The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus is dead.
He found his niche during the Reagan era, taking a conservative Catholic position on numerous public issues, but building alliances with the rising Evangelical – read Fundamentalist – Ascendancy. They made common cultural cause. There was a lot going on in the culture that their respective approaches could agree upon.
But he also itched to play a wider role. He set up his offices in Washington; imperial capitals in their butter-bright glow seem to exert a gravitational pull on religious types who seek to ‘make a difference’. And make their mark.
And this being Reagan’s Washington, his theological conservatism – no bad thing in itself at all – tinged into neoconservatism. He wanted to make a larger difference than ‘mere’ theological’ and ‘religious’ commentary could provide. He started going down the political road.
As his Fundamentalist associates entered upon their Ascendancy, he was drawn up with them ; the pols were pleased to have a Catholic to provide – as it were – benefit of clergy to their less-rigorously theological, slightly less burnished bible-thumpers. Chuck Colson, felon of the Watergate scam, had found religion in prison and came out to set up a thriving national business in ‘Christian’ prison-ministry; he and Neuhaus formed a mutually rewarding alliance.
It was not always difficult. The Pope for much of that time was John Paul II, whom Neuhaus took upon himself to call John Paul the Great, in a queasily self-aggrandizing assumption of authority. That Pope was open to ‘dialogue’ with other faiths, and in that space Neuhaus navigated skillfully, building up a substantial cultural and political ministry while remaining well within the bounds approved by the hierarchy – indeed, by Rome itself. It was a masterful job.
He could preach – fluently and knowledgeably – valid Catholic doctrine while remaining in the best political graces. This was not a position the American Church was used to, and he provided a simulacrum of the old Catholic social authority, harking back to the days when Church authorities could ‘pick up the phone’. Since the late Sixties most authoritative public Catholic social comment had been oppositional in its stance for the poor, against abortion, and against war, especially the nuclear brinkmanship of Reagan’s first Administration. The full spectrum of Catholic concern earned it no lasting friends among the Democrats (pro-abortion, anti-male) or the Republicans (pro-war, anti-poor). Neuhaus’s success was a gleaming respite from the constant, wearing struggle against all tides.
He was cautious in his comments on the clergy-sex abuse crisis that flared up in a third incarnation in 2002. He deplored undisciplined and in some cases depraved priests, while carefully recalling the canonical requirements of due-process so as to avoid damaging rushes-to-judgment. Nor did he spare the American bishops, whose response in the early phases combined the worst of both institutional secrecy and cowardice. As to the larger connections between the peculiar focus on the Catholic clergy and not his allies’ clergy, or the oddities and dissonances of various facts and figures touted as accurate he was mostly silent. Curiously, for a widely educated public intellectual who was deeply involved in the ‘culture war’, he made little mention of the origin of that phrase: the Bismarckian Kulturkampf specifically designed to attack and weaken the social and cultural authority of the Catholic Church in the new Imperial Germany so as to increase public esteem of and reliance upon the government instead.
Things started getting iffy when his neoconservative allies opted for war and the invasion of Iraq. Rome, under the now-aged and ill John Paul II, was not at all in favor of it. Neuhaus was forced to resort increasingly to hair-splitting, going into great detail as to when ‘the Pope’ spoke authoritatively to Catholics and when ‘the Pope’s’ was simply one more opinion among others in the international community. He was eventually reduced to quoting a Georgia prelate who asserted that in the matter of America going to war, the Pope was merely ‘another foreign diplomat’. Much just-war theory and commentary was published in the Neuhaus magazine, ‘First Things’. Israel’s interests were not forgotten.
Somehow, in the momentous matter of war, the pre-eminently ‘conservative’ and ‘traditional’ Neuhaus was not so inclined to listen to Rome or to his Pope (whom – once safely dead – Neuhaus touted as ‘the Great’).
As things began to go irretrievably – but worse, unspinnably – baaaad in the Middle East, Neuhaus began to return the magazine to its strongest suit: literary, philosophical, theological and religious articles that were meaty and informative, but pitched at a level any modestly-attentive reader could manage. In that role the magazine has always been tremendously valuable.
When the new Pope started to move away from ‘dialogue’, although not specifically with other Christian denominations, the other rock upon which Neuhaus had founded his religio-cultural-political enterprise began to crack.
As the Bush Administration, successor to his much-esteemed Reagan Presidency, was increasingly revealed to be deficient in concept and competence and integrity, there was little that Neuhaus could say in its defense without compromising the integrity of his entire project.
The last couple of years must have been hard for him.
In a way he reminds me of an English prelate in the time of Henry VIII. Before Henry’s troubles over divorce, he walked next to the royal tiger in ceremonial processions before all the people and sat in the counsels of the great. But when the tiger reverted to a wildness stunning in its ferocity, he was hard put to balance his loyalties to government and Church and to intellectual and moral integrity.
There is always a desire to ‘do more’, that besets anyone who wishes to bring spiritual good into the world. And in these centralized times, and especially in America, there is the abiding assumption that more organization and more ‘influence’ must automatically result in more ‘success’ in ministry. A bigger ‘footprint’, a bigger establishment, a wider network of ‘friends’ and alliances … such panoply cannot but result in bigger and wider ‘success’.
But it’s a double-edged sword. Spirit does not find so congenial a home in such a situation, enmeshed as it must be in the gravitational pull of a Material dimension that, in an imperial capital, is intensified stupendously. The Holy Spirit seems to do the most lasting work in the hearts of individuals and small communities of those similarly dedicated. In matters of the Spirit, bigger is not necessarily better. Perhaps it has to do with the simple fact that the more complex the machine, the greater the probability of breakdown – Neuhaus had assembled a complex agglomeration of alliances, wading into the politics of religion and religious groups and at the same time into the politics of keeping friendly with powerful politicians. That sort of thing never lasts long without exacting a terrible price for a person committed to Grace and the Holy Spirit.
I can’t help but imagine that its unraveling hastened his demise.
There is something in here that is relevant to Our present situation. Neuhaus, gifted and hugely educated, fell into the trap seen with exquisite clarity by Washington in his Farewell Address: you can be a Model or you can be an Agent, and you’re way better off being a Model.
Washington wanted Us to fulfill Our own potential as a nation and a people; in the process, conducting Our affairs according to the newly-constructed Constitution, all the citizens pursuing life, liberty, and happiness within the wide field that it boundaried and supported. In so doing, the United States, people and form of government, would become a model for all the other nations and peoples in the world. They in turn would adapt their own national entities as they saw fit, in their own time.
Or not. There would always be the possibility that some would not be able to, or wish to , adapt to the American model. To their great and lasting detriment and damage, Washington would have readily acknowledged. But there’s only so much you can do in life, whether in dealing with individual persons or whole peoples and their governments. That’s the way it is.
And, he saw, if you start going around trying to be an ‘agent’ of those peoples’ and governments’ change, you were going to get yourself into some very deep and deadly doo-doo indeed. If they didn’t change the way you wanted them to, or thought that they should, or if they didn’t ‘change’ fast enough, What Then?
Would you simply tuck your tail between your legs and mind your own business? Would you try to ‘influence’ them? ‘Help’ them as you saw fit to imagine they needed? Coerce them into changing? Invade them? Occupy them? Such monstrous “mischief” (you didn’t need to go-vivid in the 18th-century – educated folks could think and imagine the content of that hugely freighted “mischief” for themselves) would not only embroil America in endless and increasingly complicated and probably violent “adventures” and misadventures. No, such “mischief” would inevitably have a blow-back effect.
In two ways. First, America would create some very dedicated opponents to its policies, and it is only a short step from ‘opponent’ to ‘enemy’.
Worse, America would start deforming itself if it then responded with either massive deceit or massive violence, or both. After all, you can’t engage in such darkling ventures, especially over the long haul, and not become rather too in-touch with your own dark-side. That’s the way it is in life. (Sort of very much like devolving from the commission of the occasional sinful act to embracing a wholesale life of active sin – to put it in a theology both Reformation and Catholic).
McKinley’s embrace of imperial expansion in the service of national grandeur, national status, and the search for resources and markets started Us on a very dangerous road, for which Teddy Roosevelt’s vigorous, telegenic, ebullient ‘masculine’ exertion of the national will and strength provided a sort of up-beat cover: this was Progress!. Wilson continued the pattern, not in vulgar service of Mammon (the preacher’s son told himself) but rather in the noble defense and expansion of Liberty and Democracy.
Somehow, all that worked itself out to the CIA’s ‘covert’ and/or paramilitary activities in the 1950s: Iran in ’53, Guatemala in ’54, northern Vietnam starting in ’54, southern Vietnam starting in ’55, Tibet starting in ’56, Indonesia in ’57 and ’58, Lebanon and Iraq in ’58 … and God knows what and where else. And not simply for ‘Liberty’ and ‘Democracy’, but for reliable, ‘friendly’ governments no matter what they did to their own peoples.
From the Left, the assorted Revolutions of the Identities and Advocacies here domestically starting in the late 1960s and gathering impetus since, also felt that domestically ‘government’ should be the ‘agent’ and not simply the referee: change, in the form of this or that agenda, imposed not after deliberation but as a matter of urgency, from the top down , did vast damage (perhaps more in the long run than any good that was achieved).
But that same attitude of ‘agent’ then also spread, still from the Left, into foreign policy, as evidenced by the Clinton-era ‘humanitarian’ military coercion. We allowed Ourselves to accept the incomplete analysis of the ‘liberal interventionists’: that if you’re doing it in a ‘good’ cause then you will win.
Alas. No. A humanitarian objective can still lead to horribly anti-humanitarian results, evidenced most awesomely by Margaret Albright’s ‘realistic’ and ‘strong’ stance that the deaths of half-a-million Iraqi children would be “an acceptable price to pay” for the discombobulation of Our until-recently client, Saddam Hussein. As if she were paying the price, rather than those children, whom the world will never know, but whose blood cries out from the ground.
But while she may not have had to pay any price, We have: We are now lethally oblivious to the real consequences of Our actions. This will prove fatal to Our democracy and Our Republic if it isn’t corrected.
And then came Bush and the 9-11 that somehow he allowed to happen on his watch, and all that has followed.
Aligned solidly with the ‘cultural conservatives’ in the matter of the ‘culture war’, Neuhaus now found himself willy-nilly enlisted in the neoconservatives' nationalist-Rightist-imperial wars against, it is said, ‘Terror’. You might think Neuhaus with all his education would have pointed out that Terror, like Sin, is something that you can’t really stamp out, and that his own adopted Church had finally learned – after much bloodshed and infamy, all well-intentioned and philosophically ‘justified’ – that armed force will rarely achieve the Shylockian Perfection of getting what you set out to get with no further consequences or problems.
But by that time, Neuhaus’s entire network had enmeshed him – Doctor Washington to the ER stat! – in a web of ‘loyalties’: to neocons, to the romantic Southron ‘patriotism’ that winds up really being a glorification of militarism that was chaplained by his Fundamentalist friends, to the unsleeping Israeli game-plan of doing whatever that embattled ‘realm’ decided it would frakking do and making the American pols pay for the privilege of supporting it … and on and on.
Neuhaus, with his erudite and insightful and acute modeling of the deep and rich treasures of the Christian (classically, not Fundamentalistically, defined) tradition in matters spiritual, intellectual, and moral, was now inextricably entangled – like Laocoon – in the web of serpents. His project of creating an Agent in the form of a politically powerful Conservative (in the best sense) alliance of Evangelical, Christian, and Jewish had somehow (but hardly improbably) wound up with him deploying his Gifts and his Vision in the service of the Bushist Imperium and its god-addled Fundamentalist chaplainry, overrated and medal-bedecked field marshals, and calculating, ruthless corporate remora.
It is ‘tragic’ in the classical sense.
We are headed down exactly the same road that he has traveled to his end.
What to do? Start bearing Ourselves so that if indeed the world’s peoples do look to Us, as a People even more than as a government, they will see a Model worthy of emulation. All else pales beside this great, desperately needed objective. If We can People this increasingly complex, centralized, and now fiscally, militarily, and morally compromised nation, then it can still be – God willing and Inshallah (to quote a Navy military judge’s recent ejaculation) – possible to save the country, the Republic, and the Vision upon which the Republic was Founded.
Add this to the New Year’s resolution list. Or at least – to the New Year’s ‘urgent-deliberation’ list.
And may it be that Neuhaus, who once was blind, can now see. And – if he networks as well ‘There’ as he did ‘down here’ – is now in a better position to help Us all.