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Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, RIP

One of the leading intellectual lights of the Religious Right, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, died this week at the age of 72. Neuhaus was instrumental in creating and nurturing perhaps the two most powerful American cultural partnerships of the past thirty years: uniting Protestant evangelicals and Catholics in the pursuit of common moral interests, and allying social conservatives with traditional free market fiscal conservatives.

Neuhaus' greatest body of writing stemmed from his position as editor-in-chief of the journal First Things. His monthly editorial column, "The Public Square," was one of the most influential soapboxes for religious conservatism, and his brilliant command of language, combined with his astute observations and marvelous intellect, made his work appealing to both the political Left and Right.

WizBang owes much of its notoriety to the events surrounding Hurricane Katrina, so I have chosen to excerpt Fr. Neuhaus' excellent piece on post-Katrina New Orleans entitled "The New Orleans That Was":

There remains the question of rebuilding New Orleans. I have friends whose families go back generations there, and they are deeply divided. Some are in profound mourning for its death, and others defiantly declare that a little hurricane, or even a very big hurricane, cannot kill what New Orleans was and will be again. All agree that New Orleans was different from any other American city. Joel Lockhart Dyer once wrote, "New Orleans is North America's Venice; both cities are living on borrowed time." Michael Ledeen thinks Naples the more apt comparison: "Naples also faces destruction--volcanic destruction from 'Vesuvius the Exterminator,' as the poet Verga once wrote--and Naples, too, is noted for a lively, and often lawless style of life, along with great literature, art, cuisine, and music. . . . The European stereotype of the Neapolitan is very much like the American image of New Orleanians: lazy, happy, spontaneous, and unrepressed, slow-moving but quick-witted, and very happy with the food."

New Orleans is a streetcar named Desire that has made its final run. The French Quarter, built on the city's original and higher ground, was not so badly damaged. I suppose it could be revived as a clean, well-lighted place, but that would not be New Orleans. The play city of New Orleans was also situated in a swamp of poverty, corruption, and decadence. Swamp and city were inextricably joined, and the hundreds of thousands who have relocated may not want to return to the swamp. Halliburton and Disney may spruce up the tourist attractions, and it may be a great success, as the cleaning up of Times Square has proved. But it will not be New Orleans. Times Square is not New York; there are many other places to go and things to do. In New Orleans, the central attraction was the French Quarter--and it cannot be the French Quarter without the surrounding decadence, Dixieland, and broken dreams.


In the chaos of Katrina, it was repeatedly said that this is the kind of thing that happens in the third world, not in America. There had always been something of the third world about New Orleans. It was an American anomaly. In addition to Naples, there was also the feel of what one finds in Buenos Aires or Rio de Janeiro, or even of Dakar in Senegal in the last days of colonial control. Throw in the antebellum South. In New Orleans, one often came across historical oddments, such as the crown of thorns that Pope Pius IX plaited for the imprisoned Jefferson Davis, in the tattered Museum of the Confederacy. New Orleans was a pervasively Catholic city that knew all about "inculturation" long before the Second Vatican Council. There was voodoo, pentecostal enthusiasm, and superstition galore, and it was far from clear what had inculturated what. Between the evil eye and sacramental grace there was an unspoken pact, and for everything, if you didn't get yourself killed, there was absolution. New Orleans lived off absolution. Theologians may call it cheap grace, but it was grace enough to keep the sinners going from day to day.

I spoke there from time to time at the universities, Loyola and Tulane, and once to a group of business leaders. These are the white and wealthy patrons who pretended to let the black folk rule by choosing the politicians for whom they could vote. New Orleans was an unabashedly traditional and hierarchical city that managed to accommodate the civil rights movement with relatively slight inconvenience. Welfare and circuses did not make for prosperity, but it pacified the restless. The "krewes" were the elite clubs in charge of the lavish Mardi Gras floats, and nobody seriously challenged their authoritative delineation of who was who in the social order of New Orleans. I was musing with the business leaders about the strangeness of it all and wondering how it came to be, when a gentleman who was "in real estate" (and was said to own a third of the city) politely interrupted and said, "Well, you have to understand, Father, that New Orleans just kinda happened."

I expect that's right, and no amount of local pride, entrepreneurial capitalism, or massive government aid will make it happen again. There will be a New Orleans again. The port and refineries will get back on their feet and the tourists will flock to the "revived" French Quarter. But it will not be New Orleans. It will work hard at being New Orleans, but precisely to the degree that it works hard at being New Orleans, or works hard at anything for that matter, it is not New Orleans. The tourists will tell themselves they have been to New Orleans, and those who remember will kindly decline to disabuse them.

With the ever-increasing presence of the Religious Left in our national ethics, and the strong alliance between the Obama Administration and liberal Christianity, Fr. Neuhaus' strong conservative voice will be sorely missed.


The Richard John Neuhaus Blogspot page contains an exhaustive compendium of death notices, remembrances, interviews, and First Things editorials.

The Anchoress also has a good Neuhaus link roundup.


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Comments (9)

I am sorry for the father's... (Below threshold)

I am sorry for the father's passing, but New Orleans is there today. In fact it is ranked 8th in the US for growth this last year. It is there due to the people of the city that endured YEARS of unbelievable hardships while our own country looked the other way.

Why are the words "Religiou... (Below threshold)
daniel rotter:

Why are the words "Religious Right" surrounded by quotations, but the words"Religious Left" aren't?

Neuhaus was a strange bird,... (Below threshold)

Neuhaus was a strange bird, deserving of the title Patron Saint of Neoconservative Catholics, who traded the Just War theory for $$ and celebrity.

Following is a downright psychical forecast, quibbles aside, of conservative straits today written way back in 1990, and prominently featuring the late political priest conversing with Mammon while wearing his collar backward.


"Why are the words "Religio... (Below threshold)

"Why are the words "Religious Right" surrounded by quotations, but the words"Religious Left" aren't?"


- Mike

doctorj,"while our... (Below threshold)


"while our own country looked the other way." Really?

America in fact, rather than looking the other way, WAS "watching and praying day and night, sending tens of thousands of volunteers, opening its cities and homes to hundreds of thousands of refugees, donating nearly a billion dollars through churches and voluntary organizations, not to mention more than $200 billion in federal aid and reconstruction."

I'm not quite sure what in the hell the people of New Orleans expected other human beings to do to help? Rewind the whole event?

And the fact is that yes, New Orleans is still here. But it will never be the same.

SAHMmy, Still bel... (Below threshold)

Still believing the spin I see. I am talking 3 1/2 years, not a time in 2005. Do yourself a favor and watch "The Old Man and the Storm". You can watch it online on the PBS Frontline page. It shows what individuals went through. It isn't political spin ($200 billion. What a joke!). It is the hard story of real life. I lived it so I know it is the truth. And yes, New Orleans IS different. You cannot go unchanged when you live in that kind of devastation, abandoned and betrayed by our own government.

"not to mention more than $... (Below threshold)

"not to mention more than $200 billion in federal aid and reconstruction."

You shouldn't have mentioned it, SAHmmy, because that's a lie.

I cannot speak to all of SA... (Below threshold)

I cannot speak to all of SAHMmy's "facts", but I have the distinct feeling that the same urge drove us both to respond.

"while our own country looked the other way."

Is it at all possible in retrospect that you yourself might wish to rephrase this all encompassing judgment. I live a long way from N'awlins but there was massive compassion and contributions not to mention (which, of course, IS to mention) all the prayers flying to the Father from oh so many Americans.

I've been a Wizbang reader for quite some time now, and thus have been exposed by Paul to some of the problems and neglect that may have fueled at least some of your anger. But despite what you feel to be the righteousness of your view, don't you think that there just might be some exceptions to that phrase which you've already taken the time to defend.

I noted no exceptions to the generality and I gotta tell ya. you just might have missed a little bit of the national response. Not everyone was looking the other way. There are plenty of targets for gratitude for the people of New Orleans and if you don't think that is true, I feel sort of sorry for you. Aside from you, I think there are at least a few people in New Orleans who may feel somewhat differently about who did and did not care for the victims of Katrina.

First of all notice what I ... (Below threshold)

First of all notice what I put in quotes. That which I put in quotes indicates the words of someone else, specifically Fr. Neuhaus.

If you want to call him a liar, I guess you are free to do so.

Secondly in September of 2005 Congress allocated $62 billion and the House of Representatives approved an additional $20 billion on March 16, 2006. In addition to that at least $50 billion has been shifted from federal agencies, which apparently left them short.

And if you want to quibble with those figures take it up with the participants of the Urban Law and Policy panel of the Conference on Public Service & the Law which took place in March 2006, and from where I got those figures.

I'm not a liar, I'm not a spinner. I know that Americans and their government did NOT turn their backs on the people of New Orleans and it pisses me off to hear that bullshit.






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