Remembering Richard John Neuhaus, Tireless Defender of Innocent Life
On June 24, 2022, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade. In Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Justice Samuel Alito wrote:
We hold that Roe and Casey must be overruled. The Constitution makes no reference to abortion, and no such right is implicitly protected by any constitutional provision, including the one on which the defenders of Roe and Casey now chiefly rely — the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Alito ruled that
Roe was egregiously wrong from the start. Its reasoning was exceptionally weak, and the decision has had damaging consequences. And far from bringing about a national settlement of the abortion issue, Roe and Casey have enflamed debate and deepened division. It is time to heed the Constitution and return the issue of abortion to the people’s elected representatives.
When the announcement of the end of Roe came, the first person I thought of was Father Richard John Neuhaus. Neuhaus should be remembered as one of the giants of the prolife cause. A sharp and poetic writer, a faithful priest, a brilliant public speaker and a genuinely funny man, Neuhaus was also a friend of mine. I haven’t written about Father Neuhaus because losing him in 2009 to cancer is something that still brings me grief. His loss was titanic.
Remembering a Titan
However, with the overturning of Roe, as well as a recent visit to my alma mater, Catholic University, which houses Father Neuhaus’s papers, the great man is uppermost in my mind. No history of the pro-life movement is complete without at least one long chapter on Father Neuhaus.
There is also the very small part I played in the overturning of Roe. I have no doubt that Fr. Neuhaus would find some spiritual meaning in my role — perhaps that while he, a mighty figure for good like the wizard Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings, was waging battle with the armies of darkness and inspiring kings and spiritual leaders to persevere, I was Frodo, secretly making his way to Mount Doom where his moment would arrive.
I should admit that my love for Neuhaus was much more intense than his for me. Although he was fond of me, he had an entire cosmos of staff, politicians (including presidents) and the potentates with whom he worked daily and to whom he was quite close. I first got noticed by Father Neuhaus in the mid 1990s. First Things, the influential journal Neuhaus founded, had been founded in March 1990, just two months after I stopped drinking.
The two things were related: in my sobriety I rediscovered my Christian faith, and one of the most dynamic apostles of that faith was Neuhaus. In fall 1961, Father Neuhaus (then a Lutheran minister) was assigned to the ministry at the Evangelist Lutheran Church, a poor inner-city congregation in Brooklyn. At the time he wrote a 21-page letter discussing his challenging pastoral work.
In one passage Neuhaus shared the story of a baby boy born who was unwanted and would be turned over to the city. “Little Baby Boy Washington, fear not, you are not alone,” Father Neuhaus wrote. Father Neuhaus also marched with Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. at Selma and became an antiwar activist. In the 1980s, he founded the Center for Religion and Society. In 1990, the institute published its first issue of First Things. And 1990 was also the year that Father Neuhaus, formerly a Lutheran, was received into the Catholic Church.
The Monster of the Obvious
I became friends with Fr. Neuhaus when he read some of my writing and referred to me in one of his columns as “that bright young journalist.” He invited me out to dinner in Washington and then ran some articles I wrote. One was about swing dancing. Another examined how postmodern art is too cowardly to engage with the splendor and passion of the world, or what Aldous Huxley called “the monster of the obvious.”
I once told Neuhaus that I had been in a band in high school called the Jesuits but now wanted to form a new group — a punk group simply called Neuhaus. He chuckled and said, “May you go from strength to strength.”
There is one moment from that dinner that I never forgot. I was talking about the idea of becoming a priest, but just bluntly told Father Neuhaus that I didn’t know if I could say no to dating women (I was in my twenties). Neuhaus replied that I would not being saying no to something, but yes to something even greater and more wonderful. He was right, but I still never made the leap.
We Shall Not Weary, Shall Not Rest
In a First Thing symposium that became the book The End of Democracy?, Neuhaus and others argued that courts were taking key political decisions out of the hands of the people of the United States. For decades, it seemed that there was no way to move the American judicial system to reconsider its dishonest and disastrous Roe ruling.
Shortly before his death, Neuhaus delivered what some consider one of the greatest pro-life speeches of all time. He promised:
We shall not weary, we shall not rest, until every unborn child is protected in law and welcomed in life. We shall not weary, we shall not rest, until all the elderly who have run life’s course are protected against despair and abandonment, protected by the rule of law and the bonds of love. We shall not weary, we shall not rest, until every young woman is given the help she needs to recognize the problem of pregnancy as the gift of life. We shall not weary, we shall not rest, as we stand guard at the entrance gates and the exit gates of life, and at every step along the way of life, bearing witness in word and deed to the dignity of the human person — of every human person.”
Amazing words, and ones that I drew on in the fall of 2018 when the American left, which I call the American Stasi, tried to use me to destroy my friend Brett Kavanaugh, to keep him off the U.S. Supreme Court.
They threw everything they had at us — lies, extortion, death threats. Had I faltered, had I grown weary, the forces of Mordor would still be spreading their Shadow over the land. Neuhaus, who was formed in that 1960s Brooklyn parish caring for the outcast and the unknown, would have seen God’s providence in a former drunk who loves punk rock — and is sometimes the world’s worst Christian — being the person to drop the Ring into the fire.
Mark Judge is a writer and filmmaker in Washington, D.C. His new book is The Devil’s Triangle: Mark Judge vs. the New American Stasi.