Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

A year after Richard John Neuhaus left Martin Luther’s Wittenberg for St. Peter’s Rome, he was interviewed for an Australian publication. He noted the Roman turbulence into which he was plunging, and he remarked, “Cardinal Newman wrote that when he was received into the Catholic Church it was like coming into safe harbor after years on the stormy sea. My experience is the opposite. I was in safe harbor in the Lutheran Church and, in entering the Catholic Church, have embarked on very stormy seas.”

Safe harbor in Lutheran waters? No, not at that point in his life. I knew him well over the course of thirty years. His sofa was my crash site of choice in my frequent visits to New York. I’m surprised he could say it. Catholics treated Richard far better than Lutherans ever did. Of course, he generally was nicer to the Catholics, even as a Lutheran. The short of it is, Richard did not leave Lutheranism. It was a case of the Lutherans leaving him.

Likely it started with the Lutheran Church- ­Missouri Synod’s 1969 slide into fundamentalism and biblical literalism. The Missouri Synod was Richard’s original Lutheran home. The rather sensible cultural and confessional restraint that the Missouri Synod once informally exercised on other Lutheran bodies was over. The American Lutheran Church and the Lutheran Church in America merged into the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in 1987, and together they began a swift tumble into the mainline liberalism of generic American Protestants. Throughout most of that period, Neuhaus was editor of the Lutheran Forum Letter , published with a companion quarterly journal, Lutheran Forum , by the American Lutheran Publicity Bureau. He marked Lutheranism’s course with wit, eloquence, and caustic comment, but saved his better salvos for the Lutherans who became the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Among Missouri Synod reactionaries, Nehuaus was regarded as far too liberal. By the early 1980s, liberal Lutherans regarded him as far too ­conservative.

Real hostility from liberal Lutherans erupted when he examined the distribution of funds for the world-hunger appeal. Money for hunger had became a very successful annual financial appeal. It was Richard’s suggestion in Forum Letter that perhaps as little as 25 percent of the several millions collected yearly were in fact being spent on helping people who were hungry. Instead, most of it was being spent on programmatic advocacy projects, all “hunger related,” to be sure. Richard put forth the not unreasonable notion that money for hunger ought to be used in alleviating actual hunger. Though the percentages have changed, the fact is most of the ELCA’s nineteen state advocacy offices, inherited from the LCA in the merger, would have to close, along with the Washington, D.C., Lutheran Office of Governmental Affairs, were it not for hunger-appeal funds underwriting the lobbying budgets of those agencies.

And then there was his support for the Institute on Religion and Democracy, that 60 Minutes interview where he took note of “bishops consorting with the enemies of Christ,” and always the pages of Forum Letter . The board of the publication went through extensive personnel changes between 1982 and 1985, as one board member after another broke with Neuhaus. At the time when I became a board member in 1983, there was strong sentiment among a minority of members to have him fired. The man did have a way of sifting through his board members, time to time.

Moreover, he was deeply skeptical of the merger process that brought the ALC, LCA, and a small liberal wing of the Missouri Synod together as the ELCA. Merger among Lutherans was not the sort of Christian unity he sought, nor did he see it as the proper goal of churches claiming the Augsburg Confession as their own. For Lutherans, the goal of Christian unity properly was renewed communion with Rome. Richard’s driving business in these years was driving Lutherans out of business.

If there was anything Richard could argue for as a Lutheran, it was the catholicity of the Lutheran Confessions. This included liturgical renewal, recapturing the rich eucharistic theology Lutherans enjoyed at the time of the Reformation and after, but lost to subsequent generations, and a reappropriation of episcopal ordering. Sounds strange to put it this way, but Richard was a Vatican II Lutheran. Ecumenically, Rome was home for Lutherans.

The Lutheran impulse has always gravitated in one of two directions: Roman Catholicism or Protestantism. Evangelical catholics warm to the first. By 1990 the divide was sharp. That year, the three major independent Lutheran publications” Lutheran Forum , Dialog , and Lutheran Quarterly ”organized a Call to Faithfulness conference at St. Olaf College. It was intended to bring both wings together. What it exposed, however, was the continuing and intractable divide between protestant and catholic Lutherans.

Earlier that spring, I asked Richard if he was planning to “pull a Newman” and become Catholic. He denied it, and I believed him. I still do. I have learned from a mutual friend that it was only following the St. Olaf conference that his decision was made.

He was tired of intramural Lutheranism”and yet, Richard’s hold over the imagination of evangelical catholics remained strong. By moving to Rome, his departure posed the question: Does evangelical catholicism properly lead to Rome? And if not, why not?

In the wake of Neuhaus’ departure and my appointment as his Forum Letter successor, I spent a lot of time trying to answer those questions. It is a testament to Neuhaus’ continuing influence that, when I left the editorship of Forum Letter in 2007, the board selected him as the speaker at my retirement dinner. His presence put the question uppermost in my mind. Had any other speaker been chosen that evening, my departing remarks would not have been so pointedly addressed to him. Indeed, I would have found another topic altogether. But I took that moment to again assert that there are still good reasons for remaining Lutheran, and I listed them.

Over dinner the next evening which included my wife, a former Roman Catholic, Richard shot back each of my points and glumly pronounced that my arguments ultimately failed. Trouble is, I think he was more than half right.

Russell E. Saltzman is a pastor at Ruskin Heights Lutheran Church in Kansas City. He was Richard John Neuhaus’ successor as editor of Forum Letter in 1990 , a post he held until 2007.