Some virtues may be learned, others are inborn. Punctuality, for example, can be taught, at least in the sense that the costs for procrastination can be made too high. I suspect every West Point cadet shows up for class on time, but such a cadet never enrolls in an elective course called “Learning Courage.” You either have it or you don't.
I offer this potted version of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics because, for as long as I knew him, I was always impressed by how naturally brave Richard John Neuhaus was, so much so that I wonder if he was aware of his innate courage. “Nothing daunted, nothing won,” goes the proverb; and he won a lot. His book The Naked Public Square not only initiated a conversation, it began a movement. Evangelicals and Catholics Together not only made real advances in ecumenical relations, it altered the way ecumenism was pursued. His magazine First Things not only established itself within the first year of its publication as the premier organ of publicly accessible religious argument, it often set the terms for that debate, whether it be on the American experiment, the judicial usurpation of politics, the sex-abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, or, above all, abortion.
On that last point, everyone in the pro-life movement now sees the cause as quintessentially one of civil rights. Prior to 1973, however, the debate was often seen as one of birth control, and thus of sexual ethics, and for that reason a peculiarly Catholic hang-up. But Fr. Neuhaus had the history and reputation to make the civil-rights argument convincing, not just on its merits but also because, from his early days as a Lutheran pastor, he was involved in the civil rights movement itself (among his other commitments, he marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma in 1963). Moreover, he saw as early as 1968 how liberals were veering away from the language of universal rights to a utilitarian calculus in their advocacy of “abortion reform”—in other words, long before other liberals broke with that ideology and launched neoconservatism. What his critics saw as a revanchist hearkening to theocracy was actually Richard just being ahead of his times, as he always was.
He also had the most genuinely liberal mind I have ever known—liberal in the old-fashioned sense of the word, meaning an openness to the full range of ideas swirling about in the public square. His openness to new ideas and arguments of course never meant that he abandoned his critical faculties in the midst of his prodigious reading and conversation (I presume that goes without saying), but his ability to absorb and then summarize an argument—fairly, lucidly, and generously—was peerless.
That liberality of spirit was also no doubt the source of his editorial genius (no other word will do). He always knew how to elicit the very best work from his many contributors to First Things. The level of engagement in his authors was extraordinarily high, making the magazine a kind of university without walls. I remember one devoted reader telling me that subscribing to First Things was like belonging to a highbrow book club: It was a commitment that demanded the best of the reader to meet the quality of the contributions.
The Bible often speaks of heaven as a banquet, of which the Eucharist is but the foretaste. Whenever I was in New York, I never passed up an opportunity to join his community on Nineteenth Street for Saturday evening repast. We always began at seven with Vespers (from the Lutheran hymnal), then repaired to drinks (Vespers II), after which came several hours of conversation over the dinner table. Time and again, as the bonhomie grew warmer (and often enough, the debate more heated), I would remind myself: Just think, Edward, heaven will be even more fun. But if heaven ends up being only as much fun, I will be content, eternally.
Edward T. Oakes, S.J., teaches theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake, the seminary of the Archdiocese of Chicago.