Roman Catholic priest, prolific author, mentor and friend to people in high places and those in humble circumstances, Richard John Neuhaus, was born in Pembroke, Ontario. He died at age 72 in New York City on the morning of January 8, 2009 succumbing to the cancer that had attacked him years earlier.
Like his father, he became a minister in the Lutheran Church, serving as pastor of a predominantly black and Hispanic congregation in Brooklyn, N.Y. He was active in the civil rights and anti-war movements, but eventually broke with the Left, partly in protest over the U.S. Supreme Court 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion.
In 1990, he converted to Roman Catholicism and the following year was ordained in the priesthood. He explained: I was 30 years a Lutheran pastor, and after 30 years of asking myself why I was not a Roman Catholic, I finally ran out of answers that were convincing, either to me or to others.
He devoted his energies and eloquence to three main causes: internal church renewal, Protestant- Roman Catholic relations, and the confluence of Christianity and culture.
In 1995, he joined Charles Colson in editing Evangelicals and Catholics Together: Toward a Common Mission, a manifesto that occasioned much debate while some claimed that the authors had compromised major teachings.
He wrote a number of books about theology, the Church, ecumenism, politics, culture, and death, about which he wrote:
Death is the most everyday of everyday things. Death is the warp and woof of existence in the ordinary, the quotidian, the way things are. It is the horizon against which we get up in the morning and go to bed at night, and the next morning we awake to find the horizon has drawn closer.
The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America (1984) served as a much needed stimulus for thinking about politics from a Christian perspective. He paid tribute to some of the more determinedly Calvinist thinkers who are instrumental in the current renascence of scholarly reflection about public religion in a pluralistic society. (p. 51) He warned that politics cut loose from the Christian religion is barren and will leave politics open to alien, tyrannical ideologies. Or as he put it:
The truly naked public square is at best a transitional phenomenon. It is a vacuum begging to be filled
. We have said that conceptually there is no alternative to a de facto state religion once traditional religion is driven from the public square
.we must attend to actual historical experience. We have witnessed again and again the entrance of the seven devils worse than the first. (p. 86, 87)
Neuhaus served on the board of the Institute on Religion & Democracy, and he was president of the Institute on religion and Public Life, the New York think tank that publishes First Things, an ecumenical journal whose purpose is to advance a religiously informed public philosophy for the ordering of society.
Founded in 1990, that magazine became essential reading for all who want to be challenged and informed about all the significant issues of our time. Under Neuhauss editorship First Things has served as a lively meeting place for Evangelicals and Catholics, while it also made room for Jewish scholars.
His regular contributions under the heading The Public Square: A Continuing Survey of Religion, Culture, and Public Life, consisted of brief commentaries about an amazing range of current events that were always thoughtful, enlightening, and sometimes playful.
Neuhaus was a brilliant polemicist but always magnanimous toward his critics and adversaries. He was unapologetic in his defence of the Christian faith as an indispensable guardian of freedom. He suggested that on that score we may be in for a time of severe testing.
It is fitting for us Protestants to recognize and celebrate this convert to Roman Catholicism as a brother in the faith who was a gifted yet humble servant of Christ. His life and work have much to teach us about living faithfully, and yes even joyfully and exuberantly, in an age of great spiritual confusion and turmoil.