When I first came to spend my days in the office of the Institute on Religion and Public Life—this was sometime in early 1990—Richard Neuhaus had been a friend of mine for roughly twenty years. During that time, the two of us had been traveling, politically and culturally speaking, pretty much along the same path and had met often on the way.
For convenience one might characterize that journey, as most people who have remained hostile to it are wont to do, as having followed a straightforward political trajectory from left to right. In truth, however, our travels had been more complicated than that, more full of corners and curves, which is to say, more involved with what had become of the country's culture than with its politics—though with its politics, too, of course, because the political life of this nation is always ultimately indentured to its cultural life. The point is that on most of the issues that mattered most to us we had found ourselves to be comrades in arms (and in those days especially, military metaphors tended to come to mind).
“Why don't you come and hang out with us?” had been Richard's all-too-blithe invitation to me—the us being the Institute on Religion and Public Life, the organization he had only a few years earlier undertaken to create—and just as blithely I accepted. Whereupon there began, all unsuspected on my part, what would turn out to be one of the most deeply engaging cultural adventures of my life.
I cannot say my joining his crew was anything like the same—or indeed any adventure at all—for Richard, who was himself just then off on a journey far more consequential than I believe he knew at the time: a journey from Lutheranism into the Catholic Church. (“But Richard,” my husband had asked him on first being told of his decision to convert to Catholicism, as a token of the almost careless tone in which that decision had been imparted, “what about Bach?”)
In any case, it was quite in the relaxed spirit of Richard's invitation that I, oh-so-jauntily, arrived at his office one Monday morning, somewhat startled to see him in an ordinary shirt and necktie—no longer the properly collared Lutheran pastor I had known for all those years. (He would before the year was out, however, be ordained a priest, and I would be comforted to see him in a collar once again.) Neither of us, I think, was quite certain just what contribution I might be making to the enterprise, but I was a reasonably educated and reasonably pious—though hardly properly observant—Jew who had worked for many years as an editor, and since Religion and Public Life had recently begun publishing First Things , I suppose it was thought that I was qualified to add some, albeit hardly scholarly, expertise to the enterprise. In any case, I quickly found a place for myself in Richard's domain.
Did I say quickly? On the magazine, yes, for editing is editing, but First Things was not just a magazine, and Religion and Public Life was far from just an organization. It was, both figuratively and literally, a conversation, a special kind of conversation both stimulated and presided over by someone who might just in
his way have become one of the country's most gifted conversationalists. This exchange was carried on in numerous meetings, large and small, formally sponsored by Religion and Public Life as well as over informal lunches and dinners and drinks—a conversation among socially and politically and religiously passionate scholars and clergymen and even, sometimes, among the staff during the meetings at which we decided on the contents of the next issue of the magazine.
Whatever the subject—from creation to the politics of abortion, from the agreements and disagreements among scientists and theologians to the prevailing attitudes toward war, this conversation was always passionate and frequently brilliant. And whatever the nature of the occasion, Richard would always preside, pretending merely to host but always directing and moving the discussion along.
Now, by that time in my life I had myself taken part in discussion groups, panels, and seminars too numerous to count. But with each of Richard's I would undergo the, to me, shocking revelation that though I almost always had strong responses to what was being said, I had only the weakest of vocabularies for articulating them. Perhaps this pointed to some shortcoming in my education or personal formation, or perhaps it was that for a politically passionate Jew in the late twentieth century the problems presented to man on earth by the nature of God in heaven seemed to require expression in somewhat different terms than those natural to Richard and company. In any case, here I was, a woman of considerable years and experience, grandmother of ten and still counting, and a schoolgirl once again. If Richard recognized this, as surely he did, he never by so much as a blink of the eye let on.
Be that as it may, not too long after I arrived on the scene Richard was ordained a priest of the Catholic Church. His collar, to my comfort and no doubt to his, reappeared. And there began a process that he may not have been aware of, at least at first, but that became ever more visible to me. In an interview recently published in the National Review, Robert P. George remarked that, as a Catholic, Richard retained something of the character of the Lutheran pastor he once had been, but I do not think that that was so. For as the months and years rolled on, something in him seemed to me to have been quite deeply altered. He was of course the same person, serious and laughing and ebullient and passionate and certain and at the same time remarkably tender of the feelings of his interlocutors, but his personality had taken on a new quality. Call it a deepening serenity. Beneath the tireless energy for reading and writing and arguing and joking he was slowly but perceptibly acquiring a new kind and degree of inner peace. With apologies for what must seem a tired cliché, it was as if, after a good deal of journeying, he had now come home.
Around this time the Catholic Church in America had become embroiled in the nastiest of scandals, one that would among other things spend years on prominent display in the country's press, and Richard and his company of fellow Catholics had to have been deeply distressed by it. (As who, indeed, was not? Only the community of hard-bitten anti-Catholics, whose schadenfreude at the Church's discomfiture was quickly made only too evident). The Richard I had once known might have been stirred to publishing public statements, even to marching in the streets outside the newspaper offices or perhaps even outside the meetings of the bishops called to discuss what should be done about it. But he had other things, more permanent things—shall we call them first things?—on his mind.
For a most deeply significant instance, there was John Paul II, who had by the time of Richard's ordination been pope for more than ten years. His papacy had become, and would remain, the kind of happy, hopeful, and uplifting phenomenon that kept focusing the eye, and the mind, on things higher and more essential—even for me, a Jew with a rather different set of worries and angers of my own about the state of the world to contend with.
This new serenity would indeed see him through the first life-threatening onset of cancer, which turned out to be a crisis that sent those of us around him into a watchful state of anxiety but that would by his account leave him with a newfound feeling of peace and acceptance in the presence of death. He would soon write about this experience and in so doing leave us at first comforted and then, in the face of his refreshed vitality, all too blithely forgetful.
That he would write about his brush with death was to be expected, for he wrote about everything: in books and magazine articles—not to mention his collection of observations and arguments published in the back of this magazine each month. Indeed, or so it seems to me, it was in this feature called “The Public Square” where he most copiously displayed his very special literary gift. For over the years until just before his death he managed unflaggingly to keep up this always fresh and pointed running commentary on what he had been reading: books, magazines, memoranda, speeches, even church bulletins—nothing seemed to escape his watchful eye and oh-so-wittily pouncing pen. It never felt repetitive and never, month after month, year after year, got to be the least bit mechanical. (Anyone who has ever attempted to set words on paper is bound to know—and though it is a deadly sin, I myself would say to envy—how extraordinary a literary feat this was.)
When he grew ill this last and final time, for a while only those closest to him knew how really ill he was. Fortunately (I know that in some sense I sin when I say this) his final journey didn't take too long. Did he remember his vision from that earlier brush with death, when he had been told by angel voices that all had been prepared and was awaiting him? I do hope so. In any case, the angels may have been prepared, and Richard may have been prepared, but those of us he left behind—friends, disciples, and a large public—were most definitely not. He will be missed for a long, long time, and for many more reasons than he himself could ever have imagined, among them that conversation that will never quite be the same.
Midge Decter, a member of the editorial board of First Things, was an editor at First Things from 1990 to 1995.