Friday, January 9, 2009

What Neuhaus Wrought

Theologian and political theorist Richard John Neuhaus died yesterday. Joseph Bottum made this announcement in First Things, the journal of Christian political reflection that Neuhaus founded. "Fr. Richard John Neuhaus slipped away January 8, shortly before 10 o’clock, at the age of seventy-two. He never recovered from the weakness that sent him to the hospital the day after Christmas, caused by a series of side effects from the cancer he was suffering. He lost consciousness Tuesday evening after a collapse in his heart rate, and soon after, in the company of friends, he died. My tears are not for him—for he knew, all his life, that his Redeemer lives, and he has now been gathered by the Lord in whom he trusted."

Douglas Puffert, an economics professor at The King's College in New York, gives us this summary of his life and work.

"Richard John Neuhaus, 1936-2009, was arguably the leading Christian public intellectual of our time, at least in the United States. He was the son of a Lutheran pastor in Canada, but he moved to the U.S. as a teenager. As a student at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis (Lutheran Church -- Missouri Synod), he began his life-long consideration of the relationship between the ultimate concerns of the Kingdom of God and the subordinate but still vitally important concerns of politics and worldly justice. In this he engaged with Luther's "two kingdoms" understanding, with Reinhold Niebuhr, with the American Catholic John Courtney Murray, and indeed with many leading contemporary theologians, philosophers, political activists, church leaders, and Jewish leaders as well as with the broad tradition of Christian social thought.

"In the 1960s he was "very much a man of the left," as he later frequently put it. He was an activist in both the Civil Rights movement, as a supporter of Martin Luther King, and in the movement opposing the Vietnam War. His first substantial break with much of the political left was over abortion. Early on, before Roe v. Wade, he was convinced that opposing abortion was of a piece with his other political concerns. During the 1970s he grew increasingly concerned over the way that many leftist Christians were elevating politics and political ideology to the level of ultimate concerns and were sometimes, indeed, conflating these with the Kingdom of God (for example, in liberation theology). This led him in 1982 to write a manifesto for the newly founded Institute on Religion and Democracy and to break publicly (on 60 Minutes) with many of his erstwhile political allies.

"His conviction about the distinction between ultimate and subordinate concerns is also reflected in the names of two journals he later founded, This World (late 1980s) and First Things (1990-present). These journals, together with Neuhaus's book The Naked Public Square (1984), have had an immense effect on public discussion of religion and public life. In addition to their direct influence on politicians, church leaders, and opinion leaders, they have encouraged and guided many young Christians (and some older ones) in developing a robustly Christian approach to these matters. Neuhaus and his journals have directly helped to develop a new generation of writers to carry on his vision.

"At seminary Neuhaus became the sort of confessional Lutheran who regards oneself as an evangelical catholic and who sees the Reformation as a very regrettable necessity (and hopefully a temporary one). Partly as a result of Vatican II and the papacy of John Paul II, Neuhaus decided in 1990 that he could no longer in good conscience refrain from joining the Roman Catholic Church. Neuhaus was re-ordained as a priest in 1991. He had already been a friend of such leading Catholic intellectuals as Avery Dulles and Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (now Benedict XVI) as well as some bishops, and his influence in the Church subsequently expanded greatly as he advised and admonished American bishops and Vatican officials."

The editors of the National Review give us these reflections.

Watch Neuhaus's lecture, "The Blessing of Mortality," which he delivered at Boston College in 2003.

1 comment:

Richie said...

An excellent tribute to one of the giants of the faith. King's students were very fortunate to hear him a few years back.

Very well put, Professor Puffert.