In his insightful new biography, Richard John Neuhaus: A Life in the Public Square, Randy Boyagoda recounts the extraordinary journey of the man who many believe was “the most consequential public theologian in America since the days of Reinhold Niebuhr and John Courtney Murray.”
Born into a large Canadian Lutheran family in 1936, Richard Neuhaus began life as a rebel, dropping out of high-school at sixteen and wandering all the way to Texas to begin running a gas station. He eventually matured, and found his way into Concordia Seminary, following in his father’s footsteps in becoming a Lutheran minister.
Having been appointed pastor at St. John the Evangelist Church, a poor and racially diverse congregation in Brooklyn, the young Rev. Neuhuas hit the ground running, joining all the major causes of the 1960’s. He spoke out for civil rights and social justice, and denounced the Vietnam War with Christian fervor. He became friends and allies with the most famous religious activists of the day—the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., Fr. Daniel Berrigan and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, among others.
The 1970’s brought disappointment—and reflection. Shocked by the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade ruling, and the Communist atrocities in post-war Vietnam, he expected his progressive colleagues to denounce both. But with notable exceptions, few did. Their silence was a betrayal of true social justice and moral consistency. Neuhaus held fast to his principles and wrote The Naked Public Square, a brilliantly-sustained argument on the essential role of faith and morality in the contemporary world.
At the same time that Neuhaus was contending with the secular world, he was engaged in a lively discussion with his own religious community, which he thought misunderstood Luther’s original purpose—that is, to seriously reform the Catholic Church, not to break free of it. As Boyagoda describes in fascinating detail, these two compelling interests gradually led Neuhaus to found the ecumenically-minded First Things in 1990—and, soon thereafter, to convert to the Catholic Church. He would become a Catholic priest a year later. Because Fr. Neuhaus and First Things took strong conservative stands on numerous controversial issues, he and the magazine were often criticized for being too ideological, and above all, for attaching themselves to the Republican Party. But as Boyagoda’s fair-minded biography shows, First Things was far more diverse, publishing articles challenging the GOP, and even assailing the policies of modern American conservatism.
Fr. Neuhaus was always his own best defender. In 2005, he appeared on C-Span for three straight hours, giving profound and eloquent explanations about his faith and political views, ably answering those who had misrepresented them. Two years later, he engaged in a debate before a largely secular New York audience—defending the role of religion in public life—and won.
He was also a courageous defender of the priesthood and supported good priests who came under fire simply for being orthodox. A life-long opponent of racism and anti-Semitism, he also publicly challenged fashionable prejudices—particularly anti-Catholicism and anti-Mormonism—when others wouldn’t.
Because Neuhaus was such a prominent figure, and so involved in the major political debates of his time, he is often criticized for having compromised his faith. But those who say Neuhaus was more politician than priest miss the mark. Fr. Neuhaus always saw himself—first and foremost—as a pastor and parish priest. The source and summit of his life was celebrating the Mass, hearing confessions, and attending to the needs of his flock. He loved to write, yes, but he did so in hopes that people would espouse the good—and by doing so, to turn toward their Savior.
His influence on people was far-reaching, crossing all kinds of social and political divides. When Professor Andrew Koppelman—a committed social liberal—heard of Neuhaus’s death in 2009, he recalled a pro-life conference he had attended at Harvard:
Father Neuhaus gave the closing address. . . . I remember being struck by his eloquence, even though I disagreed with nearly everything he said. . . . He did as good a job as anyone has of making me understand what those issues look like from that political perspective. I particularly remember being struck by how he addressed the palpable sense of frustration in the room. I’m pretty sure that these are nearly his exact concluding words: ‘We should not mourn, rather we should be glad that we are not God. We should be glad that God is God.’
In front of an audience that was inured to political defeat—the 20th anniversary of Roe v. Wade had just passed—he aimed to forestall despair, and I thought that this was a lovely way of putting his point, one that connected even with an agnostic like me.
Truly, as Randy Boyagoda so skillfully shows, America's “most consequential public theologian since Reinhold Niebuhr” was consequential in more ways than one.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII. His previous articles can be found here.