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From the introduction to "The Wit and Wisdom of Father George Rutler"

  • EDWARD SHORT

Father Rutler is a teacher, not an entertainer, though he often entertains to teach. 


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The extracts from his books gathered here will show readers what an exceptionally good teacher he is, not only because the wit he deploys to impart his wisdom is often brilliant but also because the wisdom itself is so timely and so timeless. 

What sort of wisdom does the teacher in Father Rutler impart?  To answer that, I shall quote something from one of his favorite saints.  "Wisdom," St. John Henry Cardinal Newman wrote in his Oxford University Sermons (1843), "is the clear, calm, accurate vision, and comprehension of the whole course, the whole work of God; and though there is none who has it in its fulness but He who 'searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of' the Creator, yet 'by that Spirit' they are, in a measure, 'revealed unto us.'"  They have certainly been revealed unto Father Rutler.  The "deep things of the Creator" imbue every fibre of his being.  Yet it is his wit that enables him to share this wisdom with others — a wit that may be whimsical, paradoxical, droll, or ironic, as the occasion warrants, but is always rapier-like in defending the truth of the "whole work of God."

"Ancient salt is best packing," the good traditional poet in William Butler Yeats said.  For Father Rutler, there is no ancient salt like Roman salt, and it is with that incomparable preservative that he seasons all of the fare he sets before his readers.  My charge has been to give readers a sampling of that fare.  In this introduction, I am tempted simply to say, "Bon appétit" and leave my readers to see for themselves the fare's sumptuousness.  Good food, after all, like good wine, needs no bush.  Yet it might be helpful to share with my readers how I came to choose the extracts I chose and what I think, together, they say of my subject's apologetical achievement.

In poring over Father Rutler's various books in preparation for this project, I decided early on that I would not simply cull "quotes" from the various books in the sense of bons mots or aphorisms.  I do not know how my readers feel about such things, but books of quotes have always struck me as deadly dull.  La Rochefoucauld has much to answer for in this line, though even the epigrammatical Duc did not restrict himself to mere aphorisms in his Maxims (1665).  Consequently, I resolved to include longer extracts that would give my readers a better sense of the depth, acuity, and appeal of my subject's thinking, without excluding the odd apothegm here and there. 

Father Rutler is a rather good aphorist.  His definition of "relativism" nicely shows this.  "Relativism," he says, "is the attempt to realize unreality."  Elsewhere, he observes how "Lent is not for the fey."  In still another case, he makes a distinction that should give pause to those quick to censure: "Perfectionists are easily scandalized by what is not good.  Saints are only scandalized by what is not glorious."  As good as these aphorisms are, to have limited the anthology to exhibiting aphorisms would have been to do scant justice to my subject's work overall.  It would certainly have robbed the collection of longer extracts such as the following, which are more redolent of Father Rutler's critical incisiveness. 

In 1940, a refugee from the horrors of the Nazis wrote a letter that was published in Time magazine.  He said that he had seen the universities collapse before three egoisms — the self, the state, and the body.  He saw the media collapse; the journalists surrender; the courts cave in; and the government institutionalize the roots of discord.  Only one voice clearly and serenely spoke out telling the truth, and that was the voice of the Catholic Church.  He admitted that he had not thought much about the Church while growing up, and when he did, he did not think very much of her.  But now he wanted to say that he had a profound respect for the Church as the one voice of peace in a world torn apart.  The man was Albert Einstein.  The great scientist was not anti-intellectual, of course, but he once warned that we shouldn't expect intellectuals to show courage in times of crisis.  Certainly, there have been great thinkers who have heroically offered their voices, their minds, and their bodies in defense of truth.  But collectively, Einstein knew the temptation of pride that haunts the intellectual and that tells us that the ego is god, that our institutions can be god, that our flesh can be god. 

As for editorial principles, I have included only what I thought worth including, in accordance with my set purpose of compiling a book that would at once instruct and amuse.  I have not aimed at producing a collection that would be representative of all of Father Rutler's books, some of which simply do not lend themselves to extracts.  Instead, I have sought to produce a collection representative of his thinking.  As for the marvelous unity of his thinking, my readers will see this plainly in the detailed index that follows the extracts.  With respect to the arrangement of the extracts, I have opted mostly for an alphabetical, rather than categorical ordering, convinced that this would make for more surprising juxtapositions.  Since capturing the surprise of revelation, the surprise of truth and the discernment of truth, is of the essence of Father Rutler's wit, arranging the extracts to highlight this surprise was critical. 

Looking at the compiling of the collection in retrospect, I can see now that what the extracts I chose called for most was an anthology that would show how the overall effect of Father Rutler's writing is to edify, an unjustly disesteemed word (from the Latin aedificare, "to make") which entered the language in the fourteenth century meaning "to build, to construct."  Since the eighteenth century, it has often been used ironically, especially by impious sophisticates.  Edward Gibbon uses it in this way when he says in his Decline and Fall: "The complaints and mutual accusations which assailed the throne of Constantine were ill adapted to edify an imperfect proselyte."  This may be a clever use of the word, but it is not the sense in which I am applying it to Father Rutler's work, which is: "To build up [the Church, the soul] in faith and holiness; to benefit spiritually; to strengthen, support." 

This gets at the heart of what the teacher in Father Rutler does in all of his work.  He addresses his readers not as members of a gallery or mob but as individual souls.  The charge he sets himself is to build up, to construct souls in the truths of the Faith; and he does this by familiarizing them with Our Lord and Savior and His one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.  At every turn, he shows his readers what genuine solicitude he has for their spiritual well-being.  To illustrate this, I could point to any number of extracts, but here is as good an example as any: 

Human love opens to eternal joy when it is lived as a type of God's perfect and unfailing love.  For instance, marriages lived as images of Christ's love for his Church will be faithful and sacrificing, but by being indissoluble they will also be eternal.  To say "Catholics can't get divorced" is a stuttering way of saying that love is given and never withdrawn.  Of course, it is possible to think that love is given by humans, when in fact it is only given to them.  It is a deliberate act of God; if you deny that, you lapse into strange and vague language about "falling in love."  And in the next breath those who fall in love speak of "falling out of love."  It is a strange object, indeed, that we can both fall in and fall out of.  It is in fact a fiction.  And the Cross of Christ stands as the perpetual sign that love is nothing unless it is what you have to climb up to, through every obstacle that pride puts in the way. 

One of the revelations in editing The Wit and Wisdom of Father George Rutler has been how consistent, coherent, and, indeed, prophetic my subject's thinking is.  Although prolific, Father Rutler has never been merely topical.  He might write on the news of the day, but he always does so sub specie aeternitatis.  He has also pursued themes over the years that show his keen understanding of history. …

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Acknowledgement

shortedEdward Short. from the introduction to The Wit and Wisdom of Father George Rutler  (Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 2020): xi-xix.

Reprinted with permission from Sophia Institute Press. 

The Author

shortednEdward Short is the author of Newman and History, Newman and his Contemporaries, Newman and his Family, and Adventures in the Book Pages. He lives in New York with his wife and two young children.

Copyright © 2020 Sophia Institute Press
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