Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Cordially, Richard John Neuhaus

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Cordially, Richard John Neuhaus

Article excerpt

September 2004: Richard John Neuhaus was feeling tired and a little glum. This he had not expected, as he observed in a meditative letter to his longtime friend Robert Louis Wilken: "I am not at all, or not usually, dissatisfied with my life and work. I more or less happily do what I do: pray, say Mass, read, write, give speeches, deal with manuscripts and authors, and talk about endless things to be done with what seems to be an endless series of people with an endless series of plans and problems."

As extensive as this list is, it doesn't cover everything that Neuhaus did with his days, or how exhausting one other dimension could be, as he then suggests: "In hours of correspondence almost every day, I also do a great deal of what might be described as pastoral counseling."

For decades, Neuhaus wrote and received dozens of letters every day - the letters from the early 1970s until his death in January 2009 now collected in eighty bankers' boxes - to and from public figures, religious leaders, friends, foes, allies and potential allies, admiring readers and offended readers, and also ordinary people, often confused and troubled, seeking his guidance. The letters offer a set of demanding exemplars for anyone whose vocation in public life includes frequent personal correspondence, because in almost - almost - every instance, Neuhaus regarded letters sent and letters received as a dynamic dialectic for developing ideas, advancing arguments, forging alliances, and caring for souls.

He decided to write Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy in June 2000, after Kennedy dissented in the Stenberg v. Carhart case regarding Nebraska's ban on partialbirth abortion, which the Court overturned in a five-to-four decision. "Please accept this note of thanks for your compelling dissent on live-birth abortions," Neuhaus began, before admitting, "I am among those who have written very critically of your part in Casey, being deeply puzzled in that case by your apparent abandonment of moral and judicial reasoning. At the same time, permit me to suggest that Stenberg is the logical unfolding of Casey, which, in turn, is the product of the lethal logic of Roe. When, God willing, the time comes for the Court to address the judicial and moral root of this great evil, I very much hope you will be there to see that justice is done." Instead of treating Kennedy's dissent as a pretext for identifying a welcome, shared position, Neuhaus reaffirms his earlier criticisms of Kennedy's record on abortion rulings in characteristically blunt terms, and invites him to recognize his own responsibility for the judicial logic informing Stenberg.

In other words, Neuhaus held people to their words, even if doing so prevented the forging of potentially productive partnerships. This is evident in his correspondence with Robert Schuller, the pastor and televangelist of Crystal Cathedral and Hour of Power fame. In October 1984, after reading The Naked Public Square and watching Neuhaus discuss religion's place in public life on William F. Buckley Jr.'s Firing Line, Schuller wrote him a note of congratulation.

In it, he also invited Neuhaus to read one of his own books, Self-Esteem: The New Reformation, before ending on an admiring and inquiring note: "Rarely does one encounter a person whose mind is so bright and is also equally gifted at articulating this spontaneity. I saw that in you. I admire it. I salute it and would welcome an opportunity for [a] mutually respectful interchange of ideas."

Given Schuller's media reach and national prominence, as well as Neuhaus' commitments to ecumenism and culture-war alliance-making, this seemed like an excellent opportunity for Neuhaus to pursue some of his leading causes, but he didn't take it. After expressing gratitude for Schuller's kind words and offering reciprocal encouragement for his ministry, he issued a conclusive, negative response to his invitation, on theological grounds: "I'm afraid I'm among those who discover themselves having real difficulties with some of the theological underpinnings," he admitted, citing Schuller's too-soft formulations about sin. …

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