On Jan. 8, one of the most important public intellectuals and significant pro-life voices passed away after losing a battle with cancer. Father Richard John Neuhaus, the founder of the religious journal First Things and author of numerous religious books, died at the age of 72.
Neuhaus was born one of eight children in Pembroke, Ont, an area which he would return to for summers until near the end of his life. The son of a Lutheran minister, he would graduate from the Concordia Theological Seminary and become a Lutheran minister (the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod) himself. He would later join the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, but in 1990, he converted to Catholicism, being received into the Catholic church by his friend John Cardinal O’Connor. He would become an informal adviser on social justice issues to Pope John Paul II and president George W. Bush.
In 1984, Neuhaus established the Centre for Religion and Society at the Rockford Institute, a conservative think tank. In 1989, the centre and Neuhaus were evicted from the Institute. In 1990, he founded the Institute on Religion and Public Life, as well as the institute’s ecumenical journal First Things, which was dedicated to advancing “a religiously informed public philosophy for the ordering of society.”
First Things was a continuation of the work he began in his most important book, The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America. Published in 1984, The Naked Public Square made the case for religion’s role in American political and intellectual life, pushing back against a rabid secularism that forced religion onto the sidelines of the public square. Michael Cromartie, director of the Evangelical Studies Project at the Ethics and Public Policy Centre, said Neuhaus “was without peer in his ability to formulate a response to the theological, ethical, foreign policy and domestic issues of the day. He could think deeply on a broad range of issues and be penetratingly insightful.”
Neuhaus, the former Lutheran, worked with evangelical leader Charles Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship, to produce a manifesto called, “Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium.” On several occasions, ECT would demonstrate how pro-life work was the ecumenicalism of the trenches.
As Ross Douthat of the Atlantic Monthly noted after Neuhaus’s passing, the Catholic priest was “an archetypal post-Vatican II figure, whose deepest intellectual interests lay in finding compatibilities and building bridges — between Jews and Christians, Protestants and Catholics, faith and the free market, and above all, between Christianity and liberalism.”
Neuhaus was a religious leader on the left during the civil rights movement and anti-Vietnam War protests of the 1960s, was an associate of Martin Luther King Jr. and pastored a large black church in Brooklyn. But when the progressive political movement got behind the infamous 1973 abortion ruling Roe v. Wade, Neuhaus began his work for a new rights movement: the pro-life movement, seeking to restore legal protection for the unborn.
In perhaps his last piece of writing, appearing in the January issue of First Things, “The Pro-Life Movement as the Politics of the 1960s,” Neuhaus explained how the pro-life work in which he was involved for more than a quarter-century was a natural outgrowth of his quest for justice in the civil rights movement for blacks in the 1960s. He wrote: “Since the 1960s, citizen participation and the remoralizing of politics have been central goals of the left. Is it not odd, then, that the pro-life movement is viewed as a right-wing cause?”
Perhaps Neuhaus’s most famous contribution to American intellectual life is the 1996 First Things symposium “End of Democracy,” which examined the legitimacy of the American regime when an “entrenched pattern of government by judges” raises questions of whether “conscientious citizens can no longer give moral assent to the existing regime.” Board members resigned from the magazine and commentators on both sides of the political spectrum condemned what many thought were the “undemocratic” underpinnings of religious extremism. In fact, the symposium, which featured the likes of Robert George and Robert Bork, was borne of Neuhaus’s patriotism, his love for the American democratic project and desire to marry Christianity and (classical) liberalism.
After his passing, pro-life leaders recalled his importance.
Rabbi Yehuda Levin, spokesman for the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the U.S. and Canada, said Neuhaus provided “the intellectual underpinnings of our cultural war for life and family, there’s no question about it.” Levin added: “There aren’t enough religious leaders willing to speak out as often and as sharply as he did and that’s going to be our greatest loss.”
Judie Brown, president of the American Life League, called his death, “a terrible loss to the entire pro-life movement, not to mention the Catholic church.” Joseph Scheidler, president of the Pro-Life Action League, said, “We’ll miss him and we needed him in these times.”
Jim Hughes, president of Campaign Life Coalition, told The Interim that it was “an honour to have him accept our invitation to be a speaker at the 2002 international pro-life conference” in Toronto. Hughes recalls the speech Neuhaus gave like it was yesterday. “He applauded the presence of the youth, but he added, ‘You old people: you can’t retire, you’re in this for the duration, you can’t quit and you’re here until God calls you to your eternal reward.'”
Father Raymond de Souza, a chaplain at Queen’s University in Kingston, gave the homily at the funeral Mass for Neuhaus in New York and said it would be a mistake to remember himmerely for his writings and contributions to American and Catholic intellectual life.
De Souza said Neuhaus dedicated his life to the service of Jesus Christ and that everything he did as a priest, editor and public intellectual was because he was a deeply committed Christian.