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An interview with Richard John Neuhaus
By Bernard Chapin
Richard John Neuhaus is the Editor in Chief of First Things, a journal that, in its own words is "inter-religious and nonpartisan." Claudia Winkler called it a "jewel of American journalism" and from what I have read of it I could not agree more. Father Neuhaus was once a Lutheran Minister but is now a Roman Catholic priest. Father Neuhaus is a fine writer with an abundance of wit and style: "One imagines Adam remarking to Eve as they are leaving the garden, 'My dear, we are living in an age of transition.' The modern assumption is that the transition is to something better. The modern sensibility unbounded is that of the neophiliac, the lover of the new." How often I wanted to make the same argument about "the cult of the new" but lacked the cogency of his words. Below, Father Neuhaus provides precise and clear answers to the questions that I ask him but his answers will resonate with you, as they have with me, long after you're finished reading. In this interview we'll hear a bit from a man who may well have been close to the precipice of heaven a short time ago but luckily remains with us on this earth to analyze the public square.
BC: Father, you are Editor in Chief of the journal, First Things, which has as it's goal "to advance a religiously informed public philosophy for the ordering of society." The obvious first question is- has your public philosophy succeeded? Have you come across public officials who told of First Things being an intrinsic component of decisions that they have made?
RJN: No, the vision proposed by First Things will not have succeeded definitively until the coming of the Kingdom of God, and then it will not be needed. But yes, many people, including government officials, tell us that the journal is indispensable in their thinking and actions. Of course, maybe they are just being polite, but I don¹t think so. Arguments advanced in the journal regularly show up in the pertinent public forums and debates.
BC: You are published by The Institute on Religion and Public Life, which is "an interreligious, nonpartisan research and education institute." Are there any religions or religious orders and sects that you consider outside the pale? Have there been any cases when you've had to exercise censorship on what or who you've included?
RJN: Yes, radical Islam, commonly called Islamism, is beyond the pale. As are a host of kooky views in this religion-obsessed society. We have, as you mention in your first question, a public philosophy, and we generally publish articles that advance the arguments relevant to that philosophy. We don't call it censorship. We call it editorial judgment.
BC: Father, you were once a Lutheran minister, how has your life changed now that you have embraced Catholicism? Are you still involved in Lutheranism in any meaningful way?
RJN: I am still involved with many Lutheran friends, and editorially we attend to developments in Lutheranism, along with all the other religious communities. Surely my life and way of thinking have changed by becoming a Catholic. There is a richer sacramental life, apostolic authority, Marian devotion, and much else. In sum, I became a Catholic in order to be more fully the Christian I was as a Lutheran, and that is what has happened.
BC: I've always said that if a religion is more permissive than its followers then there is absolutely no need to have that religion. Do you think this is a reason why the conservative, evangelical branches of Christianity are experiencing rapid growth; whereas, the more liberal ones are losing parishioners en masse? I am thinking of the Methodist Church near where I live where one of their Pastors began marrying gay couples and embraced the gay community so much that, during the 2002 Gay Pride week, he posted (or he permitted to be posted) on their message board a quote from the "singer" Pink that was something like "guilt is nothing but a thing, get your groove on girl."
RJN: I assume by "a religion" you mean a church or religious authority. Yes, I agree with you. If a church offers no truth that is not available in the general culture -- in, for instance, the editorials of the New York Times or, for that matter, of National Review -- there is not much reason to pay it attention. In general, the more orthodox communions that make stricter demands show more vigorous growth; in part, because that is what people want, even when they do not live up to the faith that they profess. They want their community to represent what ought to be, knowing that all churches are composed of sinners. Forgiven sinners, and sinners called to sainthood, but sinners nonetheless.
BC: How do you respond to Phil Donahue who made that comment attempting to link the 9/11 murders with religion in general by saying that the terrorists too "talked to God everyday"? He clearly implied that excessive belief in God promotes terrible acts. How big an obstacle are people like Donahue to religion being a bigger part of the nation's public life?
RJN: Much smarter people than Mr. Donahue have said such foolish things. "Religion" is a vacuous term until defined by reference to the object of its belief and practice. Religion as a human phenomenon is as riddled through with potential for both good and evil as any other phenomenon. It is not going to go away, however, and is today resurgent everywhere, except possibly in Western Europe. Muslims of an Islamist stripe are to be criticized for what they believe, not for believing excessively. One can never believe the truth excessively. The great question for the years ahead is whether, from within the heart of Islam, can emerge a religiously legitimated understanding of pluralism and democratic governance. As to Mr. Donahue being an obstacle to what we are about at First Things, he is among the least of my worries.
BC: The Weekly Standard had a magnificent essay last week, "Onward, Christian Pacifists" that described how many churches misjudged the situation with Hitler in the 30's and argued that it was un-Christian to fight Nazi Germany. An allusion is made to the situation today within the essay. How do you defend the right of the state to protect it's people? Where do you stand on "just war" theory? What about it's application to the situation in Iraq?
RJN: An answer to this one would require several essays, all of which have appeared in First Things. Conscientious pacifism is to be honored, although I think it is on crucial questions wrongheaded. The Christian tradition teaches that war may sometimes be a moral duty, and the reasons for going to war as well as the conduct of war, must be kept within the boundaries of moral reasoning. That is the purpose of what is called the just war doctrine, which I strongly affirm. The first duty of the state is to protect its people.
BC: Concerning your journal, isn't that old quote by Martin Luther, "Here I stand: I can do no other" a perfect description of First Things and your mission in the post-modern era?
RJN: I don't know if it's a "perfect description" but it's a large part of what we are about. I would hope that we are more irenic and eager to engage alternative arguments than Luther typically was.
BC: Your piece each month in First Things, "The Public Square," is the first thing I read. [Here's "The Public Square" from March]
It always examines a variety of topics that would be of interest to anyone who was religious and also to a fair amount of the laity. One of the topics last month was homosexuality among the priesthood (you even make a distinction between homosexual behavior and gay behavior). Do you think the priesthood can recover from the negative stigma that the recent controversies have given it?
RJN: Oh yes, it will recover and is recovering. A very small number of miscreant priests have not dimmed Catholic devotion to the priesthood. In fact, there are many signs of increased support from the laity. It is confidence in bishops that has taken a big hit. Deservedly so, in my judgment. There are proposals for renewal on that score, too, and we will see what comes of them.
BC: Your new book, As I Lay Dying: Meditations Upon Returning, has just been released. Many of our readers are unaware of your near-death experience. Could you tell us if it strengthened your belief in Christianity? In what way? What advice do you have for people to allow them to appreciate every day of their lives (without having to go through the life-threatening ordeal that you experienced)?
RJN: Most of what I have to say on these matters is said in the book. I hope the experience strengthened my faith in Christ, his presence and power and promise of life everlasting. But I am reluctant to speak about my own spiritual growth or lack thereof. I'm not the best judge of that. You might ask my spiritual director, but the confessional seal means he can't tell you.
BC: A recent essay from The Public Interest ("Our Secularist Democratic Party," Fall 2002) suggested that more and more belief is becoming a bigger and bigger variable in political affiliation. It found that those who believe are more likely to be Republicans and those who do not are more likely to be Democrats. Do you regard this as being a promising portent for those on the right? What can we do to take advantage of this division among the parties?
RJN: I have written a good deal on this. No, not because my first allegiance is to the Republican Party (far from it!), I do not think it is a healthy thing for the parties to be so polarized along religio-moral lines. The factor, more than any other, that has produced this state of affairs is the Democrats' dogmatic, fanatical, dont-give-an-inch position on abortion and related life questions. I do not see that changing in the near future.
BC: Thank you very much for your time, Father Neuhaus.
RJN: Thanks for asking.
Bernard Chapin is a school psychologist and adjunct faculty member in Chicago. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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