"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 myself.
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 connection.
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 is over."
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 of Eden.
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
Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.
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 website.
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