Father Richard John Neuhaus has died of complications from cancer at the age of seventy-two.
A native Canadian who emigrated to the United States, Neuhaus was a preacher’s kid who followed his father into the Lutheran clergy. He served as pastor of St. John the Evangelist, a predominantly black and Hispanic church in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, and during the Vietnam War joined with Abraham Joshua Heschel to form Clergy and Laity Concerned, an anti-war group. In 1968 he was a delegate to the Democratic Party convention in Chicago, representing Sen. Eugene McCarthy.
Roe v. Wade changed everything for him. By 1984 he had left New York to start up the Center for Religion and Society at the Rockford Institute, a northern Illinois think tank founded in 1976 to “preserve the institutions of the Christian West.” Five years later, in a dispute over “the racist and anti-Semitic tones” of its magazine, Neuhaus was “forcibly evicted” from the Institute (the phrases are his). He returned to New York to create First Things, a bimonthly journal of religion and ideas.
In 1990 he converted to Catholicism, and the next year was ordained a priest by Cardinal John O’Connor of New York. As the foremost public intellectual advocating the return of religion to The Naked Public Square (the title of his best-known book, published in 1984), Neuhaus influenced an entire generation of young writers, as can be seen from the beautiful tributes to him by Jody Bottum, the current editor of First Things, John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary (the Jewish first cousin of First Things), and Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington.
Neuhaus was my editor just once—I reviewed a biography of Jerzy Kosinski for him—although he sent me a complimentary letter after I had reviewed The Best American Poetry, asking me to recommend some poets who might read well in his journal’s pages. I also met him once, briefly, when I was in New York for a job interview, crashing with Jody Bottum in Neuhaus’s upstairs apartment. Even in our short encounter, I was touched by his genuine interest.
Neuhaus wrote seventeen books by himself and coauthored, edited, and contributed to many more. The book that has meant the most to me is As I Lay Dying, a brief meditation that Neuhaus wrote after surviving (barely) a bungled medical treatment that resulted in the rupture of an undiagnosed intestinal tumor. An expansion and development of “Born toward Dying,” an essay that had originally been published in First Things in 2000, the book ranges across the literature of death (the Book of Job, The Death of Ivan Ilych, Ernest Becker’s Denial of Death, the Dies Irae) to conclude:
May he rest in peace.