Is Richard John Neuhaus the Author of Just Another Popish Plot?


Is Richard John Neuhaus the Author of Just Another Popish Plot?

Richard John Neuhaus — the author of The Naked Public Square and the journal First Things — intrigues me because he obviously represents a force of history. But I cannot readily identify just which force that is. Sometimes he seems to be just a fundamentalist who has read a lot of books:

Groups such as the Moral Majority kicked a tripwire alerting us to a pervasive contradiction in our culture and politics. We insist that we are a democratic society yet we have in recent decades systematically excluded from policy consideration the operative values of the American people, values that are overwhelmingly grounded in religious beliefs. 42

He is certainly at pains rhetorically to distance himself from the authoritarianism and sectarianism of the fundamentalists. Yet at bottom, all of his distancing rhetoric in regard to the religious Right may come down to elaborate rationalization. Neuhaus dislikes the public relations style of the fundamentalists, but structurally he is exactly like them. He has a form of inwardness that he wants to make prescriptive for society as a whole. This is the essence of Popery.

“Hegel identified “the distinctly Protestant principle” as “holding fast to interiority as such, rejecting and regarding as impertinent and lifeless, externality and authority.” Paul Tillich agrees: “Protestantism by its very nature demands a secular reality … Protestant secularism is a necessary element of Protestant realization.” [Paul Tillich, The Protestant Era (U Chi Press 1948, 213-214) In this Protestant inwardness, which began the “disenchantment” Max Weber identified with modernity, and which is realized in Hobbes’s imperium rationis of the modern state, all religions are private (inward) matters beyond reason and any claim to make a religion public is “the kingdom of darkness”, “Popery”.43

Now it is no secret of course that Neuhaus made a move from Lutheran to Roman affiliation in the 1990s, and so this slipping into Popery would not be something completely contrary to the direction of his spiritual journey.

When he says that “only a transcendent, religious vision can turn this society from certain disaster and toward the fulfillment of its destiny”44 most serious people would agree, if only you are using the term “religious” in a non-sectarian sense. Perhaps a better word for it would be “spiritual”. But the practical question immediately arises as to where in the real world does one find this vision? It would seem that we have only two choices for the source of this clothing of the naked public square. One of them is sectarian religion and the other is the native authenticity of the human spirit, or more simply, conscience.

Neuhaus of course prefers sectarian religion. (And this in turn must mean his sectarian religion. Aye, there’s the rub…)

Some would cast out the devil of sectarian religion and thus put the public square in proper secular order. Having cast out the one devil they unavoidably invite the entrance of seven devils worse than the first. (Communism in Russia, Nazis in Germany…)45

When religion in any traditional or recognizable form is excluded from the public square … the vacuum will be filled by ersatz religion, by religion bootlegged into public space under other names.

So, he does not trust the native human spirit at all. Unaided by sectarian faith, it is only capable of producing “seven devils worse than the first” and “ersatz religion.” He also claims a distinguished lineage for his point of view:

Autonomy alone, thought as unqualified fulfillment of self, is a new oppression. Religious geniuses such as Paul, Augustine and Luther viewed such autonomy as the oppression of the imperial self, the source and shape of our alienation from God. Beyond autonomy is the free acknowledgement of that by which we are bound. We are bound to be free. We are bound to be free in the sense of being called or destined to freedom. But our freedom is only actualized in the free acceptance of that which authoritatively claims our assent and obedience.46

I explain in Chapter 9 why there are good grounds for disagreeing with Paul, Augustine and Luther in regard to the value of the human self. They were all creatures of their particular times. Moreover, since the time of Paul and Augustine there has been huge cultural change. We have so much more information now. And in Luther’s time it was discovered that oppression actually came much more from “authoritative tradition” than from trust of “the imperial self.”

And so it comes as no surprise that although Neuhaus can quote twentieth century sources prodigiously, when it comes to the deepest foundation of his point of view, he is unerringly drawn to a fifth century Pope:

Of the possible traditions of moral legitimation in Western history, only the biblical tradition is democratically supportable in this society. The biblical story is about the coming of the kingdom. Within that story both church and state are provisional actors. But because it is the bearer of the story, the role of the church is “the more weighty” as Pope Gelasius and John Adams would agree.47

(Just in passing I would offer the rejoinder that the biblical tradition is more about the experience of the ineffable than some triumphal “coming of the kingdom”, and that in either case, today the Internet, among other communications mediums, is as much the bearer of the story as the church.)

So, it is perfectly clear that the historical force that Neuhaus represents is good old fashioned sectarianism, in a kind of contemporary Popish form. His erudition is merely a showman’s trick. It is necessary to wave away all that smoke and mirrors in order to come to the heart of the matter. I think it’s good to have this kind of clarity when it comes to identifying the forces that are operating in the open public square.

Having said that, I experience some relief, because I know this society has long since passed the point when it is going to return to the establishment of religion. There is simply too much history of the limitations of sectarian faith and too much recognition of the success of secularism to go back.

But just to complete the analysis, let us look once again at the three principal deficiencies of sectarian faith as the guardian of the public square. They all stem from its function as a psychological defense mechanism.

The first is that sectarians do not know themselves. They protest their innocence and good will, but they do not in their heart of hearts trust freedom. They do not in their hearts trust conscience. They do not in their hearts trust self. Whenever — and this means on all occasions — they get political power, they repress.

The second is that beyond childhood, the emotional repressiveness of sectarian faith is, ironically, a powerful obstacle to spiritual growth. The Augustinian Arrangement [See Chap. 8.] may have worked for Europe for a thousand years, but that was for a society in the very early stages of building up an information base that could support a widely self-conscious population.

The third is that all spiritually serious people understand that the trust of the native human spirit is a risky proposition which can bring serious pain, and will constantly demand of us to deepen our understanding of ourselves. In this it is much less comforting than sectarian certitudes.

From this line of thought a few observations follow.

Sectarians will always have this problem of mistaking the openness of the public square for nakedness. This is because their sectarian faiths are more defensive against the unruly forces of the id than the defenses offered by the U.S. Constitution. Without their own particular defenses, they feel naked to their own repressions.

Thus in this polity, sectarians are welcome to be active in the open public square, but they are not offered the opportunity to clothe it.

The trust of the human spirit represented by the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights is, in some messy and uneven sense, successful. In history, since the Protestant Reformation, there has been learning. Learning is still going on. This trust is the only way to keep the process of history from being closed. The human psyche must remain open to the contents of the unconscious in order to grow. If you do try to repress it, then unfinished psychic business leaps out of the abyss and the “power of darkness” has its hour upon the stage.

And so our set of laws and institutions tolerates even foolish gnostics: “Like gnostics of all centuries including our own, the devotees of Heaven’s Gate twisted snatches of Christian faith into a doctrine of contempt for life and for the body, the latter being no more than a “physical container” that is to be discarded on the way to the “Level Above Human.”48

Yes, we understand that, Father Neuhaus, and we accept their deaths as the price of freedom: “A case can be made that, in their rejection of authoritative tradition, in their fascination with novel spiritualities and high-tech expertise, and in the assertion of a right to control their lives and deaths, the suicides of Heaven’s Gate exemplify the “mainstream faith” of the Times’ editorial page.”49 Well, that works for me.

But we also do not pass judgment on them, as you appear to do:

“Experts on cult behavior,” says the editorial in the New York Times,” will help us understand “the underlying pathology that led such seemingly bright and articulate people to a tragic misjudgment.” Misjudgment is an interesting term in this connection. Oops, forget the bit about suicide.50

We persist in seeking nuanced insight into the complexities of human motivation. Does anybody have a problem with that?