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Richard John Neuhaus interviewed
When leading Lutheran theologian Richard John Neuhaus (55) converted to Catholicism in 1990 the move sent shock waves through Lutheran circles in the United States because of his prominence in that Church. Neuhaus was hoping to be ordained a Catholic priest at the end of 1991 by his bishop, Cardinal John O'Connor of New York.
One of eight children and the son of a Lutheran pastor, Dr Neuhaus followed his father into the ministry. For 30 years he was a Lutheran pastor to a poor, black community in Brooklyn. A well-known public commentator on civil rights and the anti-war movement, he is a founder-director of the Centre for Religion and Society in New York and the author of several books including 'The Naked Public Square' and 'The Catholic Moment.'
New Zealand-born journalist, Mary Arnold, now resident in the United States, has filed this interview for 'AD2000.'
Mary Arnold: Most non-Catholics, converting to Catholicism, do so because they are seeking a unity and authority that they lack in their own churches. Yet the American Catholic Church seems torn by a Modernist versus Roman schism. How do you feel about entering such a Church and how do you view the schism - as real or imagined?
Richard Neuhaus: As I wrote in my latest book The Catholic Moment, I am keenly aware of the tensions within the Church right now and allegations of the oppression of those whose allegiance is with Rome. My eyes are wide open to the conflicts within the Church, but I don't think you can call it "schism."
Cardinal Newman wrote that when he was received into the Catholic Church it was like coming into safe harbour after years on the stormy sea. My experience is the opposite. I was in safe harbour in the Lutheran Church and, in entering the Catholic Church, have embarked on very stormy sea.
Arnold: So you felt more comfortable with your identity as a Lutheran than as a Catholic?
Neuhaus: No, it's not that. I, personally, understand my Catholic identity very clearly and I'm in wholehearted agreement with the way in which Catholic doctrine and life are articulated by someone like Cardinal Ratzinger, whom I admire. Yet I do appreciate the conflicts in the Church. I wouldn't call it a "schism", which means a break in full communion with the Church, but I do acknowledge that there is a spirit of schism amongst some sectors and that does trouble me.
Arnold: Getting back to your book The Catholic Moment. In it you contend that the Catholic Church is the right one to spearhead a drive for Christian reunification and the church best-suited to offer moral guidance for the development of public policy.
Yet some of the American bishops disagree openly with papal teachings or they act in ways which confuse the laity, as happened recently when the Bishop of Sacramento caused controversy by honouring the pro-abortion Governor inside his cathedral. Sometimes the Bishops seem very comfortable with "the secular moment." Are you confident that American Bishops have any desire to seize "the Catholic moment"?
Neuhaus: My hope that the Church will emerge as a strong leader in society is just that a hope. What I described in The Catholic Moment is not a prophecy but the outline of a possibility. There are no guarantees that my hopes expressed in The Catholic Moment will ever be realised.
I agree that some bishops and priests are more enamoured of the secular moment then of the Catholic moment, but, at the same time, 1 believe the bishops are becoming more responsive to the Holy Father, partly because we have had some good appointments of bishops in recent years. I believe that allegiance to the secular moment is decreasing. I think that some of those who constitute pro-Choice Catholics and the Women's Ordination movement are growing older. They formed their views back in the 1960s, but I don't believe they characterise today's young seminarians and Catholics.
Arnold: The bishops' recent decision to rewrite Scripture using more "inclusive" or feminist language? Doesn't this reflect a bowing down to the sexual confusion of our culture?
Neuhaus: To be honest, I think the barbarity of the English language currently used in the liturgy is cause enough for sorrow without further fiddling in terms of feminist inclusiveness. So I find that a troubling decision. But, on the other hand, the bishops did withdraw the draft on "Women in the Church" which had raised serious theological questions with regard to alleged sexism. So withdrawing that document was a victory. You win one. you lose one.
Decadence and renewal will always exist side-by-side in the Church and orthodox Catholics should not slip into a siege mentality. We have Our Lord's promise that the gates of Hell shall not prevail against His Church and neither will the ephemeral comings and goings of cultural fashion prevail against the Church.
Arnold: To what extent was Luther's break with Rome justified? It seems that, although he was correct in attacking abuses in the Church (such as the sale of indulgences), it is also true to say that, when he produced his 95 Theses, his personal theology was already way out of line with Church teaching. Was he setting out to reform the Church or to completely re-write its doctrines?
Neuhaus: I think the Lutheran Reformation was intended to be a movement of reform within and for the Catholic Church in full communion with Rome. That was Luther's intention. And, more important than Luther himself, was the Augsburg Confession of 1530 in which the intention quite clearly was not to break away and start a Lutheran Church. However, after 1530, for political, social and theological reasons, the divide became so unbridgeable that the "reformers" believed they had no alternative but to break from Rome and start their own Church.
Arnold: What concrete examples made the divide unbridgeable? Was "justification by faith" the major problem?
Neuhaus: That doctrine was one problem because it meant the Christian was not called to good works. Also the idea that the individual and his Bible were sufficient without any tradition or authority in the Church.
Arnold: Yet you believe today that a reunification between Lutherans and Catholics is possible.
Neuhaus: It is possible if the desire is there. Over the past five years the German Catholic bishops and the German Lutheran Church have produced a book called The Condemnations of the 16th Century which shows that the reasons for the 16th century condemnations and anathemas no longer exist.
I personally believe that the original intentions of Lutheranism - to be a reforming movement within the Catholic Church - can now be advanced in full communion with Rome. I believe there is no longer any justification for a separated Lutheran Church.
Arnold: But how, specifically, do you reconcile theological problems such as the Mass, the Eucharist, interpretation of Scripture?
Neuhaus: It's difficult, but the Lutheran-Catholic dialogues of the past 25 years have given cause for hope. With great theological rigour and intellectual integrity I see a theological convergence taking place on all the critical questions - Eucharist, the Mass, the nature of grace, authority of Scripture, even on the Petrine ministry, there is today some agreement.
There are post-Reformation doctrines in the Catholic Church which provide difficulty - the Immaculate Conception, infallibility and the Assumption. But I would ask the Lutherans, "Cannot these dogmas be understood in a way that is perfectly consistent with a Lutheran understanding of the gospel?" I think they can and that is why I am a Catholic today. I believe the authentic purposes of the Reformation no longer require a separate communion.
Arnold: You saw your ministry as an evangelical catholic Lutheran as trying to heal the breach with Rome but that is probably not how most Lutherans see it.
Neuhaus: No they don't. In fact most Lutherans are settling more deeply into separate communion and are happy to be just another Protestant church. There are Lutherans who seek to heal the breach and who believe we can be re-united but I don't really think they will prevail over the others.
Arnold: When you left the Lutheran Church, your former Lutheran Bishop, William H. Lazareth, referred to your "personal polemics and ideological strife." Are you still friendly with him?
Neuhaus: Yes, we are still friends. He has publicly acknowledged that his words were spoken in momentary pique and has apologised for them.
Arnold: Are you an embarrassment to the Lutheran Church and has conversion been a lonely experience for you?
Neuhaus: I have no complaints about how I was treated in the Lutheran Church. In fact after I converted to Catholicism, Lutheran Forum Magazine sponsored a big banquet in honour of my contribution to Lutheranism - which was generous of them. And, no, conversion has not been a lonely experience because I have developed so many Catholic friends, especially amongst priests and theologians in the past 20 years, that I was warmly welcomed into the Church.
Arnold: Why did you never marry, and are you in favour of a celibate clergy?
Neuhaus: Most Lutheran clergy are married, but I always believed I was called to a ministry that could best be exercised in the single state. I think I was a more effective pastor because of my celibacy. I am in favour of the leadership of this Pope, and he has made it manifestly clear that he has no doubt whatsoever about the importance of clerical celibacy. I find his arguments persuasive. I think he's right.
Once celibacy becomes an option, there are lots of pressures to marry and celibacy almost disappears as a charism.
Arnold: What do you like most about Catholics and what do you dislike most?
Neuhaus: I feel very at home around Catholics. This Church is where the fullness of Christ's truth subsists, and being Catholic is a freeing experience for me. On the negative, I would refer you to the book Why Catholics Can't Sing by Thomas Day. I find the liturgy and music of contemporary Catholicism depressing. But that is something I will have to bear with.
Arnold: In 1988 you were named as one of the 32 "most influential intellectuals in America." Sometimes the simple and unlettered make impressive saints. In the quest for true holiness, is being an intellectual a help or a handicap?
Neuhaus: (laughs) I don't know. If you look at the canon of saints, intellectuals don't show up with great frequency. On the other hand, I have to deal with the assets I have been given by God, and one of them is the intellect. I can only pray that in my case it won't be a handicap.
Arnold: You appear to have made excellent use of it so far. Thank you for speaking with us and welcome into the Church!
Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 4 No 5 (June 1991), p. 10
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