This issue marks the beginning of First Things’ twenty-second year of publication, and every new publishing cycle invites reflection on what it is that we are about. And to think about First Things is to think, inevitably, about its founding editor, Richard John Neuhaus.
I’ve been thinking about Richard a lot lately. As I write this in mid-January, we’ve recently celebrated the second anniversary of his death on January 8, 2009, with a memorial Mass at the Church of Our Saviour. (I loved the Latin liturgy and Fr. George Rutler’s gracious and engaging homily; I hated the part where, as a member of the Lutheran church Richard left behind, I could not participate in the sacrament.) I now sit temporarily in the editorial chair he occupied for some twenty years. More personally still, I’m living in his apartment at the Community of Christ townhouse on E. 19th Street, the apartment in which I spent untold hours as his guest and in which his presence is everywhere. The rooms are intimately familiar, and yet I cannot feel truly at home there. It’s his place and always will be.
Especially the bathroom. Richard’s bathroom wasn’t—isn’t—like anybody else’s. His life is on the walls, depicted in pictures and memorabilia. It’s chronologically scattershot, but if you look carefully it’s all there. There’s the childhood and adolescence with his formidable parents and six siblings in the Lutheran parsonage in Pembroke, Ontario; the class of 1960 at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, and ordination in upstate New York; the exciting pastorate at St. John’s in Brooklyn, with RJN preaching, talking on TV, leading marches against the Vietnam War and for civil rights; various awards, organizational meetings, honorary degrees, and travels abroad from the years when the balance shifted from parish pastor to public intellectual; the beginnings of First Things and entrance into the Catholic priesthood and almost dying of cancer the first time; a whole raft of Catholic ecclesial occasions and FT public events; finally, from the late years, many conventional shots of Richard amid family and friends at home and at the cottage in the Ottawa Valley.
There are presidents and popes, a half-century’s gallery of celebrities from Bill Buckley to Jack Kemp to John J. O’Connor, causes past (a pin for George McGovern, another urging “Boycott Scab Grapes”) and causes perennial (“Abortion Kills, Choose Life”). And lots you can’t categorize: a dog sitting improbably on its butt and looking forlorn, a print of nineteenth-century Lutheran theologian C. F. W. Walther, doggerel lines of verse on a postcard from Ralph McInerny, a truly ugly portrait of Richard as a young man by an artist unknown. When I moved in last October, my wife suggested I take it all down lest it overwhelm me. But I decided that I hadn’t it in me to desecrate a shrine.
I’m not the only one, of course, to feel Richard’s presence. The entire First Things community and First Things project carries on in his long shadow. We know he’s gone and we know the work he began is now fully ours to keep alive, but we still look to his example to keep us on the right track.
The hardest thing to perpetuate is his ecumenical reach. On that early summer day in 1990 when he told me of his intention to become a Catholic priest, he insisted that the momentous change in his life would in no way affect the work and mission of First Things. As a priest he would be answerable to his bishop, but as editor of First Things he would zealously maintain the journal’s interdenominational and interreligious character. First Things had not been Lutheran when he was a pastor; it would not become Catholic when he became a priest.
It wasn’t nearly that simple, of course. Over the years, Richard’s interests and attention, though still remarkably encompassing, inevitably shifted in the Catholic direction, and, because his writings were so much the center of each issue, First Things became increasingly identified and referred to as a Catholic journal. It is difficult to imagine how things could have been otherwise. It’s easy to overlook the editor of a religious journal being Lutheran; it’s hard to ignore his being a Catholic.
Richard understood all that, but he still resisted it as best he could. He remained indefatigably ecumenical. I can think of no one in his generation whose range of religious discourse took in so much intellectual territory. He was in close theological conversation not just with Catholics and Lutherans but also with Jews, evangelicals, Orthodox, and mainline Protestants of all persuasions. As president of the Institute on Religion and Public Life he sponsored and led the regular interreligious Dulles and Ramsey colloquiums on theology and theological ethics; he joined with Charles Colson to found Evangelicals and Catholics Together; he even kept alive the irregular beer, pizza, and cigar sessions with Lutheran pastors he had begun in his Brooklyn days.
And while, once a priest, he was wholeheartedly and obediently Catholic—he never in my hearing indicated a single reservation about any teaching of the Church whatsoever—Richard’s Catholicism remained catholic. The ecclesial transition from Lutheran to Catholic was, in his own eyes, more fulfillment than conversion. It had theological implications, of course, but it did not require a reordering of his theological universe. I’m told, on good authority, that his more astute Catholic parishioners detected Lutheran accents in his homilies.
Richard’s project of ecumenical orthodoxy is what First Things was and is all about, and, if we work at it very hard, the present editorial staff might collectively manage to sustain the breadth of fluent theological conversation he conducted by himself. If we don’t keep that effort at the center of our intentions, we will fail in what he meant the FT community to be.
There is also, in considering Richard’s legacy, the continuing challenge of keeping our priorities and preoccupations in proper order. Richard was always theologically orthodox and he never reduced creedal affirmations to the categories of social ethics. But as a young man of the left caught up in the civil rights and antiwar enthusiasms of the 1960s, he was sometimes tempted to conflate the now and the not yet of our pilgrim sojourning. He acknowledged that his attitude toward politics in those years assumed “a more unified notion of history and the salvation promised to history” than that found in St. Augustine’s classic view of the two kingdoms.
The youthful assurance of the comfortable fit between religion and political morality is at some remove from the RJN who in his last public proclamation as a Lutheran in 1990 urged the ELCA and the LCMS to shut down their church-and-society offices in Washington. Critics on the left argued that he simply transferred his theologically charged moral advocacy from one side of the political spectrum to the other. But that is not actually the case. He became comfortable with his sociocultural conservatism and he clearly thought it compatible with his religious beliefs, but he was as a conservative more careful about drawing direct lines between theology and politics than he had been on the left. On a handful of contested issues—abortion above all—there could be no doubt of the moral imperatives, but Richard for the most part agreed with Reinhold Niebuhr about the moral ambiguity of the political enterprise.
Over the course of his career, Richard worked to disinvest himself—never, to be sure, with complete success—from commitment to politics. It pleased him to be recognized as a public intellectual, but he loved, beyond all else, being a priest. It was his deepest conviction that the true axis mundi was to be found not in the public square but at the Eucharistic table. There, he knew—and we know with him—is where all things are fully and finally made right.