Fr. Richard John Neuhaus is probably best known to Catholics through his work with EWTN, especially as a commentator during their coverage of the death of Pope St. John Paul II and the conclave which followed soon after, a conclave resulting in the election of Pope Benedict XVI. They may know him as well as for his work as the founder and publisher of First Things magazine. Yet, there is far more to Neuhaus’ life and career, and the entire story is skillfully told in a new biography by Randy Boyagoda, Richard John Neuhaus, A Life in the Public Square. Whether familiar with Neuhaus or not, readers will find Boyagoda’s book provides an astonishing wealth of detail, not only about the subject, but also the historical context in which Neuhaus lived and worked, from his time as a committed civil rights worker and anti-war protestor during the 1960’s to his role as occasional, sometimes controversial, advisor to President George W. Bush in the first decade of the 21st century. To many readers, much of his life story may come as a surprise, perhaps even a shock, but the story is interesting and important. The extent of the causes he engaged in, the friends and enemies he made, and the things he achieved, is astonishing.
The book is organized as a chronological narrative of the events of Richard John Neuhaus’ life, taking him from his birth in 1936 in Pembroke, Ontario where his father, Clem Neuhaus, was serving as a Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor, to his death in 2009. In his early teens Neuhaus was sent off to a Lutheran boarding school in Nebraska, a school he was asked not to return to after just one year, the result of a few youthful indiscretions. After leaving Nebraska, Neuhaus lived with relatives in Texas and the book details his adventures shooting jack rabbits and being a teen age gas station owner liked to brag about being the youngest member of the Cisco Chamber of Commerce. All during this time, however, Neuhaus displayed strong, active interests in Lutheran theology and ecclesiology, philosophy, and whatever else happened to strike his fancy, despite having dropped out of school entirely. After a year in Cisco, Neuhaus, realizing that any career he would want to pursue required an education, applied to a small Lutheran college in Austin, Concordia Lutheran College, being admitted only after bluffing admission authorities into waiting for evidence of his nonexistent high school graduation papers to arrive in the mail.
After graduation from Concordia in Austin, Neuhaus attended Concordia– St. Louis seminary, the most influential seminary in the Lutheran Missouri Synod. At St. Louis, he fell under the influence of Arthur Carl Piepkorn. “Pieps,” as he was known on campus, was a prominent professor, one with known “Romish” sentiments, and a man of great influence on Neuhaus. Piepkorn accomplished this by providing Neuhaus with “a catholic-framed Lutheran ecclesial identity integrated with intellectual sophistication and ordered to and by a joyful love of God and the Church.” Boyagoda goes on to say that many of Neuhaus’ fellow students at the seminary were convinced that Piepkorn was so catholic-minded that he “wore a Roman collar with his pajamas.” Among the entire faculty of this most prominent Lutheran seminary there is little doubt Piepkorn exerted the strongest influences on Neuhaus during his seminary career, even to the point of Neuhaus picking up the use of a breviary for his daily prayers.
Once he finished seminary, Neuhaus was assigned, perhaps as a punishment for his association with the “Romish” Piepkorn, as pastor of a tiny church in upstate New York, where he spent a year. Then he was transferred to the church that became his home, in one way or another, for the next twenty years, St John the Evangelist Lutheran church in Brooklyn. It was here that he would begin the career that would make him famous and influential, as political activist, Lutheran pastor, and finally, editor and publisher of First Things magazine.
While at St John the Evangelist, Neuhaus became active, and gained a level of prominence, in the civil rights and anti-war movements, working with people like the Berrigan brothers, William Sloane Coffin, and even Martin Luther King himself. However, the unrest and outright violence triggered at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, which he participated in, marked the beginning of his disillusionment with the left. It was from that event that he began the long process of disengagement from these leftist associations, leading ultimately to his conversion to Catholicism, to the priesthood, and to the founding of First Things.
The process took time after that 1968 awakening but quickened during the 1980s, when Neuhaus came into contact, especially through his ongoing engagement with pro-life issues, with prominent Catholic officials, including Cardinal John O’Conner, (then) Fr. Avery Dulles, and even, in a minor way, Pope St. John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. It ended in 1990 when Neuhaus began First Things and entered the Church. He was ordained a priest a year later, having been personally formed under the tutelage of Fr. Dulles.
Neuhaus’ journey from activist liberal to renowned “theo-con” was remarkable, as was Neuhaus the man. Boyagoda paints a picture of a man with an outsized intellect and a lifetime of singular accomplishment. It isn’t surprising that Neuhaus also had some of the flaws typically associated with such people. To all who came in contact with him, Neuhaus was clearly a man of great intellect, huge ambition, strong, domineering personality, with the ego to match, who tended to dominate any room he entered. He also didn’t mind enjoying a good cigar and a sip of 18 year old Scotch along the way.
Having said this, I wonder if his human failings, the untamed ego, over arching ambition, and domineering personality are traits that merit the attention Boyagoda gives them. Do those human failings, while interesting, really affect our assessment of a life dedicated to ensuring that the voice of faith be heard in the public square? If I have a complaint about Boyagoda’s book, it’s that I think these personal traits sometimes appear out of any context within the narrative, at the expense of conveying more substantive details of Neuhaus’ life and work.
Neuhaus considered himself throughout his career, as both Lutheran pastor and Catholic priest, to be a Christian and a patriot, in that order. It was his lifelong concern that the voice of those of religious faith be heard in the public square, not as the dominant voice, but certainly as an equal part of the national conversation of ideas. This is an important message in a age when the popular culture is doing all that it can to silence those voices. The emphasis on Neuhaus’ personal failings is regrettable because the attention paid to these minor faults distracts from the important, lifelong, theme of Neuhaus’ thinking, neatly summarized by R. R. Reno in the April, 2015 issue of First Things: “What will endure is Neuhaus’s constant reminder: Man is first and foremost a worshipping animal, not a voting animal. Rendering to God what is God’s matters most. The rest is commentary.” To miss this point is to misunderstand Richard John Neuhaus.
One other minor criticism concerns a sometimes disjointed narrative. For example, Neuhaus spent his early years in Pembroke, Ontario and his early life in that small Canadian town is covered in the first three chapters, which conclude with a brief allusion to events to come in Neuhaus’ life. At the start of the next chapter, we find him attending boarding school in Nebraska, where one of his sisters lived. How, and why, was he sent there? Why would his parents send him so far away from home at such an early age? There’s no explanation, leaving the reader only to question. Another, more glaring, example: given the time spent on Arthur Piepkorn’s early, strongly Catholic, liturgically based influence on Neuhaus, the reader expects Piepkorn to have played some part in Neuhaus’ ultimate decision to become Catholic. Yet, this connection remains undrawn, and once Neuhaus leaves the seminary, Piepkorn drops from view, the reader can only guess how Piepkorn contributed to the formation of the future Fr. Neuhaus, as he must have done.
Despite these few quibbles, Richard John Neuhaus, A Life in the Public Square, is a worthy endeavor and deserves attention. The book is backed up by meticulous research, is well written, suffering only a few minor flaws. Boyagoda offers his readers critical background in trying to appreciate all of the various forces of upheaval spawned during the unrest of the 1960’s and later years, and the efforts of one man to participate in and shape those forces according to his deeply Christian, and finally Catholic, point of view.
FTC Disclaimer: “I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.”