Tomorrow: “Richard John Neuhaus – A Life In The Public Square”

NeuhausTomorrow evening at the Catholic Information Center here in DC, author Randy Boyagoda will be delivering a talk on his book, “Richard John Neuhaus – A Life In The Public Square“.

The story of the man perhaps best known as the author of “The Naked Public Square”, among many other books, and the founder and editor of “First Things” magazine, has not been properly told up until now. Father Neuhaus himself revealed it in glimpses, such as in his deeply introspective “As I Lay Dying”, a study about suffering arising from his experience of cancer surgery and the complications which arose from it. Yet Neuhaus himself never penned a proper autobiography, probably because he was far too busy writing other things – like this superb analysis of the waning influence of modernists in the Church (“no identity is recognizably Catholic if it skirts the question of obedience.”)

It must be very difficult indeed to fit into one volume the biography of a man who began his public life as a left-wing Protestant clergyman, marched with Dr. King, organized anti-Vietnam protests, ran for Congress, and ended up as both a conservative and a Catholic priest.  Bovagoda does so exceedingly well, but the setting out into the deep must have been intimidating, with such a wealth of material to examine.  Neuhaus’ story is one which would be interesting to tell from either a politico-philosophical or theological standpoint alone. Why did Father Neuhaus turn to the right, as the second half of the 20th century sputtered toward its conclusion? Or for that matter, why did Richard John Neuhaus, Lutheran pastor, choose to become FATHER Richard Neuhaus, Catholic priest?

Bovagoda wisely not only devotes space to these subjects, he also takes the time to give the reader some insight into who Father Neuhaus was as a human being, rather than simply as a public figure who would moderate Crossfire or sit down for a chat on BookTV.  Bovagoda’s book is not a piece of hagiography, either, even though one comes away from it even more impressed with its subject than one was before reading it. Of course, if you have read any of Neuhaus, he doesn’t really need lionizing (lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice). Yet what are perhaps the most compelling sections in the book, which took the author five years to write, are the fly-on-the-wall details which reveal both the flaws and the goodness of Neuhaus the man.

In a telling passage, a stressed-out Father Neuhaus takes on his editor at First Things as both sounding board and receptacle for his frustration over a combination of personal pain and public reaction to a piece published by the magazine which has provoked unwanted results.  “Neuhaus knew none of the screaming and lamentations would leave the apartment,” Bovagoda writes. Later, Neuhaus acknowledged that his editor probably knew better than he did, on advising against publication of more problematic articles. “I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of articles we published that he opposed…and in retrospect, he was mostly right (I suspect he has been waiting a long time for that admission.)”

A particularly touching section recounts the last time Father Neuhaus and his good friend William F. Buckley, Jr. had lunch together, a couple of months before the latter’s death:

They talked about the book on Ronald Reagan that Buckley was writing, and the health challenges that were preventing him from making much progress, namely emphysema, the result of years of smoking that Buckley told Neuhaus he was partly to blame for, because of all the very many postprandial cigar sessions the two men had shared…There was also some business to discuss; Buckley suggested subjects to consider at the next meeting of “That Group”, the conservative talking club the two of them had founded in the early 1990’s, but, as Neuhaus recounted in the extended remembrance of Buckley in the May 2008 issue of First Things, “I do not really think that he expected to be there. I think we both knew that we were possibly, probably, meeting for the last time.” Neuhaus left Buckley’s in tears, and he was right: in lieu of seeing him again, Neuhaus wrote about Buckley instead, following his death.

The cast of characters in this book reads like a who’s who of American public life over the past half-century or more: run-ins and commentary on Presidents from LBJ to Obama reveal much, but it is in his contemporaries in the world of commentary that Neuhaus’ biography is a wonder. They are all here: Buckley, Norman Podhoretz, Irving Kristol, Frank Rich (intellectually a “toy Doberman”, per Neuhaus), and many others.  From the Catholic world, Pope Benedict XVI, Father George Rutler, George Weigel, Raymond Arroyo, and others are as equally integrated into Neuhaus’ understanding of the world he lived in as his political commentariat friends and rivals – indeed, more so, given Neuhaus’ vocation and deep religious faith. Boyagoda’s recounting of Neuhaus’ visit to see the body of his friend, Pope St. John Paul II, before his funeral at the Vatican, is both moving and telling about the way Neuhaus viewed life, and the legacy one leaves behind.

For more about Randy Boyagoda’s fascinating and comprehensive look at the life of this remarkable figure, visit the Image Publishing website. And for those of my readers who will find themselves in the DC area tomorrow, drop by the Catholic Information Center to hear Mr. Boyagoda himself speak on and answer questions about his book. And be sure to pick up some signed copies for yourself and others, for this is one work you will definitely want to add to your permanent reading and reference library.

A Selfie with Jesus: Religious Art or Political Propaganda?

If you could, would you ever take a selfie of you and Jesus?  If you did, would you do it for personal reasons? Or would you do it to try to manipulate others into thinking better of you?  These are questions which come to mind following the rediscovery of a work of art stolen by the Nazis during World War II, particularly as we get closer to election day here in the States.

Our story kicks off with this 16th century portrait of King Henri III of France, the recovery of which was announced yesterday. The painting had been in The Louvre in Paris, but went missing during World War II.  The story of how it was found, as detailed in the article, is quite a remarkable one, and demonstrates just how important the online community can be for finding lost works of art.

From the point of view of what the media presently refers to as “optics”, the idea of painting the portrait of your country’s leader at the foot of the Cross, when he lived centuries after the time of Christ, may seem particularly odd.  However if one takes a look at the rather calamitous times in which Henri reigned, one can see that the image serves a particular purpose.  Just as today a politician might go to a factory and roll up his shirtsleeves for a photo-op with the workers before slipping back into his limousine, so, too Henri needed to convince his kingdom that he was a good Catholic, albeit in a manner which may seem foreign to us today.

In Western art history there is a long-standing tradition of portraying contemporary persons who paid for a work of art alongside Biblical figures.  Art historians refer to these people as “donors”.  Sometimes the identity of a donor is well-known as a result of documentation or the existence of other known images of the person, but sometimes they remain anonymous, unknown to us a result of the passage of time and the loss of records.

Originally, most of these “donors” were sized much smaller than the holy person being portrayed, as we can see in this example from about 1386.  Over time however, the donor grew to be equal in size to the saintly individuals shown in the art.  Eventually the donor became part of the action, as it were, such as in being presented to Jesus Himself. Oftentimes this inclusion in the scene was meant to demonstrate the personal piety of the donor, but sometimes the donor was just as much – if not more – interested in propaganda as they were in prayer.

As it happens, Henri III himself was not very saintly in his personal life, even though he liked to put on a show of pious devotions.  He managed not only to offend many Protestants with his loose living, but to alienate his fellow Catholics to the point that they formed an armed league to dethrone him.  After having to flee Paris when the people turned on him, he tricked his chief rival, the fiercely Catholic and hugely popular Duke of Guise, as well as the Duke’s brother Cardinal Louis of Guise, Archbishop of Reims, into coming to see him at the Chateau of Blos; ironically, this is where the researcher who rediscovered the lost painting currently works.  Henri then had the two brothers murdered by the royal guards.

For his actions Henri was publicly condemned in Parliament but never tried.  He continued trying to mount a military campaign to take back the capital, plotting his return to power  by manipulating both potential Catholic and Protestant supporters to shore up his failing rule.  A year after assassinating the Duke and the Cardinal, Henri himself was assassinated by a fanatical Dominican friar, who had been egged on by the Duke’s widow.  In the end, Henri’s efforts came to nothing, and the throne passed from his family to that of his Protestant cousin Henri of Navarre, who converted to Catholicism and placed the House of Bourbon on the throne until the French Revolution.

When we see images today of politicians attempting to manipulate us into thinking that they are just like us, such efforts are not new.  By appealing to what they believe the average person wants to see, our contemporary leaders are simply following in a long tradition that stretches back through centuries of Western culture. The form of the media may have changed from painting and sculpture to videos and tweets, but the thinking behind these efforts is still very much the same.

Thus, the rediscovery of this painting is not only important for historians, it’s also a great opportunity to remind ourselves that the use of popular, and even religious imagery for political ends will likely always be a part of the media landscape.

King Henri II at the Foot of the Cross by Unknown Artist (16th Century) The Louvre, Paris

King Henri III at the Foot of the Cross by Unknown Artist (16th Century)
The Louvre, Paris

Those Inconvenient Christians

An upcoming Holy Land festival this weekend, and a documentary on Iraqi Christians I caught on TV last night, have given rise to a somewhat chastising post this morning, for which I hope the reader will forgive me – even though, as we say on Twitter, I apologize for nothing.

The presence of Christians in the Middle East is a fact which much of the mainstream media in this country, and even certain supposedly humanitarian groups, often chooses to ignore.  Their mere existence muddles the narrative.  It is much easier to assume that everyone who speaks Arabic is a Muslim, and that all Muslims are potential terrorists, than it is to recognize that not only are people individuals, but that there are Catholics and other Christians in places like Palestine, Syria, and Iraq, many of whom have been suffering greatly in recent years.

This situation has so deteriorated, even at this moment with the recent actions of ISIS or whatever they decide to call themselves this week, that hundreds of thousands of Christians have left their homelands in the Middle East to seek safety in other countries.  Yet when they arrive at their destinations, they are often scorned and ostracized by the very people they were hoping would welcome them.  This is unworthy of the West, particularly among those of us who happen to call ourselves Christians.

When I was in college, one of my closest friends was a Kurdish-American, a young lady whose family had fled the regime of Saddam Hussein and immigrated to the U.S.  Back then the problem everyone was discussing with regard to Iraq was the fallout from what we refer to as “The” Gulf War in 1990, in which Iraq had invaded and occupied Kuwait.  Although the issues surrounding Iraq were certainly considered at the time, to a large extent they were overshadowed by the collapse of the Soviet Union and its ensuing aftermath. Thus the suffering of the Kurdish people under the rule of Saddam Hussein was not as widely covered in the press back then, so that much of what I learnt about them at the time came from what my Kurdish friend told me, and the people she brought to campus for discussions and debates.

So it was interesting, given the non-stop coverage of the rapid takeover of Iraq in recent weeks by the latest brand of radicalized Islamic militants, to come across a program last evening which highlighted not only the suffering of Christians in Iraq in recent years, but also how so many of them have found a new home in Kurdish territory.  Even as church bells fell silent in the city of Mosul for the first Sunday in over 1600 years, Christians in the Kurdish-controlled north of the country were comparatively free to go about their business, knowing that the Kurds would protect them.  This is no small development, in the history of the region.

The Catholic diocese in the largest Kurdish city of Erbil for example, has grown from around 1,500 families before the invasion of Iraq, or roughly the size of a suburban parish in many parts of the U.S., to over 25,000 families today.  More and more Christians have left Baghdad and other cities, moving north in search of a haven where they can practice their faith without emigrating to other countries.  I was stunned to see footage not only of brand-new Christian primary schools being built, and discussions about a new high school, but churches filled with worshippers.  There was even a sit-down reception and dinner between the local Catholic and Orthodox prelates and their Muslim and Yazidi counterparts, where everyone seemed to be getting along just fine, and enjoying one another’s company.

All that being said, I won’t insult the reader’s intelligence by pretending to be an expert on the complexities of religion, history, and politics in the region.  For example, I’m sure that there are still many issues faced by Iraqi Christians even amidst the relative safety of the Kurdish people, which could be shared anecdotally; certainly that debate could be carried out in the comment section of this post.  And given my own limited grasp of the subject, if you are looking for more informed analysis about issues faced by Christians in the Middle East, you should be following people like my friends researcher Phillip Smyth, or filmmaker Jordan Allott over at In Altium Productions, who are far more knowledgeable about such things.

What the Christian crisis in Iraq and elsewhere in the region does however, is spotlight something rather ugly, and often ignored by the mainstream media.  Caught in the middle of much of the sectarian fighting in the region are Christian minorities who are too poor to get much press.  Our ignorance of them is particularly unworthy of Christians in this country, many of whom are the descendants of those who also had to flee their ancestral homes because of religious persecution.  Shouldn’t we be doing more to embrace and welcome our fellow Christians from the lands of Christ, the Apostles, and the Early Church, rather than just lumping them all into a politically convenient category of “other”?  If we (rightly) blame the mainstream media for a dearth of reporting on this issue, what are we doing to aid these people once they arrive on these shores?

One way those of you in the Washington area can learn more about Christianity in the Middle East is by attending this weekend’s first annual Holy Land Festival at the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America, this Saturday from 11am to 5pm [Metro: Brookland].  It will highlight the Christian people, places, and customs of our brothers and sisters from this part of the world, something which too few of us are aware of, and too little is done to protect and preserve.  I will be there to enjoy the food, presentations, and finally getting to meet Diana von Glahn in person, and hope to see many of my readers, as well.

Yet even if you cannot make it, I encourage you to take this opportunity to start educating yourself about the issue.  The media will not educate you themselves, for it is not in their interest to do so.  As usual, the buck stops with those of us who claim to be Christians, keeping in mind Christ’s prayer that we might all be one, as He and the Father are one.

Iraqi Catholics outside of their destroyed parish church in Kirkuk

Iraqi Catholics mourn outside of their parish Church of the Holy Family in Kirkuk, bombed by ISIS