Tribute to “Culture of Life” Priest, Fr. Richard Neuhaus

“The Heart of Culture is Morality”

January 8th marks the passing of Father Richard J. Neuhaus (1936-2009), a crusading Culture of Life priest. One of eight children born to Lutheran missionary parents in Ontario, his large family made it perhaps inevitable he would one day embrace the cause for Life and Family.

Father Richard Neuhaus, image courtesy of C-Span

In a C-Span interview from 2005, Fr. Neuhaus says: “What is the goal of the pro-life movement? The goal is that we become a society in which every child is protected in law and welcomed in life.”

In actual fact, President Bush relied on this Culture of Life priest to help him articulate his pro-life policies. “A senior Administration official confirms that Neuhaus does have a certain amount of influence on such policies as abortion, stem-cell research, cloning and defense of the marriage amendment” (Time Magazine, 2/7/2005). The Washington Post, in his obituary, also listed Father as a guiding light for Bush’s faith-based funding initiative.

The C-Span interviewer even ascribed coinage of the phrase “Culture of Life” – as adopted by President George H. Bush – to Fr. Neuhaus. The latter kindly corrects him, stating the phrase may have come “through him” to President Bush, but reminds us the genesis of the phrase was Pope Saint John Paul II, as he is now known.

Espousing Good

It has been said that Fr. Neuhaus underwent two conversions, one from liberalism to conservatism, the other from Lutheranism to Catholicism.

He never received a high school diploma. He did eventually earn an BA and MDIv at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri. Following in his father’s footsteps, he became a Lutheran minister.

It must be said the liberalism he then espoused promoted the good of the community and the health of the individual. From 1961-78 he served as pastor from to a predominantly black and Hispanic congregation at St. John the Evangelist Church in Brooklyn.  There he preached civil rights and social justice from the pulpit. In 1965, he also marched on Selma, Alabama with one of his friends, Rev. Martin Luther King. “All my life I have prayed to God,” he once said, “that I should remain religiously orthodox, culturally conservative, politically liberal and economically pragmatic.”

Roe vs. Wade (1973)

When the Supreme Court decision came down, Neuhaus was horrified. Expecting social justice colleagues would immediately condemn the decision, he was instead upset to find their brand of civil rights did not extend to the unborn.

This Culture of Life priest immediately recognized abortion as a great moral and social evil. His instincts served him well. Upon viewing a photograph of Margaret Sanger addressing a Ku Klux Klan rally in the 1920’s, he felt even more confirmed in his suspicions the abortion movement was racist. (The racism continues: the CDC reported black women in 2013 had nearly four times as many abortions as whites (27 vs. 7.2 abortions per 1,000 births in 2013)).

Years later Fr. Neuhaus wrote:

The most consequential cultural and political event in American history in the past half century was the Roe v. Wade decision of January 22, 1973. An argument can be made that it is rivaled by September 11, but that fateful day did not result in the deep realignment of religious, cultural, and political dynamics resulting from the Supreme Court’s ukase [arbitrary decision], which established an unlimited abortion license that wiped from the books of all fifty states any legal protection of unborn children.

“The Heart of Morality is Religion”

Richard John Neuhaus was received in the Catholic Church on September 8, 1990, the Nativity of Our Lady.  A year later he was ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of New York by Cardinal O’Connor.  He continued to serve as editor-in-chief of the journal he founded one year prior:  First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion, Culture and Public Life. First Things went on to gain reputation as one of the most influential journals of religion and public life. “The first thing to say about politics,” Neuhaus once said, “is that politics is not the first thing.” Or, as he otherwise said in his best-known book, The Naked Public Square: “Politics is chiefly a function of culture” and “at the heart of culture is morality, and at the heart of morality is religion.”

This year marks the 44th March for Life in Washington, D.C.

“Defending the dignity of the human person requires detachment from immediate results. We’re in this for the long term … We have no right to despair and no reason to despair.”

In a presentation made the year before he died to the annual convention of the Right to Life Committee, he proclaimed: “We shall not weary, we shall not rest, as we stand 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.”

Father Neuhaus passed away on January 8, 2009. Lauded by pro-life leaders, let us ask this Culture of Life priest’s intercession this January, as we march for the 44th time for Life.

Donald DeMarco contributed to this report.

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