Rev. George William Rutler, 69, is pastor of the Church of St. Michael in New York City. He was raised in the Episcopal tradition while growing up in the Northeast, and served nine years as an Episcopal priest. He converted to Catholicism in 1979, and was ordained a priest in 1981.
He has served in a variety of parishes in New York, and as chaplain for many organizations, including Legatus, an organization for Catholic business leaders. He has served as a retreat master for religious orders, including the Missionaries of Charity. He is a sought-after lecturer, had a television program with EWTN, and has written numerous books and magazine articles. His newest books include Principalities and Powers: Spiritual Combat 1942-1943 (St. Augustine’s Press) and Hints of Heaven (Sophia Institute Press), to be released for Lent 2015, which explores how Christ’s parables give us “hints” as to what heaven is like.
He is also working with Ignatius Press on a book of selected writings and hopes to write a biography of Louis IX of France, the only French king to be canonized. Fr. Rutler recently spoke with CWR.
CWR: You’ve spent half your life as a Roman Catholic and half in the Episcopalian church. The Church of England—of which the Episcopalian church is an outgrowth—recently made the news by naming its first female bishop, Libby Lane. How has the Episcopalian church changed over your lifetime?
Fr. Rutler: It’s changed very significantly. It is vanishing. A few generations ago, it was the unofficial official church of the United States. It was a visible presence in the national order. It was prosperous and effective in many ways.
That’s all gone now. It doesn’t exist anymore. The remnant you see is post-Christian. It is a vivid but tragic example of what happens when you abandon a serious commitment to the teachings of Christ. Demographically, the Church of England will not exist in 20 years. Other Anglican groups outside England have been ordaining women as priests and bishops in recent years, and the result has not only been theologically chaotic but a demographic catastrophe.
CWR: More Roman Catholics in England go to Mass than Anglicans in England.
Fr. Rutler: Yes. And, more Muslims are going to mosques there.
[Fr. Rutler subsequently offered these statistics: 1) There have been 5.3 million fewer British-born people describing themselves as Christians, a decline of 15% in just a decade. 2) At the same time, the number of Muslims in England and Wales surged by 75% – boosted by almost 600,000 more foreign-born followers of the Islamic faith. 3) While almost half of British Muslims are under the age of 25, almost a quarter of Christians (Protestants and Catholics) are over 65.]
CWR: Some are excited to see Libby Lane become a bishop. British Prime Minister David Cameron called it “an historic appointment and an important step forward for the Church towards greater equality in its senior positions.” What is your reaction?
Fr. Rutler: That’s the sort of thing he’d say. He has called himself a “vaguely practicing” Christian. There are members of his own party who would call him a vaguely practicing thinker. His comments on religion can’t be taken seriously.
But regardless, just as the Holy See considers denominations such as the Church of England “ecclesial entities” rather than apostolic churches, Mrs. Lane and other Anglican “bishops” and “priests” lack valid orders, though I am sure they try to minister the best they can even if oblivious to their lay status. Pope John Paul II definitively made it clear that the Church has no authority to ordain women to Holy Orders.
CWR: Your Manhattan parish is in “Hell’s Kitchen,” an area once known for its high crime rate. Is it a difficult parish to serve?
Fr. Rutler: Every parish has its pluses and minuses. Mine was founded in 1857 for Irish immigrants. The site of the church has since moved, but it once included a massive church and school which served 10,000 parishioners.
By the 1960s and ’70s, the area was crime-ridden and poor, but still home to many immigrants. The “Westies,” or Irish mafia, ruled the area. They were notorious not just for their crime, but for being sadists. The parish virtually evaporated; there were almost no parishioners. It was questionable whether the parish could continue.
But the area has revitalized and undergone a big real estate boom. We have many building projects going on, bringing many new people into the area. Property values have risen. A subway stop will soon open near the church to serve the rapidly growing neighborhood.
But the question is, how many will we make Catholic? Our job is not to just serve ethnic communities with large concentrations of Catholics, but to fulfill the great evangelical commission of Christ: make disciples of all nations. He didn’t tell us to just go out into the Catholic neighborhoods. I think we need to resist the financial temptation to sell the property during this economic upturn, and see that there is a tremendous potential for converts here.
CWR: The Archdiocese of New York has closed a net 31 parishes, with perhaps more closures on the way. Why are fewer and fewer residents making participation in the life of the Church a part of their lives?
Fr. Rutler: New Yorkers are part of Western culture, which is in the midst of being secularized. Our religious instinct has faded, and our traditionally Catholic families are moving out of the City.
Part of the problem is the need for effective catechesis. The ignorance of the Faith among the young is stunning. Our Catholic schools have been in a state of decline. In some of our schools we’re covering up our religious symbols so we can receive money from the state.
Also, there has been a liturgical failing. The liturgy is a prime means of evangelizing people, but our liturgies are often banal.
CWR: About 37% of pregnancies in New York City end in abortion (approximately 74,000 abortions annually), which is one of the highest rates of abortion in the country. Why don’t more New Yorkers listen to the Church’s right-to-life message?
Fr. Rutler: Young people learn moral precepts through their families. In New York, we’ve had a serious breakdown of family life. More than half of babies in New York City are born out of wedlock. We have some wonderful Catholic pro-life organizations, such as the Sisters of Life, but they only reach a small fraction of the population.
CWR: About a year ago, in January 2014, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said that residents who are “right-to-life” and “anti-gay” (meaning opposed to same-sex marriage) are “extreme conservatives” and “have no place in the state of New York.” How alarming do you find the governor’s comments, and is it ironic that they come from someone who identifies himself as Catholic?
Fr. Rutler: I wrote an article on this topic. One positive aspect of this Cuomo is that he doesn’t pretend his position is Catholic. Mario Cuomo, his father who previously served as governor, did.
Yes, Andrew Cuomo’s comments are alarming, but I’d find it more alarming if government officials who are promoting evil are happy with the Church. Our Lord said, “Blessed are you when men reproach you, and persecute you, and speaking falsely, say all manner of evil against you, for my sake.” [Matt 5:11]. Catholics for too long have had a comfortable relationship with the government. It’s like a cushion on which we’ve laid our head. But it’s a dangerous thing when we seek the approval of politicians. It leads to our being exploited by government.
CWR: You were a witness to the 9-11 attacks in New York City. A decade later, in 2011, an Islamic cultural center opened two blocks from Ground Zero (the “Ground Zero mosque”). And, plans were submitted to demolish the site and build a much larger Islamic center. Do you think many of your fellow New Yorkers have failed to consider the role Islam played in the 9-11 attacks, and ongoing attacks on the West and Christians today?
Fr. Rutler: The World Trade Center was not destroyed by Presbyterians. Catholics are naïve if they try to ignore that the attackers were Muslim. As I said in one of my recent articles, society is in a similar place today as it was in regards to Hitler in the 1930s. People were accommodating themselves to National Socialism or Hitlerism because they thought it would bring down Marxism. The Nazis, in fact, presented themselves as the anti-Bolsheviks. But, they didn’t appreciate the disease they were unleashing on the world.
People who describe themselves as liberals today are often protective and defensive about Islam, despite the fact that it is so intrinsically opposed to what these progressives claim to represent. The only explanation I can come up with is that these Western socialists or progressives are hostile to Judeo-Christian civilization and see Muslims as an effective force against it. The enemy of my enemy is my friend.
This is coupled with the fact that the secular media so often downplays or ignores the atrocities committed by Islamists. Just recently, for example, four Christian children were lined up by ISIS in Iraq and told to deny Christ and convert to Islam. When they refused, they were decapitated. I don’t recall seeing that in the New York Times.
CWR: One of New York’s best known and beloved priests, Fr. Benedict Groeschel, died recently. Did you know him well, and what are your thoughts on his passing?
Fr. Rutler: Yes. I’ve spoken to him many times, and we’ve participated in many conferences together. He has offered me much wise advice. He was wise about the things of this world as well as those of the next. I wish more people would have listened to him.
Father was saddened by the loss of nerve of Catholics, especially Catholic religious, in standing up to the zeitgeist, or spirit of our age. It prompted him to join in the founding of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal. He believed many older orders had lost their zeal, were accommodating to the times, and did not address the deeper issues of our society. He spoke out against abortion and homosexualism; he was involved in COURAGE, the Church’s apostolate for people with same-sex attractions.
He was a sign of contradiction [Luke 2:34] and experienced the hostility those receive who offer that kind of prophetic witness. His order has been very successful in attracting vocations.
His sense of humor attracted people to him. A sense of humor is a trait of the balanced; the unbalanced and fanatical don’t have one. They have no ability to laugh at themselves or the ridiculous things of life.
Fr. Groeschel was criticized for some unfortunate comments about child sex abuse and Coach Jerry Sandusky at the end of his life, but he was not well at the time.
CWR: Speaking of priests, how has the Archdiocese of New York done for vocations?
Fr. Rutler: The past 20 years has been very poor. We do not do well as compared to other dioceses our size. Many of our most zealous young men pursuing vocations do not choose the diocesan seminary but religious orders, where they find more clarity and stability. The Dominican Friars of the Province of St. Joseph, for example, have drawn many vocations from the archdiocese.
However, among our few vocations in the archdiocese, we have some excellent young men. I was blessed to have some come from my previous parish.
CWR: You’ve praised the work of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict. What impressions do you have of our current Holy Father, Pope Francis?
Fr. Rutler: Pope Benedict would be a hard act for anyone to follow. Only once every three or four centuries do you get a pope with an intellect like Pope Benedict’s. I miss his clarity. [Read Fr. Rutler’s thoughts on the resignation of Pope Benedict.]
Pope Francis is a man of deep faith, but his pontificate has sent off many confusing signals. When you read what [Pope Francis] says, he uses expressions which are hard to understand in terms of logic. He would benefit by the use of more measured speech. Recently, for example, the media reported that he said dogs go to heaven. This reporting actually twisted his original comments. But he has to understand that any casual comment he makes will be taken by demagogues to promote disorder and confusion. It may be that the press is to blame, but he would benefit by being more careful in what he says in the upcoming years.
CWR: Among your many books is Crisis of Saints, in which you remind the reader that holiness is not just for priests and nuns, but everyone. What advice do you offer the average Catholic-in-the-pew on how he might become holy?
Fr. Rutler: I like to use the Latin phrase age quod agis: do what you’re doing. Holiness is serving God in your station in life using your talents, whatever they may be. I was blessed to work with Mother Teresa and her community, the Missionaries of Charity. She liked to say, “Do what you’re doing, but do it with love.” That is the essence of holiness.
And, we have to remember to be Christians, not politicians; this especially true for those of us who are priests and bishops. St. Paul warns Timothy about pleasing men. When we ask “How will this make me look?” we’re betraying Christ. Christ will judge us on the Last Day, not a Gallup poll.
CWR: What concerns do you have about Catholic education?
Fr. Rutler: Our Catholic education system is a disaster, from kindergarten to the university level. I am continually appalled by the ignorance of Catholic college graduates I meet. They know nothing at all about the Faith or Western culture. We’ve returned to the period of 800-1200, with the Church the repository of learning in the midst of the total dearth of the life of the mind.
We have a generation of parents who did not receive the Faith from the previous generation. Fifty years ago, parents had some sense of their obligations to God and tried to pass them on to their children. But today, many parents are a blank slate when it comes to religion. They have nothing to pass on to their children. Some have turned to homeschooling, but that’s a small percentage of the total. There are also some splendid new academies and colleges faithful to the Magisterium which are opening, which I hope will serve as models for renewal for some existing institutions.
In our recent discussions of the Church and family, much attention has been paid to those in irregular situations, such as the divorced. These are important considerations, but let’s keep our focus on the traditional family unit and on how we can support it. The family is our future.
The people I find most heroic in our society are young couples bringing up children. I’ve had parents bring their babies to Mass and get embarrassed when they cry. They come to me afterward and apologize for the disruption. I say, “Don’t apologize, that’s the sound of the future.”
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