I spent the morning browsing through obituaries for our friend, Fr. Neuhaus. For those interested, here are my own reminiscences, online today in the Weekly Standard.
I lack the strength today to say all that needs to be said—praise, mostly—for the writing poured out for the occasion. But there are three about which, I suppose, something needs to be said.
I didn’t ever know Damon Linker well. I met him just a few times and never had much of a serious conversation with him. Nor have I ever bothered to engage him in public exchanges, though perhaps I should have. Anyway, if you’re interested in his comments and what seems a reasonable response, you can read Ross Douthat over at the Atlantic‘s website. My overall response is one of pity. There’s something so sad in watching Damon’s trying to make a career out of the fact that he briefly worked for Fr. Neuhaus, and it makes my heart fall to see him still at it.
The second consists of Rod Dreher’s postings over at Beliefnet. Again, if you’re interested and want to read a reasonable response, Alan Jacobs has taken on the burden. My own reaction is much like Alan’s: The duties we owe to the dead are different from the duties we owe to the living; if you’re going to attack someone with a personal story, you need to do it while they are alive. I made a parallel point about parents last year, in a long essay called “The Judgment of Memory,” which may be worth quoting:
Every memoir of childhood is necessarily overshadowed by parents, and I could find, were I to turn my mind that way, stories of my father’s drinking, his pretension, his bounce.
But my father, being dead, is not here either to be triumphed over by my telling of those stories or to defend himself against them. The death of parents leaves their honor in their children’s hands, and the cruel accuracies we might fling in anger against them while they are alive seem even more wrong to use against them once they are gone. “To the living, we owe respect; to the dead, only truth,” Voltaire once opined. It’s a good line: high-minded, confident, sententious in the way only enlightened French philosophes could manage with any aplomb. But it also feels exactly backward, particularly about those we knew and loved. To squabble with our vanished parents about how they lived their lives seems more than a metaphysical nullity. It is, in fact, a moral failing.
Rod and I were friends, I thought, or, at least, we spent some fun days together in Rome once. But then, a while ago, he used me as an occasion for an unpleasant column he wrote attacking Scooter Libby. I guess I should have understood, and, no doubt, he felt it all strongly. But, in truth, that cashing in of a friendship for the sake of scoring a transient political point was as painful an experience as I’ve had in public life, and Rod Dreher’s eagerness to do it weakened my ability to trust the kind of points he now wants to score by cashing in on his acquaintance with Fr. Neuhaus.
Finally, there is Douglas Kmiec’s odd obituary. I’m tempted to say a reasonable response can be found here, but some readers may not appreciate the profanity. Anyway, Kmiec’s attempt to pose himself as a friend and dialogue partner of Fr. Neuhaus may be the saddest and most pathetic of all the responses to this recent death. “It absolutely delighted Father John that the Holy Father gave American Catholics credit for resisting the secular trends of Western Europe,” Kmiec writes—to which the only response is: Who the hell ever called Richard by the name “Father John”? Only people who didn’t actually know him and want, after his death, to pretend that they did.
After the funeral, I may have the strength to comment on the other notices of Fr. Neuhaus’ death—many of them beautiful, many of them fair, and many of them deserving recognition. For a list that is being assembled by the young people in our office, visit this page.