An earlier book by Richard John Neuhaus, The Naked Public Square, is one of the most important religious books published in America since World War II. Still, his new volume The Catholic Moment may be of yet more universal weight. That Richard Neuhaus is bright no one has ever doubted; that he is a truly serious man — a man who delights even in the word serious — no one dares deny. He is a man for whom ecumenism is a set of lungs, so that all he breathes enters into them and is transformed.
Consider his reach. I doubt if any Christian thinker today is more in daily touch with Jewish thinkers in the United States; or any mainline Protestant thinker more in touch with evangelical thinkers. About both groups, certainly, none is better informed. And the same must be said about the contacts of Pastor Neuhaus with Catholics.
His Lutheran tradition may explain a part of his intellectual sympathies. With the evangelicals, the Lutherans greatly cherish the Word. With the Catholics, they cherish not only eucharist and liturgy but also a powerful link to pre-modern thought and a more ancient sense of community and people. And they cherish with the Jews a surer sense of tragedy, ambiguity, and suffering.
Yet tradition cannot account for everything. Pastor Neuhaus has a personal thirst for intellectual growth, and works to satisfy a purposefully catholic appetite for learning. Where some people “would have danced all night,” Pastor Neuhaus would have discussed, argued, and dissected. (As a hearty late-night companion, he can also drink like a Catholic.)
But why is this “the Catholic Moment”? (Permit me to use my words not his, although in ways I have learned from him.) As for all things true, there are three reasons. First, in this most Protestant and Puritan of lands, in which the churches of the mainline from Boston to Philadelphia and points south inherit historical prestige, the churches of the mainline have recently abdicated leadership. These days, it is rare that the mainline churches appear on page one. The views of their leaders sometimes suggest that the latter are embarrassed by Christian orthodoxy and by the American experiment. After two decades of repetition, their customary itch to seem “prophetic” reproduces the patter of secular intellectuals, often with lesser penetration.
Second, if the modern age has been marked by blind opposition to authority, the coming age is beginning to recognize distinctions between the authoritative and the authoritarian. Reality itself has its structures, which establish resistance to and wreak revenge upon wayward human will. Those who begin, as Dostoevsky put it, by saying “Everything is permitted” unloose upon themselves a punishing deluge, in evidence of which stand the many ruins left behind in this bloodiest of centuries. There are deeds, not least against unalienable human rights, to which the authoritative response can be no other than “No.”
Third, human action has a social component, whose possibilities are best informed by institutions shaped to “the system of natural liberty.” But to reach discernment among the historical workings of institutions, a tradition of learned prudence is the best of all intellectual resources. It is not quite enough merely to turn to Scripture and from there to cast one’s untrained eye upon institutional reality. That path ends in unlearned and dangerous fundamentalism. In such circumstances, the highly articulated intellectual resources of Catholic social thought serve a crucial national need.
For all these reasons, Pastor Neuhaus observes, the “signs of the times” point to a vacuum in public religious leadership in the United States. And they point as well to the unique capacities of the Catholic church to become the effective public leader of the Christian community, in the renewal of the American experiment. To earn this leadership, Pastor Neuhaus believes, the Catholic church must avoid the simplistic politics of the mainline churches, and it must draw upon its own informed intellectual tradition of reasoned authority and practical wisdom, for which the evangelical churches have as yet no equivalent.
In this respect, the splendid exposition of the Catholic tradition on war and peace exemplified in George Weigel’s essay in this issue offers the Neuhaus claim one important counterpoint. And the evangelical and charismatic temptation articulated below in the autobiographical statements of Marlene Elwell and Benjamin Hart offers another.
The present moment is full of hazards, temptations, uncertainties, and mere probabilities. It is a moment supremely suited to informed prudence and confident self-identity. Crisis hopes that Catholic leadership will seize this moment.