Our Moment: A Lutheran Pastor’s Call for Catholic Leadership

America has traditionally been a Protestant nation with a history of suspicion, if not outright prejudice, against Catholics. Until fairly recently Catholicism was, in this country, considered a dubious theology and a suspect participant in the political arena. Yet, in a remarkable new book, the distinguished Lutheran pastor and author Richard John Neuhaus contends that this is “the moment in which the Roman Catholic Church can and should be the lead church in proclaiming and exemplifying the Gospel.” This is also “the moment in which the Roman Catholic Church in the United States assumes its rightful role in the culture forming task of constructing a religiously informed public philosophy for the American experiment in ordered liberty.”

A Lutheran thinker calling for both theological and political leadership from Catholics? The ambitious agenda that Pastor Neuhaus outlines in his latest book, The Catholic Moment: The Paradox of the Church in the Postmodern World, will surprise some of the faithful. But his plan for the Catholic Church is consistent with his past efforts to legitimate and promote the role of Judeo-Christian values in the public debate over our cultural identity and our role in the world.

In his influential 1984 book, The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America, Neuhaus first explained why the survival of our nation depends on a public philosophy rooted in religious principles. Then he showed how the evangelicals and fundamentalists tried to stem the erosion of those principles. But in his newest book, Neuhaus does not assign the “culture forming task” of restoring the “naked public square” to these assertive religious groups. Instead, he chooses the Roman Catholic Church.

To understand the reasons for Neuhaus’s choice, it helps to look at the man himself and the long road he has travelled since he first surfaced as a public figure in the early Sixties. From the beginning, he displayed a deep sense of optimism, but also a strong independent streak. Though he has been identified with specific political alliances — the civil rights and the anti-war movements, and more recently the neo-conservative cause — he has separated himself, on more than one occasion, from political associates who force a choice between God and Mammon.

“Politics is penultimate,” is the explanation Neuhaus and his close friends offer to explain his rocky career as a religiously-motivated political activist. Neuhaus repeats this phrase several times during an interview at the New York office of the Center for Religion and Society, which he has headed since 1984. As usual he is dressed in clerical garb. Above his loosened white collar, his long face and strong German features perfectly compliment a sermonical style that is occasionally broken by a deep, hearty laugh.

Neuhaus still bears the imprint of his early years as the son of a Lutheran pastor. One of eight offspring, he alone followed his father into the ministry. But he only made that choice after embarking on a few adventures. When young Richard reached his fourteenth birthday, he followed the family tradition, left his parents’ home in Ontario, Canada, and came to seek his fortune in the United States. He enrolled in a Lutheran high school, but administrators didn’t like his mischievous conduct and he was not invited to return for sophomore year. Moving to Cisco, Texas, he shunned school, found some generous backers and bought a local gas station and grocery store. He spent two years, he recalls, serving Cisco and ferrying grocery supplies in his Model T Ford.

In 1953, Neuhaus left his retail business to return to school for a simple reason: “I always had it in the back of my mind to become a Lutheran pastor.” He studied first in Texas and then at Concordia Theological Seminary in St. Louis, one of a handful of seminaries run by the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church. At Concordia, he was strongly influenced by Arthur Karl Piepkorn, a major figure in the Lutheran-Catholic dialogue that would formally begin in 1968, and is still considered the most disciplined and promising of all ongoing ecumenical discussions.

Through Piepkorn, Neuhaus soon developed a passion for ecumenism and liturgical renewal — establishing the Eucharist as the chief Sunday service and promoting adherence to the Daily Office and the full liturgical calendar. “Between the Lutherans and the Roman Catholics there was a shared understanding of what liturgical renewal stood for,” he recalls. In The Catholic Moment, Neuhaus describes himself as “incorrigibly ecumenical” and “committed to renewal.”

During his final year, he edited the school’s theological journal, inviting controversy as he promoted his “liberal” views on ecumenism and liturgical renewal. “I received the brunt of the right-wing reaction to the liberalizing and Catholicizing (i.e., Romanizing) of the seminary. Later, of course, the right-wing reaction would triumph.” In 1974, after the definitive schism which led to the ascendance of the fundamentalist faction within the Missouri Synod, Neuhaus decided to stay in fellowship with his bishop who had been formally expelled from the Missouri Synod and became a bishop in the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches. Neuhaus, however, was not expelled. But in 1986 it was amicably agreed that he would no longer be carried on the ministerium of the Synod.

During his seminary years, a summer internship in an inner-city Chicago parish also ignited an enduring interest in serving the spiritual and social needs of minorities. After a short stint at graduate school, Neuhaus asked church officials to appoint him to an inner-city ministry, “preferably a black congregation, and best of all possible worlds in New York City.” A year later, after a short assignment in a small upstate New York parish, he moved to St. John the Evangelist, a German Gothic brick church situated in Williamsburg-Bedford-Stuyvesant, a declining area of Brooklyn. Though his superiors considered the parish to be a dead end, Neuh4us quickly increased the parish roles from a few dozen to several thousand members. He reopened the parish school, and three new pastors came on board.

“At the center of St. John’s were the Eucharist and a strong sacramental life,” says Neuhaus. But the vast majority of the parishioners were black, and St. John’s pastors and community organizers soon began to address the first stirring of racial protest. Neuhaus served as the chairman of community and city boards overseeing antipoverty programs and school integration. “We were in the maelstrom of the civil rights movement and the war on poverty,” he remembers. In 1963, the parish organized a large contingent for Martin Luther King’s March on Washington.

By the mid-Sixties, Neuhaus also emerged as an important religious figure in the anti-war movement. “There was a natural confluence of the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement. The same people were involved, the same friends.” In 1965, Neuhaus, Abraham Heschel, and Daniel Berrigan founded Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam, an influential protest organization that reflected the new assertiveness of religiously-motivated activists. In a published interview, Neuhaus claimed that the church in the United States had been too preoccupied with personal salvation. His organization reflected an “underground” movement that sought to establish a link between Christian faith and “the ordering of society.”

Neuhaus would return to this theme again and again: It is the central thrust of his two most recent books. Yet the connections he began to make between faith and public policy would force him to break ranks with old political allies. In 1967, his Commonweal article that opposed liberalized abortion laws provoked widespread criticism. Looking back on that bitter period, he observes: “There are two concepts of freedom, the individual living within the community, and the unbridled liberation of individual rights. Both were at play in the civil rights movement, but when it came to abortion, all the major actors almost reflexively flipped over to radical individualism.”

Neuhaus could never accept the rationale for liberalized abortion laws. “I recall reading an article by Ashley Montagu which argued for abortion based on quality-of-life criteria. I looked at my parishioners and I realized that from Ashley Montagu’s perspective, not one had a ‘life worth living.’ I was struck by the brutality of his position.”

By the late Sixties, the movement for social change had entered its countercultural phase. Neuhaus’s position on abortion and other elements of the left’s social agenda, made him “an unreliable leftist — or no leftist at all.” In the mid-Sixties he had defined himself as “religiously orthodox, culturally conservative, politically liberal and economically pragmatic.” Twenty years later, he says, the description still fits, except for the term ‘politically liberal’ — “and that’s the culture, not me.”

Friends such as Peter Berger and James Finn contend that Neuhaus’s deep adherence to his faith “relativized” his involvement in politics, easing his break with the Left. But Berger also observes that “the overall trajectory of Neuhaus’s political career, from left of center to right of center, cannot be due only to his religious beliefs, but — like many of us — to encounters with certain realities.”

After the fall of Saigon, for example, when Neuhaus publicized reports of serious human rights abuses by the victorious North, he found himself utterly alienated from most of the anti-war movement. Later, when he wrote the manifesto for the Institute for Religion and Democracy, an organization that exposed mainline Protestant support for anti-democratic forces in the developing world, Neuhaus summed up his position: “Christians betray their Lord if they equate the Kingdom of God with any . . . order of this passing time. As a matter of empirical fact, those societies which give priority to freedom generally secure social and economic rights more successfully than do those societies which attempt social and economic advance at the cost of freedom.”

By the mid-seventies, Neuhaus was working with Michael Novak, Finn, and Berger on Worldview, a magazine founded in 1971. According to Neuhaus, Worldview sought to provide “moral reflection on the ordering of the public world,” and was dominated by “centrist liberals.” But times were changing fast, and in the charged atmosphere of that period, according to Neuhaus, “to declare yourself a liberal was to be labeled a conservative.” Soon, articles heralding the arrival of a new intellectual movement that resisted the radical turn of liberal ideology called Neuhaus a “neoconservative” and a “kissing cousin” of Irving Kristol.

Yet when asked to define his role in the neoconservative scene, Neuhaus can be a bit cagey. On the one hand, he cherishes his “intellectual friendships” with Berger, Kristol, Novak and others. But unlike many prominent leaders in the movement, he is not principally preoccupied with either politics or economics — “though that doesn’t necessarily indicate a disagreement. All of us wrestle with whatever pieces of the puzzle we have been given to work with.”

Neuhaus’ own “bias” is that “politics is a function of culture and at the heart of culture is religion, which reflects the most binding ideas that people embrace in order to find meaning.” Neuhaus grants that “some neo-conservatives are very appreciative of the cultural role of religion. But I don’t like that argument because it inescapably creeps up into the ‘use’ of religion, which becomes the abuse of religion. We worship God because God is to be worshipped.”

Neuhaus’s campaign to strengthen the connection between religion, culture, and politics led him to establish the Center for Religion and Society in 1984 to “advance a religiously informed public philosophy for the American experiment.” The same year he opened the institute, he published his much-acclaimed The Naked Public Square. Although Neuhaus has, through the years, penned several books, this work has received the most attention. In it he showed how the removal of religion from the public arena on putative First Amendment grounds led to an impoverishment of the moral debate, a widespread sense of anomie, and a backlash resurgence of evangelicals and fundamentalists who kicked the “tripwire” and alerted Americans to the magnitude of the problem. The New York Times Book Review called The Naked Public Square one of the seven most important religious books published since World War II.

In The Naked Public Square Neuhaus gave very favorable treatment to evangelicals and implied that, were it not for them, America would not have the renewal of serious moral discussion that is now beginning. So we return to the question raised earlier: Why is it the “Catholic moment,” and not the evangelical or fundamentalist moment? In his sequel to The Naked Public Square why doesn’t Neuhaus choose the evangelicals to lead the way out of the quagmire of secularist extremism?

Neuhaus answers this question cautiously. “It’s nobody’s moment exclusively,” he explains. “No group will have or should want a monopoly on the task of culture formation.” Then he advanced some measured criticism of evangelicals and fundamentalists. “They are handicapped by a limited reservoir of social teaching. There is a tendency to leap from the Bible to the present moment. In the process, you leapfrog over 2000 years of Christian history.”

Such remarks suggest a skeptical response to the “biblical scorecard” mentality that bases policy recommendations on snippets of Scripture. The Bible offers the answers to the “ordering of our ultimate loves and loyalties,” Neuhaus agrees. But the Bible offers no solutions for welfare reform or nuclear disarmament. “Politics for the Christian is not an exercise of biblical exegesis, of moving from Bible passage to policy specific, but of prudential moral reasoning.” Accordingly, he contends that the Catholic realist tradition, epitomized by John Courtney Murray, offers a rich source of moral guidance for the development of public policy.

Catholic social teaching also makes conscious distinctions between the City of God and the City of Man. And this unique feature, according to Neuhaus, allows the Church to make part of its teaching accessible to a broader audience. Illustrating this point, he cites the 1986 Vatican instruction on reproductive technologies. The document articulates binding doctrinal positions, but it also offers substantial guidance for the public at large.

Neuhaus applauds this dual role. Yet he notes the irony that even many Catholics misunderstand the Vatican’s two-fold language and demand from the Roman Church what he calls a “Protestant mode of speech.” By this he means speech that is highly individualistic and “almost totally bereft of an ecclesiology or doctrine of the Church.” In other words, some dissenting U.S. Catholics are rejecting the rich multi-layered arguments of Catholic social doctrine for America’s home-grown “free church” tradition — to each his own theology.

Some may mistake Neuhaus for an apologist for Catholic traditionalism. This is one thing he is not.

“Unreconstructed Catholic triumphalists are misreading my book if they do not recognize that it speaks not of triumph but of a very difficult and uncertain task,” he insists. A champion of Vatican II, he begins The Catholic Moment with a celebration of the Council’s “Decree on Ecumenism,” which grants that non-Catholics have a “certain, though imperfect, communion” with the true church. According to Neuhaus, Catholics can once again assume their leadership role as the primary force within Christianity, indeed Judeo-Christianity , precisely because they have opened doors to include others. Without the council’s ecumenical reforms Catholicism would remain sectarian.

Neuhaus also asserts that the Reformation was a “tragic necessity,” Jaroslav Pelikan’s term for it. It was tragic because it undermined the unity and universality of the Church. But it was necessary because it emphasized that the Gospel determines the course of the Church, not the other way round. Neuhaus feels that this historical problem has been overcome now: “The Reformation understanding of the Gospel is today more boldly proclaimed by Rome than by many of the churches that lay claim to the Reformation heritage.” Mainline Protestant churches are now on the margins, he notes. They have abandoned both Scripture and tradition, indeed all sources of authority. In some cases, they are virtually indistinguishable from political lobbies.

Meanwhile, Neuhaus remains impressed with the enduring strengths of Catholicism. It “offers a communitarian understanding that is a sharp and necessary corrective to the Hobbesian individualism of the liberal tradition,” he explains during the interview. It also offers “the understanding of a historically transmitted truth by which the community orders its life.” Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, far from trying to turn the clock back, as their critics allege, are helping the world leave behind the “debased modernity of unbelief that results in a prideful and premature closure of the world against its promised destiny.” The goal of these men, Neuhaus says, is to “open philosophy, science and culture to the transcendent.” At the same time, Catholicism’s universality and historical lineage beginning with St. Peter give the Catholic project a breadth and continuity that cannot be matched elsewhere.

Perhaps Neuhaus’s plans for Catholicism are too ambitious. He may well underestimate the tremendous tensions and fissures within the Catholic Church, though he acknowledges that only a Catholicism united and loyal to its founding roots and historical tradition can fulfill his mission. Unfortunately, the recent dispute between the American bishops concerning the inclusion of condom information in AIDS prevention programs suggests that Peter’s U.S. successors lack certainty about their proper role in an increasingly secular culture. Indeed, it is significant that The Catholic Moment was not authored by a Catholic bishop or lay leader. Yet it is a cause for hope that a Lutheran pastor would transcend denominational barriers, embrace the unique strengths of the Roman Catholic Church, and call on its leaders to lead the way “in proclaiming and exemplifying the Gospel.”


  • Joan Frawley Desmond

    Joan Frawley Desmond has written for the Wall Street Journal, First Things, and the National Catholic Register, among other publications.

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