Catholic America lost two important intellectual voices in the first fortnight of January 2009. The influential neo-conservative intellectual, Father John Neuhaus went to his eternal reward while the Jesuit theologian, Father Roger Haight was barred from any teaching or writing by Vatican decree. No matter the content of their writings, both priests were integral to the freedom of thought and the scope of Catholic theology. Pairing them in comment on their contributions serves the reality of Catholic America better than claiming one is right and the other wrong.
I cannot cover my comments with the fig leaf of impartiality. I know Roger Haight as a neighbor and theological colleague: I personally met Father Neuhaus but once. Yet, as public figures it is not hard to draw stark comparisons between the two.
Father Neuhaus was a convert from Lutheranism and liberalism. His writings secured Catholic participation in the conservative agenda of the past quarter-century in both Church and State. Within ecclesiastical circles, he was an outspoken and articulate supporter of Pope John Paul II’s statements and policies. In U.S. party politics, he was a column of strength for Neo-conservative Republicanism. Rather than face the rigors of academia, he chose to be a public intellectual in the mode of a think-tank expert and on-line blogger known for skewering liberals in politics and theology.
With his passing, Father Neuhaus’ allies in these movements have eulogized his contributions to Catholicism and politics are comparable to those of John Courtney Murray, SJ in the past generation. Death allows for certain exaggeration about the deceased, but the comparison to Fr. Murray doesn’t work for me. The Jesuit had Murray’s 1950s writings on Catholic cooperation with U.S. democracy censured before they were lifted up as charter for the II Vatican Council’s documents in the 1960s. In contrast, Father Neuhaus never wrote anything that would have damaged his standing with the establishment, be it the Republican Party or the Vatican. Dressed with elite hauteur – French cuffs and starched clerical collar – Neuhaus was enamored of the pithy put-down, and his repeated dismissals of Latino Catholicism with its popular devotion and lively music as “multi-cultural exhibitionism” reek of snobbery.
Of course, one need not be a saint to be a Catholic. Whatever his faults, exaggerations or misstatements, Father Neuhaus injected a needed Catholic voice into contemporary society in a cogent and effective manner. You could disagree with Father Neuhaus’ conclusions but still admire his erudition. Ironically, his passing coincided with the vindication of his theology (Josef Ratzinger is Pope Benedict XVI) on the one hand but also with the implosion of the Neo-Con agenda along with the collapse of Catholic support for Republicans in the 2008 election.
In contrast to Father Neuhaus’ political adventurism, theologian Roger Haight, SJ, has explored the meaning of dogma about Christ and the Church strictly as an academic. Respecting his scholarly achievements and his presidency over the most prestigious of Catholic theological organizations, I think Father Haight’s wastebasket contains more profound theology than any of Father Neuhaus’ published works. Yet, the same conservative climate in which Father Neuhaus gloried produced castigation for Father Haight. I have written before about the content of Haight’s theology and the Vatican response, and I wish here only to emphasize that despite their different directions and positions, both fulfill what it means to be completely Catholic. They believe(-d) in the same faith, receive(-d) the same communion and serve(-d) as intellectuals to the U.S. Catholic Church.
Pendulum shifts in history are frequent in Catholicism. It is possible that 100 years from now, Father Haight will be considered the leading light in updating theological thinking and whose only fault was getting too far ahead of ordinary Catholic thinking and the Vatican’s watchdogs. Despite his undeniable influence within the establishment of his times, history may look back on Father Neuhaus as a low-watt politics-cum-theology commentator who was little more than a clever apologist for an irretrievable past. But whatever the future holds, both men speak for the breadth of thought in today’s Catholic America and we are poorer for the loss of their voices.