Father Rutler is Pastor of the Church of Saint Michael in New York City. He is the author of twenty-five books and many essays, and has lectured widely at home and abroad.
There are those who would not let facts get in the way of theory, and such was the English philosopher Herbert Spencer who promoted the “survival of the fittest.” This “Social Darwinism” theorized that the weak and poor would gradually die out to make way for an inevitable social progress. He was idolized by Andrew Carnegie, even though that richest man in the world was generous in philanthropies that Spencer disdained. Carnegie prevailed upon his mentor to visit Pittsburgh, whose Bessemer mills were supposed to be a model of social progress. Spencer confessed: “Six months’ residence here would justify suicide.”
Spencer’s theory that people are shaped by culture rather than shaping it, opposed the “great man” theory of the historian Thomas Carlyle, for whom culture is shaped by individuals of “Godly inspiration and personality.” But Carlyle did acknowledge the influence of cultural conditions and, moreover, warned that personal influence could be benign or evil.
The greatest figures in history have been the saints, for their spiritual influence is more long-lasting than even their political impact. Consider two saints that the Church celebrates this week.
Saint John of Capistrano was a skilled lawyer and diplomat in the fifteenth century. As governor of Perugia in Italy, his reforms were so radical that he was arrested by some who needed reformation. The imprisonment afforded him time to reflect on what really changes society, and he became a Franciscan. He did not relinquish his powerful mind and energy when he relinquished glamor, and he became a polyglot missionary throughout more than a dozen countries in Europe. His crowds were so huge that he had to preach outdoors, and he could be heard by 125,000 without a microphone. In 1456, at the age of 70, he joined the Hungarian general Hunyadi in lifting the siege of Budapest, riding on horseback into overwhelming numbers of Ottoman Turks, and saving Western civilization.
Another saint we celebrate this week is Pope John Paul II. On his return to Poland as Vicar of Christ, the nervous hands of the Communist leader Wojciech Jaruzelski shook, and soon afterward the Marxist empire collapsed. As Karol Wojtyla, his Polish culture shaped him, with its legacy of heroism and suffering, and he in turn shaped much of our present world.
If our secular schools and media are bewildered by the influence of saints, and do not mention them, it is because any recognition of their existence must acknowledge the existence of God who made them heroically virtuous beyond the abilities of the naturally great. Saint John Paul II wrote in the encyclical Centesimus Annus:
For an adequate formation of a culture, the involvement of the whole man is required, whereby he exercises his creativity, intelligence, and knowledge of the world and of people. Furthermore, he displays his capacity for self-control, personal sacrifice, solidarity and readiness to promote the common good.