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Neuhaus in His Time

by George W. Rutler

Richard John Neuhaus: A Life in the Public Square, by Randy Boyagoda (Image, 480 pp., $30)

Dickens could not have called the iconoclastic years of the late 1960s and early 1970s the best of times and the worst of times, for in terms of moral discourse they were only the worst, and by any standard of civility and aesthetics they were also the ugliest of times, with their rampant naïveté and galloping self-righteousness. Richard John Neuhaus cut his teeth in those years, actually exulting in them, surrounded by a waxworks of philosophical malcontents including William Sloane Coffin, Harvey Cox, Joan Baez, and Tom Hayden. He joined, and sometimes led, their chorus, as when he said that the Vietnamese people were nothing less than “God’s instruments for bringing the American empire to its knees.” But he had the integrity to rebel against the rebellion, with sufficient balance to avoid the extremes of reaction. This would set him up for criticism as a “theocon” by cynics on right and left, the former still licking the wounds of the Age of Aquarius, and the latter applying the conceits of those muddled years as they now control the switching points of government and education. Neuhaus went on to become a leading spokesman for the role of religion in what he designated the Naked Public Square.

Novelist Randy Boyagoda, in this new biography, traces Neuhaus’s intellectual and spiritual journey with admiration and sometimes bemusement, always sympathetic to his subject’s earnestness and not blind to his flaws. Most of the latter were minor consequences of impatience with self-examination. There was, for instance, little temperance in the relentless activism of the heady civil-rights and Vietnam years, replete with an almost manic pursuit of conferences, workshops, demonstrations, symposia, speeches, writing, protocols, declarations, and affirmations, the sum of which was symptomatic of a national nervous breakdown. The pace of his schedule and the itch for publicity were moderated, but still compulsive, in his shift from Lutheranism to Catholicism. Boyagoda is of the opinion that, in the preparation of the Hartford Appeal, a joint statement of Evangelicals and Catholics, Neuhaus displayed a “tendency to grow impatient with particularly abstract conversation, and also with conversations that he wasn’t personally, exclusively dominating.”

The author indulges an unspoken Freudianism in treating his patient’s relationship with his father, a conservative Lutheran minister, implying that the Young Turk could be passive-aggressive when debating his father on social issues — once, conspicuously, at a Missouri Synod convention. Readers may find it difficult to appreciate how important Reformation sensibilities were to many, back when mainline Protestantism was still a social force. A whiff of it continued in Neuhaus’s mordant and amusing contempt for the World Council of Churches and its national subsidiary, years after they had shrunk and ceased being taken seriously. With inspired aplomb, he similarly and ritually shredded what he called the “sleazy old lady of American journalism, which continues to think of itself as our country’s paper of record.” Boyagoda finds something telling in the fact that Neuhaus was only a pallbearer at his father’s funeral, and did not officiate. In fairness to the subject, I remember Father Richard attending my mother’s funeral and remarking that it would be too emotional for him to speak at a parent’s death. Of his mother, he often quoted with affection her comment, while knitting, that he wrote better than he spoke.

Neuhaus’s activism was not at the expense of the Christian essence, as he founded a small “Community of Christ in the City,” along with the Center on Religion and Society (which he directed), inspiring countless souls and guiding bright young people along right paths. With quiet magnanimity, he selflessly donated his salary, along with proceeds from books and honoraria, to charity. Boyagoda skims the relationship between Neuhaus and Cardinal O’Connor, who ordained him just one year after Neuhaus was received into the Church, having had only informal preparation, albeit with tutorials by the finest of mentors, Avery Dulles. The personality of Cardinal O’Connor is a subject for study outside such a book as this, but it would seem that the cardinal was impetuous in promises he made to his new convert, aware, as Neuhaus was not, that they were impractical. When O’Connor died, there rose up in Egypt a pharaoh who knew not Joseph. The intense and understandable loyalty of Neuhaus to his patron, mixed with a perception of unrequited merit, shifted to a public angularity toward Cardinal Egan, who had many other matters to face, burdened as he was with repairing the financial ruin he had inherited. Neuhaus abandoned nuance when he declared Egan a “public non-presence.”

Neuhaus had made sacrifices in his conversion (a word he did not like; he preferred to call it an “embrace”), not least of which was suddenly finding himself a small fish in a big pond. The One Holy Catholic Apostolic and Roman Church was not the Missouri Synod. His strength was a strength of mind eloquently expressed, but the life of the mind does not typically animate clerical bureaucrats and careerists. Invited to the Vatican for a “Special Assembly for the Americas of the Synod of Bishops,” he was surprised to find himself “dead last” among 800 in attendance. “I am not accustomed to that back in my little world among the many little worlds of New York City. But this is Rome.” The experience was tedious beyond anything he had known since the fourth grade. Nevertheless, he saw things through his own lens and, on one occasion, Pope John Paul II smiled and waved his hand, “which I chose to interpret as encouragement.” His enthusiasm as a convert and benevolence by nature could be exploited, as when he vigorously defended the malevolent Marcial Maciel, founder of the “Legionaries of Christ.”

For some years, Neuhaus generously spent time and talent on journals — including SMALLCAPSNational Review, of which he was the last religion editor — writing commentary with cultural references probably bewildering to the present degraded generation of policy wonks. Then he launched the monthly First Things, which has had a singular impact on civil as well as religious discourse. Its most controversial issue, in November 1996, with essays on “The End of Democracy,” cost it many supporters, and even occasioned a temporary alienation between Neuhaus and his friend from early years Peter Berger; Neuhaus soon backtracked in nuance, but the wave the magazine caused showed how influential it had become. Even though his “proprietary presence” at First Things evidenced what Boyagoda calls “his penchant for expansive, at times excessive self-reference,” his style could be delightful and artful, as he pointed the pen at miscreants such as the National Catholic Reporter, which he called, in one of his Mencken moments, “the foundering flagscow of the Catholic Left,” and Frank Rich of the New York Times, whom he called a “toy Doberman.”

One who was Zelig-like in his presence at significant events and among notables risked misperceiving scenes and people. Boyagoda spends several pages claiming that “what he regarded as direct collaborations with Martin Luther King Jr. . . . were minor for King if memorable to Neuhaus.” Exaggerations of the relationship may have been “an understandable dramatic intensification in retrospect of his small but bona fide personal connection to one of the most significant figures in American history.” The frequency of references to a close friendship with Dr. King, in their similarity and lack of detail, “suggest that the claim was overdetermined.”

The writing of this fine book took five years, which were worth it; one is tempted to indulge cliché by calling it a page-turner. That is said with one qualification: The first 50 or so pages are devoted to an anesthetic account of Neuhaus’s boyhood in Pembroke, Ontario, which could discourage a reader from slogging through to the next chapters. From what is said and not said, one could conclude that the author is a gentleman, and the same could be said of Father Neuhaus. His was not an easy life and it was made more difficult by the intensity with which he lived it. He had a gift for making friends, and a corollary ability to make foes, but the friends were the sort one should have, and the foes were the sort whose friendship would not be a compliment. This is a biography of an important life and if, in passing, there are indications that Father Neuhaus could be compelled by circumstance to belabor some very little things, he was always big about the big things, and he knew what are the first things of souls and society.

– Fr. Rutler is a Roman Catholic priest of the archdiocese of New York. His latest books are Cloud of Witnesses and Principalities and Powers.

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