Recently, I came across an essay by Professor Cathleen Kaveny, published in Commonweal magazine, criticizing Fr. Richard John Neuhaus for sowing division among members of the Body of Christ. Her charge is that—for political reasons—Neuhaus was more interested in forging alliances with Evangelical Protestants and orthodox Jews than with those progressive Catholics with whom he fully shared the faith.
Leaving aside Judaism for the moment, I’d like to concentrate on Neuhaus’s work with Evangelical Christians, work with which I am deeply familiar. Along with Chuck Colson, Neuhaus established Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT), a bilateral ecumenical initiative, in 1994. Kaveny gives the impression that Neuhaus established ties with Evangelicals mainly because of common positions on same-sex marriage, abortion, women’s ordination, etc. She concludes that “Neuhaus’s focus was on nurturing these commonalities in the American political context—he was building a political movement.” She further states that Neuhaus’s project was aimed at “treating theological belief and commitment as mere instruments of political will….”
These are extraordinary charges—allegations that are far from the truth. I worked with Neuhaus on ecumenical issues from 1995 until his death in 2009. Together with Timothy George, dean of Beeson Divinity School, I recently edited a book of documents issued by ECT over the past twenty years. These statements carefully examine theological topics such as justification by faith and the relationship between Scripture and tradition, as well as theologically informed cultural issues such as religious freedom and marriage. Neuhaus was convinced, as any Christian must be, that the Gospel informs and illuminates every area of human life. The documents of ECT reflect that belief.
One of Neuhaus’s central convictions, outlined most capaciously in The Naked Public Square, and continued throughout First Things, is that religiously informed moral conviction cannot be marginalized from society at large. As he often stated, whatever the separation of church and state might mean, it cannot mean a disjunction between public policy and the deepest held convictions of the nation’s citizenry. Religious men and women are fully citizens and, therefore, have every right to bring their moral convictions into the public square. Christians seek, Neuhaus wrote, neither a naked public square (with religious belief marginalized) nor a sacred public square (with theocratic imposition), but a civil public square open to a wide range of beliefs wherein religious men and women can conduct their lives and work in accordance with their deepest convictions.
While Neuhaus wanted Evangelicals and Catholics to participate in formulating the nation’s policies, this joint action needed to be rooted in their foundational identity as brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ. Indeed a major impetus behind the formation of ECT was concern that the relationship between Catholics and Evangelicals in South America had turned rancorous and adversarial. Neuhaus and Colson wanted to avoid another “Belfast of religious warfare” south of the Rio Grande. The face of Christ should not again be besmirched by Christian divisions. Their firm hope was that a serious Evangelical-Catholic theological dialogue, with an honest search for Christian unity, could offer a fraternal word of hope to other nations.
This is why both Neuhaus and Colson rejected the position of “co-belligerency,” an approach still found in some quarters of the Evangelical world. According to this point of view, Catholics and Evangelicals can be political allies, jointly fighting culture wars, but cannot be considered Christian brethren because of the significant theological differences existing between them. In other words, they can talk together, but they cannot really be together. Ironically, this is the position that Kaveny adopts—that there are vast theological differences between Evangelicals and Catholics and, therefore, any “alliance” between them must be a purely pragmatic and political one. This is precisely the stance that Neuhaus and Colson rejected. Any witnessing together on public square issues must be grounded in a common faith in the Holy Trinity, in Jesus Christ, the Eternal Word made flesh, and in the Bible, the written word of God which norms Christian life, thought and action.
The Catholic world recently celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the Second Vatican Council. One of the great achievements of that synod was its extraordinarily important decree on ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio). The document opens with this sentence: “The restoration of unity among all Christians is one of the principal concerns of the Second Vatican Council.” The council goes on to speak of its urgent desire that “every effort be made toward the gradual realization of this unity, especially by prayer, and by fraternal dialogue on points of doctrine and the more pressing pastoral problems of our time” (no. 18). It is just here, rather than in some alleged desire for political alliances, that one finds the motive for Fr. Neuhaus’s unstinting ecumenical efforts.
Fr. Thomas G. Guarino, professor of systematic theology at Seton Hall University, is co-chairman of Evangelicals and Catholics Together. He is editor, with Timothy George, of Evangelicals and Catholics Together at Twenty: Vital Statements on Contested Topics (Brazos, 2015).