RELIGIOUS NEWS SERVICE -- Is the Rev. Richard J. Neuhaus, the prominent Lutheran scholar and critic, on the verge of becoming a Roman Catholic?

For weeks rumors have circulated that the switch in affiliation is imminent for the minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

But if the rumor is true, Neuhaus, 54, of New York City, is not saying so.

Contacted by phone this week, Neuhaus noted that for years it has been no secret that he has considered becoming a Roman Catholic. But that, he said, does not mean he is any closer now to cementing ties with Rome than he was years ago.

For Neuhaus, consideration of joining the Catholic Church follows naturally for any Lutheran who believes the 16th century split with Rome was not intended to be permanent but rather a movement for reform serving as a temporary corrective.

"It's always been my position that my understanding of Lutheranism is one that requires one to ask the question, 'Should I become a Roman Catholic?' The fact that I'm still asking this in my judgment is not news," he observed.

Neuhaus declined to discuss the matter further, commenting, "I don't mean to be coy, but I think any further discussion of that could only feed the rumor mill."

Adding a measure of visibility to the rumors was a report in the Aug. 22-29 issue of the respected mainstream church journal "The Christian Century." In its "Underground Ecumenist" column, an ecclesiastical gossip column, the Century said, "Rumors have been flying for weeks that a prominent Lutheran clergyman is about to leave the 'encircling gloom' of Protestantism and 'go over to Rome,' as they say, taking holy orders in a prominent U.S. archdiocese."

Neuhaus himself may have added to speculation about his future as a Catholic with comments he wrote in the July 25 issue of "Forum Letter," the last issue to be edited by him after a 16-year tenure at the helm of the scrappy newsletter.

"The Lutheran Reformation was a corrective," he wrote. "It was not intended, and it is not possible, to build the fullness of the life of the church on a corrective.

"The reality of Roman Catholicism almost five centuries after Augsburg {a Lutheran confession of faith written in 1530 and approved by Martin Luther} suggests that the separate ecclesial existence of Lutheranism is no longer necessary -- and, if no longer necessary, then no longer justified."

Neuhaus noted that that position "becomes increasingly hard to advance within the ELCA."