For his friends this is the kind of loss that tilts the world on its axis; for so many things marking the world around just cannot be the same. How could it be that we’ll never have those evenings again in the townhouse in New York, with the wine and cigars, and Richard John Neuhaus presiding with gravitas and brotherly affection? It has become a cliche, but in this case it hits with a sad, jolting force: His loss just creates a void in the world; we cannot see how anyone could fill it. Somewhere in the 1990s, after one of our legendary seminars, when we were having drinks before dinner, David Novak waxed nostalgic about the years we had all been together. He remarked to Richard that he could take a satisfaction in this family he had woven together.

The center of it all was the Institute on Religion and Public Life, but that sprang from the genius and love of Richard John Neuhaus. The remarkable thing was indeed that family woven together, drawn from the various religious strands: Catholics, Protestants, Jews, with so many variants, and yet all standing against the currents of relativism; all persuaded that there were truths of revelation and reason to declare, and, in that sense, standing together against the currents of our own age.

We’ve heard of that formula before, cast as an aspiration. But Richard actually made it work: He brought together, in some cases, people who would not ordinarily agree to be in the same room with one another. He would bring together the late Christopher Lasch or Stanley Hauerwas with Jean Elshtain, Michael Novak, George Weigel, and Robert Jenson. He would bring in the lawyers on opposite sides of the argument over religious establishment and the question of driving religion from the public square.

He would even bring in Henry Kissinger, for Richard moved in heady circles in New York; he was respected in literary and political circles, and people would come when he invited them. And what they found, when they came, was a conversation that was penetrating, serious, theologically informed, philosophically demanding”but civil through and through. No venom, no unbridled attacks. There was a tendering of respect that counseled restraint and kindness even as it enjoined us not to hold back from asking the question that pierced to the core of someone’s argument or his claim to standing in the world of letters.

In my own case, the invitation to join the discussion came in the fall of 1987. Thomas Derr, at Smith College, gave Richard a copy of my 1986 book First Things ”a title Richard echoed when it came time to found the magazine First Things . (At the twentieth anniversary of the publication of Richard’s own signature book, I imagined us, thirty years hence, settled in homes for the aged, and celebrating that important journal, The Naked Public Square . We thanked Richard for his large nature in letting us make use of that title for a new journal.)

Joining the discussion that day, I came into a group that included Ralph McInerny, Marvin Fox, David Novak, and Fr. Ernest Fortin. I recall us going around the table, with people introducing themselves: Ralph said he was “a peeping Thomist from Notre Dame,” and Ernie replied, “I was a Thomist”when I was a teenager.”

The chemistry was magnificently right, and I was invited back again, and again, until it became clear that we really had been woven together as something close to a family. I remember sitting back one day, during the Ramsay Colloquium, looking at my friends gathered around that table, absorbed in the discussion, and thinking, “I just love these guys.”

But the selection of these people and the tone of the ongoing conversations had all sprung from the temper and judgment of Richard. If we had to condense the account of the experience, it would run roughly in this way: No one would get away with arguments that were just not good enough, just not up to standard. But the corrections would come in a jesting, loving way from friends who knew you shared the sense that you could do better. At the same time, nothing was ever lost or forgotten. I recall Robert Jenson, in the midst of a discussion, suddenly pointing out that people were backing into an argument I had sought to press on the group three years earlier. That was a measure of how closely people listened and how arguments, seriously framed, could linger. I had never seen anything like this seminar, not even in my days at the University of Chicago, and I’ve seen nothing like it since.

With the demise of the journal This World , Richard launched First Things , and we all signed on. We worried initially as to whether we could actually generate enough material to sustain a serious journal touching on theology, law, and political philosophy. The results speak for themselves. Richard’s own writing and editing attracted writing trying to meet that standard. We discovered that there was even more talent, more possibilities out there than even we had imagined. Richard built it, and they came.

With the journal First Things , the testimonies came in from every quarter: People read the back of the magazine first”beginning with Richard’s “Public Square.” Just a few years ago he was doing an extended essay on his readings over the summer, including a biography of Benjamin Franklin and books on the American Founding. The breadth of his interests rivaled the reach of people who made the study of the Founding their main specialty. But with this difference: His touch was subtle and deft, his judgments quite sound, and his grasp of the issues, in their philosophic root, ran beyond the understanding of most people in the academy who had made this subject their professional work.

Here he was approaching seventy, and it seemed to me that he was getting stronger and stronger. He was not slowing down; he seemed to be on some remarkable roll. The rest of us could look on with a certain wonderment and joy. Even Justice Scalia, himself an engine of productivity never wanting in wit, asked me of Richard, “How does he do it?” How did he do so much so well every month, marking that journal ever more as his?

When Tom Derr made him a gift of my book, Richard twitted me in print for an argument I had made about the logic of “supererogatory acts,” acts beyond the call of duty. We could not define an act as good solely because people acted out of a heedless disregard of their own safety. The willingness of commanders in the Wehrmacht to die for Hitler was an expenditure of their lives for a wrongful end. I imagined John XXIII falling on a hand grenade to save people gathered around him, and the people happened to be Vito Genovese, Sam Giancana, and assorted Mafiosi. It would have been, I argued, an unjustified and wrongful sacrifice.

Richard pronounced me theologically wrong. But he was so taken with the book that he wanted to see me making my arguments within this ongoing project he had been shaping. And so I came, without realizing how deeply I would be woven in with the family he had formed. One edge of consolation is that I may see him again, as he expected, and, to steal a line from him, he may have discovered in the meantime that I had been right after all. But none of that would matter so much as the prospect of being with him again.

Hadley Arkes, a member of the editorial advisory board of First Things , is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence at Amherst College.

Articles by Hadley Arkes

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