The Archivist’s Nook: Richard John Neuhaus – A Catholic Lutheran in the Public Square

Fr. Neuhaus, then a Lutheran pastor, with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., ca. 1960s (Courtesy: National Catholic Register) Neuhaus Papers, box 88, The American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

Today’s post is guest authored by Undergraduate student in Social Work, Emmanuel A. Montesa, who expresses his thanks to the professional Archives staff.

On October 19, 1999, the Reverend Richard John Neuhaus gave a lecture entitled “My American Affair” here at The Catholic University of America, only a few months after he had converted to Catholicism. As a former Lutheran pastor, he was heavily involved in the liberal causes in American politics of the 1960s such as the Civil Rights and the Anti-War movements. He even considered himself to be a radical, seeing the War in Vietnam as “God’s instrument for bringing the American empire to its knees.”¹ On December 4, 1967, Neuhaus led a service at St. John the Evangelist Lutheran in Brooklyn where over 300 people turned in their draft cards in protest, drawing the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Neuhaus was arrested twice in his life, the first for participating in a sit-in at the New York City Board of Education headquarters demanding for the desegregation of city public schools and the second for disorderly conduct during the chaotic 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. In addition, he unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for New York’s 14th Congressional district.

Neuhaus meeting with President Ronald Reagan at the White House, Feb. 26, 1986. Neuhaus Papers, box 88, The American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

However, by the time he was invited to speak at the national university of the Catholic Church in the United States, Neuhaus was one of the leading neo-conservatives in America, along with George Weigel and Michael Novak. Neuhaus strongly believed that politics can and should only exist within the context of Christian morality, calling for Christians to find their place in what he called “the naked public square,” a reference to the absence of values emanating from faith-based communities in public life. His 1984 book of that title, which addressed the complex relationship between faith and politics, arguably paved the way for Ronald Reagan’s landslide re-election to the American presidency. In addition, Neuhaus served as a catalyst in the solidification of the political alliance of Catholics and evangelical Protestants. He served as an unofficial advisor to President George W. Bush on social matters which included abortion and same-sex marriage. As the editor-in-chief of First Things from its founding in 1990 until his death in 2009, Neuhaus voiced his discontent with the social liberalism that had taken hold of America. In 2005, Time Magazine named Neuhaus as one of 25 most influential evangelicals in America despite being a Roman Catholic.

Neuhaus’ renunciation of the Lutheran profession and conversion to Roman Catholicism is, in a sense, related to his political shift from the liberal left to the conservative right. His 1999 lecture at the Catholic University offers great insight into his reasoning for his conversion, both political and theological. He saw that the theory of the twofold kingdom of God, on which Lutheran political ethic is based on, “leads to Christian passivity and quietism in the face of social and political in justice.”² This theory holds that God rules the temporal earth with his left hand and the divine world with his right, and in the same way, theology should not muddy itself with human politics. However, Neuhaus believed that the Church should necessarily engage with the world, but the Church must first have a “vigorous ecclesiology” that can stand what St. Paul calls “the principalities and powers of the present age.”³ He  concluded that the only the Roman Catholic Church possessed such a vigorous ecclesiology.

Neuhaus being ordained a Catholic priest, 1991. Neuhaus Papers, box 88, The American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

Furthermore, in another lecture given at Catholic University in March 2000 titled “A Consistent Ethic of Strife,” which would later be published in CUA’s Journal of Law, Philosophy, and Culture, Neuhaus spoke about what he called the Catholic Moment. He first defined the term as a Lutheran in his 1987 book The Catholic Moment: The Paradox of the Church in the Postmodern World, where he posited that the “premier responsibility for the Christian mission rest with the Catholic Church.”⁴ Now speaking on the Catholic Moment as a Catholic priest, he asserted that the Church should not fall into the passivity that his old profession had fallen into, but should continually play an active role in the world to establish the Kingdom of God. He declared that the Catholic Moment had not passed even 13 years after he first coined the term, because every single day since the first Pentecost until the end of time is the Catholic Moment.  In this framework, he distinguishes that there is a difference between an American Catholic and a Catholic American. The former is a corruption of the religion, but the latter is what we should strive for as Americans. There is a distinctively Catholic way of being an American.

Please see the newly completed finding aid (our 200th) for the voluminous Neuhaus Papers, a recent and welcome addition to the Catholic University Archives, joining the significant papers of other notable public priests such as Bishop Francis J. Haas, Msgr. John A. Ryan, and Msgr. George G. Higgins.


¹Daniel McCarthy. “Richard John Neuhaus by Randy Boyagoda,” The New York Times, March 26, 2015, accessed December 6, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/29/books/review/richard-john-neuhaus-by-randy-boyagoda.html.
²Richard John Neuhaus, “My American Affair” (speech, Washington, D.C., October 19, 1999), The American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.
³Ibid.
Richard John Neuhaus, “A Consistent Ethics of Strife” (speech, Washington, D.C., March 2000), The American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.