There is a lot to be said on the passing of Father Richard John Neuhaus, dean of the theoconservatives, of whom I count myself one. The phrase he is most associated with, which has to do with giving religion a place “in the public square,” has become a cliché. Yet clichéd phrases can still refer to profoundly important ideas. The idea that faith has a role to play in public discussions of public issues, notably in politics, did not seem obvious at all when Fr. Neuhaus wrote his controversial 1984 book The Naked Public Square. It’s an idea that still has legions of enemies, including among some political conservatives, even as it continues to guide those of us who followed the lead of this brilliant, principled, immensely influential Catholic priest and intellectual.
His many friends and admirers will remember different things about him. Speaking for myself, he was both an inspiration and an irritant — one that sometimes inspired by irritating — a story I told in my first book, The Lord Will Gather Me In. I knew him from New York, when I was an editor at National Review, and he and I had a couple of intense disputatious and personal conversations about Judaism and Christianity that had a definite impact on my spiritual future, if not the one he intended.
What readers of ENV need to know, and what they probably won’t read elsewhere, is that Fr. Neuhaus was among the few prominent conservative intellectuals who, when it came to the Darwin debate, really “got it.” In his journal First Things he published articles by ID writers like Stephen Meyer and Phillip Johnson on subjects where other conservative journals still fear to tread.
At the Discovery Institute we’ll certainly not forget one of his last written comments, in the December 2008 issue of FT, from his popular blog-style commentary section. It was a typically incisive item on an upcoming “scientific” conference at the Vatican whose organizers have managed to define “science” in such a way that…Well, read it for yourself:
…[O]ne watches with keen interest the planning for a March conference in Rome sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Culture, the Gregorian University, and the University of Notre Dame. The conference is to mark the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species, and it has been announced that proponents of “creationism and intelligent design” will not be invited. The lumping together of creationism and intelligent design is telling. They are quite distinct enterprises; the former is typically in defense of a literal reading of Genesis while the latter is a scientifically based theory of purpose or teleology in natural development. Fr. Marc Leclerc, a Jesuit philosophy professor at the Gregorian, explained that the organizers “wanted to create a conference that was strictly scientific” in order to discuss, as Catholic News Service puts it, “rational philosophy and theology along with the latest scientific discoveries.” Fr. Leclerc said that arguments “that cannot be critically defined as being science or philosophy or theology did not seem feasible to include in a dialogue at this level.” The report continues: “Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, said the other extreme of the evolution debate–proponents of an overly scientific conception of evolution and natural selection–also were not invited.” So let’s see now: The conference is strictly scientific. In that case, there would seem to be no reason for the Church to be sponsoring it, since there are numerous other institutions that attend to the strictly scientific. Then we are told the conference will also include philosophers and theologians, but only those who are rational–meaning, presumably, those who do not raise critical questions about the strictly scientific. We are told it will exclude scientific ideologues who reject what philosophers and theologians have to say about creation, history, teleology, and human nature and will also exclude scientists who, on the basis of scientific evidence, contend, as the Catholic Church contends, for design and purpose in nature. The organizers seem to think they are being even-handed, but it is all quite confusing. One would not like to think that the purpose of the March conference is to secure for the Catholic Church a clean bill of health from [those] who condemn any deviation from scientistic ideology as anti-intellectualism.