Father Richard John Neuhaus passed away on Thursday, January 8, following a continued struggle related to a long-term battle with cancer. The day following Christmas he was admitted to the hospital and lost consciousness on Tuesday. He departed this life at the age of 72 years, a few days later. Joseph Bottum, the Editor of First Things, the great magazine begun by Father Neuhaus, writes, "My tears are not for him—for he knew, all his life, that his Redeemer lives, and he has now been gathered by the Lord in whom he trusted."
Neuhaus was a Lutheran minister for many years. When I first met him, at a conference near me in Carol Stream, Illinois, he was just developing a national reputation on the subject of faith and pubic policy. He was a seminar speaker for a conference hosted by the Christian Legal Society. I was impressed with his mind and his obvious ability to engage many things profoundly.
Later, Neuhaus became a famous convert to the Catholic Church at age 54. It was more in this part of his life that I came to know him, though not as an intimate friend by any stretch of the imagination. I began to read him before he launched
First Things and soon came to realize that he had his share of critics along the way. Some of us critics had worked with him before he left the publication he edited from Rockford, Illinois. Others were Lutheran scholars and leaders who felt he misrepresented the faith of his background. This is a criticism that would be bound to come given his conversion to Roman Catholicism and his vocal comments about his faith.
But the Neuhaus I knew was an ecumenist who showed great respect for me as a Protestant and Reformed Christian. Some of my friends profoundly doubted Neuhaus, and would say so in private, but those who knew him best, and those I respect the most, came to love him. He was a friend to men like Charles Colson, Timothy George, J. I. Packer and others whom I have had the joy of knowing personally over the years. All believe Father Neuhaus was a man of many talents and a servant of Christ and his kingdom first and foremost, whether you liked him or not.
Neuhaus often wrote things I did not agree with but he was never dull. He wrote with passion and he wrote about controversial themes. But he did so with respect in most every case I ever encountered. His later books reveal a maturity of spirit and intellect that mark him most positively for me.
Two years ago I was alone one night in Suburban Philadelphia. I was there for aboard meeting the next morning. I went out to dinner alone that summer evening. Low and behold I was seated right next to Father Neuhaus in a restaurant, who was later to speak across the street at a Borders Bookstore, where he would sign his newest book. We enjoyed then most cordial and extended conversation that I ever had with Father Neuhaus that evening. He even spoke a little about me that evening, and about our conversation, in his public comments about the new ecumenism that he saw developing in America. I will always be glad that I was afforded this time with him, truly a gift God gave me without even seeking for it. Though we knew one another that evening we shared a little of our respective stories and got to laugh and talk as friends do.
Richard John Neuhaus was the primary author of the manifesto that launched the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) in 1981. He served on the board of IRD to his last day. IRD is an ecumenical alliance of U. S. Christians working to reform their churches' social witness, in accord with biblical and historic Christian teachings, thereby contributing to the renewal of democratic society at home and abroad. I also knew him in this capacity since I have served on the IRD board for the past three years. He sought, by this and other means, to advance a religiously informed public philosophy for the ordering of society, not simply the agenda of the religious right. He carefully avoided all language of theocracy and triumphalism as well as rigid secularism. What he desired I desire—a rigorous engagement between religion and public life that was appropriate and carefully nuanced.
Neuhaus was also the primary leader, along with Charles Colson, of the process that became known as "Evangelicals and Catholics Together" (ECT). It was for this work that he was most criticized by very conservative evangelicals. The ECT process has born wonderful fruit and helped open many doors to the gospel and thereby prompted many vital expressions of unity among Christians at the grass roots level. I believe this work was genuinely Neuhaus' finest hour. Time magazine, quite amazingly, made him one of the 25 most influential evangelicals in America just a few years ago even though he was a Roman Catholic priest and scholar.
Neuhaus did so much for the kingdom of Christ that many others will mark these things much more fully than I can or should. He will be missed by dear friends I know. We all are better, as Christians who seek for the good of the catholic church, because he gave his life for Christ and his kingdom.