BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Father Richard John Neuhaus, what is "As I Lay Dying" about?
RICHARD JOHN NEUHAUS, AUTHOR, "AS I LAY DYING: MEDITATIONS UPON RETURNING": "As I Lay Dying" -- it's about -- the occasion for it was that I almost died some years ago, in connection with a series of catastrophic cancer surgeries, and for weeks and months afterwards, reflected on it and what it meant to be at death's door, what it meant to die, whether I had died or not and what "I" means, what the word "I" means, relative to the body's dying.
So it's a book of reflections, a very personal book, a painfully personal book, in many ways, a book of poetry, in part, literary, philosophical, theological. But I think it's a book -- I hope it's a book that everybody who knows that we're all living toward dying -- that is, that we live every day against the horizon of the fact that we're going to die -- I hope people will be able to enter into what in many ways was the exhilarating and inspiring albeit painful experience of being at death's door and being brought back.
LAMB: What year was this?
NEUHAUS: In 1993, January 10th, was when it all began.
NEUHAUS: New York City, where I live. And it was the kind of thing that ought not to have happened ….medical people. A number of lawyers have told me that I have a great malpractice suit, if I ever wanted to go that route, but I didn't and I don't. I think that would, in some way, sully my gratitude for having been brought back and for the experience itself.
But it was a case where I'd had a number of colonoscopies. Many of your viewers know what that is and -- a search for cancer through the intestines and the -- and they didn't show anything, which, of course, from a medical viewpoint, is quite astonishing. Many doctors have expressed almost disbelief that somebody could have been so incompetent as not to have caught what was a very major ulcer, which then on a late Sunday afternoon, January 10th, 1993, a day that shall live in infamy, so to speak, all of a sudden I found myself just doubled up on the floor in excruciating pain.
LAMB: Go back to -- just a moment for the colonoscopy. Were -- was there a routine thing that you'd been taking a colonoscopy?
NEUHAUS: No, because there had been all kinds of abdominal problems, and pains and just all kinds of things that shouldn't have been. And so -- I remember very well, this doctor, not the one who did the colonoscopy, my regular physician -- very nice person -- and he was so proud of the fact that they now had this world-class fellow there who did the colonoscopies and that therefore none of his patients would die of colon cancer.
But that world-class fellow did it twice, and then a third time, and caught nothing, until finally, I was in an emergency situation, where this tumor was simply exploding -- you don't want to get into the grisly guts here, but in -- in -- it was just a terrible, terrible experience. And then they had to go in. And it was a long, long operation, of course. And fortunately, I was living in New York. I was near the hospital, the emergency room of the hospital.
And as I say in the book, it's always good when you go in there to have a couple of friends with you, especially friends who can intimidate, if necessary, even physically, because there was this very, very officious woman in charge of the desk and -- who was not about to let me jump the line. You know, there were a lot of other people there and...
LAMB: What hospital was this?
NEUHAUS: Cabrini Hospital in -- on 19th Street, a block from where I live in New York. But finally, after I fainted and passed out on the floor, she finally decided that maybe there was something seriously wrong.
LAMB: You were in 1993 how old?
LAMB: And had you -- other than this discomfort, had you been in pretty good health?
NEUHAUS: Yes. Yes. In fact, remarkably good health all my life. Never really seriously ill at all.
LAMB: What was your job then?
NEUHAUS: Well, I was -- I'm a priest of the archdiocese of New York, and so I have a parish, Immaculate Conception on 14th Street and 1st Avenue in New York -- Manhattan. And then I run a think tank, a research and education institute called the Institute on Religion and Public Life. And we -- our main project or -- yeah, the mean project is a monthly magazine, "FIRST THINGS," a journal on religion and public life. So my work was as a parish priest, as a director of an institute, editor, writer, lecturer, and so forth.
I had only two years before then been ordained a Catholic priest. I had been a Lutheran pastor for 30 years, from 1960, and had spent many years in Brooklyn, in black, very low-income, Williamsburg, Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn.
LAMB: Why'd you make the switch from Lutheran to Catholic?
NEUHAUS: Well, to be more fully who I was and what I was as a Lutheran. I recently wrote an essay, and the title was, "How I Became the Catholic That I Was." And that's really in very compact form the message. That is, I think -- I believe -- that the fullness of the Christian reality through time is most fully and rightly embodied in the Catholic church and that the whole Christian reality that is outside the boundaries of the Catholic church gravitates toward unity with the Catholic church.
I'm putting this altogether too simply and too succinctly to do justice to the complexity of it. But for many, many years, as a Lutheran pastor and writer and theologian, I had worked for what I called the healing of the breech of the 16th century between Rome and the Reformation. And I think for a very, very long time, it was believable to me and to many others -- to many others, I was by no means in a small minority -- to many others, it was believable that this reconciliation, this ecclesial reconciliation between the Reformation tradition and Rome would happen.
By -- after many, many years of this effort, by the mid-'80s, I could no longer persuade myself or others that, in fact, this was a realistic project. It may still happen, God willing, some time in the distant future, in which case, I'll be the first to give thanks.
LAMB: What year did you make the move?
NEUHAUS: I entered into full communion with the Catholic church in -- September 8th, the nativity of our lady of 1990. And then I was ordained by Cardinal O'Connor. I was received by Cardinal O'Connor, my dear friend, to whom the book is dedicated, and then ordained to the priesthood in September 8th of 1991.
LAMB: And when you decided you wanted to become a Catholic priest and you've been a -- would you have been a Lutheran priest or a Lutheran minister? Well, Lutherans usually use the word "pastor."
LAMB: What did you have to do to -- did you have to go more school or just...
NEUHAUS: Well, not really. Cardinal John O'Connor set up a kind of special colloquium process and -- but I had been reading, teaching and, indeed, writing about Catholic theology and Catholic doctrine, and so forth, for years and years. So he thought, at least, that I was theologically informed and spiritually formed to be a priest.
NEUHAUS: I hope he was right about that.
LAMB: Where are you from originally?
NEUHAUS: Oh, I was born in the Ottawa valley of Canada, a little -- well, a not so little town for that area, called Pembroke, Ontario, right on the Ottawa River, which divides Quebec and Ontario. And that -- my dad was a Lutheran pastor there, and we'd eight children in the family. And it was kind of an odd thing. Today it sounds almost like child abuse, but at the time, in our family, at least with the six boys, it was assumed that when you were 14 or 15 years old, you were pretty much ready to go out on your own.
And my parents were both U.S. citizens who had emigrated to Canada. And nobody ever said it in so many words -- and I'm sure Canadian viewers will not be glad to hear this, but they'll understand -- is that it was just taken for granted when we were children in our family that Canada was for childhood. You know, and then when you grew up, you went to the States.
And so -- well, I -- I knocked about. I went to Nebraska, to a church-related Lutheran school, where my sister and brother-in-law were. And I got kicked out of there, actually. They didn't tell me that you weren't supposed to have panty raids on a girls' dormitory or beer parties in the dormitory, and so forth. So in fact, I'm a high school drop-out. Never did finish high school.
I went down to Texas then, because I had some shirttail cousins down in a place called Cisco, Texas, which is west Texas. Cisco Kid comes from there. Also Conrad Hilton has -- his first hotel was in Cisco, Texas, the Maribel (ph) Hotel. It's still there.
And I was just kind of knocking about. I was the youngest member -- at age 15, the youngest member of the Texas Chamber of Commerce. I -- I raised a little bit of money and bought a service station and a grocery store outside of Cisco, Texas.
But then, after a period of time, I realized what I had earlier discerned, and that it that I was supposed to be a pastor. And so I went to the church-related school in what's now called Concordia University in Austin, Texas. Then it was Concordia College, an academy. It had a high school and a college. And when I got there, the day I arrived, there was registration. And you could -- you stand in one line and you could register for high school. And you could stand in another line and register for college.
And I looked at the situation and I said, "Well," you know, "given your druthers, it's better to register for college, better to be in college than high school." So I stood in the college line. When I got to the front of the line, the registrar said, "We have not received your high school transcript." And I, being a person who cannot tell a lie but also being a person filled with hope, the virtue of hope, I said, "I hope you will receive one soon," and thereby registered for college.
And it was only after I'd finished college and done reasonably well, and so forth, that the registrar once again called me in and said, "Whatever did happen to that high school transcript?" And I fessed up.
LAMB: What happened then to your life?
NEUHAUS: Then I went to Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, a Lutheran seminary, a four-year program, at that time a very, very rigorous, academically rigorous program -- mandatory Greek, Latin, German, Hebrew. I'm very grateful for the theological training I received at that time, at Concordia St. Louis. And interned in Chicago and then in Detroit and fell in love with the city, with the idea of city ministry.
And that was a time, of course, in the late '50s, beginning of the '60s, where so much was deliriously filled with a sense of possibilities and belief, as you remember. I mean, Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement, which I was early caught up in, John XXIII, the good pope, the genial John XXIII, John F. Kennedy, you know, perhaps the first Catholic, and vibrant and young and energetic. So -- and I -- I was absolutely caught up in what was then called "the movement"...
LAMB: But you're a Lutheran, though.
NEUHAUS: I was a Lutheran. Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. But what I wanted -- and the pertinence of this is that it was assumed that I was going to go on -- that is, the faculty and most of my friends assumed I was going to go on in an academic career. But I -- I wanted none of that at all. I wanted to -- inner city, preferably black, very poor, the more desperate, the better.
NEUHAUS: I make no apology. I was a starry-eyed kid full of enthusiasm. And we went to the personnel director. You didn't get a choice, really, at St. Louis, as to where you would be assigned. You'd be assigned, literally, anywhere in the world. But I told -- you could state a preference, so I gave that preference for inner city work, et cetera.
And the director of personnel had a -- a little map of the world about -- maybe one-and-a-half inch by one-and-a-half inch. And he says, "Well, as you can see, Richard, it's not really in New York City" -- because I'd said, in the best of all possible worlds, I'd want to be in the inner city of New York. He says, "It's not really in New York City, but it's very close." Well, it was up on the St. Lawrence River, about 400 miles away.
And I -- I -- it was a grand time in Messina, New York. I was there for a little less than a year. And then it happened that in Brooklyn, in the Williamsburg-Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, this parish was -- had gone vacant. That is, it had no pastor. It was an old, big, 19th-century German Lutheran congregation. The neighborhood had dramatically changed, primarily African-American and Hispanic, the typical white flight out to the suburbs.
So here was this shell of an old church which -- the Lutheran church wanted to close this church because they saw no future for it at all. But I got wind of this through some connections, and I received the call to St. John the Evangelist. We called it "St. John the Mundane" to distinguish it from St. John the Divine, the Episcopal cathedral up in Morningside Heights.
LAMB: What year was this?
NEUHAUS: That was '61, April of '61.
LAMB: When -- can you remember the first time you saw somebody die?
NEUHAUS: The first time I saw somebody die? Yes. I don't mention this incident in the book, but it was an old woman across the street in the housing projects. And she had called, and she was very, very afraid. And I went in to see her. She couldn't open the door. I had to go get the super to get the key to the door. And she was lying in bed, and she was terrified.
And it was -- I talk in the book about different experiences with people dying. This was a very not only apparently terrifying for her but terrifying for me moment. In many, many other occasions -- see, one of the things that -- there was no salary at this church and there was no anything else. And so one of things I had to do to make a living, so to speak, to keep things going -- I became a chaplain at King's County Hospital, which at that time boasted of being the largest medical center in the world. I don't know if that's true, but it had something like 3,000 beds.
LAMB: Where is it?
NEUHAUS: It's in Brooklyn, the very heart of Bedford-Stuyvesant. And so that's where I encountered again and again people dying because they had -- it sounds brutal today, and maybe it was, but there was just a section that we just called the "death ward," and where -- you know, people for whom there was no other medical treatment in prospect, aside from sedation, would simply be put into this large ward, men and women -- I discuss this in the book -- and the hot New York-Brooklyn days, no air-conditioning. And you just have anywhere from 50 to 100 people writhing in -- naked, tossing off their bedclothes, very much like Dante's Inferno, as one might imagine it.
And that's where I routinely -- although it never becomes routine, but regularly was with people as they died.
LAMB: What do people do? Is there any way to categorize it?
LAMB: The death.
NEUHAUS: It's various -- various. And you know, it's true, and I'd want to say it's true, that the best preparation for a good death is a good life. And yet I think there's no clear or demonstrable correlation, at least in my experience. Some people who apparently just had wretched lives -- that is, both in terms of their misfortune and in terms of their behavior -- die with great -- great tranquility.
There's a -- I mention in the book an old man, Albert, about 70 years old, black, poor, bald -- I don't know why that -- a big, shiny bald head. And I'd been up in the morning to see him, and we knew he didn't have much longer. And we'd talked together and prayed together. And then I went up that evening, and he was obviously close to the end. And I -- we were kind of holding him by the shoulders -- like this -- and we prayed together the Our Father. And then he looked at me, and he said, "Oh," he said, "don't be afraid." And then he died.
And this is an astonishing thing, but I realized that here I was, presumably in the role of ministering to him, but that in his very last moment of consciousness, he was concerned for me. He was ministering to me. So it is with many, many other experiences, some of which I recount in the book.
LAMB: Charlie, the 43-year-old deacon?
NEUHAUS: Charlie. Charlie Williams. Oh, what a beautiful guy, and full of energy and hopefulness, ebullient, really. And then I still don't know what exactly the medical problem was, but something had happened with his lungs. And I remember being with Charlie at the very end. And we'd been very close. He'd been a great help in so many ways. And he just kind of looked at me, and with a remarkable innocence, not with any tone or edge of complaint, simply said, "Why? Why?" And then he died.
Today, of course, with what are viewed as medical advances and which are, in some respects, advances, the moment of being with people, being present to people and their being present to you in their dying moment, is ever more rare because people are sedated in so many different ways and hooked up to -- as I was, to endless machines and -- so that for most people, the last encounter, whether it's with a member of the family or a friend, is hours or even days and sometimes weeks before the person actually dies. And the moment of death is more a matter of technical registration on the medical machinery than it is a personal encounter.
LAMB: Do you have any idea how many people you've seen die?
NEUHAUS: Well over a hundred, certainly. Yeah, I tried to count it up one day, and maybe -- and it's probably -- quite possibly 200 or more, but certainly well over a hundred, yeah.
LAMB: Well, go back to, then, 1993, on that January day when you got the stomach pains.
LAMB: Where were you?
NEUHAUS: At the house. We have a residence for the community on 19th, between 1st and 2nd Avenue in Manhattan. And as I say, they hustled me -- a friend of mine, George Weikel ,a writer who I think you perhaps know and -- they hustled me down to Cabrini Hospital. And then crazy things -- I mean, you're -- of course, immediately then, after we got past the officious gatekeeper, you're -- you're shot up with a lot of stuff before you're taken to the operating room.
LAMB: Did you have any idea what was wrong with you at that time?
NEUHAUS: Oh, yeah. Yeah. I mean, I knew there was something terribly wrong with my stomach, that something was busting. And -- no, and you get -- my friend, who was with me at the community house, called my doctor when I was found, you know, just rolled up in a fetal position on the floor, just absolutely seized with this unspeakable pain. And so he calls the doctor.
The doctor's on vacation, but of course, leaves another number for another doctor. And this other -- the other doctor, having listening -- listened to my friend's description of what was happening, said, "Oh, well. It's probably constipation. You should get a very strong laxative and give him a laxative." Well, I mean, you -- you knew that wasn't the case. Doctors since then have told me that that quite possibly could have killed me right then and there.
I don't talk about it much in the book. My experience of -- of medicine and of the state of medicine and whether it's a science or whether it's an art or whether it's a roulette game -- I -- and this is related to also, I'm sure, why I wasn't at all interested and am not at all interested in making a fuss about malpractice or whatever -- is that you realize you're entering into a circumstance that is wildly out of control, wildly out of control, and that you have no illusions that you or anybody else is going to effectively bring it under control.
And the disposition, at least as I experienced it, was one of unprecedented surrender, not -- I don't mean just resignation or in the negative sense of passivity or indifference, but of recognizing something almost very, very good, and that is not being in control. And at least for me, psychologically and I expect spiritually, this was a salutary and a healthy thing because I think most people have always seen me as someone perhaps a little excessively concerned about being in control.
LAMB: So you -- you found yourself to the hospital, then to the emergency room.
NEUHAUS: The emergency room. The last, of course, I remember is looking up at the -- the elevators didn't work. I remember that. Odd kind of things. In fact, as I was going up or trying to get up to the emergency room, and they'd shot me up, of course, with a bunch of stuff, I was no longer in great pain. I was feeling almost kind of giddy. You know, this was sort of like, "Oh, here we are," like in a television hospital show, you know, with everybody going around with -- doing their properly energetic and urgent technical things.
And then we get to the elevator bank -- if I recall, the operating room was on the 6th floor -- and none of the elevators worked. And so there we are, the whole medical team and me on a gurney, of course, lying back. And nobody could get an elevator to work. But finally, a security guard came along and got one working.
Yeah, and then you look up at the ceiling, at the water-stained ceiling. I remember that. And as I say, I -- then I prayed, "Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take," a prayer that goes back to the 12th century that I've prayed all my life long. And you simply commend yourself into the very distinct possibility that maybe this is it.
And so then, I -- I -- the next I was conscious, of course, was the next morning, maybe about six hours later. And what had happened on the operating table is that once they'd done the big operation, taken out this huge tumor, cut out about seven, eight feet of your intestines and sewed it back up, put this colostomy in on the side, then sew you all up, then they discovered I was losing all vital signs. And clearly, there was a hemorrhage inside. Something had gone wrong.
And so, I mean, afterwards, this complication...
LAMB: But you didn't come -- you were unconscious during...
NEUHAUS: No, at that time, I was unconscious. No. But I -- as this was recounted to me afterwards, there was this debate. You know, "Well, what do we do now?" And obviously, if they didn't go back in, I was certainly dying. All my vital signs were fading. And of course, if they did go back in, that might kill me, as well. But they did go back in and discovered that the hemorrhage was from the spleen, which had been, as the doctor said, "nicked" accidentally in the process.
I don't blame them for this at all. I mean, it must have been an unspeakable mess -- you know, opening someone up without any preparation. You see, this was under emergency circumstances. Ordinarily, for this kind of operation, you're cleaned out, you know, well in advance, and there are all kinds of preparatory measures. But this was, you know, just in the rush of the moment. So you got guts and blood and fecal material -- I mean, that he only nicked the spleen I think is -- you know, we're probably fortunate.
But then they had to go and fix that and then sew me all up again. And then the next I remember -- and I recount this in the book because this was very important -- is that I wasn't coming out from the anesthetic. And later on, I would discover that there was a real question about the competence of the anesthesiologist at these operations. This was told me by some of the medical personnel. But clearly, something was wrong. I was not coming out in any way. But I was perfectly conscious, perfectly alert, lucidly alert.
LAMB: Were your eyes open?
NEUHAUS: No. No. Eyes were closed, but I could hear everything going on around me. I could hear them all discussing, you know, "Well, what's the problem?" and so forth.
And it was a most astonishing thing, that you were lying there, and there was a complete disconnect between your mind and your body. Your mind racing, fully functioning, but no relationship to the body whatsoever.
The experience was as though you were encased in a marble slab. And, of course, you know, they were saying, well, wiggle your toes, or move your right thumb, and I could hear them saying all these things and discussing why I didn't and couldn't, which reminded me of something that I'd often told people when they are around people who are very sick, people who are unconscious, and so forth -- be very careful of what you say, because there is quite possibly a lot more going on there in terms of alertness and awareness of what's happening with that sick person, and be careful what you say in this context.
Well, in any case, so this went on and on for what seemed like many hours...
LAMB: Did you ever try to struggle to get out?
NEUHAUS: Oh, yes. I tried to struggle to even make a connection between the body. It's just as though the body belonged to somebody else. It was just as though it were a corpse.
LAMB: Did you feel trapped?
NEUHAUS: Oh, emphatically so. Yes.
LAMB: Couldn't speak?
NEUHAUS: Oh, no. Couldn't blink an eyelash. Couldn't -- well, it was at this point along when someone says, well, the cardinal is coming. Here comes the cardinal.
LAMB: Cardinal O'Connor.
NEUHAUS: Cardinal O'Connor. And so he gets right up to my right ear. Now, I'm lying there, you have to understand, just looking totally dead...
LAMB: Were there a lot of people in the room?
NEUHAUS: Oh, there must have been four or five, yes. There was quite a bit of agitation going on.
And Cardinal O'Connor, right into my right ear, he says, "Richard, wiggle your nose."
And I thought to myself -- can you imagine thinking this, at that time -- why does he say wiggle my nose? Everybody else says wiggle your toe, move your right thumb, whatever, and he says wiggle your nose.
And I thought, as a chaplain in Vietnam he must have been with a lot of people when they were dying and somewhere he picked this thing up, wiggle your nose.
And so I'm lying there, and I have never -- this is a true saying -- I have never in my life worked so hard to do anything as to just -- and it maybe moved, I suppose, 1/64 of a centimeter or whatever. And Cardinal O'Connor says, "He did it! He did it!"
And the doctor says, "No, he didn't. I didn't see it."
And he says, into my ear again, "Wiggle your nose again, Richard."
Oh, and I tried to make that connection between the brain and this body that seemed to belong to somebody else. And I did it again, and the doctor saw it, and it was like a celebration, as though somebody had risen from the dead.
But much of the book, as you know, deals with this question, the relationship between the mind and the body and the consciousness and the brain and where, in all of this, is the eye or the soul, the self.
And in many, many different permutations, that set of questions kept coming back to me, as it was in this case, emphatically and powerfully brought home.
LAMB: When did you move things? I mean, really move things -- your arms, your eyes open?
NEUHAUS: I think probably that same day.
Of course, you're in the intensive care unit, you're taken to the intensive care unit. And that's a strange place.
Of course, I'd been in intensive care units many times to visit and minister to other patients.
LAMB: Had you ever been in the hospital before?
NEUHAUS: I'd never -- I'd been in the hospital for minor -- but nothing serious. And certainly never in the intensive care unit.
And it's, again, I come back to these theme of surrender, which is a mix of resignation, but also an act of decision. And you're lying there, and of course you're kind of in and out of consciousness, and there was no clock and no windows, so whether it was night or whether it was day -- you were hooked up to, of course -- at one time, I remember counting something like 16 different tubes and pumps and machines and stuff all over you.
And there was a woman who came by, it seemed to me every 20 minutes, that couldn't possibly have been the case. And she wore a big brown wool hat and she had gold chains, this I remember. And she'd come by and she'd say, "I want blood." And she'd take -- because they're always testing your blood.
And I realized that, in that circumstance, that if someone had come along and said, "Well, now, we're going to take off your right leg, Father," I would have probably said, "Well, OK, I guess you can take off the right leg," you know. I mean, you just have this extraordinary sense of being at the disposal of a circumstance and of others in charge of that circumstance in which you really have no say.
And there is something, again, good about that. That is, as I look back upon those weeks and those months, I think, among the things I've learned, is that at the very bottom, when you entirely let go, when you are shorn of any illusions of control or decision making or whatever, that there's a force, a power, still holding you. And you need not be afraid.
That in the heart of the darkness, is, from a Christian understanding, hope -- is in the heart of the darkness is the total state of dereliction, of Christ on the cross.
It is very -- that, I never knew, was quite that penetrating, and, I hope, life transforming force.
LAMB: When did you begin to process the possibility of death? I mean, you've been rushed to the emergency room, and you were in the operating room before you knew it. And then there you are, trapped in that body. When did you start thinking about the possibility that you wouldn't get out of this?
NEUHAUS: Well, when I was, as I said, with this sensation under the anesthetic where I wasn't responding to anything and had this, as it seemed to be, body locked into this marble slab. It was kind of like a marble slab, like you might have in a cemetery. And I thought of death then.
In the intensive care unit, the one great thought that kept coming back is, I almost died. I almost died. And I mean, this took me, you have to understand, in the full tide of life and of energy and of engagement with projects and so forth, and -- well, the metaphor the doctor used is, of course, you're being hit with a Mack truck going at about 60 miles an hour, and then being hit again, because they had to open the whole body up in order to find out where this hemorrhaging was, and so forth.
But the fact that I had almost died, and maybe I'm going to die, very soon, I thought, I think, especially in that first week or so, that I didn't have very long.
But in an odd kind of way, the question of death and of dying, of my dying, of the fact that everybody is dying, sounds, of course, terribly morbid and almost sick in its obsession. But the fact is, and I'm sure many people have had this experience, that when you go through something like this, death becomes almost your every moment's thought.
I recall, as I say in the book, I think it was two years later -- it was almost two years later, that one day, as I was walking to the office, over to "FIRST THINGS" on 5th Avenue, I realized there's something odd about this day, and it occurred to me that it was the first day that my main thought, that my chief thought, was not the thought of death -- of my dying, of a world that's dying.
I used to, for months afterwards, I'd walk by the playground at 19th and 2nd Avenue and see all the kids playing there, and I'd see little kids dying -- that is, I would, in my mind's eye I would see their skin putrefying and their growing old and dying. Or see some young model walking up Park Avenue, full of life and a sense of unlimited possibilities, and you'd almost feel like crying out, "Don't you know you're dying? Don't you know we're all dying"?
It's very hard to explain, but I think people who have been there will know what I mean.
LAMB: So that took two years?
LAMB: To get past it. What about putting words on paper? I know this started out as an article somewhere.
NEUHAUS: Yes, in "FIRST THINGS." I wrote an article called "Born Toward Dying."
LAMB: What year?
NEUHAUS: I must have written that in '96, I guess.
LAMB: So that's three years after...
NEUHAUS: Yes, about three years after it happened.
And I got a remarkable response to the article. Different -- not necessarily more intense, but different from almost anything I had written -- from all kinds of people who had had similar experiences, you know.
And so a lot of people said, well you know, you really ought to put this into a book. And it's still a small book. It's really about four times the size of the article.
LAMB: About 168 pages. Basic Books put it out.
By the way, just because this is something that people who have been through this would want to know, the colostomy was reversed?
LAMB: How long after the operation?
NEUHAUS: Fairly shortly. About maybe three months or so, against the doctor's advice. He wanted to put it off, but it was -- I hated the idea of having a colostomy. You know, it's an embarrassment. This plastic thing on your stomach which receives all your excretion, et cetera, and you have to take it off. Oh, I just despised the notion. I found it terribly humiliating.
And so I was very adamant about, you know, we have to reverse this as quickly as possible. And the truth is that after we'd scheduled the operation for the reversal and everything, and the weeks immediately before it, I found I'd gotten used to it and I didn't feel the great urgency anymore, except that we'd already scheduled it.
And while that was not, by any means, the most serious surgery, it was, in many ways, the most debilitating. It was the third Mack truck, in a way. After that, I mean there were days I couldn't even lift my hand. I was just wiped out.
LAMB: How long did it take you to get back to where you are today, physically?
NEUHAUS: I don't know. You know, the perhaps somewhat arbitrary medical judgment is that after five years, if there's been no reoccurrence, you're presumably in complete remission and they put you back in your proper little slot on the actuarial tables and so forth. So five years is the medical bright line so to speak.
LAMB: How do you feel?
NEUHAUS: Now? Oh, terrific. I feel as well as I've ever felt in my life.
LAMB: The back of this book, you've got some endorsements on there. I wanted to ask you about a couple of them.
One of them is Bill Buckley. You've done some writing for him over the years?
NEUHAUS: Yes, way back, a long time ago, I did a column regularly for "National Review" on religion and public life, cultural questions.
LAMB: Does that make you a conservative?
NEUHAUS: Oh, I'll tell you. Many, many years ago, like back in the days of St. John the Mundane in Brooklyn, I wrote an article and I said -- I was a kid then -- I said, what I always wanted to be, all my life long, is religiously orthodox and culturally conservative, and politically liberal, and economically pragmatic. That was my quadrilateral.
And I'd still say that today. The reason I'm called...
LAMB: Go over it again.
NEUHAUS: Religiously orthodox...
LAMB: Which means?
NEUHAUS: That you're entrenched and faithfully observant in a real tradition to which you are obedient. You're not making it up as you go along. You're not in some kind of spiritual self-construction project.
LAMB: The second one was conservatively...
NEUHAUS: Culturally conservative.
LAMB: Culturally conservative. Now, what does that mean?
NEUHAUS: Culturally conservative -- a great respect for the possibility that your grandparents were as intelligent as you are, and a great respect for the achievements of Western civilization, intellectual, literary, artistic.
I think I had to tell myself that because I was a very rebellious and radical and iconoclastic person by inclination, so I knew that I had to discipline myself to respect that which is deserving of respect, and to be formed by it, and to become a better person as a consequence.
LAMB: Politically liberal?
NEUHAUS: Politically liberal, for me, at that time, meant -- was exemplified, above all, by Martin Luther King, Jr., who I knew fairly well. I got to know him personally through a number of odd connections. In fact, I just wrote a long essay -- Marshall Frady has just done a book on Penguin Lives on Dr. King. Strange book, in many ways.
But, in any case, politically liberal meant a sense of the excitement of the American experiment, of democracy, of its unrealized possibilities, but realizable -- at least, more realizable than they had been to that date.
It meant ever-expanding the definition of the human community, for which we accept responsibility, and whose dignity we respect. And, of course, that has everything to do with desegregation and race.
Later in my life, the same political liberalism led me to take a very, very strong position with respect to protection of the unborn and the whole issue of abortion.
I wrote back in the 1960's in "Common Wheel" (ph) that the great -- an article called "Abortion: The Dangerous Assumptions." This was long before Roe v. Wade and in the 1960's, when the rhetoric was about liberalizing abortion law. And I said then, and I've been saying all these years, to little effect, I'm afraid, that one of the most decisive and, in my judgment, tragic things that has happened in American life is that the liberal flag got planted on the wrong side of the abortion debate.
There were always two kinds of liberalisms, it seems to me, in American life, to risk oversimplification a little bit. One is exemplified by Dr. King -- the ever-expanding community of the recognition of human dignity and possibility.
The other is the radical individualism. You know, the self -- self-actualization, self-realization. Anybody and anything that gets in the way of this, tough. Which also goes by the name of liberalism, and finds its most, in my judgment, brutal and cruel and lethal consequence in what's called pro-choice. You know, what I choose to do. And, you know, the devil take the consequences.
LAMB: There was a fourth thing.
NEUHAUS: OK. So, that was politically liberal. And the fourth thing was economically pragmatic. That is, in those days, being a person on the left, as I was, involved in the civil rights movement and then, later, I was the co-founder with Father Dan Berrigan and the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, we were the first co-chairmen of Clergy Concerned about Vietnam, which became, then, the main religiously based anti-Vietnam War issue organization.
In that world, and that's why economically pragmatic was important, it was almost de rigueur to be a Socialist of one sort or another. And I was never persuaded of Socialism, whether in theory or in practice, whether in its hardcore Marxist form or in its Democratic Socialist forms.
So that was my way of dealing with the economic thing. I said, you know, if it works, in terms of providing an opportunity for people to participate in the production and sharing of wealth, then I'm for it.
So, those were the four. That was my quadrilateral, and that is my quadrilateral. And the main thing that's changed, and the reason I'm called a neo-conservative, is in the definition of liberalism. And the main thing -- there are many, many other facets -- but if there is any one thing that changed the definition of liberalism in America, it was designating the pro-abortion position as the liberal position.
It could have gone the other way. We saw that, for example, in Dr. King, to some extent, although he never addressed it in a full way. But then later, with Jesse Jackson, in the first few years after Dr. King's death. He was an eloquent pro-life spokesman, and persistently said, in protection of the unborn, that we have replaced the war on poverty with the war against poor people, and especially the most defenseless.
And I think that was the right intuition. It could have gone that way.
LAMB: By the way, when you were a Lutheran pastor, did you ever marry?
NEUHAUS: No. Complicated reasons. I think, in part, a couple of unhappy encounters.
LAMB: Should Catholic priests be allowed to marry?
NEUHAUS: Well, should the celibacy rule for the church in the West be -- I think the answer is yes. I think that, of course, we're living in a time in which this has come in for very considerable discussion, to say the least.
But I think it should be a non-controversial thing to say, although some people think it is controversial when I say it, that we wouldn't be having any of these scandals that have so seized people, and understandably seized public attention, if Catholic priests and bishops had lived according to the teaching of the church and observed -- if they'd been faithful to their sacred vows. There wouldn't be any scandal.
So why do people -- now we're getting off in a different subject, I know, but it does seem to me very odd that people say, well, what this does is throw into question the teaching and the discipline.
No. I mean, that's like saying, you know, there's been a rise in burglary, therefore we throw into question whether there should be laws against burglary. There's a rise in divorce, therefore we throw into question the value of marriage.
No, quite the contrary it seems to me. This is a time in which we need to recapture not only the rationale, and be able to articulate it publicly, but most importantly to revive the faithful discipline of people who have voluntarily, as I have, undertaken a way of life to which, before God and man, you are called to sacred fidelity.
LAMB: Given the environment we're talking about with the Catholic church and the pedophile accusations, how much trouble is the church in?
NEUHAUS: The word crisis is overused and misused a great deal. This is a crisis. I think people are still trying to figure out what is the crisis at the heart of the crisis. What is the -- you know, the church, we believe, is established by Our Lord Jesus Christ and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And so this shall not prevail against it. And it will last until the end of time, until Our Lord comes in glory.
But I think what has been revealed is a very deep rot at levels of clerical leadership. The bishops in particular, it is now clear, in many, many cases, were negligent. And, in some cases, tragically. They were complicit in great wrongs and wickedness.
And this is -- as far as the Catholic people go, in my experience, and I've talked with people around the country and this seems to be pretty much across the board -- the Catholic people are not shaken in their faith, not most of them. They're outraged in many cases, and rightly so. Assertive about what's wrong.
But the general response over these weeks and months has been a rallying to the church, especially at the parish level, to their parish and to their own priests. Maybe anger at some of the bishops and some of the hierarchy.
Now, this in many ways is good -- well, it's obviously good. It reflects the marvelous vitality and loyalty and cohesiveness of the Catholic faithful, wonderful, very heartening.
It's also a little troubling, because I can imagine that there are some who would say, including some bishops, "Oh, well, look at this. It's not going to crack things wide open, by any means. The people are rallying. We're going to ride this out." You know, this too shall pass. And then just go back to business as usual.
That would be a great mistake, because business as usual -- almost all these cases, which of course are not pedophilia cases except in a very, very few instances -- they're mainly cases of adult men having sex with teenage boys and older young men. And in many cases, I think this reflects, we were talking before about the 60's and so forth -- a period in which all these things that we'd mentioned -- John Paul II, the Council, JFK, Martin Luther King -- this sense of possibilities...
LAMB: You mean John XXIII?
NEUHAUS: John XXIII. I'm sorry. Absolutely. John XXIII.
At that time, in this delirium of unlimited possibilities, a lot of things became seriously unhooked and disconnected, also within the life of the Catholic church. That is, that people interpreted the message of the Second Vatican Council, the key word was "adjournemento" (ph), which was taken to mean updating and getting in step with the modern world.
Well, it was a very dubious time to be getting in step with modern culture, precisely at a time in which the culture -- or the counterculture, as it was then frequently called in the 60's and the 70's -- seemed to be one in which a general liberationist mentality had declared everything to be up for grabs.
Almost all the cases of priestly misconduct come from that time -- that is, that's the period during which those priests went to seminary, in which they were ordained. And one has to have a certain sympathy for the circumstance in which -- I don't mean the priests who have done terrible things, but for some of the priests of that period. I mean, I know priests who were ordained -- who went to seminary and were ordained in the 1970's, who were given the distinct impression by the seminary at that time that the celibacy rule was going to be dropped within a few years.
That is to say, they were ordained under false impressions, and there was, during that period of time, and this was true in the culture generally, it was true in the movement under Dr. King and, as we know sadly, in Dr. King's own erotically wayward life, there was a kind of laissez-faire disposition towards sexual morality in particular, of all varieties, and kind of a wink and a nudge.
I think also in certain clerical circumstances, sort of, well, you know, Old Joe, he's got one of these odd habits. It was also a thing which people have to understand, and it's true among Catholic clergy, it's true among Protestant clergy, it's true in the medical confession, it's true in the legal profession -- and that is that there has to be, within any community, a sense of solidarity and of trying to protect the weaker brother.
And there is something necessary and beautiful about that, and it can bespeak, you know, fraternity and compassion and a lot of good stuff. It can also go wrong, and lead to terrible misjudgments of preventing people from facing up to the wrong they've done.
LAMB: We're out of time.
Here's the cover of the book. It's a small book. 160 pages. "As I Lay Dying: Meditations Upon Returning" by Father Richard John Neuhaus of New York City.
Thank you very much.
NEUHAUS: A joy to be with you.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 1993. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.