November 17, 2017

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Richard John Neuhaus: From radical to liberal to neo-conservative

John F. FinkTwo weeks ago, I wrote about the Berrigan brothers and their anti-war efforts beginning in the 1960s. This week, I’ll tell about another firebrand in the ’60s, but he ended up much different, still passionate but less radical.

Richard John Neuhaus was a Lutheran minister in Brooklyn in the 1960s. He was one of the clergymen who marched to Selma with Martin Luther King Jr. for civil rights. He ran for Congress as a liberal Democrat, but lost. He was a delegate to the 1968 Democratic convention, where he was arrested with Dick Gregory for leading a protest march after the peace plank they supported was rejected.

By the early 1970s, though, he began to change, to become less radical. The tipping point occurred in 1973 when the Supreme Court ruled in Roe v. Wade that abortion was legal. Protection of the unborn became for him the new civil rights movement.

In political terms, he transformed from radical to liberal to neo-conservative. When the Democratic Party embraced abortion on demand, he said, “I did not leave the Democratic Party, it left me.”

He wasn’t alone, of course. Among others who made the same jump was Michael Novak, who once identified himself as a democratic socialist. He, too, became a noted neo-conservative.

After he became a staunch pro-life advocate, Neuhaus became friends with New York Cardinal John J. O’Connor, introducing him to his network of conservatives. Cardinal O’Connor, in turn, gave Neuhaus entrée to the Vatican’s leaders, including Pope John Paul II. When he was in Rome, Neuhaus dined with the pope, who found this Lutheran minister compatible.

In 1987, Neuhaus, still a Lutheran, published his book The Catholic Moment. Its thesis was that the Catholic Church in the United States was poised to assume “its rightful role in the culture-forming task of constructing a religiously informed public philosophy for the American experiment in ordered liberty.”

In 1989, Neuhaus founded the Institute on Religion and Public Life and the monthly magazine First Things, which he was to continue to edit until his death. It was meant to be an interfaith magazine, but with a definite conservative bent, reflecting Neuhaus’ agenda. He wrote much of it himself.

Then, in 1990, Neuhaus became a Catholic. Cardinal O’Connor received him into the full communion of the Church, with Jesuit theologian and future Cardinal Avery Dulles as his sponsor. He was quickly ordained a Catholic priest, and appointed associate pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish in Manhattan. He continued in that capacity until his death.

But his real ministry continued to be his Institute on Religion and Public Life and the magazine First Things. He conducted seminars on topics of his choice for the institute, and he published religious conservatives in his magazine.

He was a leader in the ecumenical movement, especially with Evangelicals. In 1994, he and Charles Colson were the principal co-signers of a document titled “Evangelicals and Catholics Together.” It spelled out the need for Protestants and Catholics to deliver a common witness to the modern world.

Father Richard John Neuhaus died on Jan. 8, 2009. His institute and his magazine survive. †

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