In what has become a winter of farewells for conservatives, the hardest loss was that of Fr. Richard John Neuhaus. He was always “Fr. Neuhaus” for me, never “Richard.” I knew him mostly through his writing, though I was blessed to be able to join him for a few meals. (Man, could he drink.)
It is as a writer that I will chiefly miss him. He was an essayist, writer of manifestos, commender of obscure books, critic of the New York Times, chronicler of the passing scene, defender of the magisterium, and, above all, teacher of the gospel. He did it all with elegance and force. He is, in sober fact, irreplaceable.
I have a collection of gems small and large from his writing in my mind. “Thousands of medical ethicists and bioethicists, as they are called, professionally guide the unthinkable on its passage through the debatable on the way to becoming the justifiable until it is finally established as unexceptionable.” “St. John the Mundane.” “The Catholic way of being Christian.” “In the Christian tradition, being true to yourself means being true to the self that you are called to be.” “The culture of death is an idea before it is a deed.”
The epigrams, instructive in themselves, were of course usually attached to larger arguments. Fr. Neuhaus deepened our understanding of the gift of salvation, of ecumenism, of the religion clause—not clauses—of the First Amendment, of the “new atheists.” On that last subject he nicely wrote that he did not believe in the God in which they did not believe.
Fr. Neuhaus sent me a kind letter full of thoughtful joy on the occasion of my reception into the Catholic Church. He emphasized that what I had considered “my decision to join the Church” was in the first instance the result of the Holy Spirit's working upon me in ways of which I was not consciously aware. “So it is really a matter of choosing to be chosen.” It is the first explanation I now give whenever someone asks why I am Catholic.
Later, when I wrote a book on the political dimensions of the culture of death, Neuhaus was my most stalwart and valued defender. Neuhaus is one of a very few people about whom it could be said that the pro-life movement would be much weaker if not for his witness. He was a living link between two civil rights movements.
Fr. Neuhaus delivered the invocation at National Review's thirty-fifth anniversary dinner. (I couldn't make it, being busy with high school.) He asked God to “gift us with that lightheartedness of those who know that every cause of ours that is good is Yours before it is ours.” The comment stuck with me, even though I was not a believer at the time I read it. The right ordering of our desires was something that he both lived and taught and that he will continue to teach.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor of National Review.