Book Review

By Paul Tuns

The Wit and Wisdom of Father George Rutler, edited by Edward Short (Sophia Institute Press, $19.95 USD, 352 pages).

I have long been a fan of Fr. George Rutler’s writings, being most familiar with his work in Crisis magazine. Fr. Rutler radiates both erudition and spirituality, so it is hardly surprising that he is both Ivy League educated and parish priest. While he wears his erudition lightly, his priesthood – the love of Christ and his bride, the Holy, Roman Catholic Church – is always front and centre. That is why even when addressing the banalities of politics and economics, his observations are always rich with the wisdom of the ages, not the opinions of the times.

Fr. Rutler was born in New Jersey, raised Episcopalian (Anglican), and grew up wanting to join the clergy of his sect. He read the classics and attended Dartmouth College. Studying history, he moved toward Anglo-Catholicism, and eventually arrived in Rome after being ordained to the Episcopalian priesthood (becoming the youngest Episcopalian rector in America at the age of 26). It was as both rector and a college chaplain in his mid-20s that he witnessed the radical changing of the culture around him in the late 1960s. Reading John Henry Newman, he saw himself in the Apologia – “just change the names and places.” Rev. Rutler rejected the Anglican Church’s capitulation to modernity and the last straw for him was his Episcopal bishop raising money for a counseling centre that promoted abortion. By the late 1970s he had joined the Catholic Church and became a Catholic priest.

Sophia Press has published selections of The Wit and Wisdom of Father George Rutler, a 300-page collection of some of the cleverest observations, turns of phrases, and nuggets of wisdom that Fr. Rutler committed to print. An example of the brutal humour he could employ is a comment about St. Patrick: “If St. Patrick, whom the archdiocese of New York is privileged to invoke as its patron, could witness what has become of his feast in the streets of our city, he might think that the Druids were having their revenge.” In another passage (on sacraments), he notes, “The atheist denies God, but he ignores the saints.” This is positively Chestertonian.

The collection is sorted by topic — “Civilization,” “History,” “Humility,” “The Killing of Unwanted People,” “The Kingdom of Heaven,” “St. Patrick” — and the vast majority have precisely one entry from Fr. Rutler’s recent writings. In one brief entry that applies to today, under the headline “Safety” is this: “Nothing great or noble has been achieved by seeking safety.”

In “The Defiance of Holy Innocence,” about abortion, Fr. Rutler writes: “People who promote abortion say they are ‘pro-choice.’ All that manifests, besides their own guilt, is bad grammar. ‘To choose’ is a transitive verb; it needs an object. The ‘pro-choice’ person must finish the sentence: choice of what?” In “How to Revere the Beloved Dead,” he mentions the 50 million who have died following the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, and writes: “Holy Church has widely published the fact that no one is morally justified in preferring any political candidate who promotes abortion over one who does not. Only the invincibly ignorant can hope to escape severe penalties, eternal as well as temporal, if they reject this counsel.” Indeed, the abortion section is the longest in the index, which is just one reason to recommend this collection to all readers, and not only Catholics.

Fr. Rutler writes eloquently about the culture and the church, and never the former without the guidance of the latter. Still, this collection very much reveals an American and New Yorker embedded in the life of the city. (He gave absolution to firemen and policemen on September 11, 2001, and tells stories of his friends Fr. Richard John Neuhaus and William F. Buckley.) But his observations, guidance, and warnings are all deeply embedded in Scripture, in the writings and lives of the saints, and in the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. Every page rewards its reading.

Earlier I referred to Fr. Rutler as Chesteronian. Indeed, there are dozens of sentences that evoke GKC, but the most so is the one that is a mere eleven words on “The Church Militant.” “A parish is not a family heirloom,” wrote Fr. Rutler, “but a military base.” The wit and wisdom of Fr. Rutler is excellent preparation for Christian soldiers.

Paul Tuns is editor of The Interim.