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Richard John Neuhaus, 1936-2009

Obituary | The Roman Catholic priest was known for his literary output as well as his kindness in engaging opponents

Protestant evangelicals have lost a friend who himself was Roman Catholic. Richard John Neuhaus, 72, editor-in-chief of First Things, president of the Institute on Religion and Public Life, and author of numerous books, died Thursday morning in New York City. According to a statement posted by First Things, Neuhaus "never recovered from the weakness that sent him to the hospital the day after Christmas, caused by a series of side effects from the cancer he was suffering. He lost consciousness Tuesday evening after a collapse in his heart rate, and [Thursday], in the company of friends, he died."

Neuhaus began his ecclesiastical career in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod but became a national figure when he broke with the conservative Protestant denomination to join the Roman Catholic Church. John Cardinal O'Connor once said he hoped Neuhaus would never convert, since "we Catholics need all the ecumenical help we can get," but received Neuhaus into the Archdiocese of New York in 1990, where he served as a priest. Prior to that Neuhaus oversaw a largely African-American Lutheran congregation in Brooklyn, where he was a proponent of civil rights and anti-war issues during the Vietnam era, working closely with Martin Luther King Jr. at times.

"Neuhaus in those years was an interesting combination of liberal and conservative," noted WORLD contributor and former Time religion editor Richard N. Ostling. "He was skeptical of the right wing of his denomination but also of the National Council of Churches and mainline denominations. As a Roman Catholic, he became a real leader of the conservative, pro-Vatican, traditionalist flank of the Catholic Church." Over time the Catholic priest established himself as a political conservative, particularly on abortion, becoming "a powerful voice in pro-life movement, particularly after Roe v. Wade and more recently on the gay issue," said Ostling.

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His book The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America also sparked debate and helped to further redefine the conservative/liberal divide by taking on secularism and the departure of faith from public life. Charles Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship International, described Neuhaus as "one of the most remarkable human beings I've ever known, a man of extraordinary intellect, a great communicator and theologian." Michael Cromartie, director of the Evangelical Studies Project at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where Neuhaus served as a board member, said Neuhaus "was without peer in his ability to formulate a response to the theological, ethical, foreign policy, and domestic issues of the day. He could think deeply on a broad range of issues and be penetratingly insightful."

In 1994, Colson and Neuhaus convened a group of Catholic and evangelical leaders to produce a manifesto called "Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium." The document drew criticism from both sides. Cromartie said the manifesto grew out of a meeting attended by Colson and Neuhaus on Latin America, where both became aware of the violence there between Catholics and Protestants. "He would disagree with those who saw the manifesto as a political coalition or social coalition," Cromartie said. "It was first and foremost a theological conversation among people committed to the Apostle's Creed and historical orthodoxy."

But many evangelicals responded that Neuhaus' conversion to Roman Catholicism weakened his authority to speak out on issues dividing evangelicals and Catholics, let alone to find common theological ground. Time magazine, failing to note the divisions between the two groups, in 2005 named Neuhaus one of the "25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America." But it was a rarity indeed for anyone on either side of the divide to charge Neuhaus with unfairness in his portrayal of friends or foes-a record that was more remarkable because of the sheer volume of his literary output and notable for his kindness in engaging opponents.

Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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