I began 2010 with a post entitled “First Things,” a tribute to Cardinal Avery Dulles and Father Richard John Neuhaus to mark the one-year anniversary of their departures from this life. It was also a tribute to the immense volume of writings both men left to the Church. The fate of religion in the American public square is hopeful today largely because of these two men and their singular erudition. My post, “The Twilight’s Last Gleaming,” came into being because Cardinal Dulles and Father Neuhaus taught me the importance of the collaboration of religious ideals with human society, and the extent to which we are left stranded without them.
Cardinal Dulles and Father Neuhaus were also “the closest of friends and collaborators.” These were the words of Father Neuhaus, and they came with an assurance that he would have much more to write about the immense contributions of his friend, Cardinal Dulles. But just a few weeks later, Fr. Neuhaus, too, would be gone. Cardinal Dulles was a frequent and brilliant contributor to First Things, the journal founded and managed for almost two decades by Father Richard John Neuhaus. I think most people have moved on, but I can’t begin 2011 without a mention of them. Cardinal Dulles passed from this life on December 12, 2008, and Father Neuhaus less than a month later on January 8, 2009.
There are some whose loss leaves a void of such magnitude that it can never really be filled. Cardinal Dulles and Fr. Neuhaus earned the title of “public theologians,” and the empty place where they once stood will remain with an aura of absence for a long, long time. There is simply no one quite like them in the Catholic Church in America or in the entire religious arena of the American public square. If you’ve looked at our “About” page, you know that both Cardinal Dulles and Father Neuhaus were the inspirations for These Stone Walls which came into being just months after their deaths. They urged me to write and to shout from the rooftops about the truth, not only of my own situation, but that of priests maligned and scapegoated unjustly.
They were two of the most prolific writers ever to appear on the North American religious landscape. Spend some time at the website of First Things, the Journal of the Institute on Religion and Public Life. There you’ll find some brilliant contributions by Cardinal Dulles writing with incisive erudition and clarity well into his late 80s. He was the only American ever to be named a cardinal based solely on his work as a theologian. Try, for starters, “From Ratzinger to Benedict“ (February 2006) or this gem from “The Ways We Worship” (March 1998):
“One weekend in that tumultuous year 1968 I was on call at a parish church outside of Baltimore. At the end of my Sunday Mass I came into the body of the church to make my thanksgiving, and as I knelt in the pew I noticed that the pulpit from which I had preached had on its front a banner with the inscription ‘God is other people.’If I had had a magic marker within reach, I would not have been able to resist the temptation to insert a comma after the word other.”
At the First Things website, you will also be left to wonder how Father Richard John Neuhaus could produce so much writing, month after month, for two decades as editor and publisher, and write with a consistent caliber and depth unmatched in the wide sphere of religious thought in the English-speaking world.
The void Father Neuhaus left is felt, first and foremost, on a monthly basis when my copy of First Things arrives in the mail. Like most readers during his reign as editor, I always began each monthly issue at the end with his monthly column, “The Public Square.” It was there in a monthly “survey of religion, culture, and public life” that the gifts divinely bestowed upon Fr. Richard John Neuhaus – and, through him, upon us – were put forth in dazzling erudition and scope. No one could match the sheer volume and depth of RJN’s monthly commentary, the favorite part of First Things for many.
In a typical issue, Father Neuhaus personally penned some thirty editorials of varying length covering the entire breadth and depth of religion in the North American public square. Often the same issue would have a major article by him as well, meticulously researched and powerfully presented. I once asked Father Richard, as he was fondly referred to by many, if he had ever had an unpublished thought. His response was a simple, “Not yet!”
In a tribute in Newsweek, “An Honorable Christian Soldier“(January 19, 2009) First Things Editorial Board member, George Weigel wrote:
“The journal he launched in the early 1990s, First Things, quickly became, under his leadership and inspiration, the most important vehicle for exploring the tangled web of religion and society in the English speaking world … Richard Neuhaus was, arguably the most consequential public theologian in America since the days of Reinhold Niebuhr and John Courtney Murray, S.J.”
Richard John Neuhaus was born in Pembroke, Ontario, but lived some of his adolescence in Texas. It’s safe to say that he was probably the only close advisor to two popes, and at least one American president, to have as his first employment pumping gas at a Cisco, Texas filling station. He was the sixth son in a family of seven children, and was the son of a Lutheran pastor in whose footsteps Richard would follow.
In 1988, two years before his conversion to Catholicism, U.S. News and World Report called Richard John Neuhaus one of the “most influential intellectuals in America.” On September 8, 1990 – the feast of the Nativity of Mary – Richard presented his profession of faith and was received into full communion with the Church in the presence of John Cardinal O’Connor, Archbishop of New York. In an essay entitled “How I Became the Catholic I Was” (First Things, April 2002) Father Neuhaus explained simply: “I became a Catholic in order to be more fully what I was and who I was as a Lutheran.”
I wonder if most of us who were born into the Catholic faith fully understand and appreciate the profound beauty of such a statement. I think many of us make a mistake when we conclude that conversion is a done deal if we are Catholic from birth; that we can simply “let go and let God.” For Richard John Neuhaus, being Catholic wasn’t an invitation to complacency or the end of a road. It was a call to action. Actually, it was a call to faith in action, and a courageous message to his Lutheran brothers and sisters – OUR Lutheran brothers and sisters – about the meaning, mission, and call of their original home.
It’s remarkable that both Cardinal Dulles and Father Neuhaus were very high-profile Catholic converts. Cardinal Dulles was the son of John Foster Dulles, an advisor to the United Nations and U.S. Secretary of State under President Dwight Eisenhower.
William F. Buckley once famously remarked that another prominent conversion to the Catholic faith was something like “the Yankees stealing the star pitcher from the Red Sox.” In “The One True Church,” a posthumously published essay by Father Neuhaus (First Things, “The Public Square” April 2010) he dismissed such talk as “tribalism” with “no place in this discussion.” Father Neuhaus explained his own conversion by quoting Christopher J. Malloy in “Subsistit In,” an essay in The Thomist:
“One can affirm both the essential fullness of the ecclesial reality of the Catholic Church and the concrete poverty and woundedness of her lived life.”
“Not only can one affirm both,” Father Neuhaus wrote, “one must affirm both” for the Church is home to both saints and sinners in communion with one another on the road to salvation. Cardinal Dulles and Father Neuhaus knew the importance of conversion, and rejoiced whenever one who was a stranger to faith, or lost all faith, found a way home.
In a letter dated 7 September 2007, the eve of the anniversary of his own communion with the Catholic faith, Father Richard John Neuhaus – advisor to popes and presidents – took the time to write to a prisoner. His encouraging letter to Pornchai Moontri in prison after reading “Pornchai’s Story” published by The Catholic League, prompted Pornchai to realize the impact of what he called “true believers.” Father Neuhaus wrote:
“Your story is very moving indeed. While … there is little concrete that any of us can do about this situation, we can pray, and you may be sure that you are in my prayers. In truth, prayer is the most concrete and effective instrument God has given us in order to participate in His purposes, which are often beyond our understanding.”
Two and a half years later, Pornchai professed his faith as a Catholic – a truly exemplary one – knowing that the prayers of Father Neuhaus and many others were an invitation to find a home in his new faith. J asked Pornchai to describe why he is a Catholic today, and he cited Father Neuhaus among other “true believers” in service to the Mission Of the Church. A “true believer,” Pornchai explained, “never asks, ‘What’s in it for me?’ but rather asks, ‘How can I serve the Lord?’”
Cardinal Avery Dulles and Father Richard John Neuhaus were true believers, and I believe they are friends and collaborators still. The witness of both was a witness to the importance of the Four Last Things, the focus beyond our own lives that I described in an Advent post, “And Death’s Dark Shadow Put to Flight.”
Please join me this week in honoring Avery Cardinal Dulles and Father Richard John Neuhaus. Perhaps the best way for our purposes can be found right here on These Stone Walls which would not exist without their profound influence. Some time this week, please have another look at my first post of 2010, “First Things.”
In a comment on that post last January, Kathy Maxwell, who has written about These Stone Walls in the Homiletic & Pastoral Review, wrote:
“I will be forever grateful to Father Neuhaus for three reasons: To paraphrase one of his points about the Prodigal Son, he brought me back to my senses which brought me home to the Church. In addition, he provided me with the matchless First Things. Finally, his editorial, “A Kafkaesque Tale,” introduced me to my friend Father Gordon MacRae.”
I wonder if Kathy Maxwell knows what placing me in such company means. I can only hope and pray to be a true believer. So after reading my post, “First Things,” join me in a prayer for Cardinal Dulles and Father Neuhaus. Then ask them to remember us as well. True believers, after all, both saints and sinners, stand in the Presence of God redeemed by the Blood of Christ.