Roman Catholic priest Fr. Richard John Neuhas died yesterday after a protracted battle with cancer. Anyone familiar with Christianity in the public square will recognize Fr. Neuhaus as one of the first to sound the alarm that a public square stripped of religious values would lead to a culture stripped of benevolent morality. In his seminal work “The Naked Public Square,” Fr. Neuhaus argued that “moral neutrality” was anything but neutral and would lead to a society in which moral universals would be overthrown in favor or utilitarian interests.
What did he mean by this? He meant that once religion has been relegated to a private interest (you believe what you want to believe, I will believe what I want to believe, it really doesn’t matter), the universals by which men govern themselves would erode, and society would becomes susceptible to, and finally shape itself around, an ethic drawn from the decisions of elites. The pressure on Christians to privatize their faith Neuhaus argued, was in fact an attempt to remove religion from cultural life altogether, and Christians needed to meet this challenge.
Fr. Neuhaus, like so many of his generation, came to the conclusion through a circuitous route. He was a Viet Nam protester when he was younger, but the suffering of the boat people after the US withdrawal made him rethink his position on many things. He took some personal responsibility for their suffering I remember reading, because he never fully comprehended how the unconditional withdrawal from Viet Nam would affect the people there. That was many years ago (although still fresh for many of his generation), and while it can be argued whether or not the United States should have ever entered that war (Eisenhower said no, Kennedy said yes), it is clear that it shaped Neuhaus and many of his generation.
Fr. Neuhaus’ life chronicled the deep cultural conflict that arose out of the Viet Nam era. He became what Andrew Sullivan dismissively called a “theo-con”, a pejorative meant to diminish Fr. Neuhaus’ political as well as moral views. Sometimes though, you can tell the character of a man by how his detractors deride him, and Sullivan’s disparaging remark reveals a commitment from which Fr. Neuhas never wavered: the weak and infirm among us must be protected.
A great gift to us was his penetrating writing that defended human life, especially the unborn. Fr. Neuhaus understood politics and culture, and resolutely affirmed (and brilliantly articulated) the moral responsibility of Christians have to their fellow man. For Fr. Neuhaus, the neighbor was not only the Christian, but any person whom God called him to help and defend. Even in his last days he took up his pen in warning: The Deadly Convenience of Christianity Without Culture. He leadership reached far beyond the Lutheran frontiers where he started and the Roman Catholic frontiers where he ended up. He was active in bringing Catholics and Evangelicals together on important issues, alongside his longtime editorship of First Things, which ranks as one of the most influential journals on religion and culture today.
Reading through the obituaries posted on the internet, it is clear that Fr. Neuhaus was a much loved man. I heard him speak once and saw him interviewed on EWTN on occasion. One thing I always admired in the man was his honesty. One interview several years ago concerned the sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. He didn’t evade the moral culpability that the mishandling of the abuse by the Catholic hierarchy over the years conferred on them. He called it “a deep rot” as I recall. That kind of frank honesty deserves respect. It is clear he deeply affected, often for the good, the people who worked with him.
For us, we have lost a good thinker, a clear voice in the defense of human life and dignity, a superb cultural critic, and a brother in Christ. May his memory be eternal.