Richard John Neuhaus, Damon Linker and Me

By Rod Dreher
January 8, 2009

I linked below to Damon Linker's remembrance of Father Neuhaus, and do so here again. I've been waiting all day to see what Damon would say. He was from 2001 to 2005 either the associate editor or editor of First Things, and then broke severely with Neuhaus and the magazine.His 2006 book, "The Theocons: Secular America Under Siege" attacked Neuhaus and his neoconservative Catholic cohorts for what he considered to be their agenda to turn America toward the religious right.

Hearing of Father Neuhaus' death today brought to mind the one time I met Damon. It was at some point in the spring of 2002, during the height of the Catholic sex abuse scandal revelations. I was writing fiercely about them at National Review, and was getting angry calls from Fr. Neuhaus telling me to knock it off. In truth, I don't remember the rationales he offered, but I will never forget his telling me I had no business writing for NRO this story and this follow-up about the Society of St.John, a weird Catholic men's order in the Diocese of Scranton that had been credibly accused of sexual misconduct with minor males. Fr.Neuhaus was quite put out with me for having published it. I asked him why I ought not to report these things. He said that then-Bishop Timlin had told me that there was nothing to the story, and that was that.

"Father Neuhaus," I said. "Why should I believe Bishop Timlin?" Mind you, this was well after all the episcopal lies in Boston had been revealed, and not only in Boston.

Neuhaus literally yelled at me: "Because he's a bishop of the Roman Catholic Church!"

Several years later, the sex abuse lawsuit against the Society and the Diocese of Scranton was settled and the new bishop suppressed the Society. Timlin was shown to have been not credible, to put it with undue charity.

I tell you this story not to speak ill of Father Neuhaus, certainly, but to shed light on his complex character. He was not, as readers of his column know, a patsy for the bishops. But I do think he was an example of the extreme difficulty many Catholics, even good ones -- even sophisticated ones (perhaps especially sophisticated ones) -- had in seeing what was right in front of their nose in those days. Neuhaus had so much invested in the authority of the Church that he really did believe that the word of a bishop should be enough to settle matters. In what his final "While We're At It" column for the magazine, Fr. Neuhaus gently took me to task again for my writing on the scandal, saying that there are some things that ought not be known by people for their own good. It's a complicated point, one not without merit, and I hope to return to it later.

Anyway, this is what I was dealing with re: Father Neuhaus that spring of '02, and as someone who had long looked up to Neuhaus as an intellectual hero, I was having a lot of trouble with it. I can't remember how it came about, but Damon and I met for lunch one day. I relate to you after the jump what was said in that conversation with his permission.

Like me, Damon was a Catholic convert, and like me, Damon was a young father. We talked at some length, I recall, about how searing it was to endure the revelations about what priests did to children, and what their bishops did to families who sought justice. At some point, I brought up how disheartened I was by Father Neuhaus's reaction. I saidthat he's the kind of man who dines with popes and prelates, and I suspected that he simply had no idea what it was like to be a Catholic father or mother, and to learn of the gross betrayal of Catholic children and Catholic families by the hierarchy.

Damon agreed, and talked of what life was like in the First Things office -- in particular, how detached Fr. Neuhaus seemed to be from exactly that thing: the experience of ordinary Catholic families being dragged through this hell, along with the rest of the Church. In my recollection, this deeply disturbed Damon. I will leave it to him to describe what, if anything, the experience of working at FT through the crisis did to his relationship to the Catholic faith. For me, though, I felt consoled, in a way, to know that there was someone in my position -- that is, a Catholic father -- working directly with Fr. Neuhaus, who was just as puzzled and even angered by his circle-the-wagons attitude as I was, and his curious indifference to the experience of Catholics like us.

As many of my readers know, Father Neuhaus and I, who had been friendly till the scandal, had a break, and I eventually left the Catholic Church for the Orthodox Church. My leaving Catholicism occasioned an unexpectedly charitable public comment from Father Neuhaus, for which I was grateful:

Over on, Rod Dreher explains at length why he and his family have left the Catholic Church for Orthodoxy. It is painful reading, as it was undoubtedly painful for him to write. For those whom I have described as "ecclesial Christians," Orthodoxy has to be very seriously considered. In Catholic Matters, I discuss some of those considerations and why I am convinced that an ecclesial Christianity is more fully realized in the Catholic Church.

Having said that, however, Dreher's essay is important. Yes, his decision is in large part reactive. But he is reacting to very real corruptions in the Catholic Church. I hope every Catholic bishop and priest will read his essay, and especially those bishops and priests who are inclined to heave a sigh of relief that we have weathered the sex-abuse scandal. And every Catholic engaged in the standard intra-church quarrels, whether on the left or the right, should take to heart what he says about Catholics being more preoccupied with church battles than with following Jesus.

Dreher concludes his reflection with this: "Still, those of you more charitably inclined, please just pray for me and my family, that we always live in truth, and do the right thing, and be found pleasing to God, the Father of us all." No Catholic should hesitate to join in that prayer.

As someone who considered himself an informal acolyte of Neuhaus's at one point, that meant a lot to me, and I got word to him that it had. I never saw him again, nor communicated with him personally. I held not the least grudge against him for the rancor between us. I have no way of knowing, but I've wondered if the toxic tsunami of what Cardinal Ratzinger would publicly describe as "filth" that kept coming after that spring finally overwhelmed his defensiveness, hence his graceful and empathetic send-off to me. Or maybe not, as his final word on my case in the current FT might indicate. It's impossible to know, and it doesn't really matter anyway. What's past is past.

I must confess, though, that when Fr. Neuhaus finally got Bill Buckley to order me to stop writing about the Catholic mess, I was angry at him, considering him a bully who was trying to cover up things that ought not be covered up. [UPDATE: See my correction/clarification of this point in a subsequent post. -- RD] And maybe he was that. [Though I confess that in retrospect, whatever his rationale, I'm glad he did what he did; I really had gotten far too emotionally involved in the story.]

But as the years went by, and I learned myself how badly I had let myself believe what I wanted to believe about the Iraq War, I came to see how fallible we humans are, and how hard it is for us to see and believe things that shatter our illusions. Few men did more to successfully defend Catholic orthodoxy in his ministry and career, and the realization that the institution -- and, specifically, the men -- he'd been championing were in many horrifying cases spectacularly and grotesquely corrupt -- well, it became easier for me to understand how a man of his considerable intellect and considerable pride could have reached the conclusions he did. Had I been in his place, I might have done the same thing.

I'm not defending it, because I think it's pretty much indefensible. Had a priest of Neuhaus's immense gifts and stature spoken out on behalf of Catholic victims and their families earlier, or at least not have stood up for them when he ought to have been calling them out, who knows how much good might have been done, and suffering might have been avoided? If he had troubled to put himself in the position of Catholic mothers and fathers instead of the high-ranking churchmen who were his usual milieu, maybe it would have changed his views.

Then again, that could be said of me. You too. We are all broken, and in need of mercy. I trust he has found it today, in the company of the saints.


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