Friday, January 16, 2009


About 25 years ago, I had the first of many dinners with the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, when he was still a Lutheran. He objected to the term "converting" for a baptized Christian who became Catholic: Rather, such a one "embraced" Catholicism. I demurred, as I thought I had converted, albeit not from so intensely dogmatic a confession as Lutheranism but from the pleasant perch of Anglicanism. That same evening, he pointed out that the heating system in a nearby building was being converted to gas, to which I replied that he should have said it was embracing gas. Our friendship was not thwarted, and I became one of countless people whom he called friends so frequently in his crucial journal First Things that it might have passed as a convention of name-dropping were it not true. While he was a formidable debater, he won more friends than arguments and preferred it that way.
Father Neuhaus did not hide his lamp under a bushel, and he did not wait passively for lamp stands to appear. His religious conversion, or embrace, came after his change of politics, putting him in that category of liberals who have been mugged. In his case, he was not mugged by thugs but by reality, and so the change in social perspective was, in fact, the sensible way he saw to effect the civil-rights agenda and other benevolent causes that had become his public signature. So he became known as a "public intellectual" -- which is a vague term, and must mean, whatever else it means, a person who is not shy about his thoughts.
Our friend definitely was public. What some did not understand is that he was not a theologian, however theologically acute his perceptions were, but he was a social philosopher and, like Chesterton, influenced religion in his capacity as a journalist. Chesterton's only lapse into false modesty was his description of journalism as the art of writing badly. Neither GKC nor RJN could write badly, and I was not the only one to start reading First Things at the back end, for Father Neuhaus's ruminations were like the prize at the bottom of the Cracker Jack box, which normal children have always opened upside down. Our age's abandonment of reason and literacy has left us with a burlesque journalism, and it is poignant that Father Neuhaus's last column was an explanation of why the New York Times is no longer even worth satirizing.
The decay of public writing is a subject for the public intellectual who, because of the general corruption of culture, is now perforce a social pathologist. Father Neuhaus died just before the start of a new presidential administration that he anticipated with foreboding.
What he had hoped for in the green years of his civil-rights enthusiasms has become its macabre caricature, ushering in a Darwinian utilitarianism in which life itself will be an arbitrary privilege instead of a right. This is something crueler than the secularism of the last generation's "Naked Public Square" and more like Vico's "Barbarism of Reflection," which uses the fine technology and tailoring of the last but lost high culture to impose its inhuman agenda.
Father Neuhaus kept a picture of Martin Luther in his rooms -- partly, I think, to animate remarks from such as me, but also because he believed that people who thought deeply and powerfully, despite their errors, had more of a way with eternity than the functionaries of lifeless remnant religion, such as the National Council of Churches, to whose suburbanized Orwellianism he reacted by forming the Institute on Religion and Democracy. But with the collapse of mainline Protestantism, that was like beating a dead horse. Having concluded that there is no longer any reason for Lutheranism, he was resigned to the fact that most Lutherans did not agree, either out of conviction or complacency.
John Cardinal O'Connor's mentorship was so generous, ordaining him one year after his Profession of Faith, that Father Neuhaus responded with uncritical loyalty, and this perspective tinted his assessment of other prelates. He found the language and music of the revised liturgy "a cause of sorrow," but with filial piety he looked away from the cardinal's own little ways at the altar. Although Father Neuhaus was unconscious in the hospital when he was anointed, he may have sensed from a higher plane that I used the Douai translation.
Having become a Catholic, he began to realize that the Barque of Peter is also the largest of ocean liners with a manifest vaster than any denomination. Big ships are hard to turn around, harder than Father Neuhaus may have hoped, but he was pragmatic: "What I described in 'The Catholic Moment' is not a prophecy but the outline of a possibility. There are no guarantees that my hopes expressed in 'The Catholic Moment' will ever be realized." Nonetheless, he was impatient with some of the national documents of the bishops of the United States, which sounded like the work of Wodehouse's Madeline Bassett, and he regretted that clerical bureaucracy and the life of the mind are not naturally symbiotic.
This has been a cold year for warm friends. Last April, when I offered Holy Mass for William F. Buckley Jr., I was flanked by Father Neuhaus and by Bill's local pastor, Rev. Kevin Fitzpatrick, who died a few months later. Father Neuhaus died less than a month after his great friend Avery Cardinal Dulles. My Christmas and Easter dinners with the two of them could not go on forever, not in any simulation of the heavenly banquet.
It was typical that Father Neuhaus got a book out of his near death ten years ago, and typical too that in it he did not quote a child's prayer without first sourcing it to the twelfth-century Enchiridion Leonis: "Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray thee Lord my soul to keep; if I should die before I wake, I pray thee Lord my soul to take."

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