Richard John Neuhaus, intellectual, provocateur, blogging pioneer, dead at 72

I know I was not alone in regularly reading “The Public Square,” Father Richard John Neuhaus’ essay in his journal, First Things, and wondering how he did it.

It was page after page after page of acerbic insights about the religious news of the day, sharp critiques of those he disagreed with, numerous books reviews (of the most demanding books), harsh assessments of the secular press, and Neuhaus’ clear and unafraid declarations of faith.

“The Public Square” was really among the first blogs — a rolling vision of the world around Richard John Neuhaus.

I asked Neuhaus a few years ago, before he gave a talk at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, just how he did “The Public Square.” He smiled politely and said something about working all the time. It was a question he had heard before.

He died this morning at 72, apparently succumbing to side effects from cancer. I saw Neuhaus at Cardinal Avery Dulles’ funeral, only a couple of weeks ago. When I pointed out that he had walked in, someone commented that Neuhaus had aged tremendously and was hardly recognizable. Now we know the end was near.

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.

Like Dulles, he had an unusual and interesting back story.

He was born to a Lutheran minister in Canada and became a Lutheran minister himself. During the 1960s, he served a poor church in Bed-Stuy and became known as a progressive and an opponent of the war in Vietnam. He later started turning to the right. He converted to Catholicism in 1990 and was ordained a priest by his friend Cardinal O’Connor.

He remained a New York priest, putting out First Things from NYC.

Together with his buddies George Weigel and Michael Novak, Neuhaus became a leading voice for neo-conservativism — in religion, politics and society. He pushed for closer relations between Catholics and evangelicals so they could work together on abortion and other issues. He had little patience for mainline Protestants and others who he saw as watering down Christian truth.

When he spoke at St. Joseph’s in 2005 about why Catholics do not share Communion with most other Christians — an obstacle to Christian “unity” according to some — he said: “The only unity pleasing to God, and the only unity we can rightly pray for, is unity in the truth.”

He became very ill about a decade ago and nearly died. When he recovered, he wrote about it in “As I Lay Dying: Meditations About Returning.”

Neuhaus took a strong position on everything. When the clerical sex-abuse crisis unfolded, he blamed a generation of weak bishops for letting the wrong men become priests. He insisted that many abuse cases had nothing to do with pedophilia, but arose from gay priests abusing young teenagers. He also rarely failed to take a shot at the secular press for being anti-Catholic or anti-religion.

He loved to write and he loved to argue. As they say, he didn’t suffer fools. He made his case for faith as he saw it, even if it meant rhetorically punching someone in the mouth.

I loved to read him. But I always hoped he would never get mad at me.

Gary Stern

Gary Stern covered education in the Lower Hudson Valley for several years during the early 1990s. Now's he back on the beat. He believes that schools are one of the main reasons that people live around here and that educational issues -- from curriculum to financing -- are among the most challenging things that journalists can write about. He continues to be amazed by the complexity of educational jargon. Gary got his B.A. at SUNY Buffalo and his M.A. from the University of Missouri Journalism School (where his master's thesis was about the best ways to cover education). He lives in White Plains with his wife and two sons, who attend public schools.