"I'm Not Optimistic, But I'm Hopeful" | An IgnatiusInsight.com Interview with Father Richard John Neuhaus | July 7, 2006 "I'm Not Optimistic, But I'm Hopeful" | An IgnatiusInsight.com Interview with Father Richard John Neuhaus | July 7, 2006


Father Richard John Neuhaus is a leader in what has been dubbed the Catholic "neo-con" movement by its opponents, and he is regarded as a clear voice for orthodoxy and ecumenism by many others. He is a former Lutheran pastor who entered the Catholic Church on September 8, 1990, and was ordained a Catholic priest the following year. He is the editor-in-chief of First Things magazine, an influential monthly periodical that features articles and reviews by noted scholars, theologians, and philosophers from Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish backgrounds.

His most recent book, Catholic Matters: Confusion, Controversy and the Splendor of Truth, is highly readable and hopeful reflections on the state of the Church in America. The chapters include an account of Neuhaus' conversion to Catholicism and myriad observations about the papacy of John Paul II and the beginning of Benedict XVI's pontificate. (An excerpt can be read here.)

In the February 2006 issue of First Things, Neuhaus caused a furor by writing "The Truce of 2005," in which he reported a "palpable uneasiness" about the Vatican's willingness to enforce the November 2005 document, Instruction Concerning the Criteria for the Discernment of Vocations with regard to Persons with Homosexual Tendencies in view of their Admission to the Seminary and to Holy Orders.

That Vatican document stated that the Church "cannot admit to the seminary or to Holy Orders those who practice homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies, or support the so-called 'gay culture'." A number of bishops, theologians and heads of religious congregations say the document does not ban homosexuals from seminaries.

This interview focuses partly on Neuhaus' First Things essay, but concludes with observations in keeping with remarks he makes at the end of Catholic Matters:
"I am frequently asked whether I still stand by the hopeful vision set out in my 1987 book, The Catholic Moment. The answer is unqualifiedly 'Yes.' If the Catholic Church is what she claims to be, and I am convinced that she is, then every moment from Pentecost to the coming of the promised Kingdom is the Catholic moment. Despite the unfaithfulness of many, including bishops, popes and Catholics beyond numbering, Christ is faithful. From the assurance of the risen Lord to Peter and the frightened disciples by the Sea of Gallilee to the election of John Paul in 1978 and of Benedict in April 2005, his word is sure: 'Be not afraid.' The center holds. The adventure continues." (Catholic Matters, p 247)
IgnatiusInsight.com: In your First Things essay you referred to "The Truce of 1968", which George Weigel said was Rome's failure to enforce Humanae Vitae, and the consequence of that truce--essentially the establishment of dissent to key Catholic teaching as acceptable, and in the case of artificial contraception and perhaps other practices, as the norm. The result, you said, is that many priests do not count the use of artificial contraception a sin and most Catholics believe it is an optional teaching. How did the "Truce of 1968" lead to the situation of homosexuality in the priesthood now, and how prevalent do you believe homosexuality to be in the priesthood today? And what could be the consequences of a "Truce of 2005" on the November 2005 Vatican seminary document?

Fr. Neuhaus: I think the critical thing about what's called "The Truce of 1968" is not that many priests failed to effectively communicate the Church's teaching and it's not that, as a consequence, many if not most Catholics are not familiar with, never mind persuaded by, that teaching. It is rather that you had official teachers of the Church, openly and in an orchestrated manner, declare that they think the teaching is wrong and that they reject it. And that they did so with impunity. That is, they did so without there being any consequence, any apparent consequence for their status as teachers of the Church. And that was a new thing. And this could well happen with regard to the Church's teaching on homosexuality. Obviously you have quite a few prominent voices in the Society of Jesus, but not only there, publicly saying since the instruction was issued not only that they think the instruction is wrong, but they think the moral doctrine on which the instruction is based is wrong.

This is a moment when conscientious Catholics hold their breath and say, "Ah, so what happens now?" That is why this is a very difficult circumstance--because you have significant sectors of Catholic leadership basically throwing down the gauntlet to the Magisterium of the Church.

In March (2006), you had the council representing some 200 religious orders who have some religious presence in Canada, calling upon the Canadian bishops to make clear to Rome that the Church's teaching on homosexuality, on the ordination of women, was in need of radical change. And very frankly calling upon the bishops to tell Rome that the church in Canada was no longer going to take instructions from Rome. This is a kind of Lefebvrism of the Left, which is obviously a moment of testing for the leadership of the Church.

IgnatiusInsight.com: Do you think the reason there might not be a punitive response to the dissent on the seminary document is because of a fear of government consequences, for instance, in Canada? A fear that the Church really will be placed in a situation of true persecution rather than the situation now, which finds the Church teetering on the edge?

Fr. Neuhaus: There are all kinds of anxieties on the part of bishops. In some cases there's just a native timidity. In other cases, there's a deep-seated fear of schism. That is, if you actually require of your priests or of religious communities that they adhere to the Church's teaching, that this will simply force a circumstance in which de facto defiance demands a de jure decision which nobody wants. There are all kinds of factors involved. And yes, among the factors is the fear of state intervention--which is happening and which is very dramatically happening as a consequence of the sex abuse scandals in this country, where you have governmental takeovers of aspects of the governance of the Church in several instances around the country.

IgnatiusInsight.com: What do you mean by that?

Fr. Neuhaus: In Manchester, New Hampshire, for example, the deal with the attorney general is that the attorney general will monitor the personnel decisions of the Church. This is an unprecedented violation of the Church's freedom to govern itself. And what you have in Seattle and elsewhere, where you have bankruptcies. Obviously in the very state of bankruptcy, it means a governmental agency is going to supervise the administrative life of the Church, which presumably is the office of the bishop. But, then you have other kinds of governmental interventions, such as Boston where the state Apparat basically tells the Church how to run its adoption programs. [Editor's note: With the result that the Boston archdiocese chose to no longer handle adoption services.] We are living in a moment of very dramatic aggressive state threats against the hard-won religious freedom rights of the Church to govern itself.

All of this is within the context of great mis-governance in the Church, specifically with regard to the sex abuse problem and the failure to address it as effectively and responsibly as it ought to have been addressed. And, needless to say, the eager exploitation of that failure by the clear enemies of the Catholic Church of whom there are not a few. None of this should surprise us. We are in a very delicate, difficult moment and a very threatening moment. And a moment that requires a new level of confident and imaginative leadership that is able to rally an intelligent and persuasive response and to communicate that response to the larger society.

IgnatiusInsight.com: With all that is going on with homosexuality in the priesthood, what would you say to parents about their children? How should mothers and fathers of boys proceed in regard to a possible vocation?

Fr. Neuhaus: Obviously we need to encourage priestly vocations. And, if someone is called by God to be a priest, obviously that is a call to be responded to. Parents and other people concerned can know--as they should know--there are very, very solid seminaries and formation programs around the country. We should not exaggerate the degree of the corruption. Any corruption, moral and otherwise, is of course to be taken with utmost seriousness. But we have seminaries and bishops that are solid, rock solid, on the teaching of the Church, including the moral teaching with regard to sexuality.
So that ought not to deter anybody from responding to what they discern to be a vocation to the priesthood.

IgnatiusInsight.com: In your new book, Catholic Matters, you say the "silly season" is almost over and that you feel the Catholic Church in America is righting its course. Can you explain what you mean by that and why you are hopeful?

Fr. Neuhaus: The sense that--in the late 1960s and through the early '80s--the sense so widespread that the second Vatican Council had almost mandated a revolution and that the Catholic Church was beginning over from scratch and everything was up for grabs, that kind of heady hysterical liberationist ethos that dominated, for example, the National Catholic Reporter and the Women's Conference for Ordination and so forth. That's fading. People know that's not the future.

Also with regard to the liturgy: Father Mike with balloons pinned to his chasibule and Sister Nellie dancing in her leotard around the altar. Do those things still happen? Sure. And every time I say that the silly season is past or passing, I get letters from people in goodness knows where. They say, "Hey, you don't know about my parish. It's still going on full tilt." So I don't deny that, I know that's the case. But, that is yesterday. That is oh so 1960s, 70s, early 80s. That's not where the future of the Catholic Church in America is being formed.

The future is being formed by exciting young priests coming out of our really solid seminaries these days. They're on fire with a sense of the renewal that John Paul II declared when he presented Catholicism as this high adventure of faithfulness. I am confident that's the future that we must anticipate. And if it doesn't happen? And if indeed some of the Lefebvrists of the Left and the more dour traditionalist readings of the degree of decay and disarray in the Church prevail, well, that's God's business. Our business is simply to, in union with John Paul and with Benedict, who are providentially gifted and inspiring leaders of the Church, to do our best to represent authentic Catholic teaching and life. I'm hopeful. I'm not optimistic, but I'm hopeful.

IgnatiusInsight.com: What do you mean, "I'm not optimistic, but I'm hopeful"?

Fr. Neuhaus: Optimism is not a Christian virtue. Optimism is simply a matter of optics, of seeing what you want to see and not seeing what you don't want to see. Hope is facing reality with eyes wide open and saying, nonetheless this is what we're going to do by the grace of God.

IgnatiusInsight.com: In Catholic Matters, you talk about resurgence of Catholicism, with 200,000 people entering the Church each year through RCIA. Is that one of the signs of hope you see?

Fr. Neuhaus: It's one among many. You have to ask what is attracting these people. And of course, the answer is very mixed. But, at the heart of it is a recognition that this is the Church of Jesus Christ most fully and rightly ordered and Christ is not going to abandon it. And the spirit is even, despite us, still leading us onward. Right?

(Photos courtesy of First Things.)

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles:

Homosexual Orientation Is Not a "Gift" | James Hitchcock
Can I Quote You On That? Talking to the Media About Homosexuality and the Priesthood | Mark Brumley
Priestly Vocations in America: A Look At the Numbers | Jeff Ziegler
Can Catholics Be Real Americans? | Mark Brumley
On Being Catholic American | Joseph A. Varacalli

Comments? Thoughts? Questions? Share them on the Insight Scoop blog!