Originally posted at Talk to Action.
The recent passing of Father Richard John Neuhaus marks the end of an era for Catholic neoconservatism.
Father Neuhaus was a mover and a shaker not just among the Religious Right, but among the Right in general. He, along with Michael Novak and George Weigel led a small, but powerful cabal, that author and former Neuhaus confident Damon Linker aptly described as "theocons." As I wrote about Neuhaus last year:
Neuhaus's rise to power within reactionary Catholic circles was spectacular. In twenty years he went from being an anti-war Lutheran pastor to being the point man for neo-orthodox Catholicism in America; the de facto Vatican liaison to president Bush. His role has been further enhanced under the traditionalist-friendly Pope Benedict XVI.
The National Catholic Reporter aptly described Neuhaus's political influence:
A priest of the New York archdiocese and a former Lutheran minister, Neuhaus was best known to society at large as an intellectual guru of what came to be known as the "religious right."
From the early 1970s forward, Neuhaus was a key architect of two alliances with profound consequences for American politics, both of which overcame histories of mutual antagonism: one between conservative Catholics and Protestant Evangelicals, and the other between free market neo-conservatives and "faith and values" social conservatives.
In the three-and-a-half years I worked at First Things magazine, I came to know two Richard John Neuhauses. The first is the one I worked with in the journal's offices every day: personally generous and jovial, intellectually and theologically curious, alert to political and cultural complications, overflowing with energy and ideas. This is the Neuhaus readers encountered in his lengthy, erudite essays on philosophy, theology, and history, which frequently graced the pages of the magazine. It is also the Neuhaus who produced beautiful theological meditations such as Death on a Friday Afternoon and As I Lay Dying-and who selflessly served as a parish priest at Immaculate Conception Church on 14th Street in Manhattan.
But there was also another Neuhaus-the one familiar to his political opponents. This is the Neuhaus who aimed to be a "thorough revolutionary" during the 1960s and who later brokered a political alliance between Roman Catholics and evangelical Protestants in order more effectively to wage a cultural war against the social changes that flowed from that same decade. This Neuhaus uncharitably savaged his ideological enemies in his monthly column for First Things and walked a fine line between predicting that the culture war was on the verge of erupting into violence and actively inciting such violence. This Neuhaus sometimes spoke as if faithful Catholics had a positive duty to vote for the Republican Party, and he strongly encouraged the American bishops to deny the sacrament of Communion to pro-choice Catholic politicians. This Neuhaus was proudly authoritarian, bullying in temperament, and staunchly traditionalist.
The Neuhaus Linker describes in the second paragraph is the Neuhaus the readers of this site and many moderate and progressive Catholics knew -- the one who encouraged the American Catholic clergy to degrade the Sacrament of Communion by using it as a political tool.
But the passing of this Catholic Right icon may perhaps have a greater impact upon the movement he was so instrumental in creating. Of the remaining two key leaders of Catholic neoconservatism, Novak is 75 and certainly more mediagenic than the younger Weigel, age 58. Weigel pops up as a from time-to-time as a commentator on cable shows , but he he is far from charismatic.
There were two things that made Neuhaus the most vital cog in this gang of three.
First, he was a priest. This gave him standing to speak authoritatively in ways that Novak or Weigel could not. When a lay theologian suggests denying Communion to pro-choice Catholics, it does not carry the same weight as when a priest demands the same action. To many Catholics, those who see faith as top-heavy with obedience to papal authority, the priest's collar symobolizes he chain of command.
Secondly - and perhaps more importantly - Neuhaus was well grounded in both Protestant and Catholic perspectives. This understanding facilitated his ability to build political bridges between socially conservative Protestants and socially conservative Catholics. His passing leaves a void that is not easily filled.
Neuhaus struck me as a radical in search of a revolution to lead. After being part of 1960s far-left movements agitating for possibly violent societal change, by the 1980s he had moved towards, and then became part and parcel of the fringe-right movement of neoconservatism. And as his politics changed, so did his view of faith, going from mainstream Lutheranism to a form of orthodox Catholicism that was intolerant of dissent. While his political outlook changed, his strident nature did not.
I never rejoice at the passing of political opponents. I hope he has finally found peace. Looking beyond the life and work of Richard John Neuhaus, as a Catholic and a liberal, I think we will be better off when Catholic neoconservatism too passes away.