Richard John Neuhaus was born seventy-six years ago last week. A friend made note of it at the time, and it sent my mind tumbling again into memories of the friendship we had.
Theres little doubt in my mind that compared to all the people he knew and befriended in life, I was a bit player. Yet he treated me and my children generously. I made sure they met him. I managed to haul five of my seven to New York to meet him and, sure, show them off. My second son, Richard John, is named for him. My Richards photograph hung in Neuhaus bathroom photo gallery alongside the famous.
If the Institute on Religion and Public Life had turned the place into a shrine for tourists, my son would still be there sharing space with Ronald Reagan, John Paul II, diplomas and awards, and photographs of him receiving awards. Richard kept such things in the bathroom; he wanted to show them off but, considering the location, didnt want anyone thinking he was being pretentious.
Most of my travels to New York found me crashing on his sofa. This, I enjoy pointing out, is the same sofa where once sat the likes of Robert Bork, Benedict XVI (as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger), Robert P. George, Chuck Colson, Avery Dulles, George Weigel, and others.
While he once was off to Poland I stayed in his apartment. But for this privilege I was made to share dog-sitting duty for Sammy II. That great ugly beast tried to climb into bed with me. I dont know if that was habit or whether, as Neuhaus suggested, she had found a patsy. The dog drank out of the toilet too. When I complained to Neuhaus, he suggested I look at things from Sammys perspective. She might ask why you are peeing in her water bowl. Richard always examined things from several directions.
For sixteen years, until 1990, Neuhaus edited Forum Letter , a publication of the American Lutheran Publicity Bureau (ALPB). Thats how I became acquainted with him; I found Forum Letter in the seminary library when I was a first year seminarian and we struck up a correspondence. I didnt meet him personally until some seven years later when I brought him to speak at a theological conference in our local synod.
By then he was very controversial in Lutheran circles, progressively shedding his radical credentials and even eschewing the comfortable liberalism into which most Lutheran denominations were sinking. He was speaking sternly on abortion, raising questions on how Lutheran offices were using, if not misusing, funds collected from the faithful for hunger relief and, perhaps most notoriously, he accused the National Council of Churches of Christ on 60 Minutes of consorting with the enemies of Christ in communist lands.
While a Lutheran, Richard was a singular voice for what is called the evangelical catholic wing of American Lutheranism, those Lutherans who do not regard the Augsburg Confession as a declaration of independence, but as an effort to mend the breach. His was not the only voice, but it was one of the clearest. When he resigned as Forum Letter editor in early 1990, the ALPB board appointed me as his successor.
Since his 1987 The Catholic Moment I had guessed where he was headed. When we discussed the editorial transition three years later, I bluntly asked if he was getting ready to pull a Newman. He insisted otherwise, and at the time, I think, he was sincere. But events among Lutherans that summer convinced him the Lutheran confessional jig was up. So off he went: home, his Catholic friends said. Fulfilling the promise of the Lutheran Reformation, he said. A little of both, I think.
Yet I dont and never did begrudge it. He called me with the news after my first issue of Forum Letter . He was my friend, I told him, and I loved him. I dont remember what I said after that. Maybe I said everything a friend needed to say.
A year after Richard became Catholic we had a long, long conversation. He had found in Catholicism everything he sought as a Lutheran. He wanted me to “come over.”
Richard was sometimes whimsical. And naive as well. He advocated my appointment as his successor at Forum Letter . I felt I owed the ALPB some stability and, here’s a fine point, I wasn’t Richard Neuhaus. I would have to return to seminary, plus I was married, plus I had more kids than I ever thought Id own. I needed work, a job, water-wings for the Tiber. I could not do it, not professionally, not personally.
As late as 2008, I had a letter from him outlining the same arguments. I explained it again. I know he understood; he just didnt like it. It added a dynamic or a tension to our friendship, but that was a small thing. He did say once that in the vastness of Gods mercy we traveled together still.
Circumstances frequently conspire to keep us where we are, not, I think, always for our own purposes but often for God’s as well. God “made” me a Lutheran by birth and I have sought to bloom where planted. But it is as a Lutheran I have gained some very catholic convictions, not least due to Richards friendship.
Russell E. Saltzman is a Lutheran pastor, an online homilist for the Christian Leadership Center at the University of Mary, and author of The Pastors Page and Other Small Essays . He was editor of Forum Letter from 1990 until 2007. His previous On the Square articles can be found here .
American Lutheran Publicity Bureau
The Catholic Moment
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