The differences Richard Neuhaus made

We talked about everything for 31 years, Richard John Neuhaus and I did: families, friends, and adversaries; hopes dashed and hopes fulfilled; popes and presidents; religious freedom and the just war; magazines, books, and movies; Churchill’s loo at Ditchley House; the relative merits of Jack Daniel’s, W.L. Weller, and Woodford’s; you name it. Part of the reason, I suspect, that a few crabbed souls seemed to resent our collaboration (even as they imputed to it powers and influence beyond our wildest imaginings) is that we were clearly having such a good time. Happily, that’s what happens when you fight the good fights together.

Thus the gap left in my life by Father Neuhaus’s death on Jan. 8 is a large one.  Yet if, in the providence of God, it was time for RJN to be called home, I am grateful that the divine mercy arranged things so that the last thing we did together was pray together. And, as his former student, Deacon Vince Druding, told me of the moment of his death, the last thing Richard Neuhaus did in this vale of tears was smile. Perhaps he had been given a glimpse of what awaited him.

I’ve written elsewhere (newsweek.com/id/179243) of the enormous impact Father Neuhaus’s ideas had on American public life. One of those ideas – RJN’s argument that the First Amendment’s “no establishment” provision serves its “free exercise” provision, which led logically to the claim that “separation of Church and state” did not mean eradication of religiously-informed moral conviction from public life—reset the default positions in the American Church/state debate. Then there was RJN’s signal contribution to the pro-life movement, in which he was a leader for 40 years: by insisting that the pro-life movement was the moral heir of the classic civil rights movement (in which he had also been a leader), he inserted the story of the pro-life movement into the most compelling moral narrative of contemporary American history—and thereby gave it a chance to prevail.

So let me focus here on two other aspects of Father Neuhaus’s enduring legacy which have gotten relatively little attention since his death.

First, ecumenism. In the early 1990s, an evangelical intellectual worried aloud to me about the lack of serious theological encounter between the two growing ends of American Christianity, Catholicism and evangelical Protestantism. I mentioned this to Father Neuhaus, whose credentials as a former Lutheran would, I thought, give him a unique brokerage position in any such encounter. Neuhaus contacted Chuck Colson, and the result was the ongoing project, “Evangelicals and Catholics Together,” which has evolved from a forum for discussing common concerns in public life into a bold exercise in ecumenical theology. Go to firstthings.com punch “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” into the search engine, and you’ll see joint statements on salvation, the Bible, and the communion of saints that most of us never expected to see in our lifetimes. While the bilateral ecumenism of the post-Vatican II years was running into one stone wall after another, Neuhaus was pioneering the next phase of ecumenical encounter, and in ways that could shape the future of Christian witness throughout the world.

Then there was RJN’s unique role in Christian-Jewish dialogue. Its roots lay in his friendship with the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, out of which Neuhaus developed the conviction that the divinely mandated entanglement of Christians and Jews of which St. Paul spoke in Romans 9-11 ought to be explored theologically—and that New York City was the divinely mandated place to do it. So while the conventional Jewish-Christian dialogue was running along its well-worn post-Vatican II grooves (and, to be sure, producing good work), Neuhaus and colleagues like Rabbi David Novak and Rabbi Leon Klenicki launched a theological encounter between serious Christians and faithful Jews. The conversation was of such depth that, one evening, one of our rabbinical partners observed, “You know, Christians and Jews haven’t been talking to each other like this for nineteen hundred years.”

That was RJN. His work will go on. It’s the very least we owe him.

COMING UP: Care for Her Act: A common-sense approach to caring for women and their babies

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The pro-life community is often accused of only being pro-birth; however, a congressman from Nebraska is seeking to not only bring more visibility to the countless organizations which provide care for women experiencing crisis pregnancies through birth and beyond, but to also imitate that care at the federal level and enshrine it into law.

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R), who serves the first congressional district in Nebraska, is expected to introduce the Care for Her Act to Congress soon, a bill that’s been in the works since last year. The overall goal of the bill is to “[commit] to care for that journey of life through a complementary set of services whereby the government makes a decided choice on behalf of the life of the unborn child and meeting the needs of the expectant mother,” Rep. Fortenberry told the Denver Catholic.

The Care For Act seeks to accomplish this through four basic provisions: A $3,600 tax credit for unborn children which would apply retroactively after the child is born, in addition to the existing tax credit for children; a comprehensive assessment and cataloguing of the programs and resources that are available to expectant mothers; providing federal grants to advance maternal housing, job training mentorships and other educational opportunities for expectant mothers; and lastly, offering financial incentives to communities that improve maternal and child health outcomes.

The Biden Administration recently indicated that they’ll be removing the Hyde Amendment in next year’s budget, which has historically been in place to prohibit pubic funds from going to abortions. The Care for Her Act would circumvent this to some degree, and it would also test whether Rep. Fortenberry’s dissenting colleagues who have in the past expressed that women should be cared for throughout their pregnancies and beyond are willing to stand by their words.

While the conversation around pregnancy and women’s health often centers around abortion, Rep. Fortenberry intentionally crafted the Care for Her Act to not be against abortion, per se, but rather for women and their babies.

“Abortion has caused such a deep wound in the soul of America,” Rep. Fortenberry said. “However, the flip side of this is not only what we are against, because it is so harmful, but what are we for? So many wonderful people throughout this country carry the burden of trying to be with women in that vulnerable moment where there is an unexpected pregnancy and show them the gift of what is possible for that child and for that woman. Let’s do that with government policy as well.”

Congressman Jeff Fortenberry (R) of Nebraska is expected to introduce the Care for Her Act to Congress soon, a bill which seeks to provide a community of care for women facing an unexpected pregnancy. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. House of Representatives)

Even The Washington Post has taken notice of the Care for Her Act. Earlier this year, Rep. Fortenberry introduced the idea to his constituents, and as to be expected, he received mixed feedback. Those who are pro-life were supportive of the idea, while those who support abortions were more apprehensive. Still others shared consternation about what the government ought to or ought not to do, expressing concern about what the Care for Her Act seeks to do.

“My response is, if we’re going to spend money, what is the most important thing? And in my mind, this is it,” Rep. Fortenberry said.

However, he was very encouraged by one response in particular, which for him really illustrates why this bill is so important and needed.

“One woman wrote me and said, ‘Jeff, I had an abortion when I was young. But if I had this complement of services and commitment of community around me, I would have made another decision,'” Rep. Fortenberry recalled. “And I said ‘yes.’ That’s why we are doing this. For her.”

So far, Rep. Fortenberry has been able to usher support from a number of women representatives on his side of the aisle. He is hopeful, though, that support could come from all sides of the political spectrum.

“Is it possible this could be bipartisan? I would certainly hope so, because it should transcend a political divide,” he explained. “We, of course, stand against abortion because it is so detrimental to women and obviously the unborn child. At the same time though, I think that others could join us who maybe don’t have the fullness of our perspective, who want to see the government actually make a choice on behalf of protecting that unborn life.”

Amidst the politically polarizing discussions about pregnancy and unborn life, the Care for Her act is a common-sense approach to caring for women and their babies. It offers women facing an unexpected pregnancy the chance to experience hope in a seemingly hopeless situation and make a life-giving decision for both herself and her child.

“I’m excited by this,” Rep. Fortenberry said. “I think it opens a whole new set of imaginative possibilities for America, a transformative ideal that again makes this moment of vulnerability when there is an unexpected pregnancy, our chance, our commitment as a community of care.”