January 14, 2009 | Commentary on Religion and Civil Society, Civil Society

The Lasting Legacy of Fr. Neuhaus

You know that relations between religious denominations are improving when a devoted Catholic is proud to have a former Lutheran pastor baptize his grandchild. In fact that pastor, who became a Catholic priest in 1991, is a key reason why relations improved, and will continue to do so in the years ahead.

Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, who christened my grandson in the same church my wife and I were married in, passed from this world on Jan. 8.

But he leaves behind a lifetime of public accomplishment. His works, such as the 1984 bestseller "The Naked Public Square" and the monthly journal "First Things," form a major part of his legacy, and they'll undoubtedly continue to inspire all those who work to make the world a better place.

Each year, for example, Fr. Neuhaus would give the invocation at The Heritage Foundation's New York City media dinner. He would pray in the name of "Abraham, Jacob and Jesus," thus embracing our entire Judeo-Christian tradition. He simply didn't believe in separating people by creed. He wanted all to worship our common creator and to come together as much as possible to do so.

Fr. Neuhaus advised popes and presidents, but also common citizens of all faiths. He was a great listener, who had a keen knowledge of world events but never talked down to anyone. His message that one's public life should be animated by private faith was powerful enough to gain sympathetic ears even on the political left.

"Secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square," President-elect Barack Obama said in 2006. "To say that men and women should not inject their 'personal morality' into public policy debates is a practical absurdity."

A few years ago our mutual friend Midge Decter introduced a lecture by Fr. Neuhaus by noting that he was much more than a man of faith. He was "perhaps the most important religious thinker and teacher of our time, as well as the most entertaining in the truly serious meaning of that so ill-used word." That was unquestionably true.

He was entertaining especially when shining a light on popular culture, which he did every month in his regular column, "The Public Square."

A friend once commented that Father Richard's tombstone should be engraved with the words, "We're going to turn this around."

Because of the way he lived his life and the generous service he provided to others, Richard John Neuhaus turned many people around, and helped others remain on the right path. His keen intelligence and insight will be missed. But his legacy of caring will last as long as human beings join together in goodwill to pursue moral truth. Indeed, as long as they have faith, which he did so much to nurture.

Ed Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
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