In Praise of a Great Christian, Priest and Catholic Intellectual : Fr. Richard John Neuhaus


Deacon Keith Fournier


CHESAPEAKE, Va. (Catholic Online) - It seems like so long ago now. I was still serving the great work which is now recognized as a jewel in the crown of renewed or new Catholic Colleges and Universities which have recovered their Catholic identity, recommitted themselves to fidelity and are preparing the next generation of missionaries for the New Evangelization, Franciscan University of Steubenville.

I was an “early responder” to the work, following Fr Michael Scanlan after he assumed the Presidency of the then College of Steubenville. First as a transfer student at the College, then, while I went through law School in neighboring Pittsburgh and later in the early years of my law practice, serving in many capacities, including as a Dean of students and a Dean of Evangelization. It was during the late eighties that I had the privilege of first meeting then Rev. Richard John Neuhaus. He was still a Lutheran Minister but had already distinguished himself as one of the great Christian intellectuals and apologists of our age.

During those years the College was in transition, moving toward the wonderful vision of “dynamic orthodoxy” which Father Michael Scanlan held close to his heart and courageously set into motion against substantial resistance from all “sides”. Visionaries like Fathers Michael Scanlan and Richard John Neuhaus have to be men of courage and ideas, unafraid of controversy and willing to endure what St. Escriva so aptly referred to as “opposition from the good”. The ride from the Pittsburgh airport was an opportunity for me to hear this wonderful man speak for the first time in person. I had read his work “The Naked Public Square” and as someone interested in the intersection of faith and public policy I drank in every word. That is I would have if the man accompanying me had not spent half the time bemoaning the state of the culture and the darkness of the age!

Then Rev. Neuhaus was to address our theology faculty that day. Accompanied by a colleague, we arrived early on campus so we took him to lunch nearby. My colleague continued to bemoan the state of the culture, the horrid aftereffects of the Roe v Wade decision, the disintegration of respect for marriage, and many of the myriad of social and cultural challenges of our age. I grew tired and irritated. Rev. Neuhaus simply listened. During a break, before our sandwiches arrived, he said to my friend, “Son, no Matter how dark it gets, please remember we can be filled with hope because of Jesus Christ. Also remember that Hope is a theological virtue”. The content of the comment and the warm manner of his delivery shifted the rest of the conversation. It lifted my colleague from near despair to hope. It also revealed the heart of the man who was in our midst, a man of the Gospel.

Upon concluding lunch we escorted our speaker to the classroom. He approached the podium and began to speak. Gathered in the front row were several of the newly hired, more “orthodox” professors who just years earlier might have been somewhat concerned about Father Scanlan’s efforts to blend the fruits of an early enthusiastic ecclesial movement and the Colleges move toward fidelity and orthodoxy. However, Fr. Scanlan knew the integration of the two was a part of his mission. Rev. Neuhaus began his talk with a greeting. Using the graciousness of his manner and his gift for eloquence, he immediately captured the assembled scholars. They were at the edge of their seats, enamored with every erudite comment he made. He told them that the way he understood Catholic ecclesiology, though he was not yet in full communion, he was already in an imperfect communion with the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church and therefore with them. Well, I rejoiced. He wonderfully articulated an ecumenism of communion. However, some of the folks in the front row seemed perturbed, worried I guess about his “orthodoxy”.

Fr. Neuhaus soon won them over with his intellect and his obvious love for - and dedication to - the pursuit and presentation of truth. He also entertained their questions with an ease which demonstrated his comfort with debate. It was not very long thereafter that he came into full communion with the Catholic Church, noting, again to a mixed response, that he was being faithful to the reformation in doing so. A year later Cardinal O’Connor of blessed memory ordained him to the priesthood and we have had the privilege of having him in the full communion of the Catholic Church as a holy priest and an extraordinary intellectual giant for these many years. The Church - and the world into which she is sent to continue the redemptive mission of Jesus Christ - has been deeply enriched by his life and his work. A life well lived!

Over the years that have passed since that first meeting, his writings have always challenged me into a deeper analysis of what it truly means to be a Catholic Christian in this age. His defense of the fundamental human rights issue of our age, the right to life of every human person from conception throughout every stage of life and unto a natural death, has become the polestar of efforts to present the beauty of the teaching of the magisterium in the public square. He pursued and presented the truth because He knew the One who is the Truth Incarnate and in that deep communion he had with the Lord he found the strength and the grace he needed to always engage the debate, regardless of the labels, the attacks, or the consequences and to never compromise. He was and he is a great champion.

Father Neuhaus was a defender of fundamental human rights throughout his entire ministry. His early “politics” and his later “politics” were grounded in the same great principles derived from the implications of the Incarnation, consistent with reason and based on the Social teaching of the Church. He loved the teachings of the Church and he grew in his understanding of them. He became one of their greatest teachers to the rest of us. He also knew that the truth about the dignity of every human life was not dependent upon revelation, not simply a “religious” position, but that it was revealed in the Natural Law, knowable by reason and confirmed by that revelation. Therefore, he knew that this truth must form the foundation of any truly just society. He knew that when he stood against racial discrimination or when he stood against the killing of the innocents through abortion, he was doing the same thing, defending the dignity of the person. Unceasingly he used his great intellect and gift of communication to re-present the splendor of truth to an age of relativism.

My choice to allow Doug Kmiec to honor Fr. Neuhaus has drawn an extraordinary response. I understand. I am one who has disagreed with Doug Kmiec repeatedly and set that debate to writing repeatedly. In publishing his eulogy, I felt that I was simply continuing the kind of dialogue which characterized the great work of the man whom the world pauses to honor, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus. I also thought that Doug’s comments revealed that he is a man still in thought and still influenced by Father Neuhaus. I am persuaded that Father Neuhaus, now joined in the communion of love which is the communion of saints, is still “working on Doug”, with his characteristic charity and intensity. Now he is doing so in an even more powerful format of focused prayer. Fr. Richard John Neuhaus was one of the great intellectual leaders of the Catholic community, in fact of the entire Christian and religious community. His own life and willingness to engage the debate, as well as his numerous and brilliant writings, reflected not only a deep capacity for using his intellectual gifts to defend the truth, but a willingness to always listen to -while still carefully engaging- even those who disagreed with him. He himself walked the road of conversion, not only moving from one Christian community (Lutheran) into full communion with the Catholic Church in which the fullness of truth subsists, but in developing his own policy and political positions during a lifetime of commitment to fundamental human rights endowed upon every human person by God.

He has left not only his writings but the call to continue the engagement, even of Doug Kmiec. We cannot extract ourselves from this task because we face the current challenge of this new administration. Fr. Neuhaus has left a vacuum which should be filled with solid, robust intellectual presentation of the truth. As I wrote in a comment to the original placement of the article, “I am clearly one who disagrees with Doug Kmiec, simply using Google will demonstrate how deeply that disagreement runs. However, he is a part of what appears to be a majority of Americans who exercised their vote in a manner which I and many others believe was not oriented toward ending the killing of our first neighbors in the womb, with government sanction. The evil of State sanctioned abortion on demand is at the heart of the great human rights struggle which Fr. Richard John Neuhaus helped to lead in life and will continue to lead as a part of the communion of saints. I believe that allowing Professor Kmiec, a Catholic, to honor an intellectual adversary and a priest, and to thereby promote the very dialogue which has ensued, was the right editorial choice.”

However, I have moved Doug’s piece in response to numerous requests. It can be found right below this article. I did so out of respect for those who thought it to be inappropriate. I still think it is worth reading and that to continue the work of Fr. Neuhaus we must learn to engage the thought revealed within it. I join the thousands who mourn and offer this prayer, with the Church, for this holy priest of Christ: “Réquiem ætérnam dona eis, Dómine, et lux perpétua lúceat eis. Requiéscant in pace. Amen.”