NEW YORK — One of America’s leading intellectuals of faith and public life, Richard John Neuhaus, was born in the Ottawa Valley; his pastor father was an American who accepted a post at the Lutheran parish in Pembroke, Ont. Richard spent his childhood in Pembroke before leaving for education in the United States; he would eventually become a Lutheran pastor himself, stationed in Brooklyn.
He would be a leader in the 1960s civil rights movement and in anti-Vietnam War protests. But he would split with the political left and become a leading conservative voice. In 1990, he would become Catholic and be ordained a priest in 1991. Founder of the influential journal First Things, his influence on thinking about faith and public life was immense, and he influenced a vast number of individuals, including myself, as both a friend and mentor.
A towering figure, consulted by popes and presidents, he was also the priest who took his turn offering Mass at Immaculate Conception, the parish on Manhattan’s lower east side where most of the parishioners would have no idea that he was a writer and orator of global influence. In 2009, when he died his funeral was held there, among the people he served and many others who came from far and wide.
We gathered there again this week for a memorial Mass on the 10th anniversary of his death, and swapped stories and memories. And a common topic was what Fr. Neuhaus would have thought about the tensions now roiling our common life.
It is worth noting that the chief biographical work of Fr. Neuhaus was written by a Canadian, the principal of the University of St. Michael’s College, Randy Boyagoda. Published in 2015, the author himself is engaged today in the great question that animated Fr. Neuhaus’s long career: what contribution does a liberal democratic society need from the world of faith?
Fr. Neuhaus knew well that the liberal order can be threatened by blood-and-soil nationalism, and that religious identity can be put to illiberal ends. The history of the 20th century made us alert to those dangers. It also made us alert to the lethal dangers of atheistic totalitarianism, in both its communist and fascist forms.
Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, right, listens to Rabbi Michael Lerner during a pre-tape of “Meet the Press” at the NBC studios in Washington, DC., on April 12, 2006.
But Fr. Neuhaus also warned of an “illiberal secularism,” which speaks in the name of liberalism, but seeks to exclude any transcendent claims — including religious ones — from our common life together. It views traditional religious faith with suspicion, even as a threat.
Fr. Neuhaus spent his summers back in Canada, on the Ottawa River across from Pembroke, and so kept tabs of matters Canadian. He died before Justin Trudeau was elected, but would not have been surprised that in the name of liberal values, the prime minister would be sharply intolerant of those who would dissent from the consensus of secular liberalism.
In rereading Neuhaus this week, I was reminded …read more