In a room full of Lutheran and Catholic intellectuals on Wednesday, one women stood up and shared a story about a civil rights advocate whom she met in New York City in the late 1960s. At a time when many in her civil rights community were beginning to get caught up in abortion advocacy, this man took the time to sit down with her to help her to understand the theological basis for defending the human dignity of both minorities and the unborn.
That man was Richard John Neuhaus, who went on to become a priest and a leading Catholic voice in American politics.
This was one among the many personal stories shared at a March 7 symposium celebrating the gift of a collection of Father Neuhaus’ letters, publications, and photographs to the American Catholic History Research Center archives at Catholic University of America.
George Weigel, Rusty Reno, Hadley Arkes, Robert Wilken, and Gil Meilaender were among the contributors who spoke of Neuhaus’ impact on politics, religion, and culture in America.
"Richard went from activist pastor in Bedford-Stuyvesant ... to an enormously influential participant in and chaplain to an intellectual movement that reshaped American public life," said George Weigel.
His best known book, The Naked Public Square, critiqued an understanding of the First Amendment that calls for a secular American politics. Neuhaus clarified that politics is the product of culture and religion is at the heart of culture.
Neuhaus founded the Institute of Religion and Public Life and its magazine, First Things, shortly before his conversion to Catholicism in 1990.
He had been a Lutheran pastor before he was received into the Church and was later ordained a priest by Cardinal John O’Connor, Archbishop of New York from 1984 to 2000.
“Catholicism was a natural landing point for his thinking,” commented Rusty Reno, the current First Things editor.
He had "a way of seeing everything in the light of the Christian faith, everything drawn into that faith and illumined by it,” reflected Valparaiso professor Gil Meilaender.
Several panelists noted the significance that Neuhaus was an intellectual trained in seminary rather than academia. Neuhaus did not have a PhD. He was “trained to proclaim Christ crucified first,” said Reno.
The letters in the archive provide insights into Neuhaus’ strong personality and capacity for deep friendship.
“He took friendship with a dead seriousness. He knew that friends had to be cultivated and he worked at it,” remembered Robert Wilken, whose friendship with Neuhaus lasted over 50 years.
In 1961 Neuhaus wrote Wilken a 21-page letter telling him all about his life and ministry as a hospital chaplain and Lutheran pastor at an inner-city black parish in Brooklyn.
"Pray for me, Robert, and I'll remember you always … I just saw a ‘baby boy Washington’ enter life with a cry. He does not yet know how much he will have to cry. His mother is unmarried and does not want him. He will be turned over to the city for a life of not being wanted. This is true than one third of all the hundreds of babies delivered here. I don't think his prospects are very good for finding love, happiness, joy, purpose ... I am not depressed -- only filled with wonder. Wonder at the glory and tragedy of life in this city. In a little while I will drive home and can count on being struck again by the New York skyline -- a never failing object of adoration. The city and the potential of the civilization it represents -- to this I am religiously committed. And to the ways of the God who brought it into being. ‘What is man, that you keep him in mind?’ Little baby boy Washington -- fear not, He has redeemed you. He has called you by the name you do not yet have, you are His! I cannot guarantee you that this is true. It may be a pious illusion. But it is better than what is called the truth by mean, but just must be illusion. You are not alone."
Neuhaus died of cancer in 2009 at age 72. Meilaender reflected at the symposium, “Richard used all the time he had been given and that’s the secret of his life.”
The Richard John Neuhaus Papers are available for public viewing at the Catholic University of America archives from 9am to 5pm Monday through Friday.