Father Richard John Neuhaus died this morning in New York City. He was seventy two.
If there was ever a man who conveyed through his writing that he was ready for this moment, it was Fr. Neuhaus. But perhaps in my selfishness, there is no man I am more sorrowful to lose.
One could consider this loss in the context of the modern social conservative movement, or for First Things the natural comparisons to losing William F. Buckley, Jr. But in truth, it is a far greater loss than that.
As Father Neuhaus was the greatest driving force on the Roman side for the idea of Catholics and Evangelicals Together, an audacious idea which (how quickly we forget) really until the 1980s was just social and political madness, his impact reverberated throughout the whole of the Christian experience in America.
It is not hyperbole to say that by unifying Catholics, Evangelicals, and Jews in an ongoing public conversation on life and liberty, Father Neuhaus helped erase two hundred years of what America knew about the way religious groups communicated, debated, and ultimately allied with each other together to advocate and organize for the benefit of society.
Time magazine named him one of the most influential evangelicals in America, in spite of his Catholicism – perhaps just because George W. Bush gave him a pet name – but it was an accurate choice nonetheless. It is the sort of thing that would have made De Tocqueville’s jaw drop to the ground, and De Tocqueville really did understand us.
The story of the modern social conservative movement is all about activism and politics, petitions and court cases, but Father Neuhaus’s great testament was about something grander: through those he inspired, through his writings, through his organizing, and through something as simple as connecting people over lunch who may share nothing in terms of what they can eat on the table but share greatly in what is unseen, Father Neuhaus fundamentally changed religious life in America forever.
This is not an exaggeration. Nor by any means is it a dismissal of anyone else’s influence – but ultimately, the changes most other conservative thought leaders have helped achieve in the twentieth century were made at the hands of other men, elected to office. Father Neuhaus did not merely inspire the intellectual undergirding of change: with God’s help, he fashioned it himself, through hard work, a gift for eloquence, and always a wry smile at the end.
The world Father Neuhaus leaves is one where evangelicals and Catholics are more united than they are divided – where the old ethnic politics and arguments have faded, and where we worship and work together in harmony. My mother, never anything but a Protestant, upon learning of this Catholic convert priest’s passing, wrote to say she paused on learning the news to sing Faure’s Pie Jesu for him. I can think of nothing more fitting.
Pie Jesu, Domine
dona eis requiem
Gentle Jesus, Lord God
grant them peace
in their eternal home