Michael Gerson

Neuhaus was first a man of the left, then a man of the right -- yet entirely consistent on the things that matter most. Having marched with King in what he called the "essentially Christian civil rights movement," he found the natural extension of those ideals in the pro-life movement -- both involved the same desire to expand the American circle of inclusion and protection.

According to his friend George Weigel of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Neuhaus was led toward both involvements by his own pastoral experience in the 1960s and '70s at St. John the Evangelist, a minority church in a rather tough section of Brooklyn. "At the time," says Weigel, "people were starting to talk about the 'quality of life' with high-sounding purpose. Richard looked out on his parish and not a single one had 'quality of life' by this definition. So what to do? Should they be ignored? Eliminated?" Neuhaus decided to care for human lives without exception -- leading him to eventually oppose what he called the "unlimited abortion license." And he never ceased to ask the embarrassing question: How is it that contemporary American liberalism became indifferent to the weakest members of the human community?

Attacked by a vicious cancer in 1993, the pro-life Neuhaus spent much time reflecting on death. His essay "Born Toward Dying" provides a witty, unsparing description of how the prospect of death is so mundane -- and yet fills our entire mental sky. It is all there: the impatience with comforters, the indignities of modern medicine, the tendency to see death at work everywhere -- the skull beneath every approaching face.

And yet, in the midst of decay, Neuhaus was given an enigmatic assurance. He reported seeing two "presences" at the foot of his hospital bed, and hearing a voice or voices assuring him: "Everything is ready now." It was, he wrote, "as powerfully confirmed by the senses, as anything I have ever known."

Neuhaus was given 16 more years after this near-death experience -- more than he once expected, and not enough. But in the end, I have no doubt that everything was ready.

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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