September 2004: Richard John Neuhaus was feeling tired and a little glum. This he had not expected, as he observed in a meditative letter to his longtime friend Robert Louis Wilken: “I am not at all, or not usually, dissatisfied with my life and work. I more or less happily do what I do: pray, say Mass, read, write, give speeches, deal with manuscripts and authors, and talk about endless things to be done with what seems to be an endless series of people with an endless series of plans and problems.”
As extensive as this list is, it doesn’t cover everything that Neuhaus did with his days, or how exhausting one other dimension could be, as he then suggests: “In hours of correspondence almost every day, I also do a great deal of what might be described as pastoral counseling.”
For decades, Neuhaus wrote and received dozens of letters every day—the letters from the early 1970s until his death in January 2009 now collected in eighty bankers’ boxes—to and from public figures, religious leaders, friends, foes, allies and potential allies, admiring readers and offended readers, and also ordinary people, often confused and troubled, seeking his guidance. The letters offer a set of demanding exemplars for anyone whose vocation in public life includes frequent personal correspondence, because in almost—almost—every instance, Neuhaus regarded letters sent and letters received as a dynamic dialectic for developing ideas, advancing arguments, forging alliances, and caring for souls.
He decided to write Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy in June 2000, after Kennedy dissented in the Stenberg v. Carhart case regarding Nebraska’s ban on partial-birth abortion, which the Court overturned in a five-to-four decision. “Please accept this note of thanks for your compelling dissent on live-birth abortions,” Neuhaus began, before admitting, “I am among those who have written very critically of your part in Casey, being deeply puzzled in that case by your apparent abandonment of moral and judicial reasoning. At the same time, permit me to suggest that Stenberg is the logical unfolding of Casey, which, in turn, is the product of the lethal logic of Roe. When, God willing, the time comes for the Court to address the judicial and moral root of this great evil, I very much hope you will be there to see that justice is done.” Instead of treating Kennedy’s dissent as a pretext for identifying a welcome, shared position, Neuhaus reaffirms his earlier criticisms of Kennedy’s record on abortion rulings in characteristically blunt terms, and invites him to recognize his own responsibility for the judicial logic informing Stenberg.
In other words, Neuhaus held people to their words, even if doing so prevented the forging of potentially productive partnerships.
This is evident in his correspondence with Robert Schuller, the pastor and televangelist of Crystal Cathedral and Hour of Power fame. In October 1984, after reading The Naked Public Square and watching Neuhaus discuss religion’s place in public life on William F. Buckley Jr.’s Firing Line, Schuller wrote him a note of congratulation.
In it, he also invited Neuhaus to read one of his own books, Self-Esteem: The New Reformation, before ending on an admiring and inquiring note: “Rarely does one encounter a person whose mind is so bright and is also equally gifted at articulating this spontaneity. I saw that in you. I admire it. I salute it and would welcome an opportunity for [a] mutually respectful interchange of ideas.”
Given Schuller’s media reach and national prominence, as well as Neuhaus’ commitments to ecumenism and culture-war alliance-making, this seemed like an excellent opportunity for Neuhaus to pursue some of his leading causes, but he didn’t take it. After expressing gratitude for Schuller’s kind words and offering reciprocal encouragement for his ministry, he issued a conclusive, negative response to his invitation, on theological grounds: “I’m afraid I’m among those who discover themselves having real difficulties with some of the theological underpinnings,” he admitted, citing Schuller’s too-soft formulations about sin.
Some might fault Neuhaus for raising an unnecessary difficulty that prevented an otherwise promising alliance. But he did so because he addressed the offer Schuller made in his letter—to read his work and consider the goods of their exchanging ideas with an eye to future collaborations—not strategically, but sincerely.
He had a very different, and very sharp, response to another offer a few years later. Shortly after the 1992 publication of Doing Well and Doing Good (which incidentally has just been rereleased in a twentieth-anniversary edition), his efforts in this book and elsewhere to make sound, productive connections between John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus and contemporary capitalism met with heated resistance from other American Catholic thinkers, most notably David L. Schindler, one of Neuhaus’ most critical and formidable peers.
Equally critical but less formidable was Daniel Nichols, editor of the now-defunct Catholic journal Caelum et Terra, who also took to print against Neuhaus’ work but then wrote him seeking to turn this dispute into an opportunity for a productive dialogue between them and their magazines. Neuhaus enthusiastically sought and maintained such relations with dozens of fellow editors and writers along a wide spectrum of concerns. He didn’t see the point of doing so with Nichols, given what he regarded as the professionally and morally unconscionable particulars and circumstances of Nichols’ approach to taking him on.
Noting that a copy of this reply was also going to David Schindler, Neuhaus wrote to Nichols, “After having signed a declaration explicitly attacking Doing Well and Doing Good, you now indicate, if I understand your letter, that you have not read the book.” Clearly vexed, he continued,
You also say that you do not read First Things, and suggest a subscription exchange so that “we can resume the conversation with greater sympathy and understanding of one another’s work.” There is, Sir, no conversation to resume. While admittedly ignorant of my views, you have editorially polemicized against my views. That is a serious journalistic offense and a moral wrong. Since I have no intention of making public mention of you or your work, I am under no obligation to acquaint myself further with your writings, and therefore decline your kind invitation to enter upon an exchange of publications.
Because Nichols wrote against him without reading him first, unlike Schindler, and because Neuhaus could not regard his subsequent overture as promising or sincere, he saw no reason to pursue it.
This is a notable and understandable exception to Neuhaus’ general approach to correspondence, which he pursued with prominent and ordinary people alike who regarded him as both a public intellectual figure and a pastor. In December 1995, the noted historian Eugene Genovese complained to Neuhaus that he had too hastily criticized a controversial initiative just then emerging called the “Southern League.” In this letter, Genovese also shared news of his wife Elizabeth’s conversion to Catholicism, before ending on a melancholic personal note that described his own struggles to return to the faith and asking for Neuhaus’ prayers.
A few weeks later, Neuhaus briskly acknowledged Genovese’s “sage counsel” on the question of the Southern League and then turned to the more pressing matter raised in Genovese’s letter—not a public controversy, but his own spiritual condition. He encouraged Genovese to follow the “counsel of venerable Christian figures that, if you would believe, act as though you believe, leaving it to God to know whether you believe, for such leaving it to God is faith.” He then expressed his hope that he had not been “too presumptuous in offering unsolicited spiritual direction,” and ended by enthusiastically inviting Genovese to contribute to First Things in the future.
There were, of course, many letters that didn’t allow for such obviously productive outcomes. These include rants from outraged readers, which Neuhaus often dealt with by smartly quoting the angriest parts back to the writer, so as to suggest that the letter in question was less an invitation to dialogue or even debate than a piece of tantrum-performance art.
In 1989 (the year before First Things began publishing), Neuhaus received a furious missive from a reader demanding to know why he focused so much on critically analyzing the judicial side of the abortion question, rather than on changing the hearts of individual men and women confronting unwanted pregnancies. The letter-writer, seemingly a longtime Neuhaus reader though evidently soured on his prose, predicted, “You don’t have any good answer to that question, but I have no doubt you could come up with a very smart aleck set of words of some kind.” Inspired by this caustic expectation, Neuhaus crisply answered, “Perhaps you can understand if to a mind so firmly closed I do not even attempt an answer.”
More challenging were letters sent in desperation and those sent from the outer boroughs of sanity. The latter included a heated note Neuhaus received in November 2001, full of putatively Catholic prophecy claims surrounding 9/11, including the suggestion that Benjamin Netanyahu was the Beast of the Apocalypse. “To such claims,” Neuhaus wrote back, “I believe the appropriate Catholic response is one of devout caution. The world, and the Church, abounds in such claims.”
Rather than ignore, dismiss, or ridicule them, Neuhaus treated their alarmist citation in this troubling missive as a necessary opportunity for spiritual counsel and correction. His answer is reserved and clipped, where we might expect him instead to draw on the full force of his rhetorical and argumentative powers: Dealing here with an already fevered sensibility, he realized this correspondent didn’t need further incitement but instead a tonic, calming answer.
With letters sent in desperation, Neuhaus was gentle. You can imagine his subtle half-smile when, usually opting for a more positive construal of a brother priest’s ministry, he answered letters from elderly ladies who were exceedingly worried about the doctrinal soundness of their parish priests’ homilies and turning to their favorite scribe as a reliable arbiter of Catholic orthodoxy.
But you can also imagine his face, full of sadness, when he answered a letter from a woman in small-town Kentucky. She sent “Brother Richard John” a six-page, handwritten cry from the heart about her son, a recovering drug addict given a punishing jail sentence for stealing a woman’s purse. In broken grammar and misspelled words, she wrote Neuhaus about a life’s worth of struggles, her enduring love for her imprisoned son, and her unbroken faith in God and the Church, before ending, “I be wait to hear from you, we love you brother.”
This woman didn’t ask Neuhaus to intercede on her son’s behalf. She didn’t even ask for his prayers; she only asked that she hear from him. And she did. Neuhaus wrote her a week later, “You are carrying a heavy cross”; he offered his prayers both for her and for her son; and he recommended that she look for “a priest or other minister of the Gospel in your area, as the church is often the only source of help in troubles such as yours. And I hope,” he finished, “you will also pray for me.”
Set up in Manhattan and rubbing shoulders, trading notes, and sharing drinks and cigars with the great and powerful, Richard John Neuhaus treated his every correspondent as a fellow child of God—like him, always in need of prayer and good counsel which, in thousands upon thousands of letters over his life in the public square, he sought and offered without ceasing.
Randy Boyagoda, a novelist and professor of English at Ryerson University, is writing a biography of Richard John Neuhaus, to be published by Random House in 2014.