Tomorrow 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.