Home > Roman Catholicism > A Grief Observed: Richard John Neuhaus, 1936-2009

A Grief Observed: Richard John Neuhaus, 1936-2009

January 8th, 2009
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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 RJN
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
Christ alone.”

- Richard John Neuhaus.  Death on a Friday Afternoon.  New York:  Basic Books, 2000)  p. 70.

Requiescat in pace

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Categories: Roman Catholicism
  1. wcwirla
    January 8th, 2009 at 14:03 | #1

    Thank you for writing this piece on this brilliant man who influenced so many. He rests from his labors and his works do indeed follow him.

  2. Chris
    January 8th, 2009 at 18:54 | #2

    Memory eternal.

  3. Don Hansen
    January 8th, 2009 at 20:05 | #3

    Amen. A great man, pastor, priest, writer, thinker.
    And yes, I too skipped to the last section of First Things, first :)

  4. Robert Buechler
    January 9th, 2009 at 11:07 | #4

    A man the ELCA lost, but which thank God was not lost to the church. I always appreciated his writings, and I pray that the Lord will raise up another like him. There is still much work to be done.
    He is at peace. Praise the Lord.

  5. January 9th, 2009 at 11:07 | #5

    I spent four weeks or so with Neuhaus at the first of the “Centisimus Annus” workshops in Liechtenstein, and then several additional weeks with him later in Poland and the Czech Republic. I think his primary brilliance lies first as an organizer and an institution builder — the Institute on Religion and Public Life, “First Things,” the Eerdmann book series in the 1990s, the Centisimus Annus workshops, etc. Then secondly as a commentator and public intellectual. (I still relish when Bishop Spong and Neuhaus appeared together on Firing Line. Neuhaus laid him out cold.) He was also a pretty good dinner partner (although I only rarely interacted with him outside of the workshops).
    While I appreciate what he’s done, I’ve always felt that “First Things” and the sort of Christian neo-conservatism (I employ the 1970s definition of a neo-con — i.e., a former liberal who converted to a conservatism that is reconciled to the existence of the welfare state) represented by Neuhaus, never quite reached the potential that they could.
    In “First Things,” I usually turned first to the book reviews, then to Neuhaus. I found the first articles in the half of the magazine typically to be predictable, and usually a bit more long winded than necessary. (One of my good friends in an editor on the magazine — I’ve told him the same thing on numerous occasions, including last night — so I’m not trying to be shrewish here.) And while Neuhaus was always a witty controversialist, I’m unsure what ideas he developed that have real staying power. Although, to be sure, the phrase, “naked public square,” has now found itself in general circulation.
    I am concerned whether “First Things” can survive without the strength of Neuhaus’s personality, at least at the circulation levels it currently enjoys.
    In any event, I miss him, too.

  6. Samuel Zumwalt
    January 9th, 2009 at 11:07 | #6

    Thank you for this moving tribute to Fr. Neuhaus. When I was still a very young pastor in the early 80s, I had an opportunity to hear him speak to a gathering of pastors. His merciless shredding of the abortion industry was worth the price of admission alone. My memories of three days with him as teacher helped me to understand why he could never have remained in the ELCA once it came into its liberal protestant being. Many of the things he once wrote and taught seem now very prescient in light of where the ELCA has come from and where it inexorably seems to be going.
    Fr. Neuhaus’ voice in the Church militant will be sorely missed. I have no doubt that our heavenly Father already has meaningful work in mind for him in the Church Triumphant.
    Thanks again, Paul. God’s richest blessings on your ministry.

  7. Ken Howes
    January 9th, 2009 at 14:04 | #7

    Fr. Neuhaus was beyond question a brilliant man and a well-intentioned one. I, too, will miss his columns in First Things. Though he wasn’t a member of the faculty at my alma mater, Valparaiso, he was something of a fixture there, frequently giving guest lectures there, and a close friend of many of its theological faculty. He was one of the brilliant “young guns” of LCMS in the 60′s, along with Jaroslav Pelikan and Martin Marty, who wanted to take LCMS into the “main line” of American Protestantism. Of the three, only Marty remained a (very liberal) Lutheran by 1990.
    While we can appreciate their intelligence, their wit, and their scholarship, we can be eternally grateful that LCMS did not go in the direction that those three wanted it to go. If Fr. Neuhaus had had his way at that time, LCMS would today be no different from ELCA–in fellowship with TEC, UCC, PCUSA, etc., with women in the pulpit and at the altar. His was the kind of Lutheranism that was a complete shock to a 17-year-old freshman coming to Valpo from a very conservative LCMS church in Massachusetts in 1969. 40 years later, the memory of that shock is still with me.
    To be sure, he became more conservative as he got older, especially in his social and political views, which had been quite radical in the 1960′s. I often think that his swimming the Tiber, and Pelikan’s swimming the Bosphorus as well, was a way of separating from the liberal nonsense of ELCA without admitting they’d been wrong to leave LCMS in the first place. I think that both, as they saw what the theology they’d advocated would lead to, knew they had been wrong, but after all the emotional capital they’d invested in the liberal cause in 1969-77, they couldn’t bring themselves to come back.
    Ken Howes

  8. Josh S
    January 9th, 2009 at 14:27 | #8

    I often think that his swimming the Tiber, and Pelikan’s swimming the Bosphorus as well, was a way of separating from the liberal nonsense of ELCA without admitting they’d been wrong to leave LCMS in the first place.
    You and many others. When you have built your career on undermining confessional Lutheranism and in the process created a monster (liberal Lutheranism), it’s much easier to declare that Lutheranism as a whole was a grave mistake and swim your chosen river rather than admit you were wrong to begin with.
    It’s not too unlike how Carl Braaten, having spent his life tearing down biblical and confessional authority, is now gazing up from the rubble of his handiwork and bemoaning the lack of episcopal authority in the ELCA.

  9. Robert Buechler
    January 10th, 2009 at 06:51 | #9

    Ken Howes writes: “I think that both, as they saw what the theology they’d advocated would lead to, knew they had been wrong, but after all the emotional capital they’d invested in the liberal cause in 1969-77, they couldn’t bring themselves to come back.”
    It is difficult to admit that one was wrong isn’t it. The one blessing that I see in the journey of Fr. Neuhaus is that he showed that those who hold “liberal theological” views can be changed and can repent.
    Peace in the Lord!
    Rob Buechler (a former liberal and now quite confirmed orthodox Lutheran)

  10. January 10th, 2009 at 16:55 | #10

    A great man and a great Christian. In those heady days in which some of us then in the ELCA thought that a stand could be made there for historic Christianity, he was our inspiration and, whether he wanted the job or not, our leader. Alas, he saw the futility of the enterprise before most of us did.
    I especially liked his statement in 1968 that the pro-choice flag was being planted on the wrong side of the liberal/conservative divide. As someone who, like Fr. Neuhaus, has been driven out of the liberal political movement by my unwillingness to sacrifice my concern for the unborn, I share his incredulity that a political philosophy supposedly dedicated to including and cherishing the weak and the marginalized should deny the humanity of the weakest and most helpless of all.

  11. Don Hansen
    January 13th, 2009 at 21:23 | #11

    There’s a great commentary by Fr. Neuhaus dated Jan 8, in the Wall St. Journal:
    Don’t know if the date of publishing was a coincidence or intentional, regardless, it’s an excellent commentary on the abortion issue, and other cultural issues it’s wrapped up with.

  12. Walter Otten
    January 15th, 2009 at 16:39 | #12

    On April 25th, 1967 three public lectures were given at the Lutheran School of Theology in Maywood, Il. The theme was THE CHURCH, REVOLUTION AND THE WAR. The speaker was Rev. Richard J. Neuhaus. An accompanying blurb contained the words, “PLEASE NOTE: The lecture series by Pastor Neuhaus is being sponsored by the Student Association through the Social Action Committee. Such sponsoring in no way implicates the faculty or administrators of our institution.” This writer attended two of those lectures and has “excerpts” of them as he heard them.
    On March 11th 2005, many years and conracts later this writer received a note from Father Neuhaus that began with the words, Dear Joe, “It is very good to hear from you. This is true. Only two days ago I got out of bed in the morning wondering why I had not heard from Joe Otten.”
    This writer was neighbor to Father Neuhaus’s father when his father served St. Peter of Simcoe, Ontario. He preached the installation sermon at St. Peter for Pastor Clem Neuhaus. Father Richard John Neuhaus wrote of his father in a piece in FIRST THINGS entitled “Like Father, Like Son.” FT printed portions of a letter I had written in response to that piece. It concluded with the words, “Son Richard observed that father Clem was called “Pope” Neuhaus. He was called “Pope” not only by his classmates, but also by his colleagues of the Ontario District. But that’s as close to Rome as father Clem ever got. “Pope” Neuhaus’s physical appearance may have resembled the popes of the Middle Ages, and when “Pope” Neuhaus spoke at a pastoral conference there would be few to rise up in opposition. But he would have been the last to renounce his ordination vow and confessional faith that subscribes to the 1537 “Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope,” which declares that the doctines of the papacy are the doctrines of Antichrist.”
    This writer was present in Chicago when Father Neuhaus signed copies of his just published DEATH ON A FRIDAY AFTERNOON. Cardinal Francis George was present with him. Friend Richard signed “for Joe, from Clem’s son.” FIRST THINGS would later contain the first chapter “Coming to Our Senses.” It is a reflection on Christ’s first word from the cross. Father Neuhaus’s words in that chapter justify Paul Mc Kain’s high regard for Richard John Neuhaus.It may well one day be considered a “classic” piece. The second chapter would not receive the same affirmation.
    When this writer question Father Neuhaus about his use of the word Co-redmptrix when speaking of the mother of God, he responded very briefly, “Joe, in the same way that God used you as co-creator in the life you gave to your children.”
    Richard was a friend with whom there were serious differences. I mourn his passing. His closing words in the above quoted letter, written in Lententide were, “I pray the coming celebration of His victory will be filled with grace and gldoy for you and yours.”

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