Fr. Richard John Neuhaus is clearly a man to be reckoned with. Counselor and confidante of presidents, cardinals, and popes. Conjurer of naked public squares, neoconservative triumphs, Catholic moments, “Great” pontificates, and “the authoritative interpretation” of Vatican II. Scourge of liberals, secular humanists, the imperial judiciary, lax bishops, mainline Protestants, and feminists. Writer, theologian, and self-confessed martini aficionado. Indeed, he is by all accounts precisely what he insists those who would follow him into the Catholic priesthood must be: He is a “manly man.”

How manly, you might ask? Manly enough, it seems, to issue an ultimatum to Pope Benedict XVI. The “defining test” of Benedict’s pontificate is already upon him, Neuhaus darkly warns in the February issue of First Things (“Gays and the Priesthood: The Truce of 2005?”). The specter haunting the church is the new pope’s “aversion to unpleasantness” and his temperamental likeness to that other gentle soul, the supposedly overmastered Paul VI. Neuhaus detects dissent and virtual schism—also “dissimulation,” “obfuscation,” and “the smell of mendacity”—in the negative reaction among Catholics, and especially among the Jesuits, to the Vatican’s recent statement barring men with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” from the priesthood. Will Benedict, a “gentle man,” rise to the challenge presented by the “success of the gay ideology,” and smite down those querulous Jesuits and other “dissenters”? Neuhaus has his doubts.

Evidently, this is no time for Benedict to be distracted by Mozart or to make nice with the insolent Hans Küng or to rhapsodize about how God is love. “A palpable uneasiness” afflicts Neuhaus and his fellow neoconservatives, and the pope had better respond. Neuhaus compares widespread resistance to the statement on gay seminarians to something called “The Truce of 1968.” He borrows the term from his friend George Weigel, the papal biographer and tireless scold of those deluded enough to think that the church’s teaching includes a “presumption against war.” Weigel invented the slogan “The Truce of 1968” to describe what he claims were the catastrophic consequences of Paul VI’s failure to discipline priests who publicly dissented from Humanae vitae. The result of Paul VI’s aversion to unpleasantness, according to Weigel, “was to promote intellectual, moral, and disciplinary disorder in the Catholic Church in the United States.” But neither the specific incident Weigel recounts, concerning Washington’s Cardinal Patrick O’Boyle, nor the grandiose term coined to describe it, makes much sense as a historical explanation of the “disorder” that followed on the heels of Humanae vitae. The widespread rejection of Catholic teaching on birth control preceded Humanae vitae, in the confessional and in the bedrooms of faithful married couples, and was not the work of wayward Washington priests. Weigel’s “Truce of 1968” is a neoconservative myth, akin to the notion that a lack of American resolve lost Vietnam or that Ronald Reagan’s principled belligerence ended the cold war. The idea that married Catholic laity might trust their own moral experience when it came to contraception has no place in Weigel and Neuhaus’s tidy scenario. According to the neocon bible, the “disorder” that followed Humanae vitae was caused quite simply by Paul VI’s failure of nerve.

No one who has read the ritual eviscerations carried out by Neuhaus in his monthly column “The Public Square” could accuse him of possessing an aversion to unpleasantness. In “Gays and the Priesthood” he rails against “our sex-obsessed culture,” those insidious Jesuits, the elevation of certain allegedly “gay-friendly” bishops, and the “defiance and evasion” of those who entertain doubts that “homosexual desire is disordered,” and if acted upon, condemns those afflicted to eternal damnation. In doing so, Neuhaus compiles a roster of offenders, what amounts to a list of theologian/priests whom he demands Rome discipline.

There are few theologians or public Catholic figures, especially on the moderate to liberal end of the spectrum, who have not felt the sting of Neuhaus’s disapprobation. Rhetorically, the man can punch, and has been known to use his elbows and the occasional low blow in the clinches. As a consequence, he has not endeared himself to many who do not share his ideological enthusiasms. At the same time, there is no denying that along with an unforgiving eye for the more dubious liberal pieties, the emergence of Neuhaus and First Things has brought needed energy and sharpness to tired Catholic debates. Unfortunately, the venom and innuendo that accompany the well-honed arguments vitiate much of the positive influence First Things could have. As Cardinal Avery Dulles has written about Neuhaus’s “irrational attacks” on the Jesuits in the past, “it is sectarian, not Catholic, to excommunicate those who stand to the right or the left of us within the church.”

Once a liberal Democrat or even well to the left of that, once a Lutheran, and once a prize-winning contributor to Commonweal, Neuhaus is clearly a man of restless intellectual passions and a believer in saying what he thinks more timid souls won’t. For example, while coyly avowing agnosticism regarding a Vatican hand in the removal last spring of his “friend” Tom Reese, SJ, as editor of America, he eagerly defended the dismissal. In doing so, Neuhaus rejected the idea that a Catholic magazine should err on the side of fairness and balance. “Balance understood as neutrality is a formula for banality,” he wrote. Being balanced and fair is not the same thing as being neutral, but we get his larger point. On the other hand, it is equally true that lavishing fulsome praise on even a great pope while beating up endlessly on predictable objects of derision can become an exercise in banality as well.

Certainly, Neuhaus’s presentation of the impending “crisis of authority” precipitated by the response to the Instruction concerning the ordination of homosexuals lacks both fairness and balance. Even some of his admirers may be taken aback by the ferocity and sweep of the petition he has just nailed to Benedict’s door, especially its indictment of Archbishop William Levada, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Levada, it seems, is guilty of the unpardonable sin of not being confrontational enough in denouncing the evils of homosexuality. Yet when Catholics of more liberal sympathies experienced “palpable uneasiness” at Benedict’s or his predecessor’s actions, Neuhaus had little patience with their grievances. Of the protests made over the removal of Reese at America, Neuhaus wrote superciliously that such complaints were hard to explain “unless, of course, one is interested in generating suspicion and hostility against the pope. Needless to say, no faithful Catholic would want to do that.”

Needless to say.

As it happens, Neuhaus quotes Commonweal’s “predictable” and “conventional” editorial (“Instruction from Rome,” December 16, 2005) in making his case. He concedes that the editorial raised a “suggestive” point when speculating that, like the reaction to Humanae vitae, barring all homosexuals from the priesthood will alienate many faithful Catholics. It is not clear whether Neuhaus finds that prospect troubling. What is clear is that if the alleged calamity of the “Truce of 1968” is not to be repeated, the pope must forcibly confront those who are “causing confusion to the faithful.” Otherwise a “thoroughly revisionist sexual morality” will sweep away two millennia of supposedly unchanging church teaching, souls will be lost, and worse, neoconservatives will be further uneased.

It seems to us that Fr. Neuhaus, who prides himself on being a cool customer, is in fact gravely overexcited. Perhaps he should take the advice he dished out to Reese’s defenders: “calm down, take a deep breath, and think again.” As Neuhaus himself acknowledges, the Vatican Instruction was not a doctrinal statement about the moral status of homosexuality, but rather a prudential judgment about who should be admitted to seminaries. Prudential judgments are by definition open to question; those who raised objections, or pointed out the problematic consequences of the Instruction’s implementation, were not endorsing anything like a “thoroughly revisionist sexual morality.” Commonweal has proposed no such thing.

It is true, however, that like many Catholics, Commonweal is engaged in the difficult task of discerning whether new understandings of homosexuality are compatible with the gospel and the church’s moral tradition. We look first to the church for guidance and instruction. But since God’s presence in the world is not confined to the church, we also look to the lives and testimony of our friends and neighbors. No one should pretend that reconciling homosexual love with the church’s teaching is easy or perhaps even likely; and no one should assume it is impossible. God, we are convinced, is both faithful and known to confound expectations. Neuhaus, on the other hand, argues that the church’s teaching about homosexuality is not open to debate or evidently to any further development. The debate, however, is taking place, and Catholics betray no disloyalty or impiety by participating in it.

In the end, the “crisis of authority” in the church and cause of confusion among the faithful come from the unpersuasive reasoning given by those who advocate banning all homosexuals from the priesthood. The Vatican statement, as the commentary on it has suggested, remains ambiguous on this point, while the Catechism instructs us to avoid “every sign of unjust discrimination” against homosexuals. Cardinals and bishops, not just the Jesuits, have offered varying interpretations of what compliance with the Instruction requires. Yet Neuhaus insists that those who disagree with his interpretation of the document are “imperiling their souls and the souls of others.” The moral danger, however, is quite the other way around: souls would be imperiled if honest doubts were not voiced and questions not asked. As the gospel says, sometimes a man has to do what a man has to do.


Related: Richard Neuhaus May Repent by the Editors

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Published in the 2006-02-10 issue: View Contents
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