Moralizing Man in Immoral Society

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Neuhaus.jpegI first met Richard John Neuhaus in the mid-1980s, when I was working on a book about religion in America since World War II. I wanted to interview him about his role in the antiwar movement, and specifically about Clergy Concerned [later, Clergy and Laity Concerned] About Vietnam, the antiwar organization that he created with the Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Neuhaus was the Protestant in that quintessential postwar Protestant-Catholic-Jew mix–a Lutheran pastor to a small, poor African-American parish in Brooklyn. In due course he went over to Rome, but when we met he was still under the Wittenberg umbrella, albeit fully fed up with Mainline Protestantism and its ways. Though he had long since given up the leftist politics of his antiwar days, he was more than happy to talk about them.
Neuhaus’ claim to literary fame rests on his book The Naked Public Square, which appeared in 1984. It had a great title–one that succinctly captured the distress of the post-Vietnam religious conservatives who were in the process of building the religious right. Brevity was never Neuhaus’ strong suit, and the book went on far too long for the point it had to make. But in its grim Germanic way, it pounded the point home with such repetitive force that you could not but come away impressed. In a 1986 essay for the New York Times Book Review, I anointed it one of seven religious books that had made a difference in American culture since World War II, and I think I’d still keep it on the list. Neuhaus was pleased as punch with the essay, and over the years I think his gratitude led him to pull his punches when something I wrote stirred his animus.
Once ensconced in the Catholic priesthood, he became a fiercesome controversialist, using his journal First Things to pummel the liberal opposition for no end of sins, real and imagined. There was no shortage of those on the Catholic left who came to regard him as the Prince of Darkness–in part because of the influence he seemed to wield in John Paul II’s Vatican. No doubt their antipathy was enhanced by the fact that he was not to the faith born–a priest of a certain age who knew not Vatican II. For all that, he never gave up his commitment to interfaith action, though his new co-conspirators were now evangelical Protestants and neoconservative Jews. If he believed, as I suppose he did, in nulla salus extra ecclesiam (no salvation outside The Church), he didn’t let that get in the way of the common agenda.
In the past year, the word on the street was that the Vatican had become displeased with him–something to do with his having taken a potshot or two at Benedict XVI’s American visitation. If so, it would not have been out of keeping with a certain irrepressible bomb-throwing side to his character that generally kept him this side of insufferability. The old antiwar activist was on display in the 1990s when he roiled the neocon waters by calling for civil disobedience against the American judicial system because of Roe v. Wade and its progeny. He never was afraid to question the legitimacy of the system.
In his last piece in First Things, copyrighted this month, Neuhaus goes on and on in praise of The Democratic Virtues of the Christian Right, a new book by Jon Shields of Claremont-McKenna College. Shields’ argument is that the Christian Right represents the realization of the anti-establishment vision of the radicals of the Sixties, and it’s easy to see why Neuhaus loved it (transposing “Christian right” into “pro-life movement”). By the lights of the culture, it represents an irony of American history. By his own, it proved he kept the faith.