I was out of the country when I received the news that Richard John Neuhaus had died, and to my everlasting regret, I could not get back for the funeral. I felt the strangest sense of loss. Not only did we lose one of the great warriors in the battle between the culture of life and the culture of death, but we also lost a true healer: a man who worked so hard to bridge the scandalous five-hundred-year-old chasm in the Church. But my first thought when I heard about his death was that I had lost a very dear friend.
Over the twenty-five years that I knew Fr. Richard, there wasn't a subject under the sun we couldn't talk about freely and honestly. And no matter the topic, whether we discussed philosophy, science, politics, or anything else, I never heard him say, “You know, Chuck, I don't know much about that.” He was a Renaissance man in every sense of the word, truly one of the towering intellects of our time. And I will dearly miss the constant intellectual stimulation.
I know from my time in the Marines that you only get to know a man when he is under pressure, during difficulty. And Fr. Richard certainly had his share of trouble. His book As I Lay Dying is the most remarkable reflection on our mortality that I have ever read. I still give it away to friends. It revealed a man whose love for life was deep but who was unafraid of where his relentless pursuit of truth might lead him.
It was that fearless pursuit of truth that earlier on led him to a place that certainly surprised those of us who knew him well—the Catholic priesthood. For a time, I confess, I was vexed over his decision. It took months for me to realize that he was the same man who was a brother to me as a Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor. In fact, in some ways I learned to admire him all the more, because he had the courage to do something he believed in deeply, though it might cost him dearly in terms of support and relationships.
Of course, I know now that it was his decision to enter the priesthood—combined with his Lutheran past—that prepared him for founding Evangelicals and Catholics Together. As my friend Timothy George wrote about Fr. Richard recently in Christianity Today: “Only a thinker so well grounded in the Reformation traditions could be an honest broker in bringing faithful evangelicals and believing Catholics to recognize the common source of their life together in Jesus Christ, the Holy Scriptures, and the great tradition of living faith through the centuries.”
Indeed, without Richard's influence and leadership, we never could have pulled together Catholic and evangelical leaders to openly acknowledge our theological differences, affirm the things we held in common, and confidently assert the Christian worldview we shared. Here was true ecumenism: not ecumenism in the usual sense of reducing things to the lowest common denominator, but rather an open, frank, discussion about our differences and commonalities. All, as Fr. Richard so often insisted, in pursuit of the truth.
It was also an ecumenism that wasn't warmly received by some in both evangelical and Catholic circles. In 1994, Fr. Richard and I held a press conference in New York during Holy Week to announce a joint statement of the truth we could affirm together. To our surprise, we made headlines: “Evangelicals and Catholics to Unite.”
There was a backlash in the evangelical ranks like nothing I had seen before. Some donors to Prison Fellowship withdrew their support. Some of my best friends in the evangelical movement, respected theologians, chastised me for holding anything in common with Rome. It was the evangelical equivalent of an Inquisition. But I couldn't back down. I believed deeply in God's leading of Evangelicals and Catholics Together. And I knew Fr. Richard would stand with me and stand by his convictions.
In 1997, after two years of discussions in which Edward Idris Cardinal Cassidy from the Vatican participated, Evangelicals and Catholics Together issued its most important paper: “The Gift of Salvation.” And in it, as evangelicals and Catholics together, we agreed to the following statement. “We agree that justification is not earned by any good works or merits of our own; it is entirely God's gift . . . Faith is not merely intellectual assent but an act of the whole person, involving the mind, the will, and the affections, issuing in a changed life. We understand that what we here affirm is in agreement with what the Reformation traditions have meant by justification by faith alone ( sola fide).” It was a remarkable moment. Cardinal Cassidy said that even though ours was an informal group, not having official Church recognition, the “The Gift of Salvation” was so thoughtfully written that he would use it as a teaching paper in Rome.
What makes the timing of my beloved brother's death so poignant is that he followed another faithful participant in ECT, Avery Cardinal Dulles, who died in December. Both men were instrumental in writing “The Gift of Salvation.” And both men lived long enough to read the homily given by Benedict XVI at his general audience in St. Peter's Square on November 19. The Holy Father said: “That is why Luther's expression sola fide is true if faith is not opposed to charity, to love. Faith is to look at Christ, to entrust oneself to Christ, to be united to Christ, to be conformed to Christ, to his life. And the form, the life of Christ, is love; hence, to believe is to be conformed to Christ and to enter into his love. That is why, in the Letter to the Galatians, St. Paul develops above all his doctrine on justification; he speaks of faith that operates through charity.”
Benedict's statement is a fitting eulogy for the life of Fr. Richard John Neuhaus and his remarkable contribution to the Kingdom.
Charles Colson is the founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries.