Rutler: A Crisis of Saints

September 11, 2013

A Crisis of Saints
The Call to Heroic Faith in an Unheroic World
George W. Rutler
(Crossroad, 2009)
217 p.

If ever I should have opportunity to pass a few days in New York City, I want to attend Mass at St. Michael’s parish on West 34th Street, where Fr. George Rutler is pastor. Fr. Rutler is something of a national treasure, beloved (by those whom his wit does not wither) not only for his service to the Church, but for his avocation as an erudite essayist and author. He brings to his writing a sharp intellect, dry humour, and a profound love of Catholic tradition. This book collects a half-dozen long-form essays on various aspects of Catholicism, ranging from reflections on the state of the Church since Vatican II and the nature of Catholic tradition and authority to the knowledge of God and the character of Christian faith. Though the essays do not feel especially well integrated, the book’s subtitle is a fair summary of their general thrust.

For me two essays were of greatest interest. The first was an appraisal of the state of liturgy in the Church since Vatican II. Those who know something of Fr. Rutler will not be surprised to learn that he views most of what went under the banner of reform as ranging, according to the case, from merely unfortunate to downright disgusting. Not that he contests the authority of the Church to make reforms, of course, but he asks hard questions about their timing, the wisdom (or the witlessness) with which they were carried out, and the permissiveness of Church authorities as it was happening. The implementation of the reforms “marks the first time in history that the Church has been an agent, however unintentionally, in the deprivation of culture, from the uprooting of classical language and sensibility to wanton depreciation of the arts,” he writes. His concern is not merely (though perhaps partly) that of a cultural elitist, but of a pastor of souls:

It is immensely saddening to see so many elements of the Church, in her capacity as Mother of Western Culture, compliant in the promotion of ugliness. There may be no deterrent more formidable to countless potential converts than the low estate of the Church’s liturgical life, for the liturgy is the Church’s prime means of evangelism. Gone as into a primeval mist are the days not long ago when apologists regularly had to warn against being distracted by, or superficially attracted to, the beauty of the Church’s rites. And the plodding and static nature of the revised rites could not have been more ill-timed for a media culture so attuned to color and form and action. Edification is no substitute for inspiration.

He pointedly remarks on the general defense of the reforms by Church authorities occurring alongside a stream of alarming announcements about the declining state of religious and sacramental life: “It was a bit like the town crier calling, “Six o’clock and all is well. Bring out your dead.””

The essay goes on to compare the reforms of the liturgy in the past fifty years to what occurred in England after the Reformation, when Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Elizabeth promulgated a series of reforms intended to disrupt the Catholic tradition. It is not, of course, that Fr. Rutler believes that Church authorities in our own day have intentionally set out to deface or disrupt our tradition, but he does want to point out that there are certain similarities in the reform programmes in the two cases, and he wants to explore the plight of those English Catholics who were affected by the disruptions, as an aid to a better understanding of our own situation and how best to respond to it: “In ruined vaults old voices may still sigh for what saddened the houses of God in their day, and such sounds are a parable.”

The second essay is adapted from (or perhaps simply cut and pasted from) Fr. Rutler’s introduction to More Quotable Chesterton, and it is a very fine reflection on why Chesterton has a claim on our attention. Consider, for example, this assessment of Chesterton’s humour: “By cultivating humility instead of a sense of superiority, he avoided condescension in his indulgence of the human comedy. He suffered fools gladly, even deliciously, because his one target was the cant that makes the grand comedy a farce.” Clearly, Fr. Rutler knows his Chesterton. Or there is this, about Chesterton’s (oft lamented) literary style:

His diction is loud, as befits one who loved the very sight of Fleet Street and who hymned to “the great lights burning on through darkness to dawn and the roar of the printing wheels”. The Ciceronianisms of Newman were attributed to his habit of playing a violin before composition; Chesterton seems to have tuned up on a bugle. On a bugle, that is, and a set of chimes; for there is a crystalline cut in every declaration such as intimidates the modern essayist accustomed to muddy sentences flaccid with subjunctives.

(That last phrase is an apt description of most of what one finds on this web log.)

But more than his personality or his style, Fr. Rutler sees that Chesterton had an intellectual and moral depth belied by his populist manner. “He was more than a Renaissance man,” he writes, “[for] his reference is positively deep, and deep enough to dig beneath anything so occasional as a renaissance until he strikes the radical birth of order and truth.” Writing in particular about Chesterton’s columns in the Illustrated London News, which he contributed weekly for thirty years, Fr. Rutler points out how deeply Chesterton knew and understood our cultural roots:

Chesterton did not plagiarize in the despicable and low sense; his was an inspired plagiarism that forsakes incidental sources for the Source. It pillages the treasury of the saints. Such heavenly theft marks the genius from the hack. The procedure was according to high dogma, blushing through the pallor of civil events which are the incidental subjects of his journalistic essays. It makes each of his columns in The Illustrated London News, for instance, a flickering votive light to the orthodox creeds. I cannot imagine Schopenhauer getting his ideas through elegies to local cheeses, the shape of men’s noses, snails and The Mikado. But this is precisely what Chesterton did to reach the truth each week. He was a foremost example of Quintillian’s vir bonus docendi peritus: the good man who speaks from practical knowledge. And he was not content to pass on interesting bits of information as isolated items; as surely as the whole Mediterranean had once washed well within the circumference of Virgil’s fine skull, and the Brooklyn Bridge spanned the lobes of Roebling’s brain, the whole experience of Christian humanism cavorted in the head of Chesterton at his weekly dictation.

This is wonderful writing, and it could hardly be lavished on a better subject.

(Incidentally, if you’d like to read some selections from the Illustrated London News columns Fr. Rutler praises, you are invited to look here.)

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12 Responses to “Rutler: A Crisis of Saints”

  1. godescalc Says:

    “…for the liturgy is the Church’s prime means of evangelism.”

    This doesn’t strike me as a terribly defensible statement. I don’t think there’s been many missionaries whose approach was simply “bring people to Church and hope the liturgy overawes them”, and the Church’s original prime means of evangelism was the Apostles going round preaching and working miracles. There are people who convert because of liturgy (one of the accounts of Tsar Vladimir’s conversion, for instance, has his envoys being underwhelmed by Roman liturgy but overwhelmed by the Byzantine), but they’re not the norm and I don’t think they ever have been.

    (Now, there’s a sense in which the Church has to evangelise those who are baptised as kids and brought up Catholic, and the liturgy is important there, though only in conjunction with education in what the Faith is about and with good examples from parents, priests, the community, etc. But I’m not sure that’s what Fr. Rutler meant.)

    (Also it’s a bit dubious to talk about Edward VI promulgating anything much – the people who were telling him what to think promulgated some stuff and he went along with it, but he was like 12 years old at the time of the liturgical overhaul.)

    The point that the Church has abdicated the field of art and beauty is a serious one, though commenting on that requires more thought, and also would probably overflow the character limit of the combox. The comments on Chesterton sound great.


  2. I wondered about that, too. A beautiful liturgy can be very powerful to some people, but certainly not all. And not all by any means are dismayed by the present state. I’ve heard more than one interested non-Catholic say that they found an average suburban liturgy very beautiful, though I think that must be in part a reaction against something even more humdrum. “Prime means of evangelization” seems overstating it a bit. Not that I quarrel with the basic point.

  3. cburrell Says:

    Thanks to both of you.

    Fr. Rutler’s claim may be an overstatement, but not, I think, an entirely misguided one. If it overstates, it overstates in the right direction. I cannot say just what he meant, and whether he intended to include under “evangelism” the formation of cradle Catholics in the pews, but he might have; I assumed that he did. I can say that my own conversion was powerfully influenced by the experience of the liturgy; Fr. Rutler’s claim therefore rings true for me. The extent to which that experience generalizes may be limited; as Mac notes, a great many people seem to be both deaf and blind to ugliness. Lucky them!

    In defence of Fr. Rutler, I can cite the old formula Lex orandi, lex credendi, or the phrase from Vatican II about the Eucharist, which is almost always encountered in the context of liturgy, being “source and summit” of the Church’s life, or Pope Benedict’s claim that the Church’s principal offerings to the world are the beauty of her saints and the beauty of her art (the latter of which I take to be integral to her liturgy).

    There is, further, the simple observation that the liturgy is, for the vast majority of Catholics, a principal means by which they encounter God and are formed in the spiritual life. How could it fail to be an essential part of evangelism?

    I do agree that the liturgy is going to have little direct effect on people who never darken the door of a church. In that sense, it can have little direct effect on evangelism.

  4. godescalc Says:

    My experience was directly the opposite – youthful exposure to Pentecostalism left me with the sense that “liturgy” and “tradition” were pretty much dirty words, but when I became Catholic I had to accept on the authority of the Church that liturgy is not, generally, spiritually harmful. (In any case, I wanted access to the sacraments, so had to make my peace with the liturgy somehow.) This had little to do with response to ugliness or beauty, and more with the Pentecostal attitude that God does stuff in your life if you want Him to, and why would you impose a script on a church service anyway? You’ll just throw out God and replace Him with soul-killing ritual. (I eventually realised that abusus non tollit usus on the last point.)

    Also, being (apparently) deaf and blind to ugliness and beauty can arise from de gustibus issues, and “not seeing ugliness” is another way of considering “seeing lesser beauty and not seeing greater beauty”. If I find something beautiful in evangelical worship music played on guitar and you think it’s horrible and unsuited for church, and we both have the opposite views on, say, church organs (this is not just for the sake of argument, I’ve been to enough services where weighty organ music smothers feeble and uncertain congregational singing like a steamroller crushing a delicate flower) – from my point of view you are insensitive to real virtues in guitar-based music; from your point of view I am insensitive to real virtues in organ-based music. And these might both be true, even if one of them is objectively better than the other – the partisan of the higher might be failing to notice real virtue in the lower. (Contrarily, noting real virtue in one alternative might distract you from seeing yet greater virtue in another, which should be the argument liturgical traditionalists use on guitar aficionados – I, at least, would respond to an argument that started “evangelical music is awesome! It’s just that gregorian chant is even better.”)

    I’m not sure Pope Benedict’s statement about beauty supports Fr. Rutler much, as a fair amount of church art can be considered outside the liturgy (paintings, sculpture). Also, there’s the issue of how comprehensible the liturgy is – I’m severely limited by my own experiences here, but I cannot imagine people simply appreciating the liturgy directly without a certain amount of preparation (including by saints, church art, etc). When you say the liturgy influenced your conversion, do you mean conversion straight from unbelief, or from some other form of Christianity? In the former case, I’d be interested in knowing more; in the latter case, your prior denomination would have done a lot of groundwork with liturgy more as the coup de grace.

  5. cburrell Says:

    Coup de grace is very well put.

    My background is Pentecostal, like yours, and of course I heard the negative rhetoric about ‘tradition’ and ‘ritual’ and so on, but after my first experience of high liturgy (in university) all of that collapsed for me. This is perhaps partly temperamental; I was never very comfortable in the Pentecostal idiom. So De gustibus plays a part in this, but doesn’t, I think, get the last word.

    I really do not quarrel with most of what you say, godescalc. No doubt you are right that I owe much in my religious formation to non-liturgical sources, but I think that the liturgy was very important in drawing me closer to the heart of the Christian tradition, and in helping me to personally appropriate it within my own heart — in other words, to be converted. I almost feel as though it was liturgy that appropriated me, if I can put it that way. There were many other aspects to my conversion too — intellectual, moral, and what have you — so I don’t want to overstress this point. Nonetheless, the point still seems worth making.

    Ironically, it was not even a Catholic liturgy that did most of this good work in me. It was an Anglo-Catholic parish. When I did finally cross the Tiber, I was not thinking about aesthetics or liturgy.


  6. Gosh, I never would have thought either of you came from Pentecostal backgrounds.


  7. By the way I don’t mean to be dismissive of Fr. Rutler–I admire him greatly. It’s just that one remark that seemed questionable.

  8. Filia Artis Says:

    I’m finding Godescalc’s points of view persuasive and I appreciate them.

    (Well and yours too, of course, Craig, though I differ somewhat in my personal experiences from your point of view.)

    This is a good debate, but one that I think could go a bit the way of my most frustrating Philosophy 200 paper on whether it is better/even possible to know God then come to love Him or to love the unknown God and come to know Him – Thomas Aquinas vs. Henry of Ghent. Does liturgy evangelize or serve to feed the converted? Well, both I guess. Needles to say, it was the lowest mark of my undergraduate degree…

    Liturgy has to be an integral part of the whole experience of Catholic christianity and it drives me nuts when it becomes a focal point to the detriment of the rest. Beautiful old style Latin liturgy with chanting without community, charity, fellowship and genuine mystical experiences through prayer and the day to day lives we lead in our vocations just becomes some strange OCD behavior to me. You can’t really desecrate the eucharistic feast in a mass setting, unless I guess you seriously try to do something horrible, so I hate that some act like the mass is less holy or complete because the music stinks.

    God is looking for our genuine love of Him at all times and in all settings. That love is the great evangelizer of the Church and a great way to invite others into experiencing the love that God has stored up for us in the eucharistic celebration. Liturgical frills beyond following a basic standard rite reasonably well as prescribed by the church to me is secondary. The rite in and of itself has enough mystery and wonder and symbol to speak to me regardless of whether there are booming organs or out of tune guitars.

    The discussions around “official reforms” of the Church’s liturgical styles over several centuries to me are generally irrelevant. I doubt their power to change the shape of liturgical culture. Many pastors and almost all parishioners are ignorant of them. Liturgy and art seem to follow the culture of an age and place and we’re in the one we’re in, for better or worse. And if you’ve ever tried to get your wife and children to go along with one of your ideas all at the same time, you’ll know how nearly impossible it is to institute liturgical reform and congruity across a diocese, let alone the world Church!

    Well, there’s my rant! More of a rant than I’d intended!

  9. cburrell Says:

    That needed saying, and you said it better than I could have, Filia. Thank you. Discussions about liturgy are secondary, and they have to be kept in their place. No liturgical ineptness of the sort we usually encounter is going to actually spoil a Mass, and we must treasure this inestimable gift whether it comes to us in a setting of gold or of brass.

    On the other hand — there is always another hand — there are such things as liturgical norms, and there are such things as liturgical ideals, and they are meant to promote our spiritual good and the good of the world. We ought not to be content when they are ignored, year after year, and we ought not to be complacent when ugliness, or at least drabness, surrounds what we believe to be the most glorious and beautiful experience of our lives. I agree with Roger Scruton when he says that an essential way to understand a religious group is not just to ask what they believe, but to observe them at worship. How we worship says a great deal about who we are and what we really believe. So we ought always to be trying to celebrate the sacred mysteries in a manner that is worthy of the reality, insofar as this is possible. From the beginning — from the liturgical norms set forth in the Pentateuch, for instance — our tradition has taught that this calls for ritual splendour.

    On the other hand — again — you are right that in this vale of tears liturgical culture is yoked to popular culture, and it is perhaps quixotic of me to expect to find a tree with golden apples growing in an industrial wasteland. We have the liturgy that we deserve, I’ll grant you that.

    From the length of your post, I infer that the long-awaited day has yet to arrive. Many prayers are being said for you.

  10. kathyB Says:

    I like the rant too filia. On the topic of evangelical vs Catholic worship, one time a family of evangelical friends of mine attended midnight mass at my parish. They were impressed with the way the congregation kept silent in the building before it started, since they felt it showed a sense of real reverence for the space. In their chuch apparently eveerybody talks the whole time. The intended moral of this anecdote is that our own attitude towards the liturgy has a significant impact on the atmosphere in a church, apart from the quality of the liturgy in itself.


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