Six years after the death of Richard John Neuhaus, a new biography by Randy Boyagoda echoes his bold, timely, vibrant voice on religion in the public square.
When I arrived in prison in September, 1994, a friend concerned for what he imagined was a dearth of intellectual stimulation here gifted me with a subscription to First Things magazine. It was a gift that expanded a mind trapped in a world of concrete and steel, but it also created a serious problem for me. I simply could not part with the monthly issues that piled up on my cell floor drawing frowns from prison guards. “Why would you keep these?” asked one. “There aren’t even any pictures in them!”
I live in a micromanaged world in which every precious square inch of space must be accounted for, leaving little room for a collection of First Things. So I took a job in the prison library, found an empty shelf, and began what is likely the only collection of First Things spanning fifteen years in a prison library. You might be surprised by how often they are checked out, the lack of pictures notwithstanding.
But there is one issue that has never left my cell. I keep it in a safe place, and return to it twice a year in January and May. It’s the April 2009 issue, Number 192, bearing the cover, “Richard John Neuhaus In Memoriam.”
I was simply amazed that, just three months after RJN’s untimely death from the ravages of cancer on January 9, 2009, this collection of essays could be gathered from the friends and colleagues for whom he was the hub in the arena of religion and public life in America. I should say, “in the Americas,” for Richard was Canadian by birth and his voice was as influential to our north as it was here in the U.S.
I keep this issue close because when Father Richard left this world, I could partake of none of the usual rituals with which we say goodbye. So I never said goodbye. Through the words of those who loved and cherished his company, he is still very much here, and I am grateful for that.
I have written of this before, so forgive my repetition, but my first inkling that something was amiss with Richard’s health came in a handwritten note from Steve Oslica in October of 2008. He had been in New York and attended a Mass offered by Father Richard. “Keep Father Neuhaus in your prayers,” Steve wrote. “I think he is dealing with some health issues.” Two months later, he was gone. Father Richard John Neuhaus left this world in the Lord’s friendship on January 9, 2009.
He also left dangling the friendship of countless others, including mine, though it was a friendship formed almost entirely through mutual friends, and in a dynamic exchange of letters to and from prison that spanned the last decade of his life. His influence upon me within these prison walls is directly proportional to the void that he left here.
A month after his death, I received the kindest of notes, dated February 17, 2009, from the Honorable Mary Ann Glendon, just returned from her post as United States Ambassador to the Holy See:
“Greetings from Boston – It’s good to be home again. I have just returned from a meeting in NYC to discuss the continuation of First Things and other aspects of Father Neuhaus’ work. I know you must be feeling his loss as keenly as the rest of us who depended on his leadership in so many ways.”
I was so deeply grateful to Ambassador Glendon. The brief letter filled in for me what had been lacking in the absence of ritual and sacrament to acknowledge death. Then, that April when First Things published its truly wonderful “In Memoriam” issue, I stored that letter within it, and marveled at the wit and wisdom and deeply felt love and respect that issue contains.
Of the dozens of profound and moving remembrances paying tribute to RJN, my favorite was, and still is, one entitled “Canadian Summers” by Father Tim Moyle of the Diocese of Pembroke, Ontario, who today reads These Stone Walls on occasion. Father Tim wrote of a long friendship with Richard and of the impact of one of his lesser known works, Freedom for Ministry (1979):
“Richard offered a powerful vision of pastoral service. Here he spoke of the importance of finding ways to present the awesome challenge of Jesus Christ to those under one’s pastoral care. By accepting this wonderful ‘challenge of orthodoxy’ that is the placing of Christ at the center of their lives, clergy of all stripes would find the inspiration to minister God’s love to all the baptized as they labored to promote the Kingdom of God. His fraternal care and concern for those who took up the pastoral yoke of Jesus Christ was where his compassion, faith, and profound humility in the face of the paschal mystery shone through the brightest for me.”
For me as well, Father Tim. I revisit this and other essays each May because that is the month of Richard’s birth. It is an irony that Father Richard John Neuhaus was born on May 14, the Feast of Saint Matthias, chosen by lot to complete the Twelve Apostles by filling the vacancy left by Judas Iscariot (Acts 1:21-26). The significance of that for me may be more evident below.
Now, six years after RJN’s untimely death, biographer Randy Boyagoda has written a stunning biography of this great good friend and his prodigious voice in the arena of religion in American – and, yes Father Tim, Canadian – public life. Richard John Neuhaus: A Life in the Public Square (Image Books, 2015) is a timely tribute and a most welcomed addition to the national discussion of the role of religion and faith with which we in the Americas now struggle. In 459 pages, Randy Boyagoda captured well the strength of courage and depth of faith, coupled with a most formidable intellect, that produced the prophetic voice of Richard John Neuhaus. I received it and devoured it with that same old familiar sense of feeling both elated and deflated.
Elated first: A biography about a friend must naturally be approached with some trepidation, and I am not the first to express that thought. In a brief review, former First Things interim editor, Russell E. Saltzman wrote,
“I have never read a biography of someone I knew well. It was with apprehension, then, that I read the galleys of Randy Boyagoda’s biography of Neuhaus … I was having trouble figuring out how anyone could capture Neuhaus whole.” (Russell E. Saltzman, “New Biography Captures Spirit of One of the Great Catholic Intellectuals,” Feb. 19, 2015).
Randy Boyagoda did just that, however. He captured well the man I knew and still know through the pens of the many whose esteem for him ran deep. Boyagoda summarized him as “a bold Christian and a bold intellectual and a bold cosmopolitan and a bold operator, all at once, all as one.”
FIRST THINGS AND LAST THINGS
Few people know the extent of that boldness, professed, at times, at great personal cost to himself. I have a first hand account of it, and to this day Neuhaus is subjected, even in death, to the ridicule he expected – but never feared – on account of his own exercise of justice.
Among the many tributes to RJN, published anew as reviews by Mr. Boyagoda’s wondrous biography, was one I admired greatly. It appeared in the The Wall Street Journal (“From Anti-War Pastor to Pro-Life Priest,” April 4, 2015) by University of Oklahoma History Professor and former First Things Editorial Board member, Wilfrid M. McClay. I disagree however, with one point emphasized in both the book and Mr. McClay’s review.
“Mr. Boyagoda does not refrain from faulting some of Neuhaus’ more questionable judgments, such as his playing down of the clergy sex-abuse scandal, which led him to undertake a fierce and misguided defense of Father Marcial Maciel, the founder of the Legion of Christ, who would eventually be exposed as a prodigious sexual abuser and disciplined by Pope Benedict XVI.” (Wilfrid McClay, “From Anti-War Pastor to Pro-Life priest,” WSJ, April 4, 2015)
Some of the comments on that McClay review at WSJ.com dusted off old prejudices about Catholics, charging that Neuhaus “abandoned the word of God” in his transformation from Lutheran pastor to Catholic priest. Others highlighted what Wilfrid McClay termed his “fierce and misguided defense of Father Marcial Maciel.” So I posted two comments of my own, and this is one of them:
“It is a distortion and an injustice to characterize Father Richard John Neuhaus’ concerns for justice in the Church as “playing down the sex-abuse scandals.” He did no such thing. His collection of essays under the title, ‘Scandal Time’ comprised the sanest, most just, and most critical analysis of that crisis in print. Father Neuhaus rightly called upon the U.S. Bishops not to simply replace one injustice with another to appease a scandal hungry media, and the ravenous tort bar.”
The “Scandal Time” essays I refer to are collected at These Stone Walls under “Articles and Commentary.” Even a cursory read of them will tell you that Boyagoda’s characterization of this great priest as “bold” is immensely understated. In the face of a modern day witch hunt in the secular media, and, sadly, even the Catholic press as clergy sex abuse scandals unfolded in 2002, the voice of Father Neuhaus was more than bold. It was revolutionary. This one man held back the tide of “availability bias” to give accused priests a singular voice calling for justice, due process, and fairness. And this was after his defense of Marcial Maciel was shown to be flawed and misdirected.
I cannot convey in mere words what this meant to me, personally. Even while being bludgeoned for his misjudgment on Maciel, Father Neuhaus published “A Kafkaesque Tale,” demonstrating to the Catholic Christian community the inconsistency of its application of justice in the wake of the U S Bishops’ “Final Solution,” the 2002 Dallas Charter that blatantly equated accusation with guilt. In this, Richard John Neuhaus stood almost entirely alone in Catholic media in the religious public square.
Father Neuhaus refused to use the apparent guilt of Maciel to undermine justice and due process for other accused Catholic priests even when many other writers were doing just that. To fault Father Neuhaus for this today is to add insult to injustice. It was his courage that inspired me to write “The High Cost of Marcial Maciel and Why I Resent Paying It.”
AMONG HIS LAST THINGS
These Stone Walls came into being exactly six months after Father Neuhaus left this world. In part, at least, TSW was his idea, an idea shared and generated by his friend of long standing, Cardinal Avery Dulles. As the “About” page of These Stone Walls describes, they together asked me to contribute “another chapter to the volume of Christian literature from those who were unjustly imprisoned.”
In this call for fairness in the face of a witch hunt, Father Neuhaus came full circle. Born on the Feast of Saint Matthias who resolved the first Judas Crisis in the Church, Father Neuhaus sought to also resolve its newest form as the 21st Century commenced. He and Cardinal Dulles were lone voices in the media glare of 2002, but truth and justice accommodating the acceptable media view is an old practice that history always exposes eventually as deeply flawed. I wrote more extensively of the boldness of this man in “Cardinal Dulles, Father Neuhaus, and The Judas Crisis.” This is an excerpt:
“Zero tolerance, one strike and you’re out, boot them out of ministry. Of course the victim activists are not satisfied and, sadly, may never be satisfied. The bishops have succeeded in scandalizing the faithful anew by adopting [in the Dallas Charter] a thoroughly unbiblical, untraditional, and un-Catholic approach to sin and grace… They ended up adopting a policy that was sans repentance, sans conversion, sans forbearance, sans prudential judgment, sans forgiveness, sans almost everything one might have hoped for from the bishops of the Church of Jesus Christ.” (Fr Richard John Neuhaus, Scandal Time.)
This boldness extended into First Things as Father Neuhaus published several letters of mine including “Crime and Punishment,” (First Things, November 2008), and “Sin and Risk Aversion” (November 1996). In his last letter to me two months before his death, Father Neuhaus asked, “How does one go about arranging to visit with you?” Upon hearing of his illness I quickly wrote back, assuring him that he had been living the Corporal Works of Mercy for the last decade of our fraternal correspondence – an exchange in which I never once felt like the outcast so many other corners of the Church fashioned for me. This adviser to popes and presidents found room to also quietly live the exhortation of Hebrews 13:3.
I have asked that this fine book be added to the small collection featured and promoted on These Stone Walls, a place where the voice of Richard John Neuhaus echoes and inspires still.
Note from Father MacRae: The newly imposed prohibition on greeting cards to prisoners in the New Hampshire State Prison has been modified. Greeting cards are, sadly, still banned from mail to me and other prisoners here. However, the following clarification has been posted regarding other mail:
“Items such as photocopies, newspaper articles, or family pictures printed on standard white photocopy paper or photo quality paper are not impacted and will still be allowed.”
I will be working on a new mail policy description to be posted on our “Contact” page, but for now, the only restriction seems to be Greeting Cards, including a ban on Christmas Cards. Bah, Humbug!
Editor’s Note: In 2015, we’ll need to replace our aging publishing equipment. In your kindness, please take a moment to read the details and share the link on your social media accounts. Thank you for such a strong kickoff!