Fr. George Rutler’s Calm in Chaos: Catholic Wisdom for Anxious Times

A Review Essay

In his introduction to his book of essays titled Calm in Chaos: Essays for Anxious Times (Ignatius Press, 2018), Father George W. Rutler writes, “These essays touch upon confusions in the Church that are not without precedent but that are on a uniquely global scale.” And, he writes, “If there is one underlying theme in this analysis of the chaos of our times, it is dismay at the lack of historical perspective.” But his readers need not be dismayed; these essays, like all of Father Rutler’s essays, lavish readers with historical perspective. It’s part of their charm.

If you get ahold of this book and are at all like me, when you read through these pages — which touch on many of the confusions and evils we hear about, not only in the Church but also in the world, awash with frustrating pronouncements, rank hypocrisies, and moral imbecilities — in spite of all that disturbing news, you may realize you are reading with enjoyment, pure enjoyment, because Father Rutler writes so well, and because he brings in so many interesting facts and personalities from his mental storehouse of past and current acts in the human comedy to bolster his points.

There is no simple way to summarize the gist of this collection of essays, since the topics range so widely. But I can say I am often delighted by the things he writes, or at the very least in the way he writes them, which make me think, and sometimes smile, or even laugh out loud — even if ruefully. Sometimes I even cheer out loud when one of his quibs hit home, “Touché!” I never engage in that odd behavior while reading anyone else. In this review, I’m going to provide some snippets from some of the essays in the book to give you a chance to see if they might have the same effect on you.

Chapter One: The Resurrection Difference

After discussing, among many tangential things, various events from Roman history and paganism’s reliance on the contradictory answers of the oracles, Father Rutler writes, “If you climb the steps of the United States Supreme Court, you may feel like the Roman clients climbing the steps of the Temple of Jupiter, uncertain of what will be declared the justice of the moment.”

Father Rutler compares the strong declamations of faith the early Christians made, even when faced with being fed to lions, to the “languid language of some current Christian apologetics.” He writes that “liberal Protestantism decayed as the result of denuding ritual of dogma and giving primacy to manners over morals,” a tendency that he observes “also threatens the Holy Church herself.” He goes on to write, “Consider how the apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia quotes Aquinas,” which he says it does for a total of thirteen times, cherry-picking to include the parts that speak about mercy and leaving out the parts that speak of justice. Of course, there’s more, lots more in that chapter, which I must leave to go onto to the next. But first a digression.

About Criticizing Pope Francis

I respect Father Rutler’s tact and dutiful reverence to Pope Francis, since he often quotes the indisputable good things the Pope says and does. He refers to him as His Holiness and never dismissively just as Bergoglio. I also admire that he has the nerve to point out the often ludicrous and just plain wrong things the Pope and some of his closest cardinals are reported as saying and doing; but he does it without vitriol. And I think he’s courageous, because he, after all, is a diocesan pastor who could be called on the carpet by his superiors if his loyalty came into question.

Father Rutler appropriately writes his critiques and, from all accounts, lives his vocation in such a way that it would be impossible to dismiss him as a benighted traditionalist, and is so generous in his ability to give credit where credit is due that it would be equally hard to label him an enemy of the Pope, even though I’ve come across articles on the Internet that try to paint him that way.

Sometimes, the only way to deal with unpleasant realities is with humor and deflection, as is illustrated in this delicious piece I chanced upon, an article by Father Rutler with him supposedly writing as the UK Catholic Herald’s “resident agony priest.” (In case you don’t know, advice columnists used to be dubbed “agony aunts.”) In the “advice column,” Father Rutler gave a serious answer with a funny twist, in answer to the question, “What should I do when my family trash-talks the Pope?” Consider this excerpt, which has a bit of both, humor, and deflection (dated 20 December, 2018):

Dear Father Rutler,

Pope Francis isn’t my favourite Vicar of Christ of the last couple of millennia, but I don’t like the way some of my friends and family trash-talk him. Should I say something? If so, how do I put it without sounding cloyingly pious?
Roger S. Reading, MA

The response?

With the best of intentions, people may forget that at the heart of piety is “reverence for the fathers”. That does not mean indulging the extravagant and unfounded notion that the Holy Spirit chooses each pope. It does mean that the Holy Spirit can pick up the pieces of whatever mere mortals may break, and it also means taking seriously the prayers at Mass for a pope. Our Lord had the most righteous anger, but our anger may not always be altogether righteous, losing temper rather than using it. Arguments about such things usually are cathartic rather than constructive. If friends and family rant, just quietly ask: “When the apostles remembered Psalm 69:9 about being consumed by zeal, what do you think was meant by the Septuagint’s use of katesthio?” If that doesn’t silence them, gently ask, “Do you want to be Shem and Japheth, or just Ham?” It is unlikely that they will continue the conversation.1

As is characteristic of Father Rutler’s style, we can see good advice almost subliminally embedded in his humorous reply to the question, words that show the kind of actions a frustrated Catholic should take. First of all, the commandment to honor our fathers still stands (and it does not have the exception clause “unless we think they don’t deserve it”), and we owe reverence to our Holy Father. Second, it is important to understand on the one hand that not everything a pope does is willed by the Holy Spirit, even though some of the current pope’s supporters claim otherwise, and to remember, on the other hand, that nothing can be broken by any man that cannot be fixed by God. Third, we must pray for the Pope, and, fourth, we must restrain our tendency to anger when we hear of things that outrage us, because often times such anger is merely self-righteousness rather than constructive. And, finally, if people don’t agree with you, you can always stop them in their tracks by pelting them with your erudition.

Chapter Two: The Pity of Christ

In this chapter, Father Rutler spares no scorn for the contradictions promoted by the kind of men C.S. Lewis dubbed “men without chests,” because “their perception of reality lacks moral compass.” Then he includes some prelates in the category of chest-less ones. But not just prelates. In one paragraph, he juxtaposes the nonchalant attitude of Planned Parenthood’s recently retired CEO, Cecile Richards, towards videotaped revelations that Planned Parenthood doctors sell the body parts of aborted babies — with the attitude of 94 year-old Nazi Oskar Gröning, who — on the same week that Richards spoke — was convicted by a German court of three hundred thousand counts of accessory to murder.

Father Rutler writes about how some refused to believe Nazi atrocities while they were going on. (Who honestly could not have avoided seeing and smelling the foul black smoke from the furnaces that burned the bodies, not to mention the sight of cattle cars crammed with people rolling into the walled camps?) And he writes that General Eisenhower forced them to enter the camps and look at the “fetid corpses.” I believe Father Rutler is actually conflating two historic facts. General Eisenhower toured a sub-camp of Buchenwald and wrote he was never so shocked by anything in his life but, from what I’ve read, it was the lower-ranking commanders of the units that liberated the camps who forced thousands of nearby residents to walk through and see the piles of bodies, those near death crammed every way possible into filthy straw-lined bunks, and the emaciated ragged survivors who were still on their feet clinging to barbed wire; in some places the soldiers actually forced the neighbors who had ignored the evidence of their own eyes and noses to dig graves with their own hands, and give a decent burial with a coffins to each “fetid corpse.”

Father Rutler fitly closes the essay this way, “Perhaps there will be a day when remnants of our sheepish generation are dragged through the moral carnage of our land and feel some of the pity Christ feels for us.” I admire that sentence greatly. I have often found myself saying something similar. But in my predictions of a future world that I believe will call us as a society and as individuals to account for subscribing to a dehumanizing sexual ethic that leads to abortion businesses that kill hundreds of thousands of babies in their mother’s wombs in the centers of our cities, as people calmly drive and walk by, I have omitted mention of the pity Christ feels for us, even for those of us in denial about or apathetic about the enormous number of murders that are routinely performed in those clinics every day.

Not Just a River in Egypt

And so we get to chapter three, “A River in Egypt, Denying the Undeniable.”

The title of this chapter plays off the clever phrase that is popular in the twelve-step movement and which is attributed “without evidence,” as Father Rutler says, to Mark Twain, “Denial isn’t just a river in Egypt.”2 For one example, former president Barack Obama gets deftly skewered in this chapter because of Obama’s denials of any connection between the religion of Islam and any number of terrorist attacks, including the one by the confused and murderous man who some say frequented Pulse, the Orlando gay bar, himself as a patron before he came back one night with guns “to kill many people,” as Father Rutler wrote, “while shouting praises to Allah.”

But How, Then, Are We to Stay Calm in Chaos?

While I was preparing to review this book, I ran across a YouTube clip of “Father and Son,” a Cat Stevens song from 1970 whose narrative tells of an old man’s advice to his son on how to react to hypocrisy and other evil doings: “Take it easy. It is not easy to be calm when you found there’s something going on.” The old man advises the son to stay home, find a girl, maybe get married, but the young man responds he has to go away — implying that he wants not only to leave his home, but also leave behind the old verities for a new way of living that will right the world’s wrongs.

And then I remembered this from Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, which seems to imply that one should just carry on and go on carefully doing whatever it is one is doing, as Algernon does in this example, continuing to eat muffins while annoying his wannabe-Earnest friend John:

Jack: How you can sit there, calmly eating muffins when we are in this horrible trouble, I can’t make out. You seem to me to be perfectly heartless.

Algernon: Well, I can’t eat muffins in an agitated manner. The butter would probably get on my cuffs. One should always eat muffins quite calmly. It is the only way to eat them.

I do think it’s safe to say Father Rutler wouldn’t agree that throwing off the answers of the past, as the Cat Stevens hero feels he must do, is the right response. And, certainly, he would not agree that to reject Christianity and become a Muslim is right either, as did the performer formerly known as Cat Stevens and subsequently known as Yusuf Islam. And I’m sure Father Rutler would agree that avoidance — by continuing to eat one’s muffins very carefully — that isn’t the right way either.

It’s impossible to summarize neatly what Father Rutler suggests as the best way to react to chaos, except — as is implied in the title — that once we have sifted the truths from the lies, we must stay calm, and pray, and do the right thing ourselves, and continue doing so even if the Lord sometimes appears to be sleeping, and the barque appears to be in danger of sinking. The consoling message underneath it all, of course, is that the Lord is in control, and He wants us to trust Him because He alone can and will “pick up the pieces of whatever mere mortals may break.”

  1. Father George Rutler, “Dear Fr Rutler: What should I do when my family trash-talk the Pope?,” Catholic Herald, December 20, 2018, catholicherald.co.uk/magazine/dear-fr-rutler-what-should-i-do-when-my-family-trash-talk-the-pope/
  2. Further reading: “Denial Is Not a River in Egypt,” Quote Investigator, May 11, 2012, quoteinvestigator.com/2012/05/11/denial-not-river/.
Roseanne T. Sullivan About Roseanne T. Sullivan

Roseanne T. Sullivan is a writer from the Boston area who currently lives in San Jose, CA. Sullivan studied graphic design, painting, journalism, fiction and poetry writing while completing a BA in Studio Arts and English, and an MA with writing emphasis at the University of Minnesota. She has a deep and abiding interest in sacred music, sacred art, liturgy, and Latin, and she teaches Latin to homeschoolers. Many of her writings and photographs have appeared in the National Catholic Register, the New Liturgical Movement, Regina Magazine, Latin Mass Magazine, and other publications. Her own intermittently updated blog, Catholic Pundit Wannabe, is at catholicpunditwannabe.blogspot.com.