Symposium Marks Donation of Father Neuhaus’ Papers to Catholic University of America


Father Richard John Neuhaus, founder of the Institute for Religion and Public Life and its magazine, First Things, was dedicated to ecumenical dialogue and believed in the importance of religion in the public square, said speakers at a March 7 symposium in Washington, D.C.

The symposium was held at The Catholic University of America to celebrate the completion of the cataloging of nearly 100 boxes of papers by Father Neuhaus donated to the school’s American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

The papers include his correspondences, publications, photographs and personal items. They were donated by the ecumenical community of Christ in the City, where Father Neuhaus formerly lived.

Father Neuhaus, who died at age 72 in 2009, was first ordained as a Lutheran minister. In 1990, he entered the Catholic Church and was ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of New York by Cardinal John O’Connor the following year.

Becoming a Catholic “did seem to answer to something very deep in him,” said one of the speakers, Gil Meilaender, a professor of theology at Valparaiso University in Indiana.

Father Neuhaus was a leader in the civil rights movement and actively opposed the Vietnam War. He viewed the pro-life movement to be an extension of the civil rights movement, and later became a strong defender of the unborn.

George Weigel, a distinguished senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, discussed Father Neuhaus’ shift from civil rights activism to pro-life activism.

He noted that he believed the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling legalizing abortion on demand was the 20th-century corollary to the court’s infamous 1857 decision denying the citizenship rights of Dred Scott, an enslaved man who sued for his freedom, because both decisions, Weigel said, found that “some people don’t count.”

Until then, “the American story had been one of an expanding circle of concern and compassion,” said Weigel, adding that because of Roe v. Wade, “that circle is radically narrowed.”

Father Neuhaus began to feel alienated from the political left around this time, and gradually shifted to find his place in the political right, later serving as an unofficial adviser to President George W. Bush on social matters.

Through everything that Father Neuhaus did, “his primary orientation was the Church…All of his other activities came out of his service at the altar,” said Robert Wilken, a writer at First Things.

Meilaender recalled how Father Neuhaus would gather 12 to 15 people together to discuss different papers, and was skilled at finding people who would make good conversation partners.

“It was a reaffirmation of the fact that I wasn’t as alone out there as it seemed,” Meilaender said.

These discussion groups were a manifestation of Father Neuhaus’ lifelong commitment to liberalism, which Matthew Rose, director and senior fellow at the Berkeley Institute, said was “a way of thinking about and engaging in” politics.

In this model, people would share ideas and disagreements about what they all agreed was “most important and true,” said Rose, who later added: “Disagreement was not over the existence of truth, but how it is lived out in the public square.”


To learn more about Father Neuhaus’ papers or to contact the archives, visit


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