The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, one of the nation’s leading conservative Catholic intellectuals and founder of the journal First Things, died shortly before 10 a.m. Thursday of complications from cancer. He was 72.
“As a priest, as a writer, as a public leader in so many struggles, and as a friend, no one can take his place,” First Things editor Joseph Bottum said in a statement. “The fabric of life has been torn by his death, and it will not be repaired, for those of us who knew him, until that time when everything is mended and all our tears are wiped away.”
Father Neuhaus was diagnosed with a serious form of cancer in November. He was hospitalized with an infection over the Christmas holidays and deteriorated rapidly this week. He lost consciousness Tuesday evening and received last rites.
Father Neuhaus was born one of eight children in Pembroke, Ontario, to a Lutheran minister and initially followed in his father’s footsteps - graduating from Concordia Theological Seminary and becoming a Lutheran minister.
He began political life as a liberal. An associate of Martin Luther King Jr., he backed Eugene McCarthy for president at the 1968 Democratic convention and led, along with actor Paul Newman, a tumultuous Chicago press conference backing the minority plank against the Vietnam War.
But starting with the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision that declared abortion a constitutional right and running through President Jimmy Carter’s 1979 White House Conference on the Family, Father Neuhaus began moving to the right, becoming a supporter of Ronald Reagan.
He converted to Catholicism in 1990, was ordained a priest by Cardinal John O’Connor of New York a year later and became one of the leading figures - along with Michael Novak and George Weigel - in advancing a type of neoconservatism among Roman Catholics.
He explained his conversion in a 2002 First Things essay by saying that “I became a Catholic in order to be more fully what I was and who I was as a Lutheran.”
In a 1991 interview, he explained that ecumenical dialogue in previous decades meant that “the original intentions of Lutheranism - to be a reforming movement within the Catholic Church - can now be advanced in full communion with Rome.”
“I believe there is no longer any justification for a separated Lutheran Church,” Father Neuhaus said then, though he acknowledged that most Lutherans “are happy to be just another Protestant church.”
By the 2000s, the Catholic TV network EWTN was using him as a commentator in Rome for the funeral of Pope John Paul II and the election of Pope Benedict XVI.
“When I was an undergraduate beginning to discover Christianity as an adult, there was Richard John Neuhaus, presenting a Catholicism that I found witty and intellectually engaging,” said Rod Dreher, a religion columnist at Beliefnet and former reporter for The Washington Times.
Father Neuhaus was “a great-souled man, and his contribution to the intellectual life of American religion is hard to overstate,” he added. “For many orthodox Catholic intellectuals, Fr. Neuhaus was the pastor of a virtual parish. He is literally irreplaceable.”
Kevin “Seamus” Hasson, founder and president of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, on whose advisory board Father Neuhaus served, called the deceased “one of the great thinkers of his generation.
“The Church lost a great warrior, the faith community at large lost a patient and insistent champion of ecumenism, and the world lost a magnificent human being,” he said, adding the Becket Fund will establish a permanent memorial in his honor.
The Catholic neoconservatism that Father Neuhaus espoused differed from both the pro-Democrat ethnic politics and the traditionalist “ghetto” that had long dominated among Catholics in its qualified but unprecedented-for-Catholics support of liberal capitalism, based on Pope John Paul’s encyclical “Centessimus Annus.”
It also stood out in its support for its religious freedom and ecumenism, based on such Second Vatican Council documents as “Dignitas Humanae.” The engagement in “culture-war” politics, echoing criticisms of what John Paul would later label “the culture of death” - abortion, euthanasia, cloning and embryonic stem-cell research.
Perhaps his most influential book is 1984’s “The Naked Public Square” - the term has entered general usage among those opposed to secularization and prompted an upcoming 25th anniversary sequel book of essays on the book and the issues it raised.
Father Neuhaus argued that the Founders’ “experiment in ordered liberty” relied on religious views about the freedom and dignity of the human person, ideas he said are not sustainable on secularist grounds. In addition, because government cannot avoid dealing with issues of religious concern, Father Neuhaus argued that an extreme view of the separation of church and state is really an attack on the religious freedom of American Christians.
In 1994, Father Neuhaus helped produce “Evangelicals and Catholics Together,” a statement published in First Things that addressed many of the culture-war issues, noting “a growing convergence and cooperation between evangelicals and Catholics” on their “public responsibilities.” The document also pledged an ongoing dialogue on theological matters such as justification and the nature of the church.
Among the evangelical participants were Charles Colson of Prison Ministries, the late Bill Bright of Campus Crusade for Christ, Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, Pat Robertson of the Christian Broadcasting Network, and J.I. Packer of Regent College.
“Richard was a very engaging, personable human being who was interested in people around him,” said Mr. Land, who met Father Neuhaus through pro-life contacts. “He was a tremendous and eloquent spokesman for the sanctity of human life from conception onwards for the past 40 years.”
These ideas and actions made Father Neuhaus a hero among tradition-minded conservatives and Republican-leaning Christians. Aided by this alliance among conservative elites and activists, President Bush won the white Catholic vote in 2004 by 13 percentage points over Democrat John Kerry.
In an interview with reporters from religious publications, President Bush often cited “Father Richard” as a man who “helps me articulate these [religious] things.”
A senior administration official told Time magazine in 2005 that Father Neuhaus “does have a fair amount of under-the-radar influence” on such social issues as abortion, gay marriage, embryonic stem-cell research and cloning.
Father Neuhaus was among the religious figures credited with helping Mr. Bush craft his 2001 speech on embryonic stem-cell research, which said no federal funds could support the research.
Later, he and First Things publicly backed the Iraq war, a stance for which he was widely taken to task in Catholic circles who cited Rome’s stated opposition to the war, stated in varying ways by both Pope John Paul and the future Pope Benedict XVI (”A preventive war is not in the Catechism”).
Nevertheless, Father Neuhaus was one of the first major public figures to affix the adjective “the Great” to Pope John Paul II.
Besides writing some of the featured articles and editing, Father Neuhaus contributed to First Things the column “The Public Square,” which has been called “the first blog.” It took up the last six to 10 pages at the back of the magazine with short essays, pickups of news items, news commentary, and piquant observations.
He also is the originator of “Neuhaus’s Law”: “Where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed.” He often applied that maxim to America’s mainline Protestant churches and some Catholic colleges and religious orders in explaining why a too-indiscriminate understanding of religious freedom or tolerance would lead to intolerance of historic Christian teachings.
Catholic neoconservatives also had a spat with secular and Jewish neoconservatives over a 1996 forum called “The End of Democracy: The Judicial Usurpation of Politics,” which raised the question of whether judicial power to decide social issues means “we have reached or are reaching the point where conscientious citizens can no longer give moral assent to the existing [U.S.] regime.”
Some signers of the statement backed away from this wording, which Father Neuhaus defended as traditional prophetic judgment. Other neoconservatives withdrew their names from the First Things masthead or ended support of the Institute on Religion and Public Life, which publishes the magazine.
In the past decade, after surviving a bout with colon cancer in the 1990s, Father Neuhaus wrote two books containing lengthy meditations about death and edited an anthology of literary classics on death, “The Eternal Pity: Reflections on Dying.”
In his own “Death on a Friday Afternoon: Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus,” Father Neuhaus wrote about the death of the founder of Christianity, to whom Father Neuhaus gave his life’s service. He wrote that Jesus’s death and resurrection means both God that became human to die with the rest of us, then rose on the third day to conquer death. He said these accounts neither sugar-coat the reality of death nor allow death to leave man alone.
“The perfect self-surrender of the cross is, from eternity and to eternity, at the heart of what it means to say that God is love,” Father Neuhaus wrote at one point in the book, adding in another that the cross means “God is present in the forsaken so that nobody - nobody ever, nobody anywhere at any time under any circumstance - is forsaken.”
Father Neuhaus began his other “death” book “As I Lay Dying: Meditations Upon Returning,” which was the occasion for an appearance on C-SPAN’s “Booknotes,” by observing that all men know they must die, but most avoid dealing with that fact one way or another.
“We are born to die,” he began. “Not that death is the purpose of our being born, but we are born toward death, and in each of our lives the work of dying is already under way.”
He concluded the opening chapter by describing a scene from “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” in which author Fyodor Dostoevsky describes in biblical language the protagonist’s dying moments as themselves conquest of death. Ivan hears someone say “it is finished” and agreeing to himself, “yes, death is finished.”
“Perhaps for all of us, as for Ivan Ilyich, it will only be in that final ‘single instant’ that we will know death is no more,” he wrote.