If you’ve read the groundbreaking book The Naked Public Square, or ever plumbed the depths of the fine journal First Things, then you know what a powerful intellect and defender of the faith Fr. Richard John Neuhaus was.
On January 8th, Fr. Neuhaus, my dear friend and brother in Christ, succumbed to cancer.
His books and articles will inspire generations of serious Christian thinkers. But certainly one of his most important legacies will be the way he brought together orthodox believers-particularly evangelicals and Catholics-in order to begin to seek common ground, realizing that we were already experiencing the ecumenism of the trenches in the pro-life campaigns. And certainly, with the rising tide of radical atheism and radical Islam, the timing of Fr. Neuhaus’s work to strengthen the Church could not have been more providential.
That work began back in 1991, when Fr. Neuhaus invited evangelical and Catholic leaders to discuss what was almost open warfare between evangelicals and Catholics in South America-with both sides acting in ways that damaged the witness of Christianity.
From those meetings sprang a movement called Evangelicals and Catholics Together, or ECT. This was ecumenism-not ecumenism in the usual sense of reducing things to the lowest common denominator-but rather an open, frank, discussion about the essential truths of the Christian Faith.
Despite the initial uproar among many evangelicals and Catholics, Fr. Neuhaus and I pressed on and issued in 1997 what I believe was a groundbreaking statement “The Gift of Salvation.” In it, leading evangelicals and Catholics-including Bill Bright and Jim Packer-affirmed that justification is not earned by good works, but is the sole gift of God, conferred by Christ’s atoning death on the cross and faith in Him alone. It said, “We understand that what we here affirm is in agreement with what the Reformation traditions have meant by justification by faith alone (sola fide).”
Cardinal Cassidy then took the document to Rome to teach it at the incoming synods before the Millennium.
Well, fast forward 11 years. Just last November at a papal audience, Pope Benedict made a remarkable statement, echoing “The Gift of Salvation.”
Here’s what the Pope said: “Luther’s expression ‘sola fide’ is true if faith is not opposed to charity, to love. Faith is to look at Christ, to entrust oneself to Christ, to be united to Christ, to be conformed to Christ . . . That is why,” the Pope said, “in the Letter to the Galatians, St. Paul develops above all his doctrine on justification; he speaks of faith that operates through charity.”
I don’t think the Church at large has yet comprehended the importance of the Pope’s words. It’s a statement that shows the emerging consensus between the church in Rome and evangelicals over the greatest single issue that brought about the Protestant Reformation.
Will 500 years of division come to an end soon? No. But at least we are now seeking the truth together.
And that, in a very important way, is the legacy of Richard John Neuhaus. May he enjoy his eternal reward. God bless you, my friend and brother.