Clem and Richard Neuhaus: the sad settlement of separation

Wintry Sunday mornings meant traveling by horse and ice cutter from St. John’s Lutheran Church in Pembroke, Ontario to its mission church, some ten miles away in the Ottawa Valley. Hot bricks and bearskin rugs kept the pastor, Clem Neuhaus, and any family member who might accompany him, warm en route. He and his wife Ella were raising seven children in the rural Canadian lumber town, ravaged by the Great Depression.

Clem was created for the place, the hour, and his calling. “More than six feet tall, he weighed well over two hundred pounds by the time his seventh child came around. His contemporaries and congregants alike remember his sizable presence; one in-law describes him in near mythic terms, recalling how he ‘could walk up to a stranger, grasp him by the belt, and twist him over his head with one arm’” (9).


People outside the Ottawa Valley probably would not know of Clem Neuhaus were it not for his seventh child, born during those years of depression. That son, Richard John Neuhaus, would follow his father Clem into the ministry of the Missouri Lutheran Synod.

That would be one of the last things the two of them would agree upon. Clem was fiercely, unquestioning patriotic, housing troops in his home during the Second World War. Richard gained national acclaim by challenging the morality of the Vietnam War. And the world knows Clem, the devout Lutheran pastor, because his son became a much more famous minister, converting to Catholicism, founding First Things, a journal of religion and public life, and, eventually, being ordained a Catholic priest. Besides the war and the civil rights movement, father and son disagreed on ecumenism, on whether the bible should be read in critical and historical terms, and on whether the Church, which Luther founded, was ultimately ordered towards the renewal of the Roman Catholic Church itself.

At a 1966 conference of the Missouri Synod, father and son took celebrated, opposing sides on the question of the church and civil rights. That same year, Richard came home to visit his father. In Richard John Neuhaus: A Life in the Public Square (2015), Randy Boyagoda writes:

A few weeks after the Fourth of July peace fast, Neuhaus left New York and went north to visit his parents, then living in Simcoe, Ontario, where Clem had answered a call after leaving St. John’s Pembroke. The occasion was the fortieth anniversary of both Clem’s ordination and Clem and Ella’s marriage. Richard was invited to preach. Tensions between father and son, who hadn’t seen each other since they’d debated a year before in Detroit, might have abated for the span of a celebratory service and a cordial picture-taking by the local newspaper, but no more than that. In a contemporaneous letter, Clem informed Richard that he would have to submit all future sermons in advance. Clem justified the request by explaining that Richard, unfiltered, was simply to intellectual for his small-town Canadian congregation—but given the active tensions between them, there was certainly more to this than merely sparing Clem’s salt-of-the-earth congregants too much learning for a Sunday morning. In fact, Neuhaus never preached at this father’s church again. Their differences were too great, about the direction of the Missouri Synod in general and on Civil Rights in particular, and also over the war in Vietnam—which Clem strongly supported, not least because two of his other sons, twins Tom and George, were in-country Green Berets ( 124-25).


We probably don’t call them enemies. That’s such a strong word, which we save for the likes of Al Qaeda and Isis. We lack the lofty title, but, for many of us, there are folks whom we’ve simply cut out of our lives: family members, coworkers, one-time friends. Let’s just call them “the others.” Of course, we have our reasons: something someone said or did, or failed to do, something someone does at every opportunity.

Strange, but we typically disagree with, and distance ourselves from, those who share most of our values. Typically, we never even encounter those who are drastically different from us. No, it’s when we clash with someone who is quite like we are, perhaps more than we care to admit, but not a carbon copy. Then, out they go. There was more to unite Clem and his son Richard than to divide them. In life, why is subtraction so much easier than addition?

Yes, there are some folk we’d best love at a distance, but only because we can’t do better than that. Yet the scriptures make it clear, that’s a sad settlement. The problem with excising a person from our lives is that it expels something of God’s own creation, some bit of good that God is doing through the other.

Joshua ran righteously up to Moses. Eldad and Medad hadn’t been prayed over, yet they were already prophesying. In like manner, referring to an unnamed exorcist, Jesus told his disciples:

Do not prevent him.
There is no one who performs a mighty deed in my name
who can at the same time speak ill of me.
For whoever is not against us is for us (Mk 9: 39-40).


Even if there are people with whom we must disagree and distance ourselves, we should never suppose that the Lord isn’t working through them in ways we cannot fathom. That’s true for our individual lives and for the Church. In fact, in Gaudium et Spes, the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, the council fathers taught, “Indeed, the Church admits that she has greatly profited and still profits from the antagonism of those who oppose or who persecute her” (§44). You see, even critics can catechize.

One of the most attractive features of the papacy of Pope Francis is his refusal to set others at a distance because of disagreement. This confuses a lot of people. For them, squabble means separation. That’s what it meant for Clem and his son Richard. That’s what it means for plenty of us, but that’s not what the Gospel asks of us.

Jesus was, rightly, accused of consorting with prostitutes, drunks, and other public sinners. He didn’t condone sin, but neither did he cordon it off. Some preserve righteousness by way of repudiation. Some seek out the other, knowing that we are as much in need of mercy as he or she. Pope Francis chooses the latter.

Politicians have a regrettable tendency to create “others” against whom they hope to rally their own supporters. They speak of illegal immigrants who have committed crimes, or of Muslims who practice terror, or—not so far back—of Jews who control commerce and Irish Catholics who drink too much. They bespeak a small truth and, with no little calculation, surrender a larger one.

Select any group you dislike. You will find some of its members clearly at fault, but close the door of your heart to a people, and you will find yourself resisting the Holy Spirit. God is larger than we. God is at work at levels we cannot fathom.

Clem Neuhaus and his son Richard have both gone home to God. Both were good men, faithful servants of the Gospel. Yet, if heaven admitted shame, they might still blush at the separation, which they chose to create between themselves on earth. Blessedly, a cardinal attribute of heaven is the dismissal of distance. There, sin and separation have no sway.

Numbers 11: 25-29  James 5: 1-6  Mark 9: 38-43, 45, 47-48

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