Father Richard John Neuhaus, the founder of the Institute for Religion and Public Life and its magazine, First Things, was remembered during a March 7 symposium at The Catholic University of America for his dedication to ecumenical dialogue and belief in the importance of religion in the public square.

The symposium celebrated the completion of the cataloging of nearly 100 boxes of papers by Father Neuhaus, which were donated to the American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives at Catholic University by the ecumenical Community of Christ in the City, where Father Neuhaus formerly lived. The papers include his correspondences, publications, photographs and personal items.

Father Neuhaus was first ordained as a Lutheran minister, but in 1990 he converted to Catholicism and was later ordained as a priest. One of the panelists, Gil Meilaender – a professor of theology at Valparaiso University in Indiana –  said Pastor Neuhaus’s conversion “did seem to answer to something very deep in him.”

Father Neuhaus was a leader in the civil rights movement and actively opposed the Vietnam War. He viewed the pro-life movement to be an extension of the civil rights movement, and later became a strong defender of the unborn.

George Weigel, a distinguished senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, discussed Father Neuhaus’s shift from civil rights activism to pro-life activism, noting that he believed the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling legalizing abortion on demand was the 20th century corollary to the Court’s infamous 1857 decision denying the citizenship rights of Dred Scott, an enslaved man who sued for his freedom, because both decisions, Weigel said, found that “some people don’t count.”

Until then, “the American story had been one of an expanding circle of concern and compassion,” said Weigel, adding that as a result of Roe v. Wade, “that circle is radically narrowed.”

Father Neuhaus began to feel alienated from the political left around this time, and gradually shifted to find his place in the political right, later serving as an unofficial adviser to President George W. Bush on social matters.

Through everything that Father Neuhaus did, “His primary orientation was the Church…all of his other activities came out of his service at the altar,” said Robert Wilken, an author at First Things.

Rusty Reno, the editor of First Things; noted how though he was considered a prominent public intellectual, Father Neuhaus was not “a creature of the university,” which was a point that Wilken echoed when he noted that Father Neuhaus entered the seminary immediately after high school and never earned a doctorate.

Meilaender recalled how Father Neuhaus would gather 12-15 people together to discuss different papers, and was skilled at finding people who would make good conversation partners.

“It was a re-affirmation of the fact that I wasn’t as alone out there as it seemed,” said Meilaender.

These discussion groups were a manifestation of Father Neuhaus’s lifelong commitment to liberalism, which Matthew Rose, director and senior fellow at the Berkeley Institute, said was “a way of thinking about and engaging in” politics.

In this model, people would share ideas and disagreements about what they all agreed was “most important and true,” said Rose, who later added, “disagreement was not over the existence of truth, but how it is lived out in the public square.”

Rose said there is “an intrinsic relationship between belief in the truth and in tolerance” of other viewpoints, because “assent to the truth must be done freely…it cannot be coerced.”

According to Father Neuhaus, “the true enemy of liberalism wasn’t strongly held or strongly voiced opinions about the truth, but rather their absence or suppression,” said Rose.

Father Neuhaus brought Evangelicals and Catholics together around a range of issues, and in 2005, TIME magazine named him as one of 25 most influential Evangelicals in America, despite his being Catholic.

Father Neuhaus was well known for his opinion that religion needed to play an important role in American democracy, and Meilaender explained that this belief came from his view that politics is a function of culture, and at the heart of culture is religion.

Meilaender also highlighted Father Neuhaus’s “While We’re At It” column, in which he discussed current events and was able to find theological significance in many different cultural and political things, because to him, “the whole of life really was connected to the Church,” said Meilaender.

“It is not just gossip…it is a way of seeing everything in light of the Christian faith,” Meilaender added.

Though originally from Canada, Father Neuhaus came to love America, and the last book that he wrote was titled American Babylon.

Quoting Father Neuhaus, Rose said, “Yes, America is Babylon, but it is our Babylon. It is the time and place God has given to us.”

To learn more about the Richard John Neuhaus Papers, or to contact the archives, visit http://archives.lib.cua.edu/findingaid/neuhaus.cfm.

CS PHOTO BY JACLYN LIPPELMANN George Weigel, distinguished senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, speaks during the March 7 symposium honoring the life and work of Father Richard John Neuhaus.