A Mile Wide and a Foot Deep

Lent is a time for serious thinking. That does not mean morose thinking. Quite the opposite. Melancholia and even despair issue from living life superficially without engaging the profound mysteries that God sets before us. Serious thinking means that we take people seriously, and that means we take God seriously because He takes us seriously. If we do not, we miss out on the most marvelous opportunity of knowing why we exist. “God created man in his image, in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them”(Genesis 1:27).

At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, I have been struck lately by the superficiality of our society’s understanding of itself. I have never been polled by those agencies that supply lists of favorite “thises and thats,” so I did not figure in a recent report of Public Policy Polling which claims that 91 percent of Americans consider Lincoln the greatest person who ever lived, followed by Jesus at 90 percent, and Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers at 89 percent. Washington got 86 percent, Mother Teresa got 83 percent and Gandhi was three points lower than Santa Claus, who was the favorite of some 67 percent who seem to think he was real. (I doubt they had in mind St. Nicholas of Myra.) These people vote in general elections.

My knowledge of pop culture is notoriously thin, and so I had never heard of a popular chanteuse until some days ago when a television bulletin announced her death. Much television programming was replaced with film footage of the attractive singer with a pleasant voice and interviews with fans and several hyperbolic California coroners. For someone like me, whose notion of popular music encompasses Gilbert and Sullivan and John Philip Souza, and who thinks Cole Porter avant-garde, it was not clear why this entertainer’s sad death, caused by drugs, brought flags to half mast and got more coverage than threats of a nuclear showdown with Iran.

I prefer to think that this myopia is more a projection of the media’s own banality, but if this is the depth to which most people plummet in the drama of life, we will be entranced by quick sound bites instead of the Word of God. “Stop being childish in your thinking. In respect to evil, be like infants, but in your thinking be mature” (1 Corinthians 14:20).

In his address in Westminster Hall in 2010, Pope Benedict XVI warned against the “inadequacy of pragmatic, short-term solutions to complex social and ethical problems.”

We are facing one of our nation’s most challenging moral crises, and dim are the chances of resolving it if most voters skim the surface of reality. The Pope said: “If the moral principles underpinning the democratic process are themselves determined by nothing more solid than social consensus, then the fragility of the process becomes all too evident – herein lies the real challenge for democracy.”

Fr. George W. Rutler


Fr. George W. Rutler is pastor of St. Michael's church in New York City. He is the author of many books including Principalities and Powers: Spiritual Combat 1942-1943 (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press) and Hints of Heaven (Sophia Institute Press). His latest books are He Spoke To Us (Ignatius, 2016) and The Stories of Hymns (EWTN Publishing, 2017).

  • Conrad Mojuntin

    O great Saints,whose name,it is our honour to bear,pray for us and protect us so that thee we serve GOD  faithfully on earth and glorify HIM eternally in Heaven with thee.Amen. 

  • William Edmund Fahey

    Short and to the point.  I find that there are two alarming things that readers should focus on.  First, the remark that “These people vote in general elections”.  True.  How do we leaven the culture? Indeed, many vote in elections who have invested 100-fold time and attention on fluff and inane pleasure.  Second, do we have a public that is even making decisions based on what the Holy Father views as “pragmatic” and “short-term.”  It seems that the situation is far worse, as Fr. Rutler demonstrates.  This morning, it took the shooting of half a dozen students in Ohio to displace ABC News’s front-page obsession with old Oscar queens and low necklines.

    • hombre111

      Well said. 

  • Alecto

    The more I ponder the culture, and the meaning of life, the more depressing the culture becomes, the more opposed to any kind of affirmation of humanity, goodness, truth.  The only viable remedy for this demeaning, nihilistic and puerile flotsam masquerading as culture is prayer.  Well, maybe prayer and Schubert.  Nothing like whistling “Im Fruhling” to lift one’s spirits.

  • Stephen Klugewicz

    Most alarming to me is that the Public Policy Polling survey claims that 91% of Americans have a favorable view of Abraham Lincoln! (To correct the good Father Rutler, the poll does not rate Americans’ opinions as to whom they consider to be the greatest person who ever lived; rather, the poll simply reflects favorable/unfavorable views of the person in question.) It seems that geographic region of the respondents was not taken into account when the poll was conducted. I can only hope that this poll was skewed in favor of the opinions of Yankees and that a similar poll that represented Southerners in the correct proportion would have at least had Lincoln finishing second to the Lord in overall favorability.

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  • Dan Deeny

    Fr. Rutler usually sees things clearly. This essay, however, has many problems. The problems begin with “Melancholia … before us.” Sure, sometimes despair comes from living superficially, but sometimes it comes from “engaging the profound mysteries.” Who decides what is superficial and what is profound? You? Me? Then, his comments on Whitney Houston are, let us say, superficial. He doesn’t mention her by name. Why not? This essay is interesting  because Fr. Rutler’s vision is blurred. Too much looking into the depths?

  • Mark

    I respect Fr Rutler, but how can  he be a true  pastor of souls and yet remain such a snob? Doesn’t he have the obligation to familiarize himself with the world in which his parishioners live, if not to embrace it? Gilbert and Sullivan? John Philip  Souza? Come on! 
    No wonder there’s a crisis in priestly vocations. What normal, young adult male could relate with the likes of him, let alone aspire to imitate his vocation.


    The criticisms lodged at the author further demonstrate the superficiality of the younger generations culture. I’m 73, and I agree with Fr. Rutler 100%. You newbies have not seen the dramatic downturn in our society like we have. When you step onto the stairways of life when it is already halfway to hell, it doesn’t seem so bad. Trust me, it is, and you who were born in the 60’s and after do not see what we see. That’s sad. 

  • Dan

    Simply put, you are a continual breeze of fresh wind in our culture.

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