The recent death of Wolfhart Pannenberg prompted us to look through the long correspondence the German theologian had with Richard John Neuhaus, the founder of First Things. Here’s some of what we found.

In over two decades of friendship, Richard John Neuhaus and Wolfhart Pannenberg conspired together to bring religion back to the forefront of the public square. Their correspondence speaks of many things—the joys of intellectual conversation, the driving, dogged hope for ecumenical unity, and the intimacy of genuine friendship. Some letters focus on the mundane—logistics and inquiries about health—others rise to questions of the divine, and still others slide fluently from the mundane to the divine and back again. This ease of conversation was rare, and both Neuhaus and Pannenberg knew it. Their friendship was a private manifestation of their public commitments, and their public collaboration spoke of their deep friendship.

The ecumenical nature of their friendship rings out most clearly, perhaps, in the letters that date around December of 1990, the time of Neuhaus’s conversion from Lutheranism to Catholicism. As Neuhaus became the Catholic he always was, his and Pannenberg’s doctrinal differences would cause moments of tension.

One difficult issue—female ordination—makes a recurring appearance in their letters. In early December 1992, Pannenberg wrote with concerns about John Paul II’s apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis: “My Anglican friends are not very happy about what they consider an exploitation of their situation by the Pope after the decision concerning women’s ordination. I hope that Rome does not use this issue to aggravate the ecumenical situation.”

Neuhaus responded with a letter only five days later, insisting that the fault lay solely with the Anglicans, female ordination being an obvious hindrance to Church unity:

I’m afraid I don’t understand your Anglican friends complaining about Rome’s ‘exploitation’ of their decision on ordaining women. After all, it was their decision. Surely no one can doubt the truth of Rome’s observation that the decision is a grave obstacle to ecclesial reconciliation. Mutual recognition of ministries cannot be selective, including ordained men and leaving out ordained women. You are right, of course, in noting that years ago leading Catholic theologians suggested that this would be no great obstacle. But the magisterium’s statement on the Church not being authorized to ordain women did come out in 1976, which is now sixteen years ago. So what Rome has said in response to the Church of England decision should hardly come as a surprise.

You and I have discussed this before. For Catholics and Orthodox, this change in the tradition has come very rapidly, and they do not feel that they have had an opportunity to develop a comprehensive theological critique of such a radical departure. . . . As we have discussed, and as I have written in the journal, women’s ordination has turned out to be much more important to ecumenism than almost anyone anticipated. It was not so significant when the Lutherans did it, for they had neither an ecclesiology nor doctrine of ministry that militated against it. With Anglicans it is very different. Here in the U.S., and now in England and elsewhere, they made a choice between whatever they considered the compelling reasons to ordain women, on the one hand, and what they have, for more than a century, presented as their ecclesiological self-understanding. So now have to live with unhappy consequences.

Pannenberg responded only after he had heard about Neuhaus’s near death in early 1993. He left the question of women’s ordination aside as he expressed his worries: “I just heard of your surgery. I feel concerned about you and join in the prayer of those near you. I also leant about your encouraging recovery and I hope that it will be complete and restore the full enjoyment of this earthly life.” His prayer was answered.

But this did not stop Pannenberg from challenging Neuhaus half a year later. Pannenberg had concerns that certain members of the Catholic Church—Cardinal Ratzinger in particular—were not taking ecumenism seriously enough. In October of 1993, he wrote Neuhaus, worrying about

the alarming diffidence which your friend Ratzinger recently expressed with regard to ecumenism. It is certainly correct that only the Lord himself can restore the unity of his church, but when he will do so, he’ll achieve it through the members of his church (is not that a nice allusion to Catholic cooperation?) and in the first place through the service of those to whom he entrusted high office in preserving (or restoring) the unity of his church.

In a more light-hearted jab at Ratzinger, Pannenberg wrote Neuhaus on July 7, 1994, saying:

The article of Patricia Lefevere astonished me because of its information that I am a ‘good friend’ of Cardinal Ratzinger. I was not aware of such a close relationship with the Cardinal, before I read that article. But of course, we modern people have to believe the press. I am a little concerned about whether the Cardinal does, but perhaps he doesn’t even read the National Reporter.

Neuhaus and Pannenberg were not immune to the more sorry aspects of human miscommunication. In 1983, after having sent a few letters without receiving a response, Neuhaus asked what was wrong:

Permit me to say again that I am somewhat distressed about your silence over recent months. As much as I appreciated our lunch together last fall, you will have to admit that the time together was somewhat perfunctory, considering the context of our friendship over the years. I am not aware of any way in which I have offended you. If I have, please do let me know what I have done or failed to do.

Pannenberg’s reply, sincere and succinct, assuaged Neuhaus’s worries:

I am sorry for the long delay of my answer to several letters from you and I was about to write this letter today, when I found this morning on my desk your letter of April 28. There is no substantial point behind my silence of the recent months and certainly nothing changed my friendship. I was simply very much in a hurry since the end of the winter term, busy with a number of lectures, so that my projected letter to you was postponed several times. I am sorry that my silence caused distress with you. (May 6, 1983)

Such moments of theological and personal tension were always grounded in—even caused by—a deep respect and concern for one another and for the Church as a whole. Indeed, their theological differences strengthened their friendship more often than they disrupted it.

A couple examples will show this. A salutation from Neuhaus:

Dear Wolf, The time together was great in all respects. At least with respect to our friendship, I trust you will agree that it is evident that the ecclesial divide is of limited consequence, and may enrich as much or more than it impedes. (April 24, 1991)

One from Pannenberg:

Dear Richard, . . . In reading your article, I had the additional satisfaction of remembering your pledge of a complete obedience in connection with your new church allegiance together with the refreshing experience of observing in your article the reemergence of my old friend Richard, coming out fiercely on behalf of America, now even with hard criticism of his recently acquired bishops’ conference. (February 20, 1991)

And a final one from Neuhaus after Pannenberg’s 1994 Erasmus lecture:

What a marvelous week. We are still receiving very warm comments on the public lecture. And, despite some bumpy moments, I am confident that we are still more strongly confirmed in our friendship. Deo gratias. (May 18, 1994)

Bound by charity, ecumenical in the truest sense, they lived out their shared commitment to a unified Church through frequent correspondence and private correction as well as through the practice of theology in the public square. Their friendship was, in Neuhaus’s own words, “proleptic,” “suggest[ing] the beloved community of biblical hope.” May it no longer be merely a suggestion.

Bianca Czaderna has a masters in theology from Notre Dame and is a junior fellow at First Things. J. David Nolan is assistant editor at First Things.

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