Saturday, June 20, 2009

Fr. Richard John Neuhaus (March/April 1996)

From 1991 to 2005, I had the pleasure of interviewing a fascinating array of writers, theologians, politicians, artists, and musicians for the Wittenburg Door, the original--only?--magazine of religious satire. From the preparation required to conduct them to the editing required to make them both clear and funny (the Door's two requirements, although not necessarily in that order), these interviews changed my life (mostly for the better). Although I conducted most of the interviews by phone, I was on several occasions able to hop a plane and question my subjects in person thanks to the generosity of Bob Darden and the late Mike Yaconelli, the editors who underwrote my adventures. It was a generosity made all the more special by the fact that the Door was usually deep in the red. For such acts of genuinely Christian charity (or fiscal insanity, I'm not sure which), I remain intensely grateful. Several of my interviews--R.C. Sproul, Chris Yambar--are still online in their entirety. What's posted below is one of the ones that's been MIA for awhile.

When we interviewed Richard John Neuhaus in 1984, he had just published The Naked Public Square, a book about religion and public life that many have come to regard as the definitive work on the subject. Sensing its importance at the time, we cracked as many "naked" jokes as we could. Then we made fun of him for having three names. Ah, the '80s! Anyway, since then Neuhaus has busied himself by heading up the Center for Religion and Public Life, publishing the scholarly interfaith journal First Things, and trading in his Lutheran collar for the much more stylish Catholic kind. In other words, as if three names weren't enough, we now have to call him Father, too.

In 1994, Fr. Neuhaus, his fellow Catholic George Weigel, the not-quite-Catholic Charles Colson, and the Nazarene Kent Hill drafted another landmark document, the official charter of the unofficial ecumenical movement known as Evangelicals and Catholics Together, or ECT. In the document--which was signed by forty supporters, including Bill Bright, Pat Robertson, and J.I. Packer--the drafters outlined a plan for interdenominational cooperation that would both strengthen global evangelization and tear down divisions within the Body of Christ.

Not everyone has greeted ECT warmly. R.C. Sproul has accused the movement of "trivializ[ing] the reformation," and Dave Hunt has accused it of "overturning the Reformation." The Door sent its Catholic mole Arsenio Orteza to Fr. Neuhaus's offices in Manhattan to get the whole story. That Neuhaus gave us an hour-long interview even though Orteza showed up forty-five minutes late after getting lost in Chinatown should merit the good father, in our opinion, some serious time off in Purgatory, especially since what he had to say in that hour constitutes one of the most lucid and optimistic visions of the Church's future we've ever encountered.

DOOR: Some have accused Evangelicals and Catholics Together of trying to "overturn the Reformation." As a Catholic who used to be a Lutheran, you must have overturned the Reformation in your own mind at some point.
NEUHAUS: Oh, I don't know about "overturning the Reformation." I'm a Catholic because I was, and am, a Lutheran.

DOOR: Isn't that like saying, "I'm a vegetarian because I did, and do, eat meat?"
NEUHAUS: No. I became a Catholic in fulfillment of my commitment and theological and spiritual motivation as a Lutheran.

DOOR: Emulating Luther led you to join the Church that he spent so much time escaping? What are we missing?
NEUHAUS: Well, most people have become accustomed to Lutheranism's having become a separated ecclesial community, which was never the intention of the Lutheran Reformation.

DOOR: Never?
NEUHAUS: If one reads, for example, the central, constituting document of Lutheranism--the Augsburg Confession of 1530--it's clear beyond doubt that the Reformers understood themselves to be leading a movement of reform within the Church of Christ. It is one of the great tragedies of history--and the blame can be amply shared by Catholics and Lutherans alike--that this movement of reform became a separated ecclesial community. This would certainly scandalize, disappoint,
and drive to tears Martin Luther and Philipp Melanchthon.

DOOR: Who was Philipp Melanchthon?
NEUHAUS: He was the chief aide of Luther and was the chief author of the Augsburg Confession and the Apology for the Augsburg Confession. There's no question but that the Reformers died in the belief that they were good, Catholic Christians.

DOOR: But didn't many of them behave in distinctly non-Catholic ways?
NEUHAUS: They made emergency provisions, especially in Germany, for continuing the ministry of the Church. The Catholic bishops in Germany, unlike the Catholic bishops in most of Scandinavia, had not come over to the Reformation. But, as many Lutheran scholars have pointed out, these provisions were viewed simply as temporary, emergency provisions.

DOOR: What did these provisions include?
NEUHAUS: Ordaining people to the ministry without the involvement of bishops in Catholic succession. But the point is that Lutheranism as a separate ecclesial communion was meant to be a temporal phenomenon. Unfortunately, over the last 460-plus years, Lutherans have become
accustomed to the emergency and mistaken it for a permanent state of affairs.

DOOR: You're implying that the work of the Reformers was legitimate.
NEUHAUS: Much of it, certainly. Pope John Paul II has, on a number of occasions, referred to Luther as a religious genius. The personal, spiritual, and theological insights of Luther, which are very similar to those of Bernard of Clairvaux before Luther with regard to what came to be called sola gratia and sola fide--this is a very deep and profound interpretation of the gospel, by which the entire Church has been enriched. And Catholics at the highest levels, including the Pope, have
said this.

DOOR: So, again, you're saying that, as far as Rome is concerned, the Reformation had a place.
NEUHAUS: Yes, but it should have been contained in continuity with the Catholic Church. There was no necessity for the schism. And the step that I took in entering into full communion with the Catholic Church--as I did in 1990--is intended to bear witness to the fulfillment of what is best and truest in the Lutheran Reformation, within contemporary Catholicism.

DOOR: What have your former fellow Lutherans made of your conversion?
NEUHAUS: Some of my Lutheran friends think that I acted prematurely. That is, they think that the story is not yet told, that Lutheranism has not, in fact, decided simply to be a Protestant denomination among Protestant denominations. But by the end of the 1980s, it seemed clear
to me that Lutherans, both in this country and worldwide, had willy nilly made the decision to remain a permanent and separated Protestant denomination.

DOOR: "Willy nilly"?
NEUHAUS: Did I just say "Willy nilly"?

DOOR: Yes.
NEUHAUS: -----

DOOR: Um, where were we? Oh yeah. So far you've been using the terms "Catholic," "Lutheran," and "Protestant." Are you familiar with plain ol' "evangelical" Christians?
NEUHAUS: Oh, yes. For years I've been in close and cordial conversation with many evangelical Protestants and their major national and international leaders. And in my writing, in The Naked Public Square, for example, I have consistently lifted up the importance of evangelicalism, not only for religious and cultural change in this country, but also its importance on the whole world stage of the Christian movement. I've celebrated it critically, to be sure, but I'm convinced it's one of the most important phenomena within the world-historical Christian reality at the edge of the third millennium.

DOOR: Then you must know that evangelicals consider anything besides Jesus and the Bible--like the Church or the sacraments--mere aides at best and hindrances at worst. What bridge can be built between evangelicals and Catholics in such a situation?
NEUHAUS: Well, it's difficult. We see this in the response to Evangelicals and Catholics Together and in the controversies it has engendered among evangelicals. But if one asks, "What bridge can be built?"--well, surely, in Jesus Christ, the bridge of reconciliation is already in place.

DOOR: At the risk of sounding cynical, what practical difference does that make?
NEUHAUS: I agree with you that the conceptualization and the experience of Christian existence is dramatically different for most evangelical Protestants from what it is for most Catholics. Nnetheless, it is the same Christ to whom we surrender ourselves, whom we follow, and whom we
declare to be Lord. That's the beginning. The beginning always has to be Christocentric. And I think it's very important, for evangelicals and for Catholics, to lift up Christ in such a way that we are, at least to a degree, freed from our primary Christian identity, in terms of whether we are evangelical or whether we are Catholic. Which is not to say that such a difference isn't important.

DOOR: How important is it?
NEUHAUS: It's very important. One of the things in the ECT declaration that we say again and again is that there are these major differences. It's been somewhat frustrating, but not untouched by amusement, to see how many critics of ECT say that we try to brush differences under the
carpet. What we do want to say--and the most important thing that the declaration says--is that we are brothers and sisters in Christ, however imperfect our communion with one another and however different our understanding of what it means to be a Christian.

DOOR: Historically, though, we Christians have been pretty good at keeping the family feud going.
NEUHAUS: Yes, but the fact is that all of us see ourselves in continuity with the historical event of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, and the Christian community, as testified to in the Scriptures that we
share. One of the critics of ECT said to one of the evangelical signers, "What you're doing is agreeing with the Catholics that the whole tradition of the Church is normative for us, whereas we Baptists began in the sixteenth century." What a peculiar thing for a Baptist to say! To be a Christian is to have begun in the first century! That's where God revealed Himself in Jesus Christ, and that's where the community of faith was started and the whole Christian movement was launched.

DOOR: Why do you think such Christians take pride in cutting themselves off from the first 1600 years of the Holy Spirit's work?
NEUHAUS: Well, we live in a culture of presentism, which says, "The only thing that's real is what's immediate, what's now." Certainly, there are strong streams of that in evangelical piety. You know, it's Jesus and me and my experience of Jesus now. And then somehow the Bible gets in there. But everything else is deemed utterly irrelevant by comparison. It's also a question of identities, and when identities get threatened, you get all kinds of peculiar behavior. Besides, an
evangelical Protestant is sometimes difficult to define. What's evangelical? What isn't?

DOOR: What's evangelical? What isn't?
NEUHAUS: The identity is in large part, and maybe at its critical center, based upon a negation.

DOOR: How so?
NEUHAUS: Well, you can debate what it means to be a Protestant until the cows come home, but at the end of the day it means you're durn sure not a Catholic. So it's a negation: "I am a Protestant, I am not a Catholic." Then to be an evangelical Protestant is a double negation because you're saying, "I am not a mainline Protestant or a liberal Protestant or an ecumenical Protestant." So if I say I'm an evangelical Protestant, I'm essentially saying two negative things: "I'm not a Catholic, and I'm not a mainline Protestant." Mark Noll, perhaps the premiere church historian of American evangelicalism, thinks that's one of the reasons for why ECT has caused as much commotion as it has.

DOOR: Why?
NEUHAUS: ECT clearly threatens that identity, leading to this sometimes hysterical polemic about selling out the Reformation. xNoll has pointed out that it's been 140 years or so since evangelical Protestants have seriously been provoked or invited to think about their relationship to the Catholic Church. For most evangelical Protestants, even to suggest that there might be some Christianly serious way in which you had to engage Catholics and Catholicism was considered off the wall.

DOOR: So because ECT does engage Catholics--
NEUHAUS: Well, when you add such major movers as have associated themselves with ECT--Bill Bright, Charles Colson, Jim Packer--this comes as an enormous theological shock to some.

DOOR: Do you know J.I. Packer well enough to call him "Jim"?
NEUHAUS: Did I just call him "Jim"?

DOOR: Yes.
NEUHAUS: -----

DOOR: Um, you were saying something about an enormous theological shock.
NEUHAUS: Actually, it could be more accurately described as a culture shock because there is a culture of evangelicalism in which the Catholic question had no place. Therefore, it's profoundly disturbing when it is inserted into that culture.

DOOR: Two places in which evangelicals and Catholics seem to be increasingly chummy are the pro-life movement and the Republican Party.
NEUHAUS: And in the charismatic renewal.

DOOR: Oh yeah. We forgot about them. Anyway, could it be that the Body of Christ has been allowed by God to endure abortion and other side effects of liberalism in order to expedite reunification?
NEUHAUS: Well, I certainly wouldn't want to attribute the abortion culture or liberal apostasy to the workings of God.

DOOR: That's not exactly what we meant.
NEUHAUS: Has God used this circumstance of crisis in order to bring Christians of very different religious cultures to a common recognition of one another as fellow believers and as co-belligerents in the great cultural tasks of our time?

DOOR: Uh, that's what we meant.
NEUHAUS: Oh, yes. I think that's happened. And in that sense ECT was really catching up with what was already happening in what Chuck Colson has called the ecumenism of the trenches, especially in the pro-life movement and in the increasing awareness that cultural conservatives--
who are religiously, Christianly grounded--have a life-or-death struggle on our hands.

DOOR: Do you know Charles Colson well enough to call him "Chuck"?
NEUHAUS: Did I just call him "Chuck"?

DOOR: Um, you were referring to ecumenical trenchmouth or--
NEUHAUS: I think evangelicals and Catholics--in the trenches, so to speak--have been discovering one another as brothers and sisters in Christ for a long time now. ECT simply gave a kind of formal framework and articulation for that which the Holy Spirit was already doing.

DOOR: You mentioned "Christianly grounded" cultural conservatives. Do you see a place for religious Jews in these trenches?
NEUHAUS: Yes. I think the involvement of Jews is something to be very grateful for and to nurture and develop carefully.

DOOR: Why?
NEUHAUS: I think it's important for Christians to be reflecting ever more carefully--in a theological, spiritual, and biblical manner--on the place of Jews and of living Judaism in God's covenantal purposes in history.

DOOR: Do you think most Christians can reflect on all that?
NEUHAUS: I think all of us need to be alert to what God may be up to in history. I mean, God has not withdrawn from history. He's working out His purposes in ways that transcend our sure discernment, but we are always to be alert. In terms of Christians and Jews, especially here in the United States, it would be a good and urgent thing for us to revisit, in a fresh way, Romans 9-11, St. Paul's reflections on the mystery of living Judaism in God's providential purposes.

DOOR: Does a wise response to the increasingly conservative profile of religious Americans include the alarm voiced by politically moderate or left-wing believers?
NEUHAUS: The minority of Americans commonly described as "secular humanists," the "cultural elite," and the "Pagan Left" are understandably in a state of utter shock and disarray at what's
happening in America now. If one can enter into their construal of reality, he'll see that they have every reason to use terms like the "Christian Right" and the "Religious Right" in order to paint with a broad brush the cultural conservative resurgency in America as an instance of religious fanaticism, unbridled fascism, anti-Semitism, etc. One can understand why they're in a state of panic.

DOOR: Why are they in a state of panic?
NEUHAUS: They've lost touch with the American experience. This is new for them because they'd persuaded themselves, over a forty or fifty-year period, that they were running America, that, in fact, they were setting the pace and determining the agenda for the development of national life. Now, all of a sudden, they find themselves sidelined, and it's a terrifying experience, not unlike what has happened in the last thirty years to the liberal mainline churches in America.

DOOR: Make the connection for us.
NEUHAUS: Not long ago they really believed they were the voice of responsible religious opinion and conviction in American public life. It's hard to imagine, but in 1981, when some of us launched the Institute of Religion and Democracy and took on what we believed to be some of the very wrongheaded directions of the National Council of Churches, the NCC was a central pillar of the American establishment. Like the American Medical Association or the American Bar Association, the National Council of Churches mattered.

DOOR: It doesn't matter now?
NEUHAUS: It's collapsed! It's just holding on by its fingertips, maintaining a little office in what used to be called the "great God box" at 475 Riverside Drive, which is now all rented out to
non-church-related business and government organizations. The NCC is desperately trying to maintain a skeletal corporate existence.

DOOR: Have they acknowledged defeat?
NEUHAUS: Oh, no. They blame their radically diminished status on conservatives, and in their world, "conservative" is a dirty word.

DOOR: Excuse us, but you almost sound as if you're gloating.
NEUHAUS: No. In fact, one has to try to understand. It's very important to enter into other people's worldviews. And at 475 Riverside Drive, in a poignant and touching way, there's still the feeling that this is an aberrant moment, a glitch on the cultural and religious screen that has somehow put these conservative, religious evangelicals and Catholics into a position of unwarranted influence. "This will pass. We just have to wait it out." I think that's their mindset. It's very sad.

DOOR: Aren't you painting mainline churches with the same broad brush that you accuse them of using against religious conservatives?
NEUHAUS: Well, one has to, in all fairness and accuracy, add that within many of the mainline churches, there is a vibrant Christian life and mission going on.

DOOR: Whew! For a minute there, we--
NEUHAUS: In the local churches.

NEUHAUS: You can take the Episcopal Church or the United Methodist Church or the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. in almost any city in this country and find vibrant communities of Christian faith and witness. But almost every study and report we have underscores that those
churches have almost totally disengaged themselves from their regional and national bureaucracies. And from institutions such as the NCC.

DOOR: What practical help can Catholics give evangelicals who, having accepted the legitimacy of Catholic worship, nevertheless remain wary of doctrinal unity with a tradition so different from their own?
NEUHAUS: We have to invite our evangelical friends to think seriously about the Church--the concept of the Church and the doctrine of the Church. We have to invite them to take the New Testament seriously and, in turn, to take the Old Testament seriously, to take seriously the
whole understanding of God's story of salvation as the election, calling, and sustaining of a people. The corporate nature of Christian salvation is, I think, largely missing from Protestantism generally and evangelical Protestantism in particular.

DOOR: But can't the individual's relationship to God get lost amid all this talk of "a people"?
NEUHAUS: Well, evangelical Protestantism tends to be highly individualistic in a way that simply cannot be squared, it seems to me, with the biblical understanding of the story of salvation as the calling of a people "out of darkness, into the wonderful light of Christ."

DOOR: Wow! That was beautiful.
NEUHAUS: It's 1 Peter.

DOOR: Uh, we knew that.
NEUHAUS: The "Body of Christ," the "Bride of Christ," the Church as the bride, Christ as the bridegroom, the corporate sacramental images of salvation--Cardinal Ratzinger has said, I think very insightfully, that the difference between the Protestant and the Catholic understanding of Christian existence is that, for the Protestant, faith in Christ and faith in the Church are two different questions, and most Protestants never even get to the second question.

DOOR: And for Catholics?
NEUHAUS: For Catholics it is one question, one act of faith. I think that is clearly truer to the biblical witness and certainly to the apostolic tradition within which, after all, the New Testament was formed.

DOOR: You're implying that if the Church is the Body of Christ, then incidental corruption--like a bad Pope or an overemphasis on indulgences--is merely an example of the tares among the wheat.
NEUHAUS: Exactly. The Church is a community of sinners, of forgiven sinners, and finally the only qualification for membership is the acknowledgment that one is a sinner in need of the Saviour and in need of the community of salvation.

DOOR: For a minute there, you sounded almost evangelical.
NEUHAUS: I think many of our evangelical friends have distorted, inadvertently, precisely what the Reformation wanted to assert, namely, the radical gratuity--or gift quality--of salvation.

DOOR: How?
NEUHAUS: By concentrating so much upon the individual conversion experience--the "born-again experience"--that they end up resting their confidence of being saved upon their own experience.

DOOR: But they attribute that experience to the Holy Spirit.
NEUHAUS: It doesn't matter. The fact is that you find evangelical Christians saying, "How do I know I'm saved? Because this and that happened to me." And that's exactly what the Reformers railed against! Works righteousness, but also experience righteousness. One of the ironies in the reception of ECT is that its critics say, "Well, ECT betrays the gospel. Why? Because it says we
are justified by faith, but it doesn't say we've been justified by faith alone. And the article by which the Church stands or falls, according to the Reformers, is justification by faith alone."

DOOR: Well?
NEUHAUS: Here is delicious irony. The phrase "the article by which the Church stands or falls" comes from a Lutheran writer in 1718--two hundred years after the beginning of the Reformation--whose point was to condemn what Lutherans called the "enthusiasts," or those who placed their confidence of salvation upon a conversion experience. So the very phrase that some evangelicals are using to condemn ECT is, in fact, a phrase that historically was used to condemn a key component of what today is called evangelicalism. Very strange.

DOOR: Upon what do Christians base their confidence of salvation?
NEUHAUS: Our confidence is in the Word of God revealed in Jesus Christ and enacted in the proclamation of the Church and the sacramental enactment of grace in holy baptism. This is evangelical Christianity, and this is Luther who, when he was tempted by Satan and made to endure his great struggles of doubt, said to Satan, "Get away!" And what was his trump card?

DOOR: We give up.
NEUHAUS: He said, "I am baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit! You can't touch me!" That's Reformation Christianity, and it's also good Catholic Christianity.

DOOR: With more and more people coming to see as common to both Catholics and Protestants these fundamental convictions, could your Lutheran friends have been right?
NEUHAUS: About what?

DOOR: About your having jumped ship too early? That, in fact, a formal reunification is inevitable?
NEUHAUS: I would thank God if it turned out that my judgment in the late 1980s was wrong. If a hundred years from now, say, there really is an ecclesial, corporate reconciliation between Lutheranism and the Catholic Church--and if I am around the throne of grace, as I hope I will be--I will join the angels and saints in rejoicing at that, hoping that the decision I made in 1990 contributed to it. But that's all in God's hands, which is exactly where it should be.

Fr. Neuhaus passed away in 2008 at the age of seventy-two.


This interview is also contained in The Door Magazine Interviews--Take Two (Bob Darden, ed.).

1 comment:

  1. How about a link to the earlier interview with Fr. Neuhaus?