Saturday, January 10, 2009
This is the third time in less than a year that I feel truly sad to hear of the death of a public figure. One of the other occasions was Bill Buckley's death last February; the other was Cardinal Dulles' death just over a month ago. I should have met both men, and could have, but never did. But I did meet Fr. Neuhaus once.
I was just getting my PhD and told him, at a Christmas party for conservative Catholics, that I needed a job. He suggested I send him a résumé and even granted me an interview at First Things, which I blew because I didn't mention more than one of the many solid people we both knew. In retrospect, I realize that he intimidated me and made me tongue-tied; I had, after all, just observed him dealing with the noisy protesters against Cardinal Ratzinger at a 1988 lecture the latter gave in New York about biblical exegesis (of all things). Apparently, RJN had the same effect on a lot of people. Some of them needed, and still need, to be tongue-tied.
The eulogies have been pouring in, of course, from the White House and the Vatican on down. Even though I've read several of the man's books including his memoirs, I continue to learn more about him. What I most loved about RJN in life was the unflappable wit he displayed as he managed to make all the right enemies. That's mainly what I loved about WFB too. But I loved RJN more because he was making all the right ecclesial enemies, not just those in secular politics, where he offended plenty who dissed him as a mere "neocon" apologist for the Bush Administration, which he wasn't. Within the Catholic Church, both trads and progs reviled him: the former, for being such an ecumenist; the latter, for his being such a staunch friend and supporter of Pope John Paul II and the traditional moral teachings of the Church.
What they were really objecting to, of course, was RJN's suave advocacy of what many, including his circle, called "the hermeneutic of continuity." I've written about that whole topic often, including in my obit for Dulles; indeed, a 2003 article by RJN is what first convinced me that the basic division in the Catholic Church is between those Catholics who do, and those who do not, believe that the Catholic Church after Vatican II continues to be...well, the Church. In the latter category we find both the far Right (the rad-trads) and the far Left (the progs), though of course for opposite reasons: what the former disapprove, the latter approve. But as suave and centrist as he was in theological terms, RJN did not hesitate to offend when he felt that offense was called for. He once told Andrew Sullivan to his face, in an elevator, that he is "objectively disordered." The thing needed to be said. It was said right where and when it needed to be. And the same holds for much of what he said.
I feel just as comfortable asking RJN to pray for me as I do praying for him. And that's probably the most important thing that remains to be said about him. All else is a conversation that he advanced well enough to make it continue without him.