By Dave Andrusko
Our sincerest thanks go out today to the very influential First Things magazine for republishing in full the speech delivered by the late Richard John Neuhaus at the close of National Right to Life’s 2008 convention. First Things observes that Prof. Robert P. George once described the address as “the greatest pro-life speech ever given.” That is quite arguably true. It was a masterpiece.
You can read the speech in its entirety here. The very apt headline is “We shall not weary, We shall not rest.” I encourage you to, in the strongest possible terms.
I’ve also included a post I wrote in 2008 as a tribute to Fr. Neuhaus’ memorable speech.
There is only a handful of what are often called “public intellectuals” whom I personally consider essential reading. Near the top–and perhaps occupying the top rung of the ladder–is Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, the editor in chief of the magazine First Things. I’ve written for a fair number of publications over the years but the couple of times I contributed to First Things are the efforts about which I am most proud.
On July 5, Fr. Neuhaus graced the halls of the Hyatt Regency hotel in Crystal City, Virginia, where he delivered the final remarks that brought the highly successful NRL 2008 to a close.
I suppose no one can be a part of this Movement for decade after decade and not occasionally wish that someone else could take over for them in the greatest movement for social justice of our time. Fighting principalities and powers day in day out will test anyone’s mettle.
To which Fr. Neuhaus says simply, “We Shall Not Weary, We Shall Not Rest.” Not that we cannot but we shall not grow weary or choose to rest.
But how can that be? Is there some law that says we cannot lay that burden down when it is heaviest, ask for a substitute when we are bone-weary?
Actually there is. Only it is not some statute found on the books but a law written on our hearts. You and I could no more abandon the little ones than we could voluntarily stop breathing. It is what we were put on this earth to do.
Fr. Neuhaus puts it this way, in his typically graceful manner:
“We shall not weary, we shall not rest, until every unborn child is protected in law and welcomed in life. We shall not weary, we shall not rest, until all the elderly who have run life’s course are protected against despair and abandonment, protected by the rule of law and the bonds of love. We shall not weary, we shall not rest, until every young woman is given the help she needs to recognize the problem of pregnancy as the gift of life. We shall not weary, we shall not rest, as we stand guard at the entrance gates and the exit gates of life, and at every step along way of life, bearing witness in word and deed to the dignity of the human person–of every human person.”
I was going to highlight several of Neuhaus’s keen insights, but on second thought I run the risk of severely diminishing their power by paraphrasing. So by borrowing extensively from his speech, let me just make one other related point.
The cause of life–the greatest human rights cause of not just our time but all times–is rooted in a deep, almost mystical understanding of the dignity of the human person. “We contend,” Neuhaus told his audience, “and we contend relentlessly, for the dignity of the human person, of every human person, created in the image and likeness of God, destined from eternity for eternity–every human person, no matter how weak or how strong, no matter how young or how old, no matter how productive or how burdensome, no matter how welcome or how inconvenient. Nobody is a nobody; nobody is unwanted. All are wanted by God, and therefore to be respected, protected, and cherished by us.”
Where you come down on this assertion represents a fork in the road. The road you choose–by commission or omission–says more about us than most people are comfortable admitting.
In the 1960s Neuhaus pastored a poor African American congregation in Brooklyn. He told us of reading a piece by anthropologist Ashley Montagu, one of those typically “enlightened” types who was very influential at the time. Montagu explained in a magazine article the qualifications for a life worth living.
The following Sunday Neuhaus looked out at his flock. “And I saw that day the younger faces of children deprived of most, if not all, of those qualifications on Prof. Montagu’s list.”
Then Neuhaus experienced one of those moments many of us have encountered. “And it struck me then, like a bolt of lightning, a bolt of lightning that illuminated our moral and cultural moment, that Prof. Montagu and those of like mind believed that the people of St. John the Evangelist–people whom I knew and had come to love as people of faith and kindness and endurance and, by the grace of God, hope unvanquished–it struck me then that, by the criteria of the privileged and enlightened, none of these my people had a life worth living. In that moment, I knew that a great evil was afoot. The culture of death is an idea before it is a deed.”
At that moment, Neuhaus knew “that I had been recruited to the cause of the culture of life.” Not for a day or an hour–“To be recruited to the cause of the culture of life is to be recruited for the duration.”
Fr. Neuhaus’s remarks put the struggle that you and I faithfully wage in the larger context of the eternal battle between the Culture of Death and the Culture of Life.
You will finish his remarks knowing why you do what you do and be sustained for the battles in the months and years to come.