Saturday, March 14, 2015

Richard John Neuhaus: A Life in the Public Square, by Randy Boyagoda

Richard John Neuhaus: A Life in the Public Square
by Randy Boyagoda.
Image (February 10, 2015). 480 pgs.

Richard John Neuhaus (1936-2009) was one of the most influential figures in American public life from the Civil Rights era to the War on Terror. His writing, activism, and connections to people of power in religion, politics, and culture secured a place for himself and his ideas at the center of recent American history. William F. Buckley, Jr. and John Kenneth Galbraith are comparable -- willing controversialists and prodigious writers adept at cultivating or castigating the powerful, while advancing lively arguments for the virtues and vices of the ongoing American experiment. But unlike Buckley and Galbraith, who have always been identified with singular political positions on the right and left, respectively, Neuhaus' life and ideas placed him at the vanguard of events and debates across the political and cultural spectrum. For instance, alongside Abraham Heschel and Daniel Berrigan, Neuhaus co-founded Clergy Concerned About Vietnam, in 1965. Forty years later, Neuhaus was the subject of a New York Review of Books article by Garry Wills, which cast him as a Rasputin of the far right, exerting dangerous influence in both the Vatican and the Bush White House. This book looks to examine Neuhaus's multi-faceted life and reveal to the public what made him tick and why.
"Boyagoda dispassionately describes this fascinating and active life, and he manages to blend skills as a folksy storyteller, researcher and unbiased historian, providing a biography that is balanced, interesting and relevant. A useful, provocative spotlight on one of the leading lights of the 20th century." – Kirkus
“Faith, it is correctly observed, while intensely personal, is never private. In North America, nobody recently has more effectively defended and encouraged bringing religion into the public square than Richard John Neuhaus. And up until now, no one has offered a more credible, careful, and colorful biography of this convert to Catholicism—in the line of Orestes Brownson, Isaac Hecker and Thomas Merton—than Randy Boyagoda.” – Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, Archbishop of New York, author of True Freedom
"A Lutheran pastor who became a Catholic priest, labeled sometimes as liberal and other times as conservative, Neuhaus was truly a "sign of contradiction" in our times, a man whose constant affiliation in life was of belonging to God and striving to draw ever nearer to Him. Thorough, vivid, and keenly understanding of the interplay of personality, faith, and cultural context, Boyagoda's biography of Neuhaus does justice to this man of faith who became a type of "grace to be reckoned with," becoming a culture-altering tour de force. As Americans continue to explore the challenge of living one's faith in the public square, this book is an enriching testament to a man who blazed that trail in his own lifetime, fearless of everything but God Himself." – Carl A. Anderson, Supreme Knight, Knights of Columbus

Reviews and Discussion
  • Neuhaus Described, If Not Explained, by William Gould. The University Bookman Spring 2015. "In short, what we have here is a good, helpful biography of Richard Neuhaus, but a more substantial account and evaluation of his intellectual contribution remains to be written."

  • Life in the Public Square CBC Radio. Discussion with host Paul Kennedy, author Randy Boyagoda, Catholic thinker and Ideas contributor Michael W. Higgins and historian of religion, Molly Worthen (University of North Carolina). May 5, 2015.

    • The Neuhaus Legacy, by R.R. Reno. First Things 05/06/15: "While listening to Worthen's comments I was again reminded of how difficult it is for many, perhaps most, liberals to fathom reasons why someone (Neuhaus, for instance) would think American-style conservatism the best way to promote the common good."

  • Burning Fr. Neuhaus’s Diary, by Joseph Bottum. Weekly Standard May 18, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 34.:
    Reading the new biography by Randy Boyagoda, seeing the clips of Fr. Neuhaus on websites discussing the book, I’ve had that day come back to mind recently—replaying, this time in doubt, the decision I made to destroy his diary. Certainly Boyagoda’s work would have been considerably easier if he’d had the diary to guide him. Substantially different, too, I suspect, Richard’s internal narrative shaping in entirely different ways the external actions of his life. ...
  • The Vision of Father Neuhaus, by William Doino Jr. First Things 3/23/15:
    ... Because Neuhaus was such a prominent figure, and so involved in the major political debates of his time, he is often criticized for having compromised his faith. But those who say Neuhaus was more politician than priest miss the mark. Fr. Neuhaus always saw himself—first and foremost—as a pastor and parish priest. The source and summit of his life was celebrating the Mass, hearing confessions, and attending to the needs of his flock. He loved to write, yes, but he did so in hopes that people would espouse the good—and by doing so, to turn toward their Savior.
  • Understanding Father Neuhaus, by Alan Jacobs. Snakes and Ladders 03/13/15:
    ... here’s (a simplified version of) my reading of Neuhaus’s political transformation: Over time he came to believe that the American left had effectively abandoned its commitment to “the least of these,” had decided that, in Boyagoda’s clear formulation, “private rights — made possible by and indeed protecting implicit race and class privileges — trumped responsibilities for others.” The moral language that he had learned from his Christian upbringing and pastoral training and experience simply had no purchase in a party dominated by a commitment solely to the “private rights” of self-expression, especially sexual self-expression. He turned to those who showed a willingness to hear commitments expressed in that moral language, who appeared to be open to being convinced. In return he gave them his loyalty, his public support, for the rest of his life.
    It may well be that this was a devil’s bargain, one that Neuhaus should never have made. ...
    But I think we have strong documentary evidence that Father Neuhaus made his bargain out of a genuine and deeply compassionate love — a love that pulled him all his life — for those whom the world deems worthless. In trying to realize this love in the medium of politics, that cesspool of vainglory and vanity, he sometimes befouled himself. But we all befoul ourselves; few of us do it in such a noble cause.
  • How Father Neuhaus Found GOP, by Geoffrey Kabaservice. The American Conservative 03/17/15.
  • Neuhaus in his time, by George W. Rutler. National Review 03/09/15.
  • New biography captures spirit of the of the great Catholic intellectual, by Russel Saltzman. Aleteia. 02/19/15. "Boyagoda found the Neuhaus I knew, complete with all the man’s winsome qualities and not a few of his contradictions. Not surprisingly, he also revealed facets of the man I could never guess. ... Boyagoda has given us a meat-and-potatoes biography. I regard that as a good thing to say."
  • Preaching to the White House, by Phillip Marchand. National Post 02/25/15:
    Boyagoda makes no sweeping pronouncements on this unresolved issue of Neuhaus’s legacy. Certainly things were not as they once were when Neuhaus could claim intimacy with President Reagan and Pope John Paul II. But Boyagoda’s luminously intelligent study of the man makes clear that Richard John Neuhaus — however one regards his politics — deserved his place in a long line of memorable American preacher politicians.
  • The story of Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, an extraordinary Christian man, by Gregory J. Sullivan. Catholic World Report 03/13/15. "a reliable and readable biography."
  • The American Life of Richard John Neuhaus, by Matthew Walther. The Washington Beacon 03/14/15.
  • Richard John Neuhaus and the perils of theologically motivated hyper-partisanship, by Damon Linker. The Week 03/13/15.

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