January 13, 2009

Friend, Leader, and Man for our Seasons

By Father Thomas Berg *

Richard John Neuhaus, who passed away last Thursday, has left a gaping hole in the hearts of those who knew and loved him.  As his close friend and associate at the journal First Things Jody Bottum deftly observed, his sudden departure at the age of 72 also leaves "a gaping hole in the public square."

'The public square':  if today this is such a familiar term in Anglo parlance, it is to be largely attributed to Neuhaus's intellectual caliber and acumen, and to his enormously influential 1984 best-seller The Naked Public Square. Here Neuhaus explored the simple premise that "the [U.S. Constitution's] no-establishment provision of the first freedom of the First Amendment is entirely in the service of the free exercise provision." In other words: our Constitutional commitment to refrain from establishing an official state religion was set in place precisely to protect the free exercise of religion--in the public square.

We are likely only beginning to understand the impact that Neuhaus has had on the Church and American culture, as arguably the leading pro-life, conservative public intellectual of the past three decades. As his close friend and papal biographer George Weigel puts it:


Father Richard John Neuhaus's work will be remembered and debated for decades. As a Lutheran pastor, he was one of the first civil-rights activists to identify the pro-life cause with the moral truths for which he and others had marched in Selma... As a Catholic priest, he helped define new patterns of theological dialogue between Catholics and evangelicals, and between Christians and Jews. The journal he launched in the early 1990s, First Things, quickly became, under his leadership and inspiration, the most important vehicle for exploring the tangled web of religion and society in the English-speaking world. All of this suggests that Richard Neuhaus was, arguably, the most consequential public theologian in America since the days of Reinhold Niebuhr and John Courtney Murray, S.J.

And hands down, Neuhaus was the most consequential public intellectual of the past three decades, literally a man of counsel to 'popes and Presidents'.  George Bush, in a brief press release, recalled the man he would refer to simply as "Father Richard."  As an informal adviser to the 43rd president, Neuhaus, to use Bush's terms, was a man "who devoted his life to the service of the Almighty and to the betterment of our world." "He was also a dear friend," affirmed the President, "and I have treasured his wise counsel and guidance."

While my heart is still troubled by its own gaping hole (I was honored to call Richard a friend for the past 11 years), my thoughts return again and again, however, to that "gaping hole" in the public square. Anyone involved in the pro-life movement over the past three decades knows that there is no replacing Richard John Neuhaus--and that is indeed troubling.  His absence points to a great need in our day: more men and women capable of assuming cultural leadership roles in the manner of a Father Richard Neuhaus. But again, there is no replacing him. Rather, his figure is now left to us as a model, indeed, an ideal of cultural leadership to pursue and emulate. 
Christian public intellectuals are not born like stars in Hollywood; their impact is not the mush of the often tacky and transitory notoriety we are daily fed by the MSM. The genuine Christian public intellectual appears on the scene at critical junctures in the history of a given culture to exercise the leadership peculiar to one endowed with genuine practical wisdom--prudence--and the ability to read and interpret the times, offering light, insight and direction. That was Neuhaus.

Nor is it an exaggeration to say that Richard John Neuhaus gave shape and definition to the figure of the specifically catholic public intellectual--even before he formally entered the Church (an event he once described as "becoming the Catholic I was.")

Another essential characteristic of a public intellectual is the gift of prescience.  And Richard was prescient in more ways than one. In 1967, he warned his liberal colleagues that the banner of a 'woman's right to choose' abortion was being raised on the wrong side of the divide between liberals and conservatives. It indeed ended up on the liberal side, and Neuhaus ended up on the conservative side. And he was warning of the havoc to be unleashed upon our culture by an abortion-on-demand regime for nearly a decade before Roe vs. Wade made it a reality.  

Prescient on weighty matters, Neuhaus was also prescient in his humanity and as an intense man of letters. His monthly column, "The Public Square", was a genuine well of personal enrichment for its devotees. "'The Public Square'," read the Wall Street Journal obituary, "was laced with sarcasm, idealism and the sheer joy of intellectual engagement."  And how! As my friend, and Tuesday columnist for the Journal's editorial page Bret Stephens put it to me in an email, "His out-takes in First Things were must-reading: the best blog ever, before blogging existed."

Richard was also a friend of the Westchester Institute which I direct. His words of advice and guidance, as well as his wise questioning and sound critiquing were always welcome and were an important part of his contribution to our work--even though the very first time we sought out his counsel, I made the (happy) mistake of allowing Richard to do so at the restaurant of his choice, and over the bottle of Merlot of his choice. (We were on a much tighter budget back in those days.)  

Of course, his most important contribution to our work was his friendship--and Richard was a true blue friend.

And finally, anyone who knew Richard will remember him for his humor--often couched in the most subtle and piercing sarcasm and that lovely baritone voice.  I remember once, as a seminarian in Rome, offering him a ride down to the Vatican along with two other of our house guests at the seminary. As we were getting close to St. Peter's and the massive cupola came into view, Richard, feigning a deep disdain, peered through the passenger's side window and observed: "Oh... there's that church--the church that started the Protestant Reformation!" General merriment ensued.

That church, St. Peter's basilica, was, of course, for Fr. Neuhaus but a sign of the 'New Jerusalem' yet to come, a symbol pointing us homeward.

And now, Richard, we trust you are safely home. We count on your prayers for us. And we thank you for that precious testament you left us in your last column--a pledge of the man you were, the witness to truth and hope, leader, friend, mentor and man for the seasons you lived:


...Be assured that I neither fear to die nor refuse to live. If it is to die, all that has been is but a slight intimation of what is to be. If it is to live, there is much that I hope to do in the interim... Who knew that at this point in life I would be understanding, as if for the first time, the words of Paul, "When I am weak, then I am strong"? This is not a farewell. Please God, we will be pondering together the follies and splendors of the Church and the world for years to come. But maybe not...The entirety of our prayer is "Your will be done"--not as a note of resignation but of desire beyond expression. To that end, I commend myself to your intercession, and that of all the saints and angels who accompany us each step through time toward home.



Father Thomas Berg is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York and Professor of Moral Theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary (Dunwoodie). More of Fr. Berg’s publications are available at www.fatherberg.com.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.