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Richard John Neuhaus: Rest in Peace

ve8QAd   |   February 01, 2009

Richard John Neuhaus, one of the preeminent academic voices of the pro-life movement, has died after a recurring bout with cancer.

As I write this, I have in front of me the latest issue of First Things, and this is as good as any place to start telling about this unusual man. It is a prestigious monthly publication. Its editor is a Catholic priest who was a Lutheran minister, a conservative person who once was a social radical. But he would object when this journey is described as a change. Rather, he would explain that it wasn’t he who changed, but the world around him that did. It wasn’t he who became Catholic, rather he “became the Catholic I always was.”

I usually read First Things starting in the rear where Father Neuhaus wrote a 12,000 word column, “The Public Square,” that is always fascinating reading. He clearly was an incredibly omnivorous reader, and in the “Square” he commented intelligently, vigorously and lucidly on a wide variety of public and political happenings, writings and opinions. That is not to say that the front section wasn’t interesting. He was a Christian certainly, a solid Roman Catholic now, however, the articles in his magazine were always ecumenical, thought-provoking and opinionated. As for me, as a cradle Catholic, they opened up a world of religious and moral dimensions and depth that continued to expand my earlier, narrower horizons.

I had known who he was, but very casually. Our first encounter was in the early 1980s. We had both been invited to a reception on a yacht in the Hudson River to raise funds for a pregnancy help center. He promptly ushered me down to the lower deck and to a private corner. Who was this mid-western physician who had just been elected president of the National Right to Life Committee? Obviously, he had heard various opinions and did not mask his curiosity. In a pleasant but professional manner, he grilled me as to my value systems and a bit of my background. In a friendly swap, I turned the table and learned more about him. Apparently, the encounter was mutually satisfying and I would think respected. For from there on in, we were fast friends, co-workers and compatriots.

Our paths crossed fairly frequently over the next twenty-five years. I for one, grew in admiration and respect for his depth of thinking and his eloquence in presenting his thoughts.

As his own Lutheran Church (by his judgment) moved further from a traditional Christian base, he became close friends with Cardinal John O’Connor, who in time received him fully into the Catholic Church and one year later ordained him to the Catholic priesthood. I recall his published article recounting his move into the Catholic Church. It was titled, “And Now a Great Peace.” His “conversion” in no way changed his total respect for, curiosity about and investigation of other Christian denominations.

What was most unusual about him was his eloquence, his ability to turn a phrase and to leave you with a few chosen words that stick with you. He spoke at the National Right to Life Convention in June 2008. Afterward, I was again fascinated, but remembered, “We have been at this a long time, and we are just getting started.” And then, “We shall not weary. We shall not rest.”

He became a close confidant of President George W. Bush. So much so, that the President adopted his exact words as a standard line when talking about pro-life matters. He spoke of “welcoming unborn children into life and protecting them under law.” As Bush put it, “He helps me articulate these (religious) things.”

My dear wife, Barbara, and I were so impressed with Father Neuhaus’ ending comments after one of his talks about fifteen years ago, that we frequently ended one of our pro-life lectures quoting him as follows:

“So long as we have the gift of life we must protect the gift of life. So long as it is threatened, so long must it be defended. This is the time to brace ourselves for the long term. We are today laying the foundations for the pro-life movement of the twenty-first century. Pray that the foundations are firm, for we have not yet seen the full fury of the storm that is upon us.

“But we have not the right to despair. We have not the right and we have not the reason to despair if we understand that our entire struggle is premised not upon a victory to be achieved, but a victory that has been achieved. If we understand that, far from despair we have right and reason to rejoice that we are called to such a time as this, a time of testing, a time of truth. The encroaching culture of death shall not prevail, for we know, ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.’ The darkness will never overcome that light.”

—Richard John Neuhaus

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