When Priests Attack

When Priests Attack May 7, 2019

So last week, Jimmy Akin offered a typically lucid critique of the absurd letter charging the Holy Father with heresy. It was, I thought, a brave thing to do since the subculture that it was both created by and addressed to is, in large measure, the subculture that reads the National Catholic Register, for whom Jimmy wrote the critique. My fear was that this subculture would lash out at him instead of listening to him.

Alas, my fear was not unfounded. The comboxes at the Register are bulging with screeds attacking him with the beloved insult “ultramontanist” (a term which now means “somebody who does not call the pope a heretic for using a ferula”). What is particularly striking are the priests showing up to attack a layperson for speaking on behalf of the pope against these crazy charges and, in particular, none other than Father George Rutler, one of the signers of the letter, who writes:

Posted by George W. Rutler on Friday, May, 3, 2019 1:53 PM (EDT):
I have been asked to respond to Mr. “Jimmy” Akins’s criticism of the scholarly statement imputing heresy to the Holy Father, and which Akins calls “loopy.” One is surprised that such a screed, which engages the pedantry of an amateur, was published in the National Catholic Register. While prescinding from any judgment about the juridical force of that scholarly statement, which may be frail in the case of a Sovereign Pontiff, the content of the document speaks for itself and strikes me as considerable if not even irrefutable. Noting among the signatories some figures I know and even highly esteem, I was amused to see that they are dismissed as incompetent and unqualified by “Jimmy” Akins. I am unfamiliar with this man, but from what information I could find, he is from the scenic Ozarks,likes being photographed in a cowboy hat, and advertises himself as a “Catholic apologist” while apparently shy of mentioning any academic credentials beyond one year in an unnamed college. Nonetheless, his efforts seem to be well-intentioned, and for them he receives an impressive income. However, I am moved to defend a man who needs no defense since he is one of the most distinguished theologians in the English-speaking world: Father Aidan Nichols. Perhaps “Jimmy” Akins would be willing to debate Father Nichols in that distinguished Dominican’s alma mater, the University of Oxford -the only requirements being that the debate be in the Latin with which Father Nichols is adroit, and that “Jimmy” Akins not wear a cowboy hat.

The name for this fallacy is “ad hominem”. It is also sloppy since he cannot be bothered to spell Jimmy’s name right as he evades reply to the substance of Jimmy’s argument.

Jimmy replies to this empty, snobbish, and content-free “rebuttal” with grace and class on Facebook:

A recent combox remark by Fr. George Rutler brought a smile to my face. 🙂

He makes several factual mistakes (including the implication I have only a year of college) and shares a fantasy about me being in over my head in a debate.

Still, it’s not every day that a priest of the Archdiocese of New York who says he’s not familiar with me mocks my name, my appearance, and my cultural heritage.

You stay classy, Fr. “George” Rutlers!

What interests me about this shameful behavior by a priest is that I have seen it before from clerical celebrities and it is deeply harmful to their pastoral work. I know, because I have been the highly personal victim of it myself from other celebrity priests.

Here’s the deal: we laity look to priests for succor and mercy and help in trying to be faithful to Christ, not brutal public humiliations. When a priest–responding to some fanboi asking him to dress down a lay person as a worthless country hick not worth scraping off his shoe–behaves as Fr. Rutler has done here, he does not impress me as a defender of the Faith, nor as a good shepherd. He impresses me as a bully. Jimmy responds with clarity. Fr. Rutler responded with mockery, not of Jimmy’s argument, but of Jimmy, one of his flock. Jimmy is grownup enough to know that this is Fr. Rutler’s fault, not Christ’s verdict on his soul.

But not every member of Christ’s lay faithful people is able to endure such haughty contempt from a priest. Some are driven away, never to return. God shield them from Fr. Rutler if he decides to do this one of Christ’s little ones.

Lots of Jimmy’s readers responded with variations on “This is so unlike Fr. Rutler.” Maybe. One reader wrote me, appalled but not shocked.

I read the post about Fr. George Rutler. Doesn’t surprise me at all.

When David Bowie died in January of 2016, he wrote the most horrible piece in Crisis about him. Of course a lot of people don’t care because they don’t care about famous people – but just look at this paragraph….

“Consequently, it was no surprise that news of the death of David Bowie was the first time I knew that he had been alive. If you find that hard to believe, you must remember that my instinctive taste for “pop music” is encoded by Gilbert and Sullivan and eclipsed by John Phillip Souza. What did surprise me was that the Vatican, just wiping up from its Climate Change light show on the façade of the Basilica of St. Peter’s, plunged into mourning for this man. At least the president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, Gianfranco Cardinal Ravasi, issued a statement quoting from some lyrics of Mr. Bowie: “Ground Control to Major Tom / Commencing countdown, engines on / Check ignition and may God’s love be with you.” What I found most intimidating, and indeed frightening, was the assumption that others would recognize the reference.”

So – he writes a whole piece ripping into a man he literally knows nothing about.

He doesn’t know the man recovered from a serious drug addiction through the help of AA and stayed sober for the rest of his life. He doesn’t know the man led several others around him to sobriety. He doesn’t know this man is the father of a son and daughter and was very happily married – in a Christian ceremony – to his wife, Iman… and that they were together for 24 years until his death. He doesn’t know about the man’s open struggle with faith and belief and how so many of his songs reflected that. One of my favorites:

“Walking in the snowy street
Let me understand
Drifting down a silent park
Stumbling over land
Open up your heart to me
Show me who you are
And I would be your slave
Do you sleep in quietude?
Do you walk in peace?
Do you laugh out loud at me?
No one else is free
Open up your heart to me
Show me all you are
And I would be your slave
I don’t sit around and wait
I don’t give a damn
I don’t see the point at all
No footprints in the sand
I bet you laugh out loud at me
A chance to strike me down
Give me peace of mind at last
Show me all you are
Open up your heart to me
And I would be your slave.”

And another:

“In this age of grand illusion
You walked into my life
Out of my dreams
I don’t need another change
Still you forced your way
Into my scheme of things
You say we’re growing,
Growing heart and soul
In this age of grand illusion
You walked into my life
Out of my dreams
Sweet name, you’re born once again for me
Oh sweet name, I call you again
Just because I believe, don’t mean I don’t think as well
Don’t have to question everything
In heaven or hell
Lord, I kneel and offer you
My word on a wing
And I’m trying hard to fit among
Your scheme of things
It’s safer than a strange land
But I still care for myself
And I don’t stand in my own light
Lord, Lord, MY prayer flies
Like a word on a wing.”


So yeah. I’ve never listened to Fr. Rutler since. It takes a particular kind of person to publish something when so ignorant of a topic – and I want nothing to do with that.

What my reader saw in Bowie was a human being who died and who had lived trying to struggle with grace toward Light. What Fr. Rutler appears to have seen, given his callous response the death of a human being, was a chance to land a punch against this pope, rather like what he was doing in signing this absurd letter and lashing out at Jimmy in a torrent of insults. As a layperson looking for some signs of love, mercy, and charity from clergy, my response to the death of a man like David Bowie is Ebenezer Scrooge’s, “Let me see some tenderness connected with a death!” Fr. Rutler had none to spare for a man about whom he himself confesses he knows nothing before he started in sneering in his zeal to spit on Francis. It’s not that he hates Bowie. It’s that, as a priest, he has not the slightest interest that a man is dead and that somebody may grieve him. There is a power struggle to be waged and that is what mattered both two years ago and three days ago.

PS. I was never particularly a Bowie fan myself, but I certainly can respect those who are. More than that, I am one of those who thinks that it was a deeply hopeful sign–and a beautiful act of witness to Bowie’s Christian hope–that he did this at a memorial concert for Freddie Mercury:

I don’t know that I’d call it the “bravest moment in rock n roll history”. But when Christians endlessly complain about “godlessness” in the arts and then one of the gutsiest artist in the history of rock leads a bazillion fans of his and Mercury’s music in the Our Father in total sincerity, I for one take that as a win.

Eternal memory, David Bowie. May God grant you mercy and peace through Christ our Lord. And may he guard and guide good shepherds like Pope Francis to be a witness to shepherds who need to learn imitate, not fight, him in imitating Christ.

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