Wherever orthodoxy is optional, it sooner or later will be proscribed.
Woody Allen said that 90% of life is just showing up. Richard John Neuhaus showed up. Whether it was at the civil-rights marches in the 1960s or the pro-life campaigns of the 1980s, Richard John Neuhaus showed up. Whether it was at the altar as a parish priest or at the bedside of a dying friend, Richard John Neuhaus showed up. As writer, lecturer, editor, raconteur, counselor, teacher — Richard John Neuhaus showed up. Every day. Until today.
I had the privilege of being managing editor of his FIRST THINGS magazine for a little over two years. And one of the first things I noticed about this man who I had known from his Public Square column (which some have called the first blog even before there was an Internet), his books, and his various TV appearances was how vulnerable he made himself. This was someone who challenged all the secular and neo-pagan pieties of his days, who fought at the crossroads of religion and politics, who angered a lot of people in high places (including his own church), and yet his door was always open. He hid nothing, most certainly because he had nothing to hide. His home, his office, his heart and mind he laid bare to friends and foes alike.
And he had many more of the former than the latter. I could never get over how people would just walk into the office unannounced and ask to see Father Neuhaus because they had heard or read he worked there. As if on pilgrimage, they had come to Fifth Avenue to see the great man in person. And if RJN were in, he’d think nothing of saying hello, chatting a bit, wishing them well. He never locked his door. (He hated locked doors.) He didn’t hide behind bulletproof glass, despite his vivid and vocal commitment to the entirety of the Catholic faith and all its pro-life commitments, from conception to natural death. There was no phalanx of go-betweens. And this not because he harbored a belief in the benignity of human nature but because he believed that his Lord was sovereign over all things. What more protection did he need?
As amazed as I was at the devotion people had for RJN, I was equally amused by the misconceptions. Probably the most popular was that he had a red phone that went straight to both the White House and the Vatican, a kind of party line. Believe me, there was no red phone. I know; I looked. There were no late-night phone calls from the pope, giving him marching orders, or calls the other way to George W. Bush. In fact, if I’m not mistaken, RJN remained a registered Democrat to the very end, in the hope that one day the party would be true to its commitment to protect all the most vulnerable in this society.
While probably best known for his literary accomplishments (and his prose style was both inimitable and immediately recognizable), RJN was first and foremost a parish priest for whom his vocation was both a gift and a joy. To stand in persona Christi, and to be called Father — “What’s better than that?” he once told me. Certainly nothing the New York Times, whose daily misguided conceits he finely abandoned, could write about one of his books. Yet he also lived with both feet firmly in the world (if not of it), and enjoyed with almost carefree abandon the small pleasures of this life: a good cigar, a good meal, a good drink, and a hearty laugh. He also loved movies. (His favorite was Fellini’s La Strada, though I never remembered to ask him why.) And given that my degree is in cinema studies, I tried my best to keep his Netflix queue stuffed with stuff he had not yet seen, although there was little enough of that.
But before food, before drink, before convivial conversation — there was prayer. RJN had a disciplined prayer life, as my wife and I learned those times we joined him for dinner in his apartment. And he favored a Lutheran prayer book, which I assumed was for ecumenical purposes. Yet imagine my surprise when, upon entering the narrow hallway that led to his living room, I saw for the first time this oversize tapestry of … Martin Luther.
RJN, of course, was a convert (although he never used that term). From the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to the Catholic Church. But there always remained a touch of the German Protestant in him. A Lutheran myself, I often asked him about his time as pastor of a predominantly African American congregation in Brooklyn, about what drove him to the more liberal and mainline Lutheran body, and finally what took him to Rome. Ecumenism was in his blood, and when he became convinced that Lutherans were satisfied with being just another Protestant denomination, with no real desire for re-union with Rome (however that should come about), and what with the changes wrought by Vatican II (though not all salutary, as he would be the first to admit), not to mention the moral authority he believed Rome still brought to bear on the major life issues, he crossed the Tiber. Several friends and writers for FIRST THINGS followed in his wake, no doubt encouraged by his example.
But he never lost touch with his Protestant roots. With Charles Colson he started Evangelicals and Catholics Together, an effort to bring together the best minds in both communities for enlightened engagement and not mere apologetic crosstalk. RJN loved robust, sound theology. Apologetics, not so much. He explained to me once that to him, apologetics was like two boxers in a ring, each delivering his punch and counterpunch, with a group of judges, in this case already biased toward one camp or the other, delivering a verdict, which in reality was no such thing.
As a boss, RJN bore his authority lightly and charitably. In the time I knew him, and even given the Protestant/Catholic divide between us (which, looking back, seemed either to diminish or perhaps was never all that great to begin with), we had all of two serious disagreements.
One was over the relative merits of the film Heat, starring Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro. (I liked it, he didn’t.) The other was the proper use of the word immigrate. I had come to believe that you emigrated from but immigrated to a country. He still held to the older “immigrate from” form. I told him I thought people would think he was simply wrong, not that he was waging a one-man battle to revive an old linguistic construction. He didn’t care.
Of course not. As G.K. Chesterton said, “Right is right even if nobody does it.” Well, if that “nobody” happened to be a somebody like Richard John Neuhaus, then it didn’t matter how many forces were arrayed on the other side of an issue — big or small.
You were always outnumbered.