A Grief Observed: Richard John Neuhaus, 1936-2009
Richard John Neuhaus died today. I feel a sadness of heart and an emptiness of spirit. A place at the table of enriching conversation that I enjoy with a number of people across Christendom is now empty, a very large empty place, indeed. Father Neuhaus, once LCMS Pastor Neuhaus, then ELCA Pastor Neuhaus, was, for me, a source of ongoing inspiration and encouragement.
Encouragement? Yes, encouragement to be and remain the very best Lutheran God allows me to be. Now why do I say this? I fervently differed with Father Neuhaus on several core issues of the confession of the Christian Gospel, and he knew that. Over the many long years I had struck up a very informal and not-frequent-enough conversation with him, as I'm sure thousands of other people. I know he kindly entertained my letters and thoughts because of our shared Lutheranism, a Lutheranism he believed fervently was realized fully in communion with Rome, a Lutheranism I believe must remain apart from Rome as long as Rome clings to its Gospel-obscuring errors.
Having said that, I am already cringing at the possibility that there will be featured in a certain newspaper from New Haven a graceless, ham-fisted tirade against Richard John Neuhaus the Catholic convert and more's the pity. But the Roman Church has its share of graceless, ham-fisted apologists and I suppose we must have our fair share too.
I always enjoyed my back-and-forths with Father Neuhaus. He opened several doors for me while I served The LCMS President, making it possible for LCMS leadership to make direct contact with the Vatican, when ELCA leaders were intent on cutting us out of formal conversation with Rome. Father Neuhaus was able to make direct personal appeal to Pope John Paul which led to direct contacts with Cardinal Ratzinger, with the result that the The LCMS was again given a place at the table of discussion and dialog with Rome, and most importantly, a point sadly lost on some, the chance in this formal context to make the good confession of faith. I learned from Father Neuhaus how the highest levels of the Vatican looked with considerable appreciation on the bold confession The Missouri Synod made at the time of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, and it was from Father Neuhaus that I learned that Cardinal Ratzinger had made the point, "If the Lutherans do not take their Confessions seriously, why should we?" But then he would always say, "But there is the Missouri Synod!"
Father Neuhaus kindly asked me to write a couple pieces for FIRST THINGS and he was always interested in what The LCMS was up to. He introduced me to George Weigel and others through the years. Like I said, these kindnesses were commonplace and I know many, many others shared my experiences with Father Neuhaus.
As much as I disagreed with Father Neuhaus, I agreed with so much of what he wrote in
First Things. Of course, he was a constant advocate for his "new" church, but he was fair and even-handed in his criticism, liberally applied, from a conservative point of view, of all trends and movements in Christendom. I admired his rhetorical and writing skills and the first section I always turned to in First Things was his column at the end. I suspect most First Things readers did! His wit, wisdom and breadth of engagement with contemporary trends in our culture was breathtaking. What a noble and bold spokesman for unborn human life he was!
I will miss Father Neuhaus. Through all the years he was a Roman Catholic priest there was no doubt that his Lutheran piety and catechesis was clearly a part of his very being. I felt Richard John brought to the Romanism he embraced a hearty and full measure of the joyful Gospel rediscovery of Martin Luther, for which I am grateful.
I will miss Father Neuhaus, and I join with many others in expressing my appreciation for his life and work, both for what he did that I fervently agreed with, which was much, and that which I had to disagree with, which was substantial. In both cases, he challenged me to think, to reflect, to grow and to strive for excellence in our common confession of Christ. Here is a nice reflection from a fellow Lutheran who worked with Father Neuhaus, Anthony Sacramone.
And here are comments from Fr. Neuhaus, reflecting on his own death, written a number of years ago:
“When I come before the judgment throne, I will plead the promise of
God in the shed blood of Jesus Christ. I will not plead any work that I
have done, although I will thank God that he has enabled me to do some
good. I will plead no merits other than the merits of Christ, knowing
that the merits of Mary and the saints are all from him; and for their
company, their example, and their prayers throughout my earthly life I
will give everlasting thanks. I will not plead that I had faith, for
sometimes I was unsure of my faith, and in any event that would be to
turn faith into a meritorious work of my won. I will not plead that I
held the correct understanding of “justification by faith alone,”
although I will thank God that he led me to know ever more fully the
great truth that much misunderstood formulation was intended to
protect. Whatever little growth in holiness I have experienced,
whatever strength I have received from the company of the saints,
whatever understanding I have attained of God and his ways – these and
all other gifts received I will bring gratefully to the throne. But in
seeking entry to that heavenly kingdom, I will…look to Christ and
- Richard John Neuhaus. Death on a Friday Afternoon. New York: Basic Books, 2000) p. 70.
Requiescat in pace