Catholic Matters: Confusion, Controversy, and the Splendor of Truth by Richard John Neuhaus

Catholic Matters: Confusion, Controversy, and the Splendor of Truth

If you are just joining in, I am slowly working through several books on Catholic theology and practice.  Catholic Matters was recommended by a friend and is a very good next step for me.

Richard John Neuhaus is on of the better known Catholic writers in the United States.  He is a priest in New York and a convert from the Lutheran stream of Christianity at the age of 54.  Most Evangelicals will know him as the editor of the Institute on Religion and Public Life’s publication First Things.  Neuhaus passed away in 2009.

Neuhaus was a great believer in ecumenical activity (the idea behind The Institute on Religion and Public Life and his earlier Institute on Religion and Democracy).  He along with Charles Colson were the prime drivers behind the Evangelicals and Catholics Together statements that provided a significant part of the discussion material from Mark Noll’s Is The Reformation Over (reviewed earlier).

But Neuhaus was also clearly Catholic.  This books is more of an inside baseball look at the Catholic Church.  It both opens and closes with excerpts from his journals around the time of Pope John Paul II’s death.  These excerpts give context and humanity to the rest of the book.  Neuhaus loves the church and while some will strongly disagree with him on issues, it is not because he is rejecting the church.

Personally, I am a liberal.  I don’t know if this is a genetic condition or something from my background.  But my politics and orientation is to push change.  So I read Neuhaus and other conservatives as a balance and reminder of what I am missing when I push too hard.  Neuhaus is a conservative in the very best sense of the word.  He wants to uphold tradition, to strengthen the place of authority and the institution and react against movements to adopt every new idea that flits across culture.

But he is clearly not the old man yelling “get off my lawn”.  He is a public intellectual and one who’s conservatism is deeply rooted in both faith and philosophy.

Because this book was written primarily for other Catholics and not for me, I am not going to review it as much as comment on some of the ideas that are in it.

Neuhaus in his discussion of his decision to become Catholic said, “…the problem with Luther, as also with most forms of born-again Protestantism, [is] that sola gratia [grace alone] always returns a person, and too often never gets beyond, square one of the certainty of being saved.”  Neuhaus is right.  While the fact that we are saved by grace is very important.  And while I affirm the concept that adding anything to grace ceases to be grace, there is a point (strongly emphasized in the book of James) that we cannot stop at just grace.  The Christian life starts with the grace that leads us to salvation.  But then it must continue with the grace that leads us toward holiness and sanctification.  The grace of salvation is only the milk of Christianity.  Important, essential, but just the start.

As a Protestant, one of the parts of Catholic theology and practice that I am most attracted to and scared of is the Magisterium.  (As a friend of mine recently said, most Protestants add the little spooky waver to their voice when saying Magisterium.  It is almost like we are watching Scooby Doo.)  Neuhaus’ discussion of objections to the Magisterium (think the teaching authority of the church) was very helpful.  His discussion of why Papal infallibility is not to be feared and why the Pope can no more say you must believe that Mary is the fourth member of the Trinity than he can say 2+2=5.  When I view the magisterium as the protector of the faith, and not bureaucratic slowness, I am encouraged.

This is a fairly long quote, but worth reading,

“There is much in what is called the religious culture of American that runs counter to the Catholic way of being Christian.  America continues to be in important ways a Protestant society.  American individualism, which is no doubt a source of economic and other strengths, turns religion, too, into a matter of consumer choice and spiritual marketing.  As a result, the church (lower case) is understood in terms that are organizational rather than organic.  One’s church is an association of the like-minded rather than the Mystical Body of Christ gathered in wondrously catholic diversity by the Real Presence.  For the Catholic, the ‘pilgrim Church on earth’ is a distinct society of primary allegiance.  For the Protestant, one’s church is an associational choice based on preferences in morality, teaching, leadership style, or aesthetic taste.  For the Protestant, one’s church is chosen; the Catholic belongs to the church because he is among the chosen.  he chooses what he is going to do about being chosen, but being chosen is prior to his choosing.  He does not join the church; he belongs to the church.”

As a member of a mega church that quite consciously chooses to work within the world of consumer choice and marketing those are tough, but true words.  The Catholic church is no more perfect than any of the Protestant ones.  But authors like Neuhaus continue to speak to the need of being ‘The Church’ and not just part of ‘a church’.

I have a paper copy of this book that I will send to the first person that requests it.  Leave a comment below.

Catholic Matters Purchase Links: Hardcover, Paperback


Adam, thank you for your review. I am greatly drawn to Catholicism these days – an attraction that began more than a decade ago when we “joined” an Anglican church. Yet, I, too, become tremulous when it comes to the Magisterium. While there are aspects of Catholicism I don’t understand, there is much that I find refreshing – not least the whole attitude expressed above in your extensive quote.

I would very much appreciate receiving the paper copy of the book.

Adam, I would love to have the paperback copy of this book you are generously giving away. After reading your comments I am anticipating reading through it. Thank you for an insightful and thought provoking post.

Nice review.

“The Catholic church is no more perfect than the many Protestant ones”

Agreed, nothing in the here and now is perfect (yet). But the Catholic Church is more right. 😉 Zing.

(Couldn’t help myself.)

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