Richard John Neuhaus, RIP

I only met him twice, but he was a mentor nonetheless. My family migrated through Christianity when I was young: I was baptized Episcopalian, attended Evangelical and Pentecostal churches, and became a Catholic, with the rest of my family, when I was seventeen - leaving me not quite an adult convert, but not a cradle Catholic either. I read the usual books along the way - Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, and so forth. And I read Neuhaus. Every young writer, I imagine, has their first intellectual magazine, whose essays and articles are devoured all the more greedily for being slightly over one's head. Mine was First Things. I don't know exactly when my family began subscribing, but I know it was before we became Catholics - and I know that long before I could quite figure out exactly what, say, Rene Girard meant when he talked about mimesis and the crucifixion, I was reading Neuhaus' sprawling "Public Square" column every month. I would call it a proto-blog, that feature, with its mix of long and short material, and its cover-the-waterfront feel, but that does it an injustice: The very best bloggers strain and fail to achieve the mix of range and rigor that seemed effortless for Neuhaus, and the ease with which he moved between esoteric theological disputes and the latest culture-war fracas. Richard Dawkins likes to say that Charles Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist. Month after month, issue after issue, Richard John Neuhaus - through his writing, and also through the writers he cultivated - demonstrated to my adolescent and early-twentysomething self that it was possible to be an intellectually fulfilled Christian.

The Bush years produced many spasms of hysteria: Among the silliest was the notion that Neuhaus and his intellectual circle represented some sort of grave and reactionary threat to liberal democracy. In reality, Neuhaus as an archetypal post-Vatican II figure, whose deepest intellectual interests lay in finding compatibilities and building bridges - between Jews and Christians, Protestants and Catholics, faith and the free market, and above all between Christianity and liberalism. His chief political cause, the pro-life movement, he always saw as a continuation of his years as a civil rights activist (and man of the Left); it's entirely appropriate that what I take to be his final Public Square, in the January First Things, kicked off with a discussion of "The Pro-Life Movement as the Politics of the 1960s." Even his magazine's most apocalyptic moment - the famous "End of Democracy" symposium, a few years after Planned Parenthood v. Casey was handed down - doubled as a passionate brief for constitutionalism and democratic self-government, and a defense, however excessive, of a particular interpretation of American liberalism against the usurpations of meritocracy. No modern intellectual did so much to make the case for the compatibility between Christian belief and liberal democratic politics - and in the future, when the two have parted ways (as I suspect they will) more completely than at present, both Christians and liberals will look back on the synthesis he argued for with nostalgia, and regret.

As with any intellectual, the system of thought that he developed had its weaknesses: A tendency to overemphasize consistency and underestimate tensions within institutions and causes he believed in, whether it was the Church he served as a priest, the Evangelical-Catholic rapprochement he labored to cultivate, or the conservative movement that he eventually joined (or that joined him, perhaps more aptly). And as with any deep thinker who doubled as a polemicist, sometimes the darts went awry, or the barbs substituted for the deeper engagement that a subject deserved, and his attachment to political causes sometimes limited the scope of his discernment. But these are things that can be said of all us who scribble for a living, and few of us can match the things that Richard John Neuhaus did right: The depth and skill in argument, the breadth of subjects covered, and the verve with which he wrote. And above all, the spirit of urgency that permeated his work - the sense that the controversies with which he concerned himself really mattered, in an everyday sense but in a cosmic one as well. At their best, his essays and arguments achieved a grace to which all religious authors should aspire: They not only conveyed the sense that Richard John Neuhaus, priest and author, cared about the issues of the age, but that God Himself cared about them as well.

Requiem aeternam dona ei, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat ei.