From the Publisher: Richard’s New House

In The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, Evelyn Waugh says of his main character, with reference to a phrase popular at the time, it is later than you think:

“It was never later than Gilbert Pinfold thought.” A Catholic could envy Pinfold’s capacity to anticipate any outrage. I confess I am mightily bothered by the massive and hagiographical exhibition devoted to Emma Goldman that now fills the concourse of the Notre Dame library, a first volley of the Year of the Woman on this campus, presumably putting before our female students a role model coyly described in the student paper as a “champion of reproductive rights and free love.”

The same paper runs ads for local homosexuals announcing the meetings of an organization whose logo is the blasphemous superimposition of the golden dome and Our Lady on the inverted triangle of lesbianism.

One could go on. It is certainly later than I thought. Waugh himself said that given the dissolution of Britain, the only way he could continue to live there was by pretending he was a tourist. So, too, one might think that the price of sanity for a Catholic whose faith is measured by the teaching Church is to live in Catholic institutions as a tourist.

But God is good and there are magnificent compensations. On September 8, 1990, the feast of the Nativity of Our Lady, Richard John Neuhaus became a Roman Catholic. When he told me of his decision some months ago, the words that sprang to my lips were Deo gratias. Now that the deed is done, I murmur Te deum laudamus.

Of course, I felt a bit like the purser on the Titanic—well, make that a not so able-bodied seaman—when Richard told me his momentous news. I am constantly amazed at the spectacle of people entering the Church in these days of intramural turmoil, this time when, as Paul VI said, the smoke of Satan has seeped into the Church. No one knew better than Richard Neuhaus the apparent chaos that awaited within. His marvelous book The Catholic Moment is proof enough of that. Surely, converts must have the sense of boarding a sinking ship?

If they don’t, it is because they do not take seriously the whacko element that gets such constant coverage. Disgruntled and dissident and wayward Catholics presume to speak for the rest of us and have lost all reluctance to disagree with the pope, indeed to dismiss the magisterium with disdain. Private judgement, sola conscientia, seems to characterize their notion of Catholicism. But of course converts do not join the Church of the dissidents. Neuhaus, like so many others, was drawn by the firm orthodoxy of John Paul II and the brilliance of Cardinal Ratzinger.

I am sure that Richard Neuhaus is thinking now of what the Church can do for him rather than what he can do for the Church, but there is a role awaiting him in the present struggles, a role that he has already been occupying to some degree. Thanks to him, there is widespread recognition of the “naked public square,” of the effort by some to rid our political discussions of any reference to the religious beliefs that characterized the founding fathers as they do the vast majority of Americans today. Neuhaus, looking around, saw this as the “Catholic moment,” a time of unique opportunity for the Catholic Church, the Church of John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger.

Neuhaus has sensed that at the heart of the Catholic view is the natural law assumption. That is, there are certain truths, theoretical and practical, that are accessible to believer and non-believer alike, and these provide the basis for common political action. Only a fool could be unaware of the difficulties that arise for such common understanding and action; no believer could be entirely content with the meager fare those common truths represent. But the solid principle involved is that grace builds upon nature and does not destroy it; no more can sin or stupidity completely extinguish that natural light of reason.

The miracle of conversion provides a salutary occasion of reflection for us cradle Catholics. During the Council, a phrase frequently heard was “our separated brethren.” It referred to Christians by baptism who did not share in the fullness of the Church. It would be wrong to understand the phrase as a scolding one, not all these years after the Reformation. Or, if it scolds, it scolds Catholics. Perhaps we think of the fullness of faith as something we own, as ours, and thus become obstacles to the reunion that all must hope for. The convert reminds us that faith is a common good and we must love it as shareable by all.

In Robert Lowell’s first collection there is a poem entitled, “After the Surprising Conversions.” We live at a time of many and surprising conversions. If cradle Catholics have grown blasé and lukewarm, they will be renewed or replaced by those who come fresh and grateful to the fold, whose faith is lively, who are filled with zeal.

So let’s thank God that Richard John Neuhaus has entered into full communion with us. Perhaps when he wrote The Catholic Moment, he did not realize that he was setting out a battle plan that he himself would help execute. Deo gratias. Te deum laudamus.


Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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