Richard John Neuhaus: A Life in the Public Square, by Randy Boyagoda.

Richard John Neuhaus: A Life in the Public Square
by Randy Boyagoda.
Image (February 10, 2015). 480 pgs.

Richard John Neuhaus (1936-2009) was one of the most influential figures in American public life from the Civil Rights era to the War on Terror. His writing, activism, and connections to people of power in religion, politics, and culture secured a place for himself and his ideas at the center of recent American history. William F. Buckley, Jr. and John Kenneth Galbraith are comparable -- willing controversialists and prodigious writers adept at cultivating or castigating the powerful, while advancing lively arguments for the virtues and vices of the ongoing American experiment. But unlike Buckley and Galbraith, who have always been identified with singular political positions on the right and left, respectively, Neuhaus' life and ideas placed him at the vanguard of events and debates across the political and cultural spectrum. For instance, alongside Abraham Heschel and Daniel Berrigan, Neuhaus co-founded Clergy Concerned About Vietnam, in 1965. Forty years later, Neuhaus was the subject of a New York Review of Books article by Garry Wills, which cast him as a Rasputin of the far right, exerting dangerous influence in both the Vatican and the Bush White House. This book looks to examine Neuhaus's multi-faceted life and reveal to the public what made him tick and why.
"Boyagoda dispassionately describes this fascinating and active life, and he manages to blend skills as a folksy storyteller, researcher and unbiased historian, providing a biography that is balanced, interesting and relevant. A useful, provocative spotlight on one of the leading lights of the 20th century." – Kirkus
“Faith, it is correctly observed, while intensely personal, is never private. In North America, nobody recently has more effectively defended and encouraged bringing religion into the public square than Richard John Neuhaus. And up until now, no one has offered a more credible, careful, and colorful biography of this convert to Catholicism—in the line of Orestes Brownson, Isaac Hecker and Thomas Merton—than Randy Boyagoda.” – Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, Archbishop of New York, author of True Freedom
"A Lutheran pastor who became a Catholic priest, labeled sometimes as liberal and other times as conservative, Neuhaus was truly a "sign of contradiction" in our times, a man whose constant affiliation in life was of belonging to God and striving to draw ever nearer to Him. Thorough, vivid, and keenly understanding of the interplay of personality, faith, and cultural context, Boyagoda's biography of Neuhaus does justice to this man of faith who became a type of "grace to be reckoned with," becoming a culture-altering tour de force. As Americans continue to explore the challenge of living one's faith in the public square, this book is an enriching testament to a man who blazed that trail in his own lifetime, fearless of everything but God Himself." – Carl A. Anderson, Supreme Knight, Knights of Columbus

Reviews and Discussion
  • Neuhaus Described, If Not Explained, by William Gould. The University Bookman Spring 2015. "In short, what we have here is a good, helpful biography of Richard Neuhaus, but a more substantial account and evaluation of his intellectual contribution remains to be written."

  • Life in the Public Square CBC Radio. Discussion with host Paul Kennedy, author Randy Boyagoda, Catholic thinker and Ideas contributor Michael W. Higgins and historian of religion, Molly Worthen (University of North Carolina). May 5, 2015.

    • The Neuhaus Legacy, by R.R. Reno. First Things 05/06/15: "While listening to Worthen's comments I was again reminded of how difficult it is for many, perhaps most, liberals to fathom reasons why someone (Neuhaus, for instance) would think American-style conservatism the best way to promote the common good."

  • Burning Fr. Neuhaus’s Diary, by Joseph Bottum. Weekly Standard May 18, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 34.:
    Reading the new biography by Randy Boyagoda, seeing the clips of Fr. Neuhaus on websites discussing the book, I’ve had that day come back to mind recently—replaying, this time in doubt, the decision I made to destroy his diary. Certainly Boyagoda’s work would have been considerably easier if he’d had the diary to guide him. Substantially different, too, I suspect, Richard’s internal narrative shaping in entirely different ways the external actions of his life. ...
  • The Vision of Father Neuhaus, by William Doino Jr. First Things 3/23/15:
    ... Because Neuhaus was such a prominent figure, and so involved in the major political debates of his time, he is often criticized for having compromised his faith. But those who say Neuhaus was more politician than priest miss the mark. Fr. Neuhaus always saw himself—first and foremost—as a pastor and parish priest. The source and summit of his life was celebrating the Mass, hearing confessions, and attending to the needs of his flock. He loved to write, yes, but he did so in hopes that people would espouse the good—and by doing so, to turn toward their Savior.
  • Understanding Father Neuhaus, by Alan Jacobs. Snakes and Ladders 03/13/15:
    ... here’s (a simplified version of) my reading of Neuhaus’s political transformation: Over time he came to believe that the American left had effectively abandoned its commitment to “the least of these,” had decided that, in Boyagoda’s clear formulation, “private rights — made possible by and indeed protecting implicit race and class privileges — trumped responsibilities for others.” The moral language that he had learned from his Christian upbringing and pastoral training and experience simply had no purchase in a party dominated by a commitment solely to the “private rights” of self-expression, especially sexual self-expression. He turned to those who showed a willingness to hear commitments expressed in that moral language, who appeared to be open to being convinced. In return he gave them his loyalty, his public support, for the rest of his life.
    It may well be that this was a devil’s bargain, one that Neuhaus should never have made. ...
    But I think we have strong documentary evidence that Father Neuhaus made his bargain out of a genuine and deeply compassionate love — a love that pulled him all his life — for those whom the world deems worthless. In trying to realize this love in the medium of politics, that cesspool of vainglory and vanity, he sometimes befouled himself. But we all befoul ourselves; few of us do it in such a noble cause.
  • How Father Neuhaus Found GOP, by Geoffrey Kabaservice. The American Conservative 03/17/15.
  • Neuhaus in his time, by George W. Rutler. National Review 03/09/15.
  • New biography captures spirit of the of the great Catholic intellectual, by Russel Saltzman. Aleteia. 02/19/15. "Boyagoda found the Neuhaus I knew, complete with all the man’s winsome qualities and not a few of his contradictions. Not surprisingly, he also revealed facets of the man I could never guess. ... Boyagoda has given us a meat-and-potatoes biography. I regard that as a good thing to say."
  • Preaching to the White House, by Phillip Marchand. National Post 02/25/15:
    Boyagoda makes no sweeping pronouncements on this unresolved issue of Neuhaus’s legacy. Certainly things were not as they once were when Neuhaus could claim intimacy with President Reagan and Pope John Paul II. But Boyagoda’s luminously intelligent study of the man makes clear that Richard John Neuhaus — however one regards his politics — deserved his place in a long line of memorable American preacher politicians.
  • The story of Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, an extraordinary Christian man, by Gregory J. Sullivan. Catholic World Report 03/13/15. "a reliable and readable biography."
  • The American Life of Richard John Neuhaus, by Matthew Walther. The Washington Beacon 03/14/15.
  • Richard John Neuhaus and the perils of theologically motivated hyper-partisanship, by Damon Linker. The Week 03/13/15.

Remembering Fr. Richard John Neuhaus

Richard John Neuhaus 1936-2009 R.I.P.

From Jody Bottum:
Fr. Richard John Neuhaus slipped away today, January 8, shortly before 10 o’clock, at the age of seventy-two. He never recovered from the weakness that sent him to the hospital the day after Christmas, caused by a series of side effects from the cancer he was suffering. He lost consciousness Tuesday evening after a collapse in his heart rate, and the next day, in the company of friends, he died.

My tears are not for him—for he knew, all his life, that his Redeemer lives, and he has now been gathered by the Lord in whom he trusted.

I weep, rather for all the rest of us. As a priest, as a writer, as a public leader in so many struggles, and as a friend, no one can take his place. The fabric of life has been torn by his death, and it will not be repaired, for those of us who knew him, until that time when everything is mended and all our tears are wiped away.

Funeral Arrangements

A Funeral Mass was celebrated for Father Richard John Neuhaus at the Church of the Immaculate Conception—414 E. 14th Street, New York City—on Tuesday, January 13, 2009.

A Christian wake service in the form of a Vigil for the Deceased was celebrated at the Church of the Immaculate Conception on Monday evening, January 12.

In lieu of flowers, donations are requested for Fr. Neuhaus’ work, the Institute on Religion and Public Life, online at this page or by mail to:

Institute on Religion and Public Life
156 Fifth Avenue
Suite 400
New York, NY 10010

“When I come before the judgment throne, I will plead the promise of God in the shed blood of Jesus Christ. I will not plead any work that I have done, although I will thank God that he has enabled me to do some good. I will plead no merits other than the merits of Christ, knowing that the merits of Mary and the saints are all from him; and for their company, their example, and their prayers throughout my earthly life I will give everlasting thanks. I will not plead that I had faith, for sometimes I was unsure of my faith, and in any event that would be to turn faith into a meritorious work of my won. I will not plead that I held the correct understanding of “justification by faith alone,” although I will thank God that he led me to know ever more fully the great truth that much misunderstood formulation was intended to protect. Whatever little growth in holiness I have experienced, whatever strength I have received from the company of the saints, whatever understanding I have attained of God and his ways - these and all other gifts received I will bring gratefully to the throne. But in seeking entry to that heavenly kingdom, I will…look to Christ and Christ alone.”

Richard John Neuhaus. Death on a Friday Afternoon



* * *

The story of the modern social conservative movement is all about activism and politics, petitions and court cases, but Father Neuhaus’s great testament was about something grander: through those he inspired, through his writings, through his organizing, and through something as simple as connecting people over lunch who may share nothing in terms of what they can eat on the table but share greatly in what is unseen, Father Neuhaus fundamentally changed religious life in America forever.

This is not an exaggeration. Nor by any means is it a dismissal of anyone else’s influence - but ultimately, the changes most other conservative thought leaders have helped achieve in the twentieth century were made at the hands of other men, elected to office. Father Neuhaus did not merely inspire the intellectual undergirding of change: with God’s help, he fashioned it himself, through hard work, a gift for eloquence, and always a wry smile at the end.

The world Father Neuhaus leaves is one where evangelicals and Catholics are more united than they are divided - where the old ethnic politics and arguments have faded, and where we worship and work together in harmony. My mother, never anything but a Protestant, upon learning of this Catholic convert priest’s passing, wrote to say she paused on learning the news to sing Faure’s Pie Jesu for him. I can think of nothing more fitting.

-- From Ben Domenech,

* * *

His conviction that abortion was the great crime of the age and his disgust with the American system’s failure to expunge the crime led to the most controversial act of his editorship, the publication of a symposium entitled “The End of Democracy?” in which he and other participants flirted with the notion that the United States had lost its legitimacy. COMMENTARY’s editors responded in part with a symposium entitled “On the Future of Conservatism,” in which various contributors argued heatedly against what they perceived to be an unacceptable radicalization of conservative discourse.

The breach was never fully healed, and yet, through it all, there was Richard, a man of great personal good cheer and bonhomie, always in possession of a terrific piece of gossip he always knew exactly when and how to drop in order to cause the biggest commotion, who somehow found the time to crank out thousands of words a month while jetting back and forth from Rome, engaging in plots and subplots and side bets. He was an exemplar of the truism that a righteous man need not be or conduct himself as though he were holier-than-thou. But in the end, his work was his life, and whether he was ministering to fatherless youths in Brooklyn or offering his considered and always highly informed opinion on the matter of stem-cell research, Richard John Neuhaus did what he did and said what he said for the betterment of humankind and for the greater glory of God.

John Podhoretz, Commentary Magazine

(More tributes are being collected by Steve Dillard @ Southern Appeal)

Father Richard J. Neuhaus - Biographical Information

Articles & Addresses by Father Richard J. Neuhaus

For First Things

Many can claim the experience of reading each month's issue "back to front," beginning with "The Public Square," -- Fr. Neuhaus' insightful, clever (and sometimes a tad snarky) commentary on matters literary, political, and theological. Fr. Neuhaus would ultimately take up blogging at First Things' aptly titled "On The Square. On occasion, however, he would also contribute regular articles to the journal he founded.
Fr. Richard J. Neuhaus on the Sexual Abuse Scandal within the Catholic Church


  • Theology through Friendship First Things 09/15/14. "The recent death of Wolfhart Pannenberg prompted us to look through the long correspondence the German theologian had with Richard John Neuhaus, the founder of First Things. Here’s some of what we found."

Other Sources

Interviews with Father Richard J. Neuhaus

Audio & Video of Richard J. Neuhaus

  • Interview on PBS’ Charlie Rose, July 5, 2002.
  • Interview on Canadian News Network CBC, December 2007.
  • Interview on C-SPAN’s Booknotes about his book, "As I Lay Dying: Meditations Upon Returning," May 26, 2002.
  • Discussion Panel for the Hudson Institute’s Bradley Symposium titled "Who Are We Today," May 3, 2007.
  • Lecture at Roanoke College entitled "Moral Imperatives and Political Choices: A Christian Response," October 9, 2008.
  • Interview on Boiling Point Radio, May 15, 2008. (Parts 1, 2, and 3)
  • Catechetical Series for the television program Road to Cana, April, 2008. (Videos 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, and 11)
  • Lecture, "Who We Are: A Theological Perspective" at the University of Kentucky, 2005.
  • Lecture, "Is There Life After Truth?" at Yale University, 2006.