The sudden death of Fr. Neuhaus from recrudescent cancer hits us all hard. First Things itself, which he founded in 1990 and faithfully nurtured by loving and enterprising editorship, will feel the draft; so will Evangelicals and Catholics Together, the ecumenical project that he initiated with Charles Colson in 1992, in which it has been my privilege to share. And these are only two of the many places where his leadership will be grievously missed.
Richard had a wiry, virile mind and was exceedingly shrewd in his judgments in a warm-hearted, witty way, so that everything he wrote was a delight to read. History will, I guess, bracket him with G.K. Chesterton and Ronald Knox for the brilliance of his essays and books.
As with other thought-journalists, what sparked his interest was the strains and tensions with interfaces: Christianity and Americanism, practical denials of human dignity following theoretical affirmations of it, Catholics and Evangelicals world-wide, Christians at each other's throats. Ever the activist, he marched to Selma, campaigned for peace in Vietnam, threw his weight into the pro-life cause, and created Evangelicals and Catholics Together to pave the way for Catholic-evangelical cooperation on the pastoral front. Gravity with hilarity was his conversational style. He had a gift for friendship as well as for organization, and was a charming and illuminating public speaker. In 2005, Time magazine rated him one of America's twenty-five most influential evangelicals.
My own first contact with him occurred a full generation ago, when he was still a Lutheran pastor in Brooklyn. It was at a conference where he led one of the breakout groups. Cool and relaxed, articulate and didactic, sharp and restless, and constantly puffing a pipe whose thick acrid fumes suggested he was smoking old socks, he cut a vivid if slightly unsettling figure. When I next met him, at Evangelicals and Catholics Together, however, he had mellowed remarkably; he was a Catholic priest, the pipe was gone, and it was clear that in his own mind he had now reached home and was at peace. He had no memory of me, and early on I made it hard for him (I regret this) by speaking of the papacy as a grotesque institution, but over the years friendship blossomed and my admiration for him grew with it.
One of my delights at Evangelicals and Catholics Together meetings was watching Richard and Avery Cardinal Dulles repeatedly put their heads together to distill wisdom out of the discussions that had wandered. The cardinal, too, has recently died, and I imagine them, in that realm of light that both now inhabit, continuing the playful, joyful exchanges that so evidently brought them pleasure here on earth. Losing these two ecumenical colleagues, in whose high-powered good-heartedness I found such great value, has certainly hit me hard.
I am a Brit who became a committed Canadian. Richard was a Canadian who became a passionate American, indeed a New Yorker (a special sort of American, as he somewhere points out), and one who wrote two masterly treatments of the American scene. First came The Naked Public Square in 1984, a contribution to a debate that was widely agitated at that time.
Here, most powerfully, he deprecates the virtual exclusion of the Christian voice and interest from public policy decision-making. Perceiving that “politics is chiefly a function of culture, at the heart of culture is morality, and at the heart of morality is religion,” he warns that a state that “drives out prophetic religion and establishes a monopoly on public space and public meanings” thereby effectively establishes a pseudo-religion of its own, with all the shrinkage of humanness that that involves.
The second book surveys the same scene a quarter of a century later and bears the grim title American Babylon: Notes of a Christian Exile, published posthumously this year. Reflecting on the unhappy fruits of following the path of exclusion, as America has largely continued to do, he labors in face of the landslide to re-anchor hope in Christian hearts. Both books, implicitly, are wake-up encouragements to mainstream believers to engage thrustfully and persistently, albeit from the margins, in battling the great issues of national life. As such, they are polemics and pastorals in one.
A tonic? No question. Words in season? Undoubtedly. And for Canada, of which Richard wrote that “in most aspects of public life, Christianity has been not only disestablished, but also banished”? Most certainly. A worthy legacy? Yes, and yes, and yes again. In both books Richard, though dead, still speaks, and the highest tribute we can pay him will be our ongoing attention to his prophetic voice.
God give us, Americans and Canadians alike, grace to keep listening, even as, in Chesterton's haunting words, “the sky grows darker yet and the sea rises higher.”
James I. Packer is professor of theology at Regent College.