On March 7, 2015, Randy Boyagoda of Ryerson College, R. R. Reno of First Things, and Raymond de Souza and Peter Stockland of Convivium, discussed the legacy of Richard John Neuhaus and the life of magazines in a panel discussion hosted at St. Jean-Baptiste parish of Dominican University College in Ottawa, Ontario. What follows is a selected transcript of their remarks.
Randy Boyagoda's Opening Remarks
What I'd like to do is say a little bit about this book in the context of how words create worlds, and Fr. Neuhaus would be a signal example of this. Words create worlds when, for Fr. Neuhaus and others who care about religion, it is inspired by the Word. That is the more meaningful intersection between the Word: the Word made flesh, the Word of God, and the words that we all speak in public life in trying to make an argument out of that faith about how we ought to order our lives together.
I thought I would draw attention to moments in this biography, why, for Fr. Neuhaus, words mattered as much as they did. He was interested in those who retained a signal power in public life, people who “mint and market the metaphors by which public consciousness is shaped.” In other words, the ability of someone to come up with a phrase, a turn that offers a sort of masterful insight, that captures a moment and draws on its own explanatory power to say something about the world we're in. Two signal phrases I'd like to draw attention to: First Things, the title of the magazine he founded in 1990. A magazine that draws on the best that has been thought, said, and prayed in the Judeo-Christian tradition and brings it to bear upon contemporary life. That these do have something to say as to how we order our common lives together. This becomes a shorthand, where I can have First Things moments with friends of mine, where you realize that there is a radical difference between some of us, and it has to do with whether some of us believe in first things or not.
The other phrase that really matters to Fr. Neuhaus is “The Naked Public Square.” This was the phrase for his 1984 book that really catapulted him into national prominence. It was his attempt to argue about the consequences of an American public life that prevented the salutary drawing upon of religiously informed principles for politics, for culture. What happens when you're not allowed as a person of faith to speak from your deepest convictions to matters of singular importance in the world around you. Fr. Neuhaus made this case against two groups. One would be secular progressives who would want no place whatsoever for religion in public life. Probably for most of us, these are the groups we would think of as the great challenge to a religiously informed public philosophy. But Fr. Neuhaus actually argued that there was another group that was somewhat just as problematic. For him it was the Moral Majority. In other words, a Christian fundamentalism that had no publicly available account for how religion should matter in politics and public life but instead says, “you need to believe this because we believe this about the Bible.” It presumed a shared theological commitment for the first principles of how we live our lives together. Fr. Neuhaus would argue that in a country where there was no established church, in a country that was pluralist and democratic, these are not the terms that give account as to how we live our lives together.
Here's perhaps the most important point I want to make today. By the late 1980s Neuhaus realized that the conservatism he espoused, which was cosmopolitan, forward-looking, and integrative, really did not make sense with the conservatism that Rockford was espousing: traditionalist, reactive, and a little more closed. This led to a big break-up that made national news when Neuhaus and his staff were kicked out of their offices of This World. So there he was, in the rain, May 1989, standing on a New York street-corner, holding his belongings in a garbage bag. What do we have one year later? First Things magazine. What happened in-between? Neuhaus realized that there was a need in the world for a cosmopolitan, religiously-serious engagement of culture. That it wasn't simply another conservative magazine. That there could be a community of readers and writers, demonstrated by the past twenty-five years by First Things and the past four years by Convivium, that there are people who care about the issues of the day and want to see these issues explored from the vantage point of first things, from a religiously-informed sensibility. That in many ways is the major achievement of Neuhaus's life. Not First Things, but the community that First Things created. The conversation that First Things created. From words to worlds.
Neuhaus was essentially loyal to modernity. I think the modern liberal project in politics and culture was something that he thought required a Christian foundation. He saw himself as being loyal to modernity in his shift to a more conservative voice in the second half of his life. I don't think he saw it as changing his loyalty so much as recognizing that progressive cultural politics was actually undermining the basis for the thing he loved: a vibrant, energetic, creative culture that gives people space for personal freedom and encourages a genuine pluralism.
When Peter Stockland and I began this project [Convivium], we had a very long gestation period. We had to call it something, before it had its name, obviously modeled on Fr. Neuhaus's First Things. We didn't actually have a name for the longest time. One of the internal, colloquial, joking names was Frost Things. Or Frigid Things. The Archbishop of Toronto still calls it Second Things. Eventually, it got called Convivium. One of the most impressive things about Fr. Neuhaus was his interest in young people's lives that he had no reason to be interested in. I was one of them. He was an important man in my own life. When I was ordained for the priesthood, he preached at my first Mass. When he died, I preached at his funeral mass. The funeral mass homily was called, The Great Convivium. It was a word he used often. He'd say, “at the end of our convivium.” By that he meant, the gathering together. Convivium is usually translated from the Latin into English as banquet but it means literally ‘life together.' He achieved that.
In 2008, Fr. Neuhaus was very sick. I flew down to New York to be with him. It was our last long evening together. That was the advice he gave: “If you want to spread an idea, write a book. If you want to create a community, launch a magazine.” This is tied to my own vocation at a university chaplaincy, where we try to create a community in which people can live the faith in a natural, normal, healthy, happy way. In this culture that is always losing—sometimes rapidly, sometimes slowly—its Christian roots, the task of the Church is to create communities where the faith can live happily, and can be handed on to others. For a writer, one way to do this is with words. This has great echoes in our Christian tradition because we are a culture of the Word, based on an encounter with the Word made flesh.
One of the extraordinary things about that is, when I first met Fr. Neuhaus in 1994, I already felt I knew him, as did most of the people he would meet. Because we knew his words. That was a rare gift.
When Richard John Neuhaus came of age as a writer, it was the 1960s. One of the key features of journalism in the 1960s was what we now call The New Journalism. The idea being that the writer is part of the story. That it was false to pretend that you were some kind of disembodied voice without a stake in what's happening. Obviously Fr. Neuhaus is different from someone like Hunter S. Thompson, but one of the things that carried forward from his formation was his willingness to be part of the story. Not just in the sense of name-dropping, like “I was chatting with Pope John Paul II over pizza at St. Peter's.” Not that, though he loved doing that as well. But rather a willingness to realize that he had a personal stake in this larger story. It was a stance akin to: “I am fully invested in the consequences of the tale I am telling.” That's a large part of why people felt that they knew him when they met him.
You felt like you were reading someone with whom you were having a conversation over drinks where people were being frank and really saying what they were thinking, not hedging. That was a kind of gift he had as a writer, the immediacy. It felt like he was talking to you.
A great sense of wonder for Fr. Neuhaus was his priesthood and of the Mass. He was not a particularly fussy liturgist. He had a tremendous love for the Eucharist. I remember spending a Holy Thursday once with him, and after mass the priests there in New York had a nice, festive dinner to celebrate the priesthood. Fr. Neuhaus had launched in November of 1996 a great controversy in the magazine on whether the American political order had become corrupted by secularist ideals. The priests present there had not seen him since this incident, so the whole evening revolved around it. As the dinner was winding down, you could see Fr. Neuhaus was bothered because it was Holy Thursday and we had spent the whole time talking about him, his magazine, and the controversy, which he had enjoyed immensely. At the end, he just started to preach. He talked about the end of the mass where the priest takes the Blessed Sacrament from the altar, and he continued, “Isn't it amazing brothers”—he had this cadence as he continued—”that the Lord who made the whole universe would commend Himself to my hands?” It was very beautiful. No one else that I know would be audacious enough to just start preaching a homily at the end of this meal. Despite his willingness to be the center of the evening, he wanted to make the point that the center of his life was his priesthood, and the center of the priesthood was the Holy Mass. That really is one of the great memories I have of his life.
My own experience with him is that his entry into the Catholic Church really gave him a great deal of peace. The Church was a great consolation: to have an anchor, to have a stable church reality. The 1980s were a difficult time, I think, for him because he was not involved in active ministry. And, it was so clear that he was called to be a pastor.
I am of a generation younger than he is, but I was also involved in mainline Protestantism. There were orthodox folks who would try to save our denominations from their own reckless abandonment of the apostolic tradition. This can become a spiritually exhausting project. It is also at the end of the day, absurd. It is its own kind of “works righteousness” to adopt for yourself the commission of saving the Church from itself. The Catholic Church was a great consolation because it did not need Richard John Neuhaus. It did not need his articulate voice. It did not need his great intelligence. It did not need his energy. It appreciated those things—some factions of the Catholic Church more than others—and there is a kind of Christian liberty that comes from that. A freedom to know that our salvation is not dependent upon our own righteousness, which would be doomed to failure. So also that the Church's future is not dependent upon our efforts.
The actual number of people that we are able to move separately or collectively is very small. For poets who write slim volumes of poetry that's one thing. But for Randy to spend five years on his book, which I hope does well, the number of people that it's actually going to move is likely to be small. The question then becomes, why do we do it?
One of the advantages we have is that we're speaking to people who speak to people. So if a sermon is given and a priest reads something in Convivium or First Things, and it strikes him and he wants to bring it to the fore during Sunday Mass. If it's in a major city like Toronto and there are five Sunday masses, we're talking about a couple of thousand people. It's a pretty big megaphone. There's a large public out there that cares deeply about how their faith should affect contemporary society. This effort is very fruitful; disproportionately fruitful.
The future turns on a small number of people changing their minds on things that matter. If we can reach some of those people, that is a very important vocation for a magazine. To reach serious people who are puzzling things through, and their minds and their souls, if you will, are in play. For instance, with college students, we receive testimonials that First Things was a godsend to them. They think they are faced with this terrible false choice: either faith or the life of the mind.
People often wonder why a Ryerson English professor and Sri Lankan novelist has written a biography of Richard John Neuhaus. In no small part it's because I was a graduate student in Boston studying Faulkner and Globalization Theory, and I'm a cradle Catholic so I've got my rosary under my pillow and my post-colonial theory on my desk. I saw no relation between the life of my mind and the life of my faith, and then I found First Things magazine and thought, here is a lovely connection and integration where a seriously engaged, thriving, cosmopolitan person can still live and act as if God exists.
Magazines provide a platform for people to try out ideas. They inform other areas of your life, the other places you write for. The fact that I write for First Things and Convivium—but I also write for The New Statesman, The New York Times—I am writing the same sort of pieces for both places, and I try to on purpose. There is a dialectic to that keeps things active in my own mind, but in some ways bearing witness and revealing to First Things and Convivium readers things they might think are beyond their purview. No one ever reads just one magazine is what I am trying to say. You read multiple magazines and you are making connections between these different arguments. Even if it's only a few hundred subscribers, if that magazine is in conversation with readers and with its writers, this I see is a good way to move the culture at large.
If you have the right one hundred readers, you can change the world.
One of the decisions we took as we started Convivium was that it would be an incarnate, physical product. One of the questions from the audience is: “Are we limiting, not just the reach but the dialogue, with paper and postage?”
I don't think you can be effective in what we're trying to do solely in a print magazine any more. We can have both print and web, and I do think there is something about a physical magazine, where someone who has it delivered to their home is making a commitment to a community.
Yes, I agree. It's crucial. There is a big difference between a print magazine supported by a good, vital, active website and just a website. To put a print copy on your table beside your chair is an act of loyalty to the cause.
Words, images, concepts—they are different things and they have different powers. It is only in the Logos in which it could mean all those things. In our work, we choose one part of that and recognize its limitations.
Fr. Neuhaus's great contribution was Fr. Neuhaus. In other words, it was his ability to advance the arguments he was advancing, in the places that he did. That these things matter beyond those who agree with us. That was a remarkable capacity that he had. And those who do share those convictions, felt through his legacy, that they are not alone as readers and writers. Some of the issues that he raised continue to be taken up in fresh ways by First Things and Convivium.
In the opening editorial for the first issue of First Things, it has a sentence: “The first thing to remember about politics is that politics is not the first thing.” That is Fr. Neuhaus's lasting contribution; on the one hand to insist that a healthy civil society requires an active participation of Christians in the pubic square, while realizing that it is not our fundamental vocation.
In Fr. Neuhaus's last book, American Babylon, he speaks of exile. One of the things he might point out to us today is that we are not meant to find a fullness of community in this world. No matter how wonderful a magazine is, no matter how much you feel it is so in any given way, we are all already exiles until we reach the New Jerusalem. That should be a consolation, because it is.
Transcribed by Daniel Bezalel Richardsen, founder and editor of Foment, the literary journal of the Ottawa International Writers Festival, Canada’s largest independent literary celebration. Richardsen leads the Readers of First Things (ROFTERS) and Convivium Connections group in downtown Ottawa, which organized Writing Communities of Faith.
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.