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Richard John Neuhaus, 1936 - 2009

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 08, 2009

Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, editor in chief of First Things, died this morning, January 8th, shortly before 10:00 am. He had been diagnosed with a serious form of cancer last November, with only modest hope of successful treatment, but he came down with a complicating disease over the Christmas holidays and did not recover. In recent years I’ve frequently joked that I wanted to be just like Fr. Neuhaus when I grew up. He was deeply faithful to the Church, widely read, extremely knowledgeable, unfailingly courteous in the expression of his opinions, and remarkably generous in his criticisms.

A convert from Lutheranism, Fr. Neuhaus was a living testament to the Catholic doctrine that grace perfects rather than displaces nature. In his writing, one observes the natural and the supernatural blended in ways that enable us to understand more clearly how natural things point to God, and how God brings all things to completion in himself. Perhaps this was the key to his profound interest in and respect for even those whom he believed to be wrong. I would say that Fr. Neuhaus never lost sight of the fact that all of us have been redeemed.

His writing, on matters both human and divine, was typically wise and very frequently delightful. Looking almost at random at the second last issue of First Things to appear under his editorship (January 2009), I find his While We’re At It item on the New York Times to be emblematic of both the man and, perhaps, the manner of his passing. It suggests, certainly, that Fr. Neuhaus was ready to go:

It is the end of the affair. This is not something one does lightly. For years, for decades, reading the New York Times each morning seemed to be inseparable from being a New Yorker. I don’t know when that stopped being the case. I see that I have a draft of this statement on “the end of the affair” that is dated all of three years ago. So there have been for some time intimations of a terminal nature. It’s not that the Times has become that much worse in recent years. Its familiar slants and spins simply seem less interesting, mainly because they are so utterly familiar. Maybe it has something to do with me as well, but it is increasingly infrequent that the morning reading of it can get a rise out of me. It was for years part of the routine: Get up, pray the morning office, then coffee and half an hour or so with the Times before Mass, and into the day. Those of us of a certain age don’t like to change our routines. But I noticed that, as often as not, the half hour was down to fifteen minutes or less as my attention was distracted by a book or magazine article close at hand. A factor in the decision was, of course, the Internet. If there’s something you really do want to read in the Times, it’s all there at the click of a mouse. Do I feel just a smidgen of guilt at having cancelled my subscription? No, not at all. I might have fifteen or twenty years ago, when reading the Times seemed of a piece with one’s civic duty. Now it is one of numerous news and opinion sources one may check out as needed. I don’t say I won’t miss at times the morning ritual of coffee and a leisurely read of a newspaper. We still get the Wall Street Journal at the office and I look over it with some regularity. As for the Times, with its boring predictability of opinion and partisan slants on the news (opinion and news being often indistinguishable), both the pleasure and the benefit have long since departed. A friend tells me that not to be engaged with the Times is not to be engaged with a crucially important part of the culture. I used to think that way about the Times, too, but it seems a long time ago. Truth to tell, there’s little fun left even in ribbing the Times. It is a pitiably vulnerable target in a target-rich environment. Paying attention seems to be a bit cruel. But, I am asked, what would happen to the New York Times if everybody canceled their subscriptions? I am reminded of my fourth-grade teacher, Miss Wooton: “No you can’t. What would happen if everybody wanted to go to the bathroom?” That never struck me as a persuasive argument. As to what would happen if the New York Times went under, I have that on a list of things to worry about. It is a very long list.

Surely this modest statement on the end of an affair can now be read at more than one level. Fr. Neuhaus was 72. May he rest in peace.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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