The Significance of the Passing of Richard John Neuhaus
Frank Cocozzelli printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Sat Jan 10, 2009 at 04:14:23 PM EST
The recent passing of Father Richard John Neuhaus marks the end of an era for Catholic neoconservatism.
Father Neuhaus was a mover and a shaker not just among the Religious Right, but among the Right in general. He, along with Michael Novak and George Weigel led a small, but powerful cabal, that author and former Neuhaus confident Damon Linker aptly described as "theocons." As I wrote about Neuhaus last year:

Neuhaus's rise to power within reactionary Catholic circles was spectacular. In twenty years he went from being an anti-war Lutheran pastor to being the point man for neo-orthodox Catholicism in America; the de facto Vatican liaison to president Bush. His role has been further enhanced under the traditionalist-friendly Pope Benedict XVI.

 The National Catholic Reporter aptly described Neuhaus's political influence:

A priest of the New York archdiocese and a former Lutheran minister, Neuhaus was best known to society at large as an intellectual guru of what came to be known as the "religious right."

From the early 1970s forward, Neuhaus was a key architect of two alliances with profound consequences for American politics, both of which overcame histories of mutual antagonism: one between conservative Catholics and Protestant Evangelicals, and the other between free market neo-conservatives and "faith and values" social conservatives.

The afore-mentioned Linker, author of perhaps the definitive book on Catholic neoconservatism, Theocons, penned this memory of Neuhaus:

In the three-and-a-half years I worked at First Things magazine, I came to know two Richard John Neuhauses. The first is the one I worked with in the journal's offices every day: personally generous and jovial, intellectually and theologically curious, alert to political and cultural complications, overflowing with energy and ideas. This is the Neuhaus readers encountered in his lengthy, erudite essays on philosophy, theology, and history, which frequently graced the pages of the magazine. It is also the Neuhaus who produced beautiful theological meditations such as Death on a Friday Afternoon and As I Lay Dying-and who selflessly served as a parish priest at Immaculate Conception Church on 14th Street in Manhattan.

But there was also another Neuhaus-the one familiar to his political opponents. This is the Neuhaus who aimed to be a "thorough revolutionary" during the 1960s and who later brokered a political alliance between Roman Catholics and evangelical Protestants in order more effectively to wage a cultural war against the social changes that flowed from that same decade. This Neuhaus uncharitably savaged his ideological enemies in his monthly column for First Things and walked a fine line between predicting that the culture war was on the verge of erupting into violence and actively inciting such violence. This Neuhaus sometimes spoke as if faithful Catholics had a positive duty to vote for the Republican Party, and he strongly encouraged the American bishops to deny the sacrament of Communion to pro-choice Catholic politicians. This Neuhaus was proudly authoritarian, bullying in temperament, and staunchly traditionalist.

The Neuhaus Linker describes in the second paragraph is the Neuhaus the readers of this site and many moderate and progressive Catholics knew -- the one who encouraged the American Catholic clergy to degrade the Sacrament of Communion by using it as a political tool.

But the passing of this Catholic Right icon may perhaps have a greater impact upon the movement he was so instrumental in creating. Of the remaining two key leaders of Catholic neoconservatism, Novak is 75 and certainly more mediagenic than the younger Weigel, age 58.  Weigel pops up as a from time-to-time as a commentator on cable shows , but he he is far from charismatic.

There were two things that made Neuhaus the most vital cog in this gang of three.

First, he was a priest.  This  gave him standing to speak authoritatively in ways that Novak or Weigel could not.  When a lay theologian suggests denying Communion to pro-choice Catholics, it does not carry the same weight as when a priest demands the same action. To many Catholics, those who see faith as top-heavy with obedience to papal authority, the priest's collar symobolizes he chain of command.

Secondly - and perhaps more importantly - Neuhaus was well grounded in both Protestant and Catholic perspectives. This understanding facilitated his ability to build political bridges between socially conservative Protestants and socially conservative Catholics. His passing leaves a void that  is not easily filled.

Neuhaus struck me as a radical in search of a revolution to lead. After being part of 1960s far-left movements agitating for possibly violent societal change, by the 1980s he had moved towards, and then became part and parcel of the fringe-right movement of neoconservatism. And as his politics changed, so did his view of faith, going from mainstream Lutheranism to a form of orthodox Catholicism that was intolerant of dissent. While his political outlook changed, his strident nature did not.

I never rejoice at the passing of political opponents.  I hope he has finally found peace. Looking beyond the life and work of Richard John Neuhaus, as a Catholic and a liberal, I think  we will be better off when Catholic neoconservatism too passes away.




Display:
I really don't know how this will play out. Who is out there on the horizon who could lead Catholic neocons? Unless I'm missing something I have to conclude that while this movement is far from done, it will not be as well organized.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Sat Jan 10, 2009 at 04:20:20 PM EST

I am sure someone will come along to replace Neuhaus and Paul Weyrich. I too am sorry that they have died, but I won't miss their negative influences in religion and politics.

Linker's book has an excellent discussion of his experiences working with Neuhaus.

What's interesting is what the hierarchy isn't discussing the diminishing numbers of American born Catholics who actively identify as Catholics. NCR recently had an article discussing polls on the subject and noting the numbers of Catholics are kept high because of immigration. Educated women are especially likely to leave the Church. I also suspect the influence of Catholic neoconservatism has taken its toll. I guess I am too bullheaded to quit.

by khughes1963 on Sat Jan 10, 2009 at 09:57:49 PM EST

Can you provide us with the link to that NCR article?

by Frank Cocozzelli on Sun Jan 11, 2009 at 08:52:31 AM EST
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There is one this week (Jan 9 edition.)

Here is the Jan 9 article by Fr. Anthony Pogorelc and William D'Antonio
http://ncronline3.org/drupal/?q=node/3007

by khughes1963 on Sun Jan 11, 2009 at 09:47:54 PM EST
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It doesn't work---sorry. Will it be New Gingrich maybe? Will it be a crap shoot to find one or will some of their organization(s) find a man to fit the job? I thought Jeb Bush might be because he converted to Catholism.

by Nightgaunt on Tue Apr 14, 2009 at 02:23:11 PM EST
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Frank, do you think Newhouse's passing on to his reward, such as it maybe, will raise the preeminence of Father Robert Sirico of the Acton Institute?

Sirico who comes from an Assembly of God background has been hobnobbing with the likes of Dobson and Colson whom he took to Rome and introduced to the late pope.

He has had the backing of Mahoney(sic), the Domino Pizza guy, Howard Ahmanson and many leading right wing foundations.

While Sirico has some baggage in his background, like being a minister of the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches and Executive Director of the Los Angeles Gay Community Center, it hasn't seemed to slow him down as a free market and oft quoted right wing intellect.

by JerrySloan on Mon Jan 12, 2009 at 12:36:42 AM EST

I think Sirico might try to replace Neuhaus as a spokesperson for right wing Catholicism, but his baggage would seem to undermine his credibility with some of the neocon Catholics. Maybe they realize you can't "pray away the gay," but Sirico thinks he can.

Sirico does write a periodic column in the Detroit News. We've seen how great the "free market" has been during the last eight years, and the same people who sold that bill of goods are off trying to peddle the same stuff all over again.

by khughes1963 on Mon Jan 12, 2009 at 10:04:45 PM EST
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Yeah, his profile will rise a bit, but not to the level of Neuhaus's unless the Catholic Right moves further away from neoconservatism.

Sirico is more of an economic libertarian. More importantly, he does not have the background in Protestantism that Neuhaus had. That will limit his ability somewhat in dealing with Evangelicals.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Wed Jan 14, 2009 at 07:17:24 AM EST
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Sirico was a rollem on the floor, tongue-talking Pentecostal preacher. I saw him in action in the 70s when he was an ordained minister of Metropolitan Community Churches.  I watched him take a congregation of a couple of hundred people and absolutely turn them upside down. He preached his sermon, rolled up his sleeves, waded into the congregation and people fell right and left as he laid hands on them.

As I noted about 5 years ago he took Dobson and Colson to Rome to meet the late Pope.  He certainly knows how to deal with evangelicals.

I agree he may not be quite the intellect of Neuhaus but he has received the favor/s of many Right Wing funders.

Anyway, he is a guy I think we should keep our eye on.

by JerrySloan on Fri Jan 16, 2009 at 03:49:45 AM EST
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What in h*** is a fundie type doing in a Metropolitan Community church?

Unless I'm totally mistaken, that's almost an inherent contradiction.  One is accepting and welcoming (as I understand), the other, well, is best described as abusive and intolerant.

I find that scary... considering that fundamentalism/dominionism and top-down authoritarian control almost always go hand-in-hand.  I've also heard rumblings from Italy that suggest that the new Pope leans towards a top-down authoritarian model (and out to control others not of his persuasion), so they may have much in common.

 

by ArchaeoBob on Fri Jan 16, 2009 at 11:35:00 AM EST
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