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.

About that Batman movie

For the past few days, I’ve gone back and forth about whether to say something about the Batman movie.

Everyone is probably sick of hearing about it. It is another comic book film, after all, a popcorn movie.

And do the movie’s themes, while provocative, really have a spiritual dimension?

darkknight.jpgBut I came across a terrific commentary on the First Things website by Thomas Hibbs, distinguished professor of ethics and dean of the honors college at Baylor University. He focuses, like most writers, on Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker, which is truly scary, in both obvious and existential ways.

Hibbs writes:

Beyond good and evil, The Joker is off the human scale. In preparation for the role, Ledger studied the voices of ventriloquist dummies aiming for a chilling effect in which the voice itself sounds “disembodied.” Ledger and Nolan looked at Francis Bacon paintings to try to capture the look of “human decay and corruption.” As in William Peter Blatty’s definitive depiction of demonic evil in The Exorcist, so too here—the demon’s target is us, to make us believe that we are “bestial, ugly, and not worthy of redemption.”

Not worthy of redemption. Hmmm.

He goes on:

The Joker espouses a nihilist philosophy concerning the arbitrariness of the code of morality in civilized society; it is but a thin veneer, a construct intended for our consolation. If you tear away at the surface, “civilized people will eat each other.” As The Joker puts it, “madness is like gravity; all it takes is a little push.” In a wonderfully comic take on a Nietzschean sentiment, he sums up his beliefs: “Whatever does not kill you makes you stranger.” His character also illustrates the parasitic status of evil and nihilism. A thoroughgoing nihilist could not muster the energy to destroy or create. As The Joker puts it at one point, he’s like the dog chasing a car; he has no idea what he would do if he caught it.

When I was watching the movie, the Joker’s riotous but somehow coherent soliloquies on chaos and the “arbitrariness of the code of morality” struck me as frighteningly real. I could imagine some of history’s most ruthless characters feeding off similar rationales.

I’ve never been a Batman guy. To me, the story always came down to: “His parents got murdered. He’s real angry. End of story.”

But I thought The Dark Knight was powerful in a deeply disturbing way, too good (and scary) for a comic book movie.

Hibbs writes that the movie owes a great debt to “classic film noir.” He explains what he means beautifully:

Modernity is about human beings exercising control over nature and thus taking control of their destinies; in our modern technological project, knowledge and power are one. The postmodern turn in noir is about the loss of control, the absence of intelligibility, and the threat of powerlessness. But the quest has something pre-modern about it—a sense of human limitations, of the dependence of human beings on one another and on events not in their control. In this world, the outcome of the quest is tenuous and uncertain.