Richard John Neuhaus is the most underrated writer in America. When his name appears in the press, it’s usually as Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, Catholic priest. Or Richard John Neuhaus, editor of the neoconservative religious journal First Things. Or Richard John Neuhaus, advisor and friend to President Bush.
Overlooked in all this is Richard John Neuhaus, writer. Neuhaus writes with the kind of graceful prose that one associates with Hemingway or the essays of Aldous Huxley or Lionel Trilling. Yes, the man is first and foremost — according to him anyway — a priest. But as his terrific new book, Catholic Matters, shows, Neuhaus knows how to put pen to paper. Whether Catholic or not, it’s the kind of book one reads in one gulp, buoyed by tight, graceful sentences that one thought became extinct with the death of Orwell or Chesterton. Oh, and it’s funny, another trait Neuhaus has in abundance and doesn’t get much credit for. “As Oscar Wilde said of socialism,” he writes, “the problem with ecclesiastical power sharing is that it leaves one with no free evenings.”
Catholic Matters is a short but penetrating overview of the Catholic Church at this point in history, with bits of autobiography added. It begins and ends with personal reflections on the death of John Paul II, and in between is a diagnosis of what ails the Catholic Church, and what’s right about it. What’s right is centuries of tradition, a full engagement with modernism spearheaded by John Paul II and carried forward by Benedict XVI, and generations of young people who are tired of 1960s libertinism and ready for what Neuhaus calls “the high adventure of orthodoxy.” What’s wrong is mostly liberals, who are finally being called on their expansive — to put it mildly — interpretation of Vatican II.
Neuhaus, like John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and other intellectuals in the church, makes the point that conservative Catholics are making with increasing volubility: Vatican II should be about the letter of the documents of the council, not, as liberals claim, “the spirit of the council.” When a liberal claims to follow “the spirit of the council,” it means he’s making it up as he goes along — indeed, that he has never read a sentence of a document of Vatican II. Following the spirit of the council often means following your own whims and ego. As Neuhaus notes quoting Augustine, this philosophy often results in a situation captured by the phrase Incurvatus est — “we are turned in upon ourselves.” We doubt every truth but our own — or become what Neuhaus calls an “ecumaniac,” someone who defends every church but his own.
This does not mean that the church is opposed to thinking; again and again Neuhaus makes the point that “being a thinking Catholic begins with thinking,” adding that this opens the possibility that what I think doesn’t quite stack up to what the church thinks, and that I may have to reexamine my own reasoning — or, perish forbid, admit that I don’t know much about Catholicism. If I may be allowed a plug, in my book God and Man at Georgetown Prep I reveal that entire generations that came through Catholic schools after Vatican II can’t argue about their faith because they were never taught it. Honestly, do you really think Anna Quindlen, Maureen Dowd and Jimmy Breslin have read any encyclicals of John Paul II or Pope Benedict? In a way they are to be pitied. They just have no grasp of basic facts. After the death of John Paul II Quindein wrote in Newsweek that she wasn’t leaving the homophobic, patriarchal church she can’t stand because “it’s my church.” Again and again in Catholic Matters, yes with trademark sarcasm but more love, Neuhaus calmly, rationally corrects: “The Catholic Church is not about me. She is in her isness [i.e., being] grandly and blithely indifferent to the tangle that constitutes my state of Incurvatus est. Like a mother, she takes me in.”
A MAN WHO IS OFTEN identified with Neuhaus as a dangerous neocon scold is George Weigel, author of many Catholic books, including the most recent, God’s Choice: Pope Benedict XVI and the Future of the Catholic Church. Weigel is not the writer Neuhaus is — but few are — yet he does boast real strengths: an engaging and elegant writing style, orthodoxy that is willing and even eager to engage with the other side on the intellectual battlefield, and a generous sprinkling of obscure factoids and anecdotes that keeps thing lively. Who knew that Pope Benedict’s parents were named Joseph and Maria? Or that, despite claims that he’s no JPII, he has real wit? When asked by a snarky mainstream reporter why his biography did not mention girls, Benedict replied, “The manuscript had to be kept to a hundred pages.”
God’s Choice is divided into two parts, the first an account of the death of John Paul II, the second an account of Ratzinger’s election to become Benedict XVI and what his papacy may bring. As so much is known about John Paul, the more interesting part of God’s Choice is the second half. Weigel talks about the “virtual schism” that has taken place in the Catholic Church since Vatican II, dividing the orthodox from the liberals. Weigel tells the story in a fresh way, offering the telling fact other may have missed. He recalls that shortly after Vatican II the priest and theologian Charles Davis left the Church because he disagreed with the Church’s stance on contraception. As Weigel explains, this “honorable” decision resulted in Davis’s fading into obscurity. “To stay in play, a theologian had to remain, formally, in communion with the Church, even if he or she was, de facto, in a kind of personal, intellectual, or psychological state of schism.” And not just theologians — Chris Mathews, Cokie Roberts, E.J. Dionne and Maureen Dowd anyone?
Weigel can also body-slam the competition and make it feel like a kiss. On narcissistic, left-wing theologians: “Theological dissent was celebrated as a heroic challenge of the conventions rather than understood for what it was: a drastic concession to the spirit of the age.” Liberation theology, the attempt by wing-nut socialists in the church to commingle communism and Christianity, failed because it “had a flawed philosophy about the human person.” On dissident theologian Charles Curran, who rejected the Church’s teachings on contraception and other matters: “Charles Curran was, and is, a priest of genuine pastoral decency, who seems to have been convinced that down-shifting the Church’s moral expectations by altering its moral teaching was the pastorally appropriate response to the difficulties in living lives of sexual integrity that most human beings had experienced since Adam and Eve.”
Charles Curran is also a man who is full of rage and resentment towards the Catholic Church. To be sure, Weigel lowers the boom on these people. But he’s just too damned eloquent, and has too much Christian charity, to just come right out and say the unspeakable. Anne Rice nailed it in the afterword to her new novel Christ the Lord: there are some people in this world, among them many theologians, who hate Jesus Christ.
Sometimes it’s just that simple. They have dedicated their lives to disproving the reality of the gospels by larding them with garbage about the “historical Jesus.” They sue the city when there’s Christmas display in front of town hall. They despise the Pope, never miss an opportunity to bring up pedophilia when the priesthood is mentioned, and howl with joy at blasphemy in movies and television. They, in short, hate Jesus Christ.
I think we should just declare Weigel’s “virtual schism” a genuine schism, and start kicking heretics to the curb. Even our language should reflect it. We can borrow from our Jewish friends and separate into groups — orthodox, liberal, and Dowders. Dowders — a la Maureen Dowd — are those on the far left who still call themselves Catholic, but solely for the delicious frisson it gives them in renouncing the pope and all the church’s teachings. Think how easy that would make things. We can all have our own dioceses, priests, magazines and TV shows. Eventually, the Dowders will become Protestants.
Of course, Weigel belongs to the orthodox. Neuhaus is the new Chesterton, and Weigel a second Bishop Sheen. Yet while God’s Choice is first-rate, it’s not my favorite Weigel book. That honor belongs to Letters to a Young Catholic, which was just released in paperback. To be sure, Weigel will be remembered for Witness to Hope, his masterpiece. Yet ever since it was released two years ago Letters to a Young Catholic has rarely left my side. I take it on the subway, give away copies, dip into it during TV commercials. As Weigel knows better than anyone else, the Catholic Church is in the middle of a deep schism, and there are very few better ways to win converts to the actual teachings of the church — as opposed to the Protestantism of a Garry Wills or the paganism of a Maureen Down — than to simply hand a liberal or a doubter a copy of Letters. It’s a 14-chapter tour of the Catholic world, from the tomb of St. Peter, which reflects the grittiness of Catholicism, to Chartres Cathedral in France, which teaches us how beauty reveals the divine. It will become a classic.