An Interview With Fr. George Rutler 

An Interview With Fr. George Rutler 

An Interview With Fr. George Rutler 

By John Mallon, Molly Baldwin and Micheal Raiger

The Observer of Boston College

Father George Rutler presently serves as Parochial Vicar at St. Agnes Parish in New York City. He earned his B.A. from Dartmouth College, and holds graduate degrees from Johns Hopkins, the Gregorian University in Rome, and Oxford University. A convert from Anglicanism, Father Rutler was ordained as a Roman Catholic priest in 1981. Father Rutler is the author of a handful of books; his most recent work is entitled Beyond Modernity: Reflections of a Post-Modern Catholic. Father Rutler's popularity as a lecturer has recently been growing, and some have compared his skill as a preacher to that of John Henry Cardinal Newman. Father Rutler, in a lecture sponsored by The Observer and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, spoke at Boston College on March 20 on the topic of Cardinal Newman and the modern Catholic university. During his brief visit to Boston, members of the editorial staff of The Observer conducted the following interview.

The Observer: Can you tell us what you do at St. Agnes Parish?

Fr. George Rutler: What I do or what is done there?


St. Agnes is an old parish, right in the heart of midtown, near Grand Central Station by the Chrysler Building, so we have a cross-section of humanity, of the most intense sort, almost all commuter. We have anywhere between nine and thirty Masses a day, with upwards of thirty Masses a day on holy days. On Ash Wednesday, about 30,000 people came, but at night, everyone disappears. Weekends are our slow time. But we're also in the heart—the corporate heart—of the world. So we have leaders from the United Nations, we have diplomats, CEOs, everybody else; we also have the highest number of homeless, probably in the United States, in that area, and very high incidences of drug traffic and drug abuse. So we have all kinds of violent crimes committed there. 

One young woman shot herself on the steps of the church one day. I was right there—I anointed her just before she died. She was a drug addict, eighteen years old. So when you see that you see the consequences of all the so-called "drug culture," which, let us not forget, twenty years ago, in places like Cambridge and Boston, was being hailed as the new paradise. And some of those people who did so are clipping coupons and living off the royalties of their books—and priests like me are now anointing the wreckage. We have a soup kitchen, and an overnight shelter which cares from three to four hundred a night in the parish, so it’s a microcosm of the worst and the best in metropolitan life today. 

Father, could you explain the role of the magisterium in matters of correction of the faithful in general, and could you apply a principle, or an understanding of that principle, to the specific case of Bishop Vaughan and his correction of Mario Cuomo? 

To correct means to put on the right path. It doesn't mean to enslave, it doesn't mean to imprison. It is a measure of maturity to be willing to be corrected. It is a sign of immaturity to rebel against correction. On the other hand it's also a sign of humility to be willing to correct. A bishop, a civic leader who does not exercise the office of correction, is showing human respect in the negative sense of pride, worrying about public opinion more than enforcing, or showing the Truth. 

What many people call humility is not humility at all: it is pride, masking itself as humility. If somebody says "I'm not going to discipline so and so, or I'm not going to enforce such-and-such a law," then that is not humility, it is confusing duties and rights. If an individual has a right to authority and does not use it, that may be an act of humility. But if he has a duty to exercise authority and does not use it, then that is not humility, that is pride. When an individual then worries more about being elected to office than what he's going to do in office, then that is pride. When a bishop wants to be liked by the people, rather than be the shepherd and exercise his office, that is not humility. 

The model of authority in the Church is the shepherd. We've romanticized the shepherd. The shepherd is not Little Bo-Peep. No one who has known shepherds would think that the shepherd is Little Bo-Peep. The Twenty-third Psalm says, "Thy rod and thy staff shall comfort me." The rod and the staff go together. In coronation iconography the monarch is shown with the rod and the staff. It is true with the pharaoh, it is true with the queen of England. Two things: the staff gently guides the young along the way; and the staff is there to knock them on the head when they start going off the path, off the cliff, which is an act of justice—to protect, not to punish but to protect. Excommunication is medicinal as well as punitive, because it prevents, it protects the individual who has committed serious wrong from abusing the Sacrament to that individual's own condemnation, as well as protecting others who would be misled by this individual's example. 

So a bishop doesn't have merely the right, but the duty to say that someone is saying something severely wrong and dangerous to that individual and to everyone else. (You notice I'm using non-sexist terminology.) He does not have the option of not doing it, without being remiss in the exercise of the office. It is his duty. St. Paul says "Woe be to me if I preach not the Gospel." Literally, woe to me. 

Now, your rod and your staff comfort me; just as the shepherd is not the sentimental Bo-Peep, comfort is not sentimental feel-good religion. At its very root, "comfort" means to goad, to strengthen, to reinforce, to prod. In the Bayeux tapestry there's a scene in which Bishop Odo—a figure on a horse, a knight—is pushing a sword into the rear end of a foot soldier. The foot soldier doesn't want to go into a hail of crossbow arrows, and this figure Odo is pushing the sword, forcing him into the line, and the caption says, "Odo comforts his troops." And that's exactly what comfort means: comfortare—to give strength. Your rod and your staff strengthen. That's the function of the shepherd, and the Pope is the chief shepherd of the Church. He has to exercise discipline. Without discipline there is no civilization. Where there's no order, there's no constructive discourse. But the less one believes in objective Truth, the less one believes in order. If there's no objective Truth, there's nothing to enforce.

Can you also give us a comment on the role of the Church hierarchy in maintaining the expressed Catholic character of Catholic Universities in America, not only in regard to doctrinal matters, but also in regard to the moral life of students? What role does the Church play in maintaining the integrity of the Catholic Universities?

Rutler: There's no such thing as what's called "a parallel magisterium." Those trained as teachers in the Church are, as such, to assist the Bishop who is the official teacher in the diocese. They are not there to counter his teaching, to critique his teaching negatively, or to provide an alternative to it. They're free to express their own opinions in society, but in the Church as Catholic teachers, they have the office of assisting the Bishop as official teacher. 

And because the Bishop is the official teacher he has a responsibility to all institutions of learning in his diocese, to all institutions in the diocese that are responsible to him. The Bishop has three roles: he is Prophet, Priest, and King. The Prophet is the teacher; the Priest offers sacrifice; the King is the governor. Therefore all universities, all colleges, all schools, are under his jurisdiction. And he does not merely have the privilege, but he has the duty to teach. And it requires humility to exercise duty, as I've said. Pride would relinquish duty as though it were merely a privilege.

What do you think about reforms that have brought Catholic universities into the Modern Age? You see the signs everywhere—there were crosses taken down all over the campuses at BC and Georgetown. What are your thoughts on these reforms?

Rutler: When people take the Cross down, they're ashamed of the Cross. And if they're ashamed of the Cross, they're not Catholic. And they're not Christian. Simple as that. Why is the Cross being taken down? Is it because Caesar says to take it down? Is it for government funding? We have to choose between Judas, who fled because he didn't want the Cross (he took Caesar's money), or Christ, who confronted the governor and went to the Cross. 

The Cross is Truth. And if we take the Cross down we're saying that this is not a place of Truth. The Greeks had the god Hermes—Hermes Trismegistus—whose symbol was caduceus, the wand with the two serpents going up it, the symbol used for medicine. In my book Beyond Modernity: Reflections of a Post-Modern Catholic, there is a little paragraph on that. The one serpent represents knowledge, and the other represents wisdom. Wisdom is what we do with our knowledge. Moses lifted up a staff with a serpent out in the desert, as a sign of divine intervention, of divine help. So you have this symbol both amongst the Greeks and amongst the Jews. A symbol that there is a staff raised above the people which will lead them into health and Truth. This is fulfilled in the Cross. Christ is on the Cross; He is the Wisdom of God. If we take that down, we are saying that we really don't believe in wisdom, fulfilled in Christ. 

With all of the forces of secularism and pluralism and egalitarianism running rampant on campuses at universities, can a Catholic administration resist all of the temptations of secularization? Do you think it's really possible in America to maintain a Catholic identity on Catholic campuses? How would they do it?

It is possible, and throughout the history of Christian culture there have been ups and downs. Secularism has made its inroads from time to time and the religious life, the university life, has been a place where this has been preserved. But if the teachers get cold feet, then the Truth is going to be learned and taught at other places, and that is what's going on. 

The vital life of the intellect now is no longer in universities, it's in the marketplace, it's in the think-tanks, it's in politics. The real philosophers now are our emerging statesmen—in Czechoslovakia, in Poland, and amongst some of the younger political government theorists in the West as well. 

All political questions, all economic questions, eventually impinge upon theology. And if theologians are not going to be theological, then the politicians and economists are going to be turning to theology. If the universities do not want to address theological questions, then the Supreme Court is going to raise them, and that has happened. We're going to have governors and state legislators asking, "What is Life, and when does it begin, and when does it end?" The universities are mute now, because they have been insecure in the Faith. But the Faith is raising its head in other places, and the universities as a result are becoming redundant in society. 

Can you comment on the distinction, and relation, between academic freedom and doctrinal assent, especially in regard to Catholic universities and teaching the Catholic Faith?

‍ It all boils down to whether or not doctrine is true. If doctrine is not true, then it enslaves the mind. If it is true, it frees the mind. There is no such thing as academic freedom which denies Truth. There is liberty to deny the Truth, but freedom only comes through obedience to the Truth. It is only by obeying the Ten Commandments that we are free to be humane. It is only by obeying the doctrines of the Church that we are free to grow in holiness and Truth. What is called "academic freedom" is largely an escape from the Truth, and an enslavement of the intellect. Consequently we have abandoned doctrine for ideology, and ideology is the restriction of the mind, it is the constriction of the mind, from the vision of the Truth.

On that note, it seems that the administration of BC has been bending over backwards to appease the feminists. In the name of "academic freedom" they are allowed to recruit for abortion marches and such. Can you speak a little bit about the ideal of Catholic Womanhood, and if in fact current feminism is antithetical to that ideal?

‍ Well, I don't know anything about the immediate college situation here, so I can't comment. But I can speak to the general phenomenon. If a university is committed to the Truth it has to be opposed to death. Abortion is death. If a university is committed to Truth it has to be committed to the way the world works. Radical feminism is a fantasy which denies human reality. It basically is an old Gnostic heresy which looks upon matter as ambiguous at best, and evil at worst: "Life itself is a threat to my autonomy. Children compromise my individual integrity." 

The radical feminist basically hates the feminine. The hatred of the man is really the hatred of the woman. And so the radical feminist wants to emasculate the man out of frustration from insecurity over her own womanhood. Catholicism has liberated the woman in the Blessed Virgin Mary. She's the only really free woman there ever was, because she was free from sin; feminism does not address sin, and therefore becomes enmeshed in it. The woman is the teacher of culture. It is the woman's function in history to pass on the law of the tribe. When they contradict the law of the tribe then culture loses understanding of itself. If the woman does not take on the vocation of teaching the child, civilization begins to isolate itself from reality. If the woman is corrupted, if the woman becomes degenerate, then she is no longer in a position to civilize the man. Consequently the devil corrupts society by first corrupting the woman. So radical feminism is a fantasy; it is unreality. Once you live a fantasy in a real world, you become very frustrated. 

There have been cries for women in the priesthood. Can you explain why that is antithetical to what priesthood means?

Well that issue is the sort of thing now which is really taken seriously only in places which are totally divorced from reality—largely universities. Real women in the market place and in the homes have no patience for this kind of ecclesiastical hobbyism. 

The cry for priestesses is Gnostic because it contradicts reality, it contradicts the charisms of sexuality, it contradicts the nature of God in history (how He has revealed Himself in history), and it is a paramount clericalism, thinking that one only has an authentic vocation in the Church if one is a cleric. 

So we have all these different problems coming to the fore. But it's a commentary on theology too superficial to even bear the weight of discourse now. In fact, it's beyond the realm of debate. The Pope has made very clear that the priesthood as given to us by the generosity of God and is an intimate expression of God in relation to creation, of men in relation to women, and visa versa, is the received doctrine of the Church, and is fixed. Our job now is, if you wish, to delve more into the mystery of why it is. But to discuss whether it should be is an act contrary to the Faith.

Father, the very notion of Truth itself has come under fire—especially at Catholic universities—to the point where many people are openly hostile to the notion. As a result, we now have policies being made on the grounds of compelling personal experiences. For example, hard cases are always invoked when you attempt to defend the pro-life position. You hear: "Oh, would you make that thirteen year-old girl carry this baby," etc. In any case, the appeal is always to compelling emotional experiences. And I know at the Catholic university, from experience, that there are many people, especially women, who may have had bad experiences with the Church or with their fathers in their lives, and for this reason they are rejecting everything the Church stands for including the notion of Truth. How can we, in a way that communicates effectively, refloat the evidence of objective truth?

‍ Well, the commitment to objective truth is the fundamental commitment one has to have if there is going to be any kind of discourse on any subject. We are inheriting a schizophrenia, an epistemological schizophrenia which goes back to, I suppose you could say, the Averroists, to Siger of Brabant, or later to Descartes, or most widely, Immanuel Kant.  

Kantianism today is sort of simmering in its last gasps in academia. It proved false every place and therefore it could only be sustained in those places that do not have to produce reality. 

If we don't believe in objective Truth, we don't believe in life. Therefore life becomes subject to the whim of the self. Abortion is an important issue because it focuses on the most elementary fact of life and our relation to other lives—other people's lives. It is a feminist issue but not for the reason the self-styled feminists call it a feminist issue. 

Abortion is anti-woman for several reasons. First, it largely consists in making a woman contradict herself. The woman bestows life to the world, and to have her kill that life in her womb kills her identity as well as killing the life in her. Second, it makes the woman a vehicle of convenience for the man. The man disappears and the woman bears the psychological burden of what she has done: she goes through life Lady Macbeth—and I say that as a pastor because I know that's a fact. And third, it subjects women to genocide because the majority of infants killed in the womb are female. 

So I am opposed to killing people for any reason, but as a Christian feminist, I am opposed to killing children because they happen to be female. Amniocentesis enables us to tell the sex of the baby. And the simple fact is that more females are aborted because they are female, than males are aborted because they are male. In China now we have the eradication, almost, of an entire generation of women. The government only allows one child to be born. In China they want to have a boy who will take charge of the family, who will help run the farm, and so if the first is a girl, she is either aborted, or the girl is left to die after birth. I have a friend who is in China. About three years ago he could see the bodies of babies floating down the river, and most of them were girls. Most of them were girls, and that is anti-feminist. And no one can be a true feminist who does not love the Blessed Mother. The Blessed Mother is the free woman, not Molly Yard.

Many students—well, everyone is challenged with chastity—but especially students are dealing with this right now. I see it among my friends. Why is it important to remain chaste, and why is that important to marriage also?

‍ First of all, we remain chaste because we are the children of God. We are in His image and we are meant to be free to do His will. We can only do His will if our bodies and souls both obey Him. The enemy of chastity is the dualist, the Manichaean, the individual who thinks, again, that matter is in some way evil and in some way apart from spiritual reality, and therefore can function just as a machine. We use contraptions to have sex. We divorce part of the sex act from its purpose, which is the creation of life and the sanctification of love, so we've made the flesh just a matter of of nerve endings. 

Once that's the case, we lose knowledge of the purpose of the soul as well as the body. There can be no academic freedom if we do not have spiritual freedom. And we cannot have spiritual freedom if we are enslaved to our passions. 

The body and the soul, as the wise man said, are two friends which never get along together and two enemies which cannot stand to be apart. If we deny that, we are denying the entire witness of history. So we have to make the body the benign servant of the soul. If we are unchaste, then the soul becomes the slave of the body, just as we become unchaste historically by becoming a slave of trends. Our souls become slaves of lust, and our philosophy becomes a slave of fashion. And if someone is unchaste, one very quickly becomes spiritually dead. What happens when you get older? If you live by your passions, then what happens when those passions fade, and move on to different passions? You seek compensations. 

The organizing passion of youth tends to be lust, and then when that, to a certain measure, proves empty, unfulfilling, then one moves onto power in middle age, and when that passion tends to be unfulfilling, then one moves on to avarice in old age. 

In philosophy, in the life of a culture, we do the same thing. Dean Inge in London says that he who marries the spirit of the age becomes a widow in the next. Well, people who call themselves modern, now, have to confront the fact that the modern age is over. What happens? What happened to "man come of age" that we heard so much about in the 50s and 60s? Well, if man has come of age that means he's now about to become senile. He is becoming senile. Modernism is senile. And we were told this. We were told this by Pius IX. We were told this by Pius X. And they were laughed at. But they've been proved right. 

This question goes back to the university again. I walk around campus and I can't tell who's a priest and who's not, because most Jesuits, or a lot of Jesuits, don't wear their collar. And it seems like a little thing to most students that I talk to who say, "Oh, why should they wear the collar?" Why is wearing a collar important?  

‍ Well, first of all, it's an act of humility to obey, and the Pope has told us to do that. If we don't do that we're disobeying the Pope, number one. In an Army you're told to wear a uniform; if you don't you're out of line. Secondly, it represents a kind of bourgeois softness on the part of the priest, who's supposed to be a man for others not simply a man with others. A priest is a man who is in a riot situation. Culture's in a riot, it's in chaos, and he is there as the physician, as the soldier, and as the policeman. And people have to be able to look for their helpers. 

I live in the middle of New York City, and it would be very easy for me to glide by in secular dress. I know the minute I go on the sidewalk, dressed as a priest, I'm going to be set upon by three or four beggars within the length of one block. Every time I see somebody in distress on the street somebody's going to pull me over to help—I'm to be very conspicuous. On the subway I'm going to have every kind of individual, every kind of crank, as well as people with serious clout, approach me. If they don't know I'm a priest they're not going to do that. So it is a form of indolence and selfishness on the part of a priest not to identify himself as a priest, because he is making himself a private person when he does that and a priest is ordained to be a public person. 

When the Church was being persecuted in Uganda, they asked a mission society to send clerical collars, and the missionary society said, "We have medicine and things to give you." And they said, "No, we want clerical collars, because," they said, "when the people are being rounded up to be shot they have to be able to spot their priests." So, it is selfishness—it is bourgeois and selfishness—on the part of the priest not to manifest himself as the priest to other people. It is not sufficient for the priest to say, "I don't need a collar to remind myself that I'm a priest." Well, if he's a superman maybe. But I need a collar—all I can say is, I need the collar—to remind myself that I'm a priest. And I need the collar to let other people know.