George Rutler and David Bowie

When I think of New York priest Fr. George Rutler, three things come to mind. First, he is impressively erudite with an impressive breadth and depth of knowledge. Second, his previous church—Church of our Savior—is by far the most beautiful church in New York, and I believe he deserves some credit for that. And third, he is a holdover from an alliance between an influential circle of American Catholics and the arch-liberals of the Reagan era—a “deal with devil” that went disastrously wrong, causing Catholic intellectuals to cheerlead both the Iraq war and economic policies antithetical to Catholic social teaching.

But I digress. What prompts me to write this post is Rutler’s sniffling disgust that the Vatican had some nice things to say about David Bowie upon his death. Rutler was having none if it, even though he admits that he had never even heard of Bowie before this. But this kind of music does not find favor with a self-described aesthete who prefers Mozart and Chopin to Jackson and Bowie. (By the way, didn’t Alasdair MacIntyre list “aesthete” as one of the signature professions of an emotivist culture? And aren’t there shades of Mill’s version of higher-order utilitarianism here?).

Rutler also indulges in a personal attack on Bowie himself, singling out some of the artist’s flamboyant behavior. But what’s the real point here? One of my all-time favorite artists is Caravaggio. Every time I’m in Rome, I try to pop into San Luigi dei Francesi to gape at his magnificent Calling of St. Matthew (and muse endlessly on the identity of Matthew). But Caravaggio was a murderer. A murderer. While Bowie was…?

But I digress again. Rutler’s main complaint seems to be that rock music is associated with drugs and murder. (Or at least he knows somebody who is into rock music and drugs, and is in jail for murder.) And this kind of music amounts to “perverted rhythms to stimulate the bodily humors” and undermines civic virtue. It is a culture that destroys his children. He ends his piece by taking aim at “anyone who weeps for paragons of degeneracy and paladins of vice”. That includes Cardinal Ravasi. It includes the Vatican. I suppose it includes anyone who was ever moved by any of Bowie’s music at any time.

Here’s the real irony, though. Rutler is certainly right to issue a jeremiad against a perverted culture that elevates the paragons of degeneracy and the paladins of vice. But this culture is not in Hell’s Kitchen. It is on Wall Street. It is the boardrooms of leading energy companies and financial institutions. It is among those who have been habituated in vice for decades now, in a culture where unchecked acquisitiveness has become the only purpose in life, snuffing out all sense of civic virtue and obliterating the common good. These are the true paragons of degeneracy and the paladins of vice.

Rutler invokes Plato; I will throw Aristotle right back at him. As Brad Gregory put it, the “goods life” has replaced the “good life”.  Or in the assessment of Alasdair MacIntyre, the current economic system compartmentalizes life, making it impossible to achieve a flourishing whole life. The acquisitive economy denies the distinction between real and false goods. Rising inequality diminishes a sense of shared purpose and shreds the social capital needed to realize the mutuality inherent in the common good. And the concentration of economic power has proven corrosive for democratic deliberation, with oligarchic domination of government. Who needs eudaimonia when you can have financial deregulation instead?

It wasn’t always so bad. The real turning point came with Reagan. But Reagan seems to have been a hero for Rutler. So it’s not just that Rutler is blithely indifferent to all of this. It’s that he has allied himself with it. And therein lies a cautionary tale of putting your faith in princes. 

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Anthony Annett is a climate change and sustainable development advisor at the Center for Sustainable Development - Earth Institute at Columbia University and in this position is affiliated with Religions for Peace.

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