|Richard John Neuhaus (1936-2009)||
Fr. Richard John Neuhaus died just one year ago, on January 8, 2009. Fr. Neuhaus was born on May 14, 1936 and was one of the most relevant actors of the U.S. civil life. He was successor and follower of a very rich tradition of civic commitment within American religious practice, a tradition having Fr. John Courtney Murray as its most significant witness among Catholics. Fr. Neuhaus was theologian, sociologist and acute political analyst. In addition to respected essays in the field of theology and politics, Fr. Neuhaus was editor of a prestigious column, The Public Square: A Continuing Survey of Religion and Public Life, in the magazine he founded. The title of this column shows the significance of Fr. Neuhaus' pastoral commitment. A former Lutheran Pastor, he converted to Catholicism and was ordained a Catholic priest in 1991 by Cardinal John O'Connor of New York.
Why is his pastoral commitment significant? Every pastor chooses his own fold, and, in Fr. Neuhaus' case, the fold was the "public square," the place where political life meets religious, economical, and artistic life and where they tend to fuse in a civil dimension in which nothing is excluded, because nothing human can be alien to humankind. The human person to whom Fr. Neuhaus addressed his pastoral attention is the man who undertakes his own civil task to contribute together with other men to the good of the "public square" where he is engaged, as priest, entrepreneur, worker, student, artist, as a believer, atheist or agnostic. All of this happens in the public square and it can not be ignored by a careful pastor.
He founded and edited the monthly magazine First Things, linked to the Institute for Religion and Public Life of New York. They are among the most appreciated instruments of ecumenism and dialogue among religions in the world. Fr. Neuhaus wrote several books, in this occasion I would like to remind the reader of only one: The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America (1984).
The Naked Public Square represents the most mature cultural analysis of a whole generation of American liberal intellectuals (Fr. Neuhaus worked very close to Rev. Martin Luther King), who, at the end of Seventies, realized that in the United States was developing a new ideology, that of a "naked public square." It was the result of an explosive cultural mixture, sprung from a series of political doctrines and practices that tended to exclude religion from civil life. Such ideology would damage the authentic DNA of the U.S. in its depths. In other words, from a country built on an experience and an exceptionality, referring to the theme of holding some "self-evident truth," the Nation was, according to Fr. Neuhaus, dangerously lapsing toward the most "indifferentist" and "ludic" of the ideological drifts, a violently antireligious and Christophobic drift, well expressed by the cultural most embarrassing cultural products churned out by Hollywood's studios.
Fr. Neuhaus' proposal was totally different and it is defined with sagacity in the following quotation, where he presented the so called "Wojtyla project": "This pope [. . .] is attempting to chart a Christian course that is not so much against modernity as it is beyond modernity" (The Catholic Moment, 1987). Around this post-modern, Christian-oriented cultural project, and following John Paul II's encyclical Centesimus annus (1991), Fr. Neuhaus, together with some Italian friends such as Rocco Buttiglione, Americans such as Michael Novak and George Weigel and Poles such as Fr. Marciej Zieba, O.P., thought of organizing a summer school, first in Liechtenstein, then in Krakow and Bratislava: the "Free Society Seminar." This seminar, attended by young scholars coming from Europe and the U.S., has the aim of being a concrete bridge between future American and European leaders within the perspective of that kind of democracy, freedom, and modernity that were proposed by Wojtyla: the recomposition of the Atlantic area in the light of Christian tradition.
In this way thousands of us met him, attended his lectures, studied his works and appreciated his huge culture. Many others will meet him through his many writings and attending the next sessions in Krakow and Bratislava of the Free Society Seminar. He used to say, "I am pragmatic in economics, conservative in culture and politically loyal to what was and, probably will again be, the 'crucial point' of liberal democracy." You have the thanks of all, Fr. Richard, and I'll do own my best so that your testimony and your lesson won't be forgotten.
Flavio Felice is an adjunct fellow at AEI and the president of the Acton-Tocqueville Studies Centre.