"Without neo-orthodox control of American Catholicism the Religious Right will be unable to transform American society sufficiently to their liking. This alliance is based upon a sufficiently common philosophy as well as the compelling logic of sheer numbers and institutional organization. And that is why Richard John Neuhaus has been building neo-orthodox alliances within the Catholic Church and beyond for decades.
But as we look for opportunities to stand up to both the Catholic and Protestant wings of the religious right, and in the case of Catholicism, also seek to make the church our home again, it is worth considering the role of Rev. Richard John Neuhaus.
Born in Canada in May 1936 he was sent by his Lutheran minister father to study in the United States while still a teenager. As with many now in the neoconservative movement, he did not start out as a mainstream liberal but from a more radicalized position on the Left. Active in the anti-Vietnam war movement, the then-Lutheran minister was a pastor in Brooklyn's predominately African-American Bedford-Stuyvesant. Always politically active, one of Neuhaus's calling card -then as is now-is a flirtation with violent overthrow when his agenda stalls by peaceful means. As Right Web pointed out:
In 1970, [Peter] Berger(i) and Neuhaus published Movement and Revolution, a collection of essays on the progressive movement. Included in the volume was an essay entitled "The Thorough Revolutionary" written by Neuhaus. "A revolution of consciousness, no doubt," wrote Neuhaus in his defense of "the Movement." "A cultural revolution, certainly. A non-violent revolution, perhaps. An armed overthrow of the existing order, it may be necessary. Revolution for the hell of it or revolution for a new world, but revolution, Yes" ( The Neoconservative Mind: Politics, Culture, and the War of Ideology, p. 282).
Neuhaus began drifting rightward in the early 1970s. Many who have studied him mark the Roe vs. Wade decision as the turning point in his political life. Damon Linker,, who worked with Neuhaus in putting out his magazine First Things, observed that even as a Lutheran minister Neuhaus always wanted an American society devoted to Judeo-Christian morality, one where faith would greatly influence the greater secular society. As Linker noted, by the early 1970s Neuhaus saw the counterculture of the 1960s as no longer being the vehicle for the change he envisioned. Linker also noted how Neuhaus was revolted when many of his fellow activists refused to sign a petition condemning Hanoi for political persecutions it undertook after the fall of South Vietnam. He believed it reflected a sense of anti-Americanism among the "elites" of the anti-war Left.
The evolving Neuhaus concluded that the more revolutionary part of the anti-war movement never enjoyed popular support among ordinary Americans. He embraced the darker side of American politics: paranoid populism. He claimed that America was being ruined by unnamed "elitists."
But Neuhaus may not have considered that most people didn't see it as he did, and that most people who opposed the Vietnam War were not interested in revolution but simply in ending an unjust war and creating a more just society within the frameworks that already existed. Neuhaus seemed to want a revolution and if he could not get it from the Left, then he would try it from the Right -- and in the increasingly socially conservative Republican Party. The once progressive minister began embracing positions on economics and American foreign policy he once would have denounced as unjust. Neuhaus was on his neoconservative road to Damascus with many others of the harder Left with whom he had also eschewed tolerance and compromise.
His journey took him across the religious as well as the political spectrum; converting to strident form of Catholicism in the early 90s and soon thereafter, became a priest who embraced the faith in its most neo-orthodox form. The former rigid radical Left man of the cloth had now become the equally rigid radical Right man of the cloth, throwing out bombastic statements to his new co-religionists such as "I think the barbarity of the English language currently used in the liturgy is cause enough for sorrow without further fiddling in terms of feminist inclusiveness."
In his book The Theocons, author Damon Linker explained Neuhaus's personal "Catholic Moment":
"...Neuhaus believed that the promise of uniting the theoconservative movement with the Catholic Church was so great that the effort had to be attempted. Catholics were, first of all, the single largest religious group in the country, making it exceedingly difficult if not impossible to launch a successful program for political and religious reform in the country without significant support from within the ranks of the Catholic faithful. Then there was the church's long history of theological and political reflection, which made Catholics far more competent than evangelicals and other Protestants to take the lead in pressing religiously based moral arguments in the nation's political life."
In two passages, a little further on, Linker hits the nail on the head:
But most promising of all was the Vatican's robust defense of ecclesiastical authority. Unlike the Protestant mainline, whose leadership had come to preach unorthodox, antitraditionalist views, the heads of the Catholic Church in Rome (Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger) refused to compromise with or capitulate to blatant theological deviancy.
Gazing across the Atlantic to St. Peter's Basilica, then, Neuhaus believed he spied enormously powerful allies in his struggle against secularism in the modern world -- Christian intellectuals who had undertaken their own theoconservative project within the church who longed to engage the enemies of Christian truth wherever they were found, including in the political realm.(i)
Neuhaus's rise to power within reactionary Catholic circles was spectacular. In twenty years he went from being an anti-war Lutheran pastor to being the point man for neo-orthodox Catholicism in America; the de facto Vatican liasion to president Bush. His role has been further enhanced under the traditionalist-friendly Pope Benedict XVI.
But Benedict's Vatican, has accomplished the very thing it accuses its liberal adherents of doing: compromising Catholic teaching, by extending such power to Neuhaus. For example, the current pontiff is on record in condemning the current U.S, involvement in Iraq. Yet, as Right Web again points out:
On March 10, 2003, just prior to the Iraq invasion, Neuhaus gave his blessing to the preventive war. Invoking the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas, Neuhaus said that the planned invasion would be a "just war" because "war is sometimes a moral duty in order to overturn injustice and protect the innocent." After elaborating the theological foundations that he said makes preventive war "justified and necessary," Neuhaus gave his imprimatur to the Bush administration's attacks on the credibility and value of the United Nations, while taking antiwar Catholics to task for unduly backing the flawed multilateral institution. "In view of the UN's frequent hostility to the Church on family policy, population, the sacredness of human life, and related matters," advised Neuhaus, "some Catholic leaders may come to regret their exaggerated and, I believe, ill-considered statements about the moral authority of the UN" (ZENIT, March 10, 2003, cited in First Things, October 2005).
Apparently, the former Cardinal Ratzinger will ignore American Catholic leaders who endorse an unwise and unjustified war -- as long they also condemn those who oppose the imposition of orthodox Catholic principles on reproductive rights, stem cell research and marriage.
As I said in Part Thirty-Four of this series, the neo-orthodox hierarchy and their newly minted converts, are not numerous enough to control the Catholic Church, especially here in America. Nefarious actors such Rev. Richard John Neuhaus can be stopped. Even Vatican hypocrisy in deeding this man so much power and influence can be negated. It will take hard work and the courage to speak up, even right within our parishes. And we know it can be done because it has been done by many who have come before us.
Back in 1936 another Canadian-born Catholic priest, Charles Coughlin was attacking liberalism and its then standard-bearer, Franklin Delano Roosevelt on his nationally syndicated radio show. But Monsignor John A. Ryan refuted the powerful and demagogic Coughlin in a nationally broadcast radio speech entitled, "Roosevelt Safeguards America." Ryan confronted Coughlin's vile anti-Semitism, his radical conspiracy theories and his paranoia-infested brand of populism. Even more courageously, Ryan pointed out how when the Catholic Church became too friendly to the forces of greed she herself became the cause of the apostasy her own members.
Monsignor Ryan proved that a more reasonable Catholic voice can be extremely effective in neutralizing even a strident and powerful fellow Catholic priest. And while Neuhaus does not share Coughlin's anti-Semitism he does preach a religious supremacism that is profoundly at odds with the democratic pluralism at the heart of constitutional democracy.
The question is simple: Do independent-minded American Catholics have the courage to be latter-day Monsignor Ryans? If we do, then I think we have the ability stop the Religious Right in its tracks.
(i) A former sociology professor at Brooklyn College while Neuhaus was a pastor I Brooklyn, like Neuhaus, later became a neocon ideologue.
(ii) Linker, Damon; The Theocons; pages 68-69."
Note: Content reposted with the permission of the author.