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Fr. Richard John Neuhaus dead at age 72

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Fr. Richard John Neuhaus (CNS photo, 2005)

Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, a leading voice of Catholic conservatism in America, and one of those rare theologians and spiritual leaders whose influence vastly exceeded the boundaries of their religious community, has died at 72.

Neuhaus slipped away Jan. 8, shortly before 10 o’clock Eastern time. He never recovered from the weakness that sent him to the hospital the day after Christmas, caused by a series of side effects from the cancer he was suffering.

A priest of the New York archdiocese and a former Lutheran minister, Neuhaus was best known to society at large as an intellectual guru of what came to be known as the “religious right.”

From the early 1970s forward, Neuhaus was a key architect of two alliances with profound consequences for American politics, both of which overcame histories of mutual antagonism: one between conservative Catholics and Protestant Evangelicals, and the other between free market neo-conservatives and “faith and values” social conservatives.

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In 2005, Time magazine took the unusual step of including the Catholic Neuhaus on a list of America’s 25 most influential Evangelicals, noting that in a 2004 session with journalists from religious publications, President George W. Bush cited Neuhaus more often than any other living authority.

“Father Richard,” the president said then, “helps me articulate these [religious] things.”

To Catholic insiders, however, it was Neuhaus’ writing rather than his political activism that made him a celebrity. From the pages of First Things, the unapologetically high-brow journal he founded in 1990, Neuhaus kept up a steady stream of commentary on matters both sacred and secular.

In broad strokes, Neuhaus was an unabashed supporter of the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and his commentary was prized in Rome. John Paul, for example, named Neuhaus as a delegate to the 1997 Synod for America. Yet he was no lapdog for ecclesiastical authority; he lamented the Vatican’s opposition to the Iraq war in 2003, and early in Benedict’s papacy Neuhaus voiced “palpable uneasiness” that the new pontiff was not clamping down on what Neuhaus saw as dissent from church teaching.

Over the years, even people who disagreed with Neuhaus’ politics or theology would devour his monthly essay in First Things, titled “The Public Square,” for sheer literary pleasure. His combination of epigrammatic formulae and occasionally biting satire often reminded fans of English-language Catholic luminaries of earlier eras, such as G.K. Chesterton or Cardinal John Henry Newman.

Though Neuhaus became an iconic American Catholic figure, at birth he was actually neither American nor Catholic. He was born in 1936 in Ontario, Canada, one of eight children of a Lutheran minister. Neuhaus followed in his father’s footsteps, and was ordained as a Lutheran minister himself in 1960. He served at St. John the Evangelist Lutheran Church in New York, which covered the largely black ghetto of Bedford-Stuyvesant.

During the ferment of the 1960s, Neuhaus was identified with progressive causes. Alongside the Jesuit peace activist Fr. Daniel Berrigan and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Neuhaus co-founded “Clergy Concerned about Vietnam.” Even after his later turn to the right, Neuhaus continued to admire figures such as Berrigan, saying that although he found their activism misplaced, they shared a profound conviction that public life ought to be shaped by Gospel values.

Neuhaus would later recall that the trigger for his break with the left was the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, legalizing abortion in America. He became an outspoken voice for pro-life causes, helping craft the policy of the Bush administration, for example, on embryonic stem cell research.

Neuhaus converted to Catholicism on September 8, 1990, and was ordained a priest one year later by Cardinal John O’Connor of New York. In a letter to his Lutheran friends at the time, Neuhaus said he had become persuaded that the Reformation-era logic for separation from Rome was no longer justified, and that Lutheranism no longer saw itself as a reform movement within the broader church of Christ but rather as one denomination among many.

Given his Lutheran roots, Neuhaus had a lifelong interest in ecumenism. Together with Charles Colson, an erstwhile Nixon operative turned Protestant minister, Neuhaus co-founded “Evangelicals and Catholics Together,” which was often seen as a conservative alternative to official ecumenical dialogues operated by the institutional Catholic church and mainline Protestant bodies.

Over the years, Neuhaus served either as an officer or an advisor for a cluster of neo-conservative foundations and think tanks, including the Institute on Religion and Public Life and the Institute on Religion and Democracy. He was often styled as one member of a “trinity” of prominent American Catholic neo-conservatives, the other two being the lay Catholic writers George Weigel and Michael Novak. The three men were not only political and theological allies but also close friends.

Weigel said that Neuhaus leaves behind a lasting legacy.

“Neuhaus did more than anyone since John Courtney Murray to develop and advance a critical Catholic case for the American experiment in ordered liberty,” Weigel said, referring to the American Jesuit theologian who helped provide the basis for the Catholic church’s acceptance of church/state separation at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

“In addition, [Neuhaus] inspired countless Christians by his theological and spiritual writings and personal example,” Weigel said. “He had the rare ability of letting his own high intellectual and literary energy level energize others, which means that his thought is likely to have an impact on the U.S. religious scene for a long time to come.”

Though keenly interested in politics, Neuhaus was at heart a theologian rather than a politician, and even critics of his social views often admired the depth of his spiritual convictions. In 2001, for example, Neuhaus published a widely praised volume of reflections titled Death on a Friday Afternoon: Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross.

Neuhaus’ other books include Catholic Matters: Confusion, Controversy, and the Splendor of Truth (2006); The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America (1997); Appointment in Rome: The Church in America Awakening (1998); Doing Well & Doing Good: The Challenge to the Christian Capitalist (1992); and The Catholic Moment: The Paradox of the Church in the Postmodern World (1987.)

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR’s Senior Correspondent. His e-mail address is jallen@ncronline.org.

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