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"A Tendering of Respect" | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | August 10, 2009
Back in the early 1970's I wrote a book called Human
Dignity and Human Numbers. It was about the
vagaries of the "overpopulation" lobby of the time. They are about as bad as
ever, even worse now that they have become earth-warmers who want to control us
all. At that time, I was struck that there was one cleric who seemed to be
saying more or less the same thing I was saying. He was a Lutheran pastor, in
New York somewhere—Neuhaus, by name, but I had no idea who he was.
The reading of the memorial issue of First Things (April, 2009) on the death of Father Richard John
Neuhaus is more than a meditation on the life and death of a good priest, but
it is certainly that also. My brother-in-law in California had a copy of this
issue, which I had not seen before my visit with him and my sister. As I began
to read these touching remembrances of Father Neuhaus, I realized that I was
seeing him through the eyes of many men and women whom I knew or knew of. I
knew him myself, but not at all well. A pity. I had been at conferences where
he spoke. No one fails to notice that this was an eloquent man. Moreover, he
understood the purpose of eloquence, namely, that it was to move our souls not
to himself, but to the truth. Often today, anyone who speaks of truth will be
said to be "arrogant." Neuhaus was sometimes said to be arrogant, but he also
knew that he had a powerful, rich voice that no one could hear and not notice.
He knew that his eloquence was a gift as well as an art. He was in the
unfamiliar role of a man who speaks the truth and speaks it well.
No one in the some thirty short reflections on his life in
this issue of First Things failed to
mention his capacity for friendship, for his love of good conversation and,
yes, good cigars and good drink. Father de Souza in his funeral homily even
suggests that Neuhaus was most eloquent at the dinner table, which I suspect is
true. He knew Leon Kass after all, whose book, The Hungry Soul:
Eating and the Perfection of Our Nature,
makes it clear that, in the most basic sense, the dining together, the
convivium, the conversation and goodness of table and evening are what this
life is about at its best, the exchange of wit and truth, good will, laughter,
and good feeling. Some of us, including I think Fr. Neuhaus, suspect that
heaven is not far behind.
The issue begins with a reflection of Hadley Arkes, from
whose great book, First Things, of the
same title Neuhaus evidently obtained the title of his journal. And Arkes never
let him forget it. Arkes even suggested that in heaven he plans to publish a
witty journal called The Naked Public Square, in which he will mention everything but the source
of the title. Arkes was often present at the meetings and dinners at Neuhaus'
home in New York.
This is how Arkes described it. "The chemistry was
magnificently right, and I was invited back again, and again, until it became
clear that we really had been woven together as something close to a family. I
remember sitting back one day during the Ramsay Colloquium, looking at my
friends gathered around that table, absorbed in the discussion and thinking, 'I
just love these guys.'" That is high praise. Everyone who was there was there
because of Fr. Neuhaus. There was, as Arkes, in a marvelous phrase, put it, "a
tendering of respect" among them.
This is not a review of this First Things memorial to Fr. Neuhaus. But I do want to comment on
some things in it. I hope many, especially students, will read this issue. It
will be a revelation to them of things that no one else will talk to them
about. The issue is full of all sorts of things, including Neuhaus' last essay
on what the Church is, to wit, "The Catholic Church is the Church of Jesus
Christ most fully and rightly ordered through time."
Neuhaus was always at his best, and he was seldom not at his
best as far as I could tell, when he insisted that it was all right to speak
the truth before those who may not agree with him or with truth itself. There
was no unity, even at dinner, without an honest seeking of the truth. But the
truth demanded, desired accurate statement, respect, yes, probably also, at
times, good wine and food. It also needed Aristotle's remark that humor, our
ability to laugh, is a sign of intelligence. There was, evidently, much
laughter about Father Neuhaus.
My colleague at Georgetown, Jean Bethke Elsthain, tells a
wonderful story of her son who at the time was a student at Oberlin College. He
learned that Father Neuhaus was to speak on campus and recalled that Neuhaus
was a friend of his mother. So he called her up. She told him in no uncertain
terms to get over there and hear him speak. This is one time when to obey one's
mother is not only an act of obedience but a delight.
After Neuhaus' talk at Oberlin, Mrs. Elsthain's son, Eric,
went up to introduce himself to Fr. Neuhaus, again on his mother's instruction.
Neuhaus said to the young man: "Your mother is one of my favorite people. I
trust she is one of yours as well." Jean Elsthain said that this was "vintage
Neuhaus" and that her son never forgot the moment. I find it hard to forget
The comment of Pastor Erwin Prange begins this way: "My
memories of Fr. Richard go back to his beginning and before. He was the second
son of my sister, Ella Prange, and Pastor Clemens Neuhaus." Neuhaus was born in
Canada. Many references are found in these reflections to that Canadian
But why this particular passage of Prange struck me was
because in the photo section of the journal were scenes from Neuhaus' life. A
photo of his family, in 1936, is reproduced. It shows his Pastor father and
mother. It says that the baby on the mother's lap is Richard. Surrounding the
parents are other children, small twins, a girl, evidently Johanna, and three
other boys. I believe there was another sister in the family, as someone
remarked that his two sisters were at his death bed. In any case, Richard
cannot be the second son if there are clearly five older boys. I am not going
to check this, but only note it as a curiosity. My imagination says that
perhaps his mother was a second wife, the first one having died, but that is
just dubious speculation.
Perhaps my favorite story from these accounts of Fr. Neuhaus
is from Jonathan Last. I preface this story with a recollection of my own. I
often ask a large class of undergraduates: "Who was the Good Samaritan" or "How
many commandments were on each of the two tables given to Moses?" Often, I just
get a blank stare, after which I usually mutter to myself: "This civilization
As a young man working for the Weekly Standard in Washington, someone told Last that he should be
reading First Things, which he
had never heard of in spite of his New Jersey Catholic background. Last claims
that reading Neuhaus was like reading Strunk and White, the famous handbook of style and grammar that
incites one to write clearly, accurately, and elegantly. And Neuhaus' prose was
memorable, as almost everyone noted.
Last also writes of a Neuhaus column in which Neuhaus
recalled being interviewed by "an eager young thing from a national paper." The
young lady, just out of college, was evidently beginning her journalism career
and put on the lowest beat, the religion news. She was somehow assigned to Fr.
Neuhaus. She inquired about some instance of "political corruption." She wanted
to know from this presumably wise man if such corruption was "something new?"
Neuhaus responded: "No, it's been around ever since that
unfortunate afternoon in the garden." The young lady took some time pondering
this response, obviously trying to figure out how to report such an obscure
and, to her, unfamiliar, answer. Finally, she asked hesitantly: "And what
garden was that?" What I love was Nauhaus' comment to this young lady's
question: "It was touching," touching, that is, that she could be so innocent
of the whole of Western tradition. Indeed, it is the decline of civilization
when graduates of modern universities have a job interviewing clerics for
famous papers about corruption but have never heard of the Fall and the Garden
One cannot read these reflections of Fr. Neuhaus' friends
without a tear or two, I think. Nor can one read them, or him, without much
enlightenment. We find here accounts of his friends who are Jews, of his
friends among the Lutherans with whom, like his father, he was once a noted
pastor. His relation to evangelicals and to the civil rights movement is
recounted in numerous ways. Father Neuhaus met presidents and popes. Someone
recalls that at a supper (with, I believe, John Paul II), he said to the pope,
"Oh, no, Holy Father, you cannot say that." After which the pope just laughed.
I want to conclude with something George Weigel said.
"There was irony in the fact that Richard's wake and funeral Mass took place in
what the Catholic Church' s liturgical calendar now calls 'Ordinary
Time'–a phrase Richard detested." I had never read Neuhaus' comment on
this topic, but I too detest that "Ordinary Time" nonsense. It is, as Weigel
said, simply true that, for Christians, there is no "ordinary time." More than
that, however, the old liturgical calendar had no "Ordinary Time." All time was
Christian time. Sundays after Pentecost, they were properly called, not
"twentieth week of ordinary time." I think I even prefer the Anglican Calendar
which measures the weeks after Trinity, the Sunday following Pentecost. In his
honor, I for one would like to see all "ordinary time" nonsense eliminated.
Fr. Neuhaus was a man of courage, intelligence, and wit.
People ask, "Who will replace him?" Well, no one will "replace" him. Like each
human life that Father Neuhaus so well defended in its being, we are each,
including Richard Neuhaus, images of God, and as such irreplaceable. We are all
as such irreplaceable. No one "replaced" Aquinas or Mother Teresa, but their
presence lived on. No one replaced Dante, whom Fr. Neuhaus seems to have been
reading just before he died.
As Father Richard John Neuhaus had evidently read most
everything, I find it rather consoling that it was Dante he was reading in his
last days, days which are so well, so warmly recounted by so many of his
friends. As almost every one said, he was first a priest who had an enormous
capacity for friendship and truth. He knew who it was who told us that "I no
longer call you servants but friends." We are friends with one another because
we can be, here and forever, present to one another. Fr. Neuhaus taught this
lesson, as each of his friends tell us in his own, respectful, yes, tender way.
Related Ignatius Insight Articles, Excerpts, and Interviews:
"I'm Not Optimistic, But I'm Hopeful" | An IgnatiusInsight.com Interview with Father Richard John Neuhaus | July 7, 2006
James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown
He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture,
and literature including Another
Sort of Learning, Idylls
and Rambles, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning,
The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006),
The Sum Total of Human
Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), and The Regensburg Lecture (St. Augustine's Press, 2007).
His most recent book from Ignatius Press is
The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007). His new book, The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical and
Political Essays, is now available from The Catholic University Press. Read more of his essays on his
the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by
IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies,
and news in the Church!
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