Richard John Neuhaus had a big life, but his day-by-day world was a small one. There was his comfortable, though hardly luxurious, apartment in the townhouse occupied by the Community of Christ in the City on Nineteenth Street; the Immaculate Conception parish where he served as priest a few blocks to the south; and the First Things offices fifteen minutes west of the house (less, at Richard’s brisk pace).
I was intimately involved in the first and last of those worlds. I worked with Richard at First Things from its beginnings in March 1990 through the end of 2003. Our working relationship was always close and collegial, though both of us recognized who was editor and who editor in chief. (Richard would never have been comfortable in a number-two position.) He was not exactly an easy boss, but he was an excellent one. If you did your job—he was, to put it mildly, impatient with incompetence—he left you alone to do it. He delegated well and did not micromanage. Unlike people lacking in self-confidence, he tolerated, even encouraged, disagreement. If your arguments were strong enough, he could change his mind. His judgment was mostly sound (more so on issues than people), though, as is not unusual with those who are brilliant, he sometimes decided too quickly.
In fourteen years of collaboration, we had only one really big disagreement. That was over the November 1996 “End of Democracy?” issue, which I thought went too far—not in its concern over judicial usurpation but in bringing into question the legitimacy of the American regime. We argued long and hard over that, and in the controversy that followed he would have liked me to offer more personal support than I could give. We got past it eventually, but it was an awful time that neither of us entirely forgot.
His work ethic was extraordinary. I used to tease him that he was a Lutheran turned Catholic who behaved like a Calvinist. He typically rose early, prayed, read the New York Times (quickly), said early Mass at the parish, and returned home to work the rest of the morning in his basement office. He walked over to the First Things office shortly after lunch and worked there steadily—he wasn’t much for schmoozing at work—until returning to the house for evening prayer at seven. He usually did more reading and writing until around nine before breaking off for a drink or two and a late dinner. He continued his work routine on weekends, though there was a communal dinner on Saturday, and he sometimes eased off on Sunday night as well.
My most vivid recollections of Richard are of him presiding as host in his apartment. I spent thousands of hours there, and for the last eight and a half years that I lived in New York, my apartment was two floors above his. He was—with no one else even close—the most memorable conversationalist I have ever known. He loved an appreciative audience, and Saturday nights over drinks and dinner were occasions for telling and retelling favorite stories of his remarkable life.
There was childhood in the large pastor’s family in Canada’s Ottawa Valley, and being tossed out of second grade as ineducable; adolescence in the United States, and again being kicked out of school, this time a Lutheran prep school in Nebraska, for general incorrigibility, followed by ranching adventures in Texas with Uncle Billy and running a filling station that quickly went broke because, as he confessed, he paid himself too generous a salary. Then finagling his way into college—he took great pride in being the only member of the Lutheran ministerium without a high-school diploma—and the years at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, where, under the guidance of Arthur Carl Piepkorn, he learned how a Lutheran could be a catholic Christian.
The brief sojourn as pastor of a tiny congregation in upstate New York—a punitive assignment intended, without much effect, to impart a lesson in humility—and then, recalled always with great affection, “the glory days” at St. John the Evangelist, the inner-city parish in Brooklyn that he built into perhaps the best-known congregation in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. It was there that he established a national reputation as a leader in the civil rights and antiwar movements.
But those evenings weren’t just monologues. Richard loved to talk, but he also loved intellectual exchange. His curiosity was boundless, and conversation was for him—in addition to its intrinsic delights—a way of learning. He liked talking to people who were experts in one thing or another and making their knowledge his own. He knew more about more things than anyone I’ve encountered, though he was happily ignorant about sports and not ever to be trusted about anything that involved mathematics or statistics. (If you listened to him, the readership of First Things approached that of Reader’s Digest, and, if trends continued at their current pace, Catholics would soon constitute 112 percent of world Christianity.)
There were a great many evenings with just the two of us, talking about anything and everything, watching movies (thanks to Richard’s endless capacity for enjoying old favorites, I know the dialogue of A Man for All Seasons pretty much by heart), or throwing darts (though that ended when I hit a hot streak and started winning more often than not).
About most important matters we agreed, though not about religion after he turned Catholic and I stayed Lutheran. On theology we were reasonably close, on ecclesiology far apart. We prayed together in the community every night but could not commune at the same altar on Sunday mornings. Good priest that he was, it frustrated him that I was oblivious to the obvious solution of joining him in the much larger community at Immaculate Conception. That divided us, of course, though it didn’t affect our working relationship, and, by the end of my years at First Things, we had both learned to live with it.
When cancer first attacked him in 1993, I thought he was going to die, and one late night, when he seemed weak beyond recall, I told him I loved him. I didn’t get the opportunity to repeat that when the cancer returned, but I don’t think I needed to. All those years of good work and good talk spoke for themselves.
James Nuechterlein, a senior fellow of the Institute on Religion and Public Life, was the editor of First Things from 1990 to 2003.
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