The stained-glass chancel windows at St. Paul's Chapel on the Columbia campus form a triptych in which the Apostle Paul is shown preaching to a small crowd on the Areopagus. You know the episode in the Acts of the Apostles. In Jerusalem, Paul met with vehement protest, but in Athens it's mostly smugness. The Athenians are curious at first, supposing that Paul might have some intellectual novelty to offer them. Then he starts in about the Resurrection, which strikes their ears as fantastic religious fiction of the sort their culture had long been steeped in and was now weary of. Some scoff. Others are tactful and say they'd like to hear more about it some other time. So Paul picks up and leaves. That's that. You can't win them all. “However,” Luke adds, “certain individuals clove to him and believed.”
That scene was always in the background whenever Richard John Neuhaus stood in the pulpit at Columbia. During the spring semester of 2004, the school's Catholic chaplain asked him to say the 5 p.m. Mass on Sundays. After a few years we were calling it a tradition: Fr. Neuhaus at Columbia in the spring. He kept it going through 2008, the last spring semester of his life.
No one could remember the last time a Catholic priest had used that pulpit. For decades the practice had been to give the homily at ground level. It was old-school of Fr. Neuhaus, and he risked creating the impression that he was authoritarian, talking to us from on high, but his tone—serious but never seriously self-referential—established quickly enough that the meaning of this gesture was that it was the preaching office that was elevated, not the man except insofar as he was operating in persona Christi.
An intense speaker with a strong presence, he had the good manners to modulate it. Like Paul, he was blessed with zeal, a great deal of fire in the belly, and worked not so much to create an effect—that came naturally—as to control it. He was a power pitcher who threw 101 mph without trying. This freed him up to concentrate on locating his pitches, on choosing his words and analogies and shaping his figures of speech.
He did not dwell on abortion, but he would visit the subject from time to time in his homilies, usually from the standpoint of one who identifies with the aborted. For some in the congregation this was probably disturbing. One of the few adults there older than thirty, I could never stop myself from hearing him as I imagined the college students did. Surely some sneered. Others, not sure what to make of him—he was intellectual like their professors but more unembarrassed about his faith than were the pastors of their suburban parishes back home—probably created mental folders into which they copied various of his hard sayings so they could return to all that, perhaps, when finals were over. Some students did cleave to him and believed along with him. It's not so much that he changed their minds as that he showed them how to articulate what they already thought.
“He's kind of a famous neocon,” Mary Gordon, who teaches at Barnard, was quoted as saying in an article in the Columbia Spectator (“Catholics Divided Over Father's Politics,” April 6, 2006). “The Bush administration uses him to try to create a connection between right-wing Protestant evangelicals and right-wing Catholics.” To the alliance between orthodox Protestants and orthodox Catholics he made the brunt of his contribution well before George W. Bush took office, but never mind. The barbed language and the rough misrepresentation of his work were what the story demanded. The reporter needed a quote to typify the scoffers, and Gordon delivered.
An undergraduate magazine ran a long, largely favorable profile of him the next year. The writer spoke with several of Columbia's leading lights, including Philip Kitcher of the philosophy department. To no one's surprise, the professor thought “the secular standards are the right ones,” but the thrust of his comment was that he agreed with Richard Neuhaus on an important point. “People who find themselves wanting to insert religious texts and religious authority into public life,” he said, “are in fact recognizing something correct: namely, the nonneutrality of secular reason.”
“Secular humanism,” as Fr. Neuhaus put it, “is simply the term unhappily chosen for ersatz religion.” The Greeks, who knew no religion that wasn't ersatz, needed St. Paul to tell them what they meant by “an unknown god.” Neither he on the Areopagus nor Fr. Neuhaus on the Acropolis of New York preached only what everyone wanted to hear. They preached only what we needed to hear. We still do.
Nicholas Frankovich is publications director of the Society for American Baseball Research.