First Things First.

I have to admit that I was a bit startled to find my name in a July 6 column written by Fr. Richard John Neuhaus in First Things. Neuhaus, for those who don’t know him, is a Catholic priest and writer probably best known for forging a political alliance between conservative Catholics and the American evangelical movement (he is also known to be a close advisor to President Bush). Politics aside, however, he is an eloquent and forthright writer on a range of topics, and as the founder and editor of First Things, he has a place to publish them.

Anyway, I managed to appear in the last paragraph of a column devoted to the Pope’s letter to China’s Catholics. Neuhaus mentions my profile of Shanghai Bishop Jin Luxian in the current issue of the Atlantic, and then writes:

It is most regrettable that Minter thinks it necessary to take a slap at Cardinal Zen of Hong Kong, who is a man of enormous courage and a real hero in the cause of religious and other freedoms.

[Neuhaus also suggests that I was too uncritical in the profile – a charge repeated by others, and one that I will answer in another forum, soon]

The article in question makes two references to Zen – one a note on his role in the first Chinese language mass, and the other an off-handed quote from Jin – neither of which could be construed as a slap. So my guess is that Neuhaus is referring to what I had to say about Zen in the interview that accompanied the Atlantic article:

But I think what’s come as a surprise is that since he’s ascended to this role of Cardinal he’s also been critical of the Open Church. For many Chinese Catholics, such criticism has come kind of out of left field, and nobody really knows what to make of it. It also hasn’t proven to be very helpful in his efforts to serve as an informal bridge; Beijing has made it clear that he’s not welcome there, and his relationship with the leaders of the CPA has completely bottomed out. I don’t think it’s a controversial statement to say that he’s changed since becoming cardinal. And that has surprised and hurt a lot of people who he’s known for decades. They seem to feel like he should know better.

I’m not sure that this can be characterized as a slap. If anything, it’s reporting; that is, it’s a statement of fact, and one that can be verified. Neuhaus may not like the facts – that’s his prerogative – but it would be nice if he could acknowledge them instead of conflating them with disagreeable opinions.

[update: Jen Ambrose defends me – generously! – on this point, and makes some very interesting observations on Zen, in the process]

[2nd update: Ross Douthat, in his thoughtful blog at the Atlantic’s website, also mentions the Neuhaus quote. I think Ross is correct that Jin is envious of Zen’s ability to be outspoken, and I distinctly recall that moment in the interview. Jin had a kind of wry smile on his face – wry, because he was commenting upon Zen, a complicated figure with whom he has a long and deep acquaintance (Zen is a native Shanghainese, and he taught in Shanghai’s seminary during the 1980s and 90s, when Jin was rector – and bishop).

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