Pembroke, Ontario, in 1936. Like his father, he would become a Lutheran priest. He eventually pastored a large black congregation in Brooklyn and in the 1960s and 1970s became a leader in the civil-rights and antiwar movements. Of his work with Martin Luther King Jr., he once wrote that God "used his most unworthy servant Martin to create in our public life a luminous moment of moral truth about what Gunnar Myrdal rightly called 'the America dilemma,' racial justice. It seems a long time ago now, but there is no decline in the frequency of my thanking God for his witness and for having been touched, however briefly, by his friendship, praying that he may rest in peace, and that his cause may yet be vindicated."

Where faith and his hatred for injustice led him to liberal activism, it would soon lead him away from it. In the wake of the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, he left what he called "the movement" and started down a new, more conservative path.

In 1984, Pastor Neuhaus (then still a Lutheran) penned his landmark work, "The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America." It was an intellectual challenge to the trend of eradicating religious symbols and thought from America's civil life. He warned of a state that "drives out prophetic religion and establishes a monopoly on public space and public meanings. That is the circumstance referred to as the 'naked public square.' Which, as we must never tire of recalling, does not remain naked but is taken over by the pseudo-religion established by state power." His searing prose and well-reasoned arguments, infused with their own prophetic power, would attract legions of admirers in the media and government and among religious leaders of various denominations.

U.S. News and World Report in 1988 called Pastor Neuhaus one of the "most influential intellectuals in America." In 1990, he established First Things: The Journal of Religion, Culture, and Public Life. Within its pages Evangelical, Jewish, Orthodox and Catholic intellectuals contended with the primary issues facing America and the world -- matters of faith and their intersection with public policy. And though he enjoyed a series of presidential appointments, in the Carter, Reagan and first Bush administration, he never lost sight of his role as a priest. He would write: "Politics is chiefly a function of culture, at the heart of culture is morality, and at the heart of morality is religion."

In 1990, he converted to Catholicism and was ordained a Roman Catholic priest by Cardinal John O'Connor. Along with Chuck Colson he would lead an ecumenical initiative titled "Catholics and Evangelicals Together." It sought to underscore the unity of belief enjoyed by these diverse communities while soberly confronting the doctrine and practice that divided them. Father Neuhaus was an unofficial adviser to John Paul II on everything from ecumenism to democracy. He would also influence President George W. Bush's policies on stem-cell research and abortion.

For me personally, Father Neuhaus will forever be attached to the election of Pope Benedict XVI and, early last year, his journey to America. Father Neuhaus was my co-host for the Eternal Word Television Network's live coverage of those events, providing commentary that was erudite and occasionally cutting. When I announced to our viewers that the pope would be meeting with the American bishops in the crypt of National Basilica in Washington, Father Neuhaus quipped: "A fitting repository for the American Episcopacy."

When one steps back and looks at the turns of Father Neuhaus's life -- at his active engagement with social causes and, when American culture changed, with those "first things" that came to matter more than ever; at his willingness to forsake friendships and old alliances to pursue the truth -- it is ever more clear that he was willing to obey the promptings of his faith, no matter where they took him. is an independent site and is not affiliated with any official web sites, associations, or organizations associated with President Reagan. Any views expressed or content included on this site do not necessarily reflect the views, positions, or opinions of any of the organizations or individuals named, linked, or advertised.

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