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Michael Gerson / January 14, 2009

A Pro-Life View of Death

WASHINGTON – There was a time in America when the footsteps of theologians shook the land. Following World War II, people cared what Reinhold Niebuhr, Bishop Fulton Sheen and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel had to say on public matters. These large figures provided the intellectual and moral ballast for a rough national crossing through the Cold War and the civil rights movement.

Today, this cultural role seems to be filled by some mix of Oprah Winfrey and Deepak Chopra – which is to say, it is not filled at all.

In a saner, more serious time, Father Richard John Neuhaus would have been a broadly familiar name. He was a civil rights organizer, a friend and associate of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a co-founder of Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam with the Rev. Daniel J. Berrigan, a founding theorist of the pro-life movement and a singularly important interpreter of the teachings of Pope John Paul II. Neuhaus’ collected writings are voluminous, learned, sometimes controversial and often definitive. He sought out “genuine argument within the bond of civility” – and with his passing last week at the age of 72 there will be less of both.

Neuhaus defined the modern church-state argument. In recent decades some legal theorists and judges have contended that a constitutional pluralism requires that the public sphere be scrubbed of religious influence. In his landmark book “The Naked Public Square,” Neuhaus countered that American democracy depends on a robust religious life, including the sort of religiously informed public argument found in the civil rights movement. Americans must be allowed to bring their most deeply held values into the public square.

The book’s publication in 1984 coincided with the growth of political evangelicalism, which was influential, vigorous and intellectually shallow. Lacking their own developed tradition of public engagement, activist evangelicals learned one from Neuhaus – a long tradition that reflected on the relationship of faith and democracy. Father Neuhaus was perfectly suited to this role, having had a “born again” experience in high school, spending his early life as a Lutheran pastor, and eventually finding his commitments most fully expressed in Catholicism. Neuhaus was a consistent Catholic friend of evangelicals. Even so, it must have been a dubious honor for this Catholic priest to be named one of Time’s 25 most influential evangelicals in 2005.

Neuhaus was first a man of the left, then a man of the right – yet entirely consistent on the things that matter most. Having marched with King in what he called the “essentially Christian civil rights movement,” he found the natural extension of those ideals in the pro-life movement – both involved the same desire to expand the American circle of inclusion and protection.

According to his friend George Weigel of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Neuhaus was led toward both involvements by his own pastoral experience in the 1960s and ‘70s at St. John the Evangelist, a minority church in a rather tough section of Brooklyn. “At the time,” says Weigel, “people were starting to talk about the 'quality of life’ with high-sounding purpose. Richard looked out on his parish and not a single one had ‘quality of life’ by this definition. So what to do? Should they be ignored? Eliminated?” Neuhaus decided to care for human lives without exception – leading him to eventually oppose what he called the “unlimited abortion license.” And he never ceased to ask the embarrassing question: How is it that contemporary American liberalism became indifferent to the weakest members of the human community?

Attacked by a vicious cancer in 1993, the pro-life Neuhaus spent much time reflecting on death. His essay “Born Toward Dying” provides a witty, unsparing description of how the prospect of death is so mundane – and yet fills our entire mental sky. It is all there: the impatience with comforters, the indignities of modern medicine, the tendency to see death at work everywhere – the skull beneath every approaching face.

And yet, in the midst of decay, Neuhaus was given an enigmatic assurance. He reported seeing two “presences” at the foot of his hospital bed, and hearing a voice or voices assuring him: “Everything is ready now.” It was, he wrote, “as powerfully confirmed by the senses, as anything I have ever known.”

Neuhaus was given 16 more years after this near-death experience – more than he once expected, and not enough. But in the end, I have no doubt that everything was ready.

© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group 

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