Sophia Institute Press has collected a sparkling collection of the occasional essays written recently for Crisis Magazine by New York’s most well-read priest. Our Peculiar Times: Catholic Wisdom for Times of Crisis by Fr George Rutler is a pleasure to read by all those who value Fr Rutler’s distinctive blend of humour, irony and erudition. He specialises in reminding readers, caught up in current political and economic panic, that it was ever thus; and for Catholics, who are meant to view all human events in the light of eternity, he is a necessary tonic and corrective.
For those who have not yet had the pleasure of Fr Rutler’s company in print, his article entitled “The bondage of cultural illiteracy” will convey something of his style and flavour: “The most morbid way to destroy the moral integrity of people is to deny and obliterate awareness and comprehension of their history” (June 23, 2020). We see this all around us, in the Black Lives Matter campaign; the wish to topple every statue that falls foul of the new thought police; the rewriting of our cultural history by the National Trust and so on. Fr Rutler goes on, “The crudest illiteracy consists in a pantomime education that commands what to think rather than how to think.” If this observation is true of US schools, it is also sadly true in the UK.
A further essay, “Who will guard the guardians?” of June 4, 2020, concerns the looters, rioters and vandals of US cities this summer. Rutler lets a quote from Bill de Blasio, Mayor of New York speak for itself: “These were not thugs and looters. These are young people who still have idealism and want to make this nation better.” No; they aren’t and they don’t; they want to overthrow it, which is an entirely different and dangerous thing. Revolutions start and end in violence and bloodshed.
What is it like to be a traditional parish priest today? That is, a priest dedicated to celebrating the Sacraments and instructing his flock in the Faith. In “Pollyanna among the Prophets” we glimpse the modern pressures on such priests: “Pollyanna lives on in a parallel ecclesiastical world of new spring times, new evangelisations, second Pentecosts, conferences of “diocesan leaders”.” Quite so.
I chuckled throughout one article of September 30, 2019, entitled “A Grammar of Dissent” carefully worded to convey to the discerning reader what the author thinks of the sound-bites emanating from the Vatican: “The pontiff often makes opaque allusions whose meaning can be interpreted variously and whose full import may belong to that vast corpus of thoughts whose true sense will be revealed only on a day known to God alone.” I particularly like the choice of the word “opaque”.
A mind so richly stocked with historical parallels and personalities as Fr Rutler’s provides an education in itself. “What Newman can tell us about the Cardinal Pell verdict” – referring both to the Achilli libel trial of 1852, which Newman lost, and the conviction of abuse by Cardinal Pell in Australia on 31 March 2019 – reminds us that both were victims of justice miscarried, the result of “anti-Catholic hysteria”. Fortunately, justice finally triumphed.
How does Fr Rutler’s fertile mind work? I can’t answer that question, though I can point to his article “Music for the Holy Souls” of 31 October 2018 for an example of his “method”: he starts with a diverting riff on the lives of several great composers – Gesualdo a murderer, Beethoven living in domestic squalor, Vivaldi ogling schoolgirls and so on – and proceeds to a snapshot of the very normal, English domestic life of Elgar; from there he moves to Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius, which sets to music Newman’s great poem about Purgatory; and he concludes with a brief mention of the Catholic understanding of this doctrine. Gerontius gives a “confused world a dose of reality…a sturdy relief from the depressing attempts of a secular culture to “celebrate life” artificially at funerals when in fact such awkwardness harbours a pagan fear of death”. Behind the irony and the multiple allusions is always a serious intent: to remind Catholics (and those who have ears to hear) that we have a sublime eternal destiny, if only we would lay aside the baubles of this world and attend to it.