The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus (right), one of the leading conservative voices in contemporary American Catholicism, died this morning at 72. Here is the announcement from Joseph Bottum, the editor of the journal Neuhaus founded, First Things:
"Fr. Richard John Neuhaus slipped away today, January 8, shortly before 10 o’clock, at the age of seventy-two. He never recovered from the weakness that sent him to the hospital the day after Christmas, caused by a series of side effects from the cancer he was suffering. He lost consciousness Tuesday evening after a collapse in his heart rate, and the next day, in the company of friends, he died.
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.
I weep, rather for all the rest of us. As a priest, as a writer, as a public leader in so many struggles, and as a friend, no one can take his place. The fabric of life has been torn by his death, and it will not be repaired, for those of us who knew him, until that time when everything is mended and all our tears are wiped away.
Funeral arrangements are still being planned; information about the funeral will be made public shortly. Please accept our thanks for all your prayers and good wishes."
Father Neuhaus was a Lutheran minister who converted to Catholicism in 1990. He is probably best known for his 1984 book, "The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America.'' He was a frequent commentator in the media about the Catholic church; I interviewed him on multiple occasions over the years, and he was always thoughtful, sharp, and forceful. He had been battling cancer for some time.
The world of Catholic and religion news bloggers, which has been anticipating Neuhaus's death for some time, is offering a variety of tributes today:
•Gary Stern, the religion writer at the Journal News in Westchester County, NY, writes: "Let’s be honest: Most people never heard of Neuhaus. He wasn’t really a public figure, in the modern celebrity sense. But among those who care about Catholic thought, the larger realm of Christian thought, the political school of thinking that’s become known as neo-conservativism, and the role of religion in the public square, he was really an intellectual giant."
• Jeffrey Weiss, a religion reporter at the Dallas Morning News, comments on Father Neuhaus's ubiquity, writing, "There can scarcely be a religion reporter who has worked over the past several decades who hasn't had occasion to talk to the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus once or thrice. He was smart, quotable and available -- an irresistible combination."
•Domenico Bettinelli, Jr., a staffer for the Archdiocese of Boston who blogs about Catholicism from the right, writes, "As a sometime Catholic journalist myself, Fr. Neuhaus was one of those I strived to emulate, but I did so only poorly. His erudition, wit, and communication skill far surpassed that of the rest of us. We have lost a great priest, writer, and public leader, but hopefully we have gained an advocate in heaven."
• Michael Sean Winters, who blogs about Catholicism from the left for America magazine, also praises Neuhaus, saying, "I remember the first time Father Neuhaus attacked me in print: I felt on top of the world. For a left-of-center person like me, being attacked by Father Neuhaus was a badge of honor. To gain the notice of someone with whom you disagree is much more flattering than to gain the praise of a mentor or an acolyte. Neuhaus’s career, beginning as a leftie Lutheran and ending as a conservative Catholic (he passed Gary Wills going in the opposite direction some time in the early 1970s), made him a hero among his newly found ideological soulmates on the right: We Catholics love a convert. But, even those of us who stayed on the left developed an admiration for Neuhaus’s facility with the language, the self-evident sincerity of his convictions, and the sheer prolificness of his pen. He seemed to be always writing and whether you agreed with him or not, his writings were always worth the read, always provocative and always written with flair. I never made Father Neuhaus’s acquaintance personally but a mutual friend once told me that if we were to break bread together we would soon be downing scotch and laughing with greater intensity than we had ever argued. I suspect that is right and look forward to a tumbler of single malt with him in the hereafter."
First Things has posted an essay on death that Father Neuhaus penned in 2000, so Father Neuhaus, never short of an opinion, gets the final word on his own demise:
"We are born to die. Not that death is the purpose of our being born, but we are born toward death, and in each of our lives the work of dying is already underway. The work of dying well is, in largest part, the work of living well. Most of us are at ease in discussing what makes for a good life, but we typically become tongue-tied and nervous when the discussion turns to a good death. As children of a culture radically, even religiously, devoted to youth and health, many find it incomprehensible, indeed offensive, that the word “good” should in any way be associated with death. Death, it is thought, is an unmitigated evil, the very antithesis of all that is good.
Death is to be warded off by exercise, by healthy habits, by medical advances. What cannot be halted can be delayed, and what cannot forever be delayed can be denied. But all our progress and all our protest notwithstanding, the mortality rate holds steady at 100 percent.
Death is the most everyday of everyday things. It is not simply that thousands of people die every day, that thousands will die this day, although that too is true. Death is the warp and woof of existence in the ordinary, the quotidian, the way things are. It is the horizon against which we get up in the morning and go to bed at night, and the next morning we awake to find the horizon has drawn closer. From the twelfth-century Enchiridion Leonis comes the nighttime prayer of children of all ages: 'Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray thee Lord my soul to keep; if I should die before I wake, I pray thee Lord my soul to take.' Every going to sleep is a little death, a rehearsal for the real thing."
(Photo taken in 1997 by Paul Hosefros of The New York Times.)