His story is one of mischief, brilliance, conversion, faithfulness, fearlessness, and politics. Until his death in 2009, Father Richard John Neuhaus was a powerhouse in American public life and a monument in American Catholic history, modeling what it means to be a Catholic and an American. His story is not one to miss.
Randy Boyagoda, an extraordinary author best known for his work in fiction, knew that someone had to tell Fr. Neuhaus’ story — and that it deserved to be told well. Earlier this week, Mr. Boyagoda’s biography of Fr. Neuhaus was released by Random House, proving both the author’s brilliant writing ability and the significance of his subject.
As an organization that strives to be both Catholic and American, CatholicVote.org draws great inspiration from the late Fr. Neuhaus, leading us to interview Mr. Boyagoda about the American hero he came to know so well. In short, we highly recommend the book for every American Catholic.
Here’s what Randy Boyagoda had to say in answer to our questions:
What inspired you to write this biography?
Shortly after Fr. Neuhaus died, I wrote a profile of him for The Walrus, a Canadian magazine of ideas and culture, basically arguing that he, Neuhaus, was the most influential Canadian-born intellectual in American life of the past forty years, and probably very few Canadians knew about him. In turn, and frankly underwhelmed by the prospect of writing another conventional academic monograph, I approached Neuhaus’ longtime friend, George Weigel (his daughter and my wife went to college together, by coincidence), to see if anyone was working on a biography. I presumed someone was. When Weigel told me otherwise, off I went.
Neuhaus was somewhat mischievous as a youngster – and very smart. What (or who?) was the most influential “mold” in his life that channeled this energy into action?
I think the key moment happens when he’s a young man knocking about small-town Texas, bored and brainy. A friend he was rooming with, and their local pastor, agreed that Neuhaus’ energies needed to be channeled more productively and they were convinced the best possible channel was a religious vocation. They were right.
Describe Fr. Neuhaus in three words.
Faithful, joyful, fearsome.
Politically, Fr. Neuhaus moved from the left to the right and everywhere in between. Why? How did he maintain public prestige and respect despite his changing allegiances?
His ability to speak beyond his immediate religious and political affiliations had a lot to do with this, I think. In other words, yes, Fr. Neuhaus was a great hero to his fellow left-leaning clergymen and activities in the 1960s and 1970s, and likewise to his rightward readership and colleagues in the 1980s and thereafter, but because he was committed to making a case for religion’s place in public life that was informed by the Judeo-Christian tradition but not limited in audience to those of your own creed, he was able to maintain his influential public profile. Also, he was always a reliably sharp and cogent quote for reporters!
Bipartisanship was one of Fr. Neuhaus’ signature traits. He was famously active in both parties from the Civil Rights and anti-war movements of the 60s and 70s to the pro-life movement in later years. This made him a unique man who, in a way, transcended politics. Are all Catholics called to cross party lines?
I’m not sure bipartisanship was exactly one of Fr. Neuhaus’ signature traits. He often claimed as much, and certainly was interested in ecumenical and interfaith alliances throughout his career, but when he was a radical Democrat, he was a radical Democrat, and when he was a neoconservative Republican, he was a neoconservative Republican. I always found his insistence, in his later years, that he maintained his Democratic Party membership a facile means of attesting to his bipartisan commitments. As for whether all Catholics are called to cross party lines, I think the right ordering of one’s religiously-informed principles and priorities for public life translate into political affiliations that are never, ever perfectly aligned, nor should they be. Keeping that in mind is the key, I think, when it comes to party commitments.
The American Experiment was near to Fr. Neuhaus’ heart. He dedicated his life to proposing that matters of faith and theology could not be divided from matters of public life, politics, and culture, even running for office as a Lutheran Pastor. Why was living his faith in the public square so important to him?
This is a great question. I think he was of the view that when we deliberate, together, those issues that matter most to our sense of individual rights and communal responsibility, whether locally, nationally, or internationally, we naturally seek to draw on our deepest convictions. These convictions, more often than not in the United States, are religious in nature. But what exactly does it mean, or involve, when you want to draw on your religious beliefs in addressing matters of public import? How can this be done without affirming a State religion or inviting opponents to call for the total banning of religious contributions in public life? Fr. Neuhaus’ vocation was to offer an often first-person demonstration, in words and deeds, for how to live out faith in the public square.
What is the legacy that Fr. Neuhaus left for Catholics in America?
Fr. Neuhaus’ legacy, I think, involves first of all, any number of religious vocations and conversions that were inspired amongst people who had contact with him and his writings and work. Beyond that, I’d say the very natural way that we debate the place of religion in public life owes a great deal to Fr. Neuhaus’ establishing the terms of this debate, and inviting thoughtful Catholics to make their contributions alongside their fellow citizens.