For those concerned with a vigorous intellectual engagement of the religious idea with the secular culture, these past 12 months have been a difficult period.
On February 28, 2008, William F. Buckley, Jr. the intellectual godfather of the conservative movement in America, died. Only last month, Avery Cardinal Dulles, SJ, passed away at 90 years old. Cardinal Dulles was one of the Catholic Church’s most prominent theologians, a thinker of great subtlety, and a descendent from a veritable American Brahmin dynasty.
The third in this towering intellectual triumvirate is Father Richard John Neuhaus, who died in New York after an on and off again battle with cancer, about which he had written in his now mini-classic, As I Lay Dying: Meditations Upon Returning.
This book is unlike any written in our time in that it is a profoundly serious reflection on questions everyone has, issues everyone thinks about in private, but hardly anyone is willing to speak about or perhaps capable of writing about. Fr. Neuhaus confronts it to the point in which we feel discomfort — and he did this on nearly every issue he wrote about in his long writing career.
How will we be held accountable at death for what we did in life? What does mortality mean? What does it mean to face judgment? How should we live with the questions we have about eternity, and what is the impact on culture and responsibility?
In times past we had a greater clarity about these questions than we do today. Today, if we think about death at all, it is only to keep it as far away as possible, to forestall it, to deny it, and pretend that it doesn’t happen to others and will not happen to us.
Fr. Neuhaus wrote the following:
We are born to die. Not that death is the purpose of our being born, but we are born toward death, and in each of our lives the work of dying is already underway. The work of dying well is, in largest part, the work of living well. Most of us are at ease in discussing what makes for a good life, but we typically become tongue-tied and nervous when the discussion turns to a good death. As children of a culture radically, even religiously, devoted to youth and health, many find it incomprehensible, indeed offensive, that the word ‘good’ should in any way be associated with death. Death, it is thought, is an unmitigated evil, the very antithesis of all that is good. Death is to be warded off by exercise, by healthy habits, by medical advances. What cannot be halted can be delayed, and what cannot forever be delayed can be denied. But all our progress and all our protest notwithstanding, the mortality rate holds steady at 100 percent.
Fascinating, provocative, fearless, counter-cultural, and absolutely impossible ignore. It puts matters of faith at the center, making them impossible to deny. That is the power of Fr. Neuhaus’s mind at work, and it worked for many decades producing an incredible literary legacy.
Numerous tributes and biographies are being written about the life of Fr. Neuhaus and the astounding contribution he made. His legacy is rich: at once intellectual, political and spiritual, his prose was unfailingly engaging and his thought deep and probing. His insights into the moral foundations of the American experiment remind one of the work of another New York priest, John Courtney Murray, SJ.
In fact, it might be said that like Murray, and Fr. Isaac Hecker before him, Neuhaus brought America and the Catholic Church closer together. Yet, the funny thing is that he was neither a cradle Catholic nor a native American — he was a convert to the Church (like Hecker) and a Canadian. Yet his writings and the movement, in which he labored and help to mature for many years, represents a maturation in our understanding of how to make moral sense of the American experiment.
Although his early pastoral work as a Lutheran minister was in a ghetto, intellectually, no religious, political or philosophical ghetto could ever contain him. He was as at home with a group of evangelicals (together with Chuck Colson, he initiated Evangelicals and Catholics Together), as he would have been dinning with the pope and a gaggle of Cardinals. In 1993, Acton interviewed Fr. Neuhaus on the subject of “Religion’s Role in Public Life.”
A few weeks ago, when I heard about the passing of our mutual friend, Cardinal Dulles, I also learned at the same time that Fr. Neuhaus had a recurrence of cancer. I called to find him at home, his voice noticeably weakened. We commiserated for a time about Dulles and my plans to come for the funeral (later thwarted by the weather) and we spoke about his own health struggles. I assured him of my solidarity with him in prayer. That was to have been our last conversation.
The loss of Neuhaus to the effort for an honest ecumenism, a robust and stylish debate over matters liturgical, cultural, political and literary in his death is monumental. Who will replace him? Indeed, I can almost hear Richard’s deep, sonorous voice countering me, “Robert… we are each unrepeatable, irreplaceable.”
Still, in the death of Richard John Neuhaus, America has lost one of its most capable and finest interpreters and the Church has lost (or better, gained for ever) one of her most loyal sons. As he wrote:
Death is the most everyday of everyday things. It is not simply that thousands of people die every day, that thousands will die this day, although that too is true. Death is the warp and woof of existence in the ordinary, the quotidian, the way things are. It is the horizon against which we get up in the morning and go to bed at night, and the next morning we awake to find the horizon has drawn closer.
He sought to teach how to live better lives and die good deaths. Now we must learn and embrace an old-fashioned practice that is nonetheless essential: grieving. I will grieve over his good death in all the days that I have left and count myself honored beyond words, to have been a friend.