Much has already been written, here at NRO and elsewhere, about Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, who died yesterday morning. I never met Neuhaus, although I heard him speak once at an academic conference, and about ten years ago I sent him an item he wound up using in “The Public Square,” his indispensable back-of-the-book in First Things; he sent me an amusing thank-you note in reply. I keep it, as I keep the only note I ever got from William F. Buckley, Jr. (under similar circumstances; I never met him either). Two such giants gone inside a year; we will not see their like again soon.
I think it worth noting here for Bench Memos readers what a consequential figure Neuhaus was in the ongoing debate in this country about the Constitution, and about the uses and abuses of judicial power. Many have remarked that the appalling injustice of Roe v. Wade had a lot to do with his rightward turn. And from its inception in 1990, his magazine First Things featured splendid commentary on the constitutional and legal dimensions of the culture wars, with articles and reviews by Hadley Arkes, Robert Bork, Gerard Bradley, Robert P. George, Mary Ann Glendon, Russell Hittinger, Michael McConnell, Antonin Scalia, and Michael Uhlmann, among others. And of course Neuhaus himself, whose “amateur” approach to the questions that concerned him proved more perspicacious than the output of 99 out of 100 scholars who have made constitutional law their profession.
The famous symposium “The End of Democracy?” in November 1996, organized by Neuhaus and his fellow FT editors, rang an alarm that some readers thought overwrought. I thought then and still think that that more accurately characterized some of the reactions to the symposium, including some on the right. With the passage of a dozen years, the arguments posed in it hold up very well. And the question raised by the editors (if not written by Neuhaus, certainly endorsed by him) still hangs in the air: “whether we have reached or are reaching the point where conscientious citizens can no longer give moral assent to the existing regime” of government by judiciary on our most important constitutional and cultural questions.