Twenty-four parables that will make you feel uncomfortable

Benedict XVI (CNS)

Anyone who has read any of the essays, books or articles of Fr George William Rutler, a parish priest in New York, knows they have a treat in store: a feast of sharp wit, erudition and insight, seasoned with irony. The temptation is to read him merely for these qualities, without realising that his prose style conceals an old-fashioned priest who believes that saving souls is more important than public standing or popularity.

I make these remarks after reading Hints of Heaven: The Parables of Christ and What They Mean for You, published by Sophia Institute Press. This publishing company states that part of its mission is “to spread the Gospel of Christ in conformity with the authentic teachings of the Roman Catholic Church”. This is a way of saying that it has no truck with trendy modernist-type books on theology or Catholic life and this, no doubt, is why Fr Rutler is one of their authors. His current book first appeared as a series of articles for Crisis Magazine, an online resource also published by Sophia Press.

We are all so familiar with the parables that we are tempted to treat them as opera aficionados might treat sublime movements in their favourite operas, lulled by the poignant universality of the dramatic imagery and the power and majesty of their narrator – “the Master”, as Rutler refers to him. (This reminds me that in her diaries Cosima Wagner also referred to Wagner as “the Master”, thus showing how culture can sometimes replace the truth and become itself a quasi-religious belief.)

Rutler counts 24 parables in the Gospels and with each he shows, not only how they relate to our modern condition – which is what all preachers do – but how deeply uncomfortable they should make us Catholics, always tempted to think we fulfil “the law” by following the rules of the Church. That, after all, was the attitude of the Pharisees in their day. Fr Rutler is resolutely counter-cultural in everything he writes, whether he is making a moral, social or aesthetic point.

For instance, he reminds us in the parable of the mustard seed that “the first cell of human life is alive, even if a clinician chooses to call it a blastocyst”. In the chapter on the labourers in the vineyard, he comments on “liberation theology, which long ago bewitched comfortable university salons with its romantic misreading of justice…” On the parable of the tares and the wheat he brings his irony to bear on those “secular editors [who] note more often that Hitler was baptised than they note that St Francis of Assisi was also baptised.” You get his drift.

He reserves some of his sharpest asides in these chapters when writing about modern liturgy, which brings me to my one reservation about the book. It is one thing to deplore the translations from the Latin of the Mass that followed Vatican II, which have themselves now been largely corrected; it is another to imply that the Ordinary Form of the Mass (OF), as Pope Benedict XVI distinguished it, is intrinsically an inferior rite to the Extraordinary Form (EF). Rutler doesn’t say this explicitly but he makes so many comments comparing modern liturgy to the old liturgy to the detriment of the former that it is easy to conclude that this is what he means – thus seeming to dismiss the millions of Catholics who attend the OF, properly celebrated, in good faith and who are also striving to lead holy lives.

For example, “The failure of the current liturgy to instil holy fear engenders a priestly smugness” or “it is no doubt paranoia, nurtured by my experience of liturgists, that prompts me to suspect that there is an aversion among them to… reduce all the parables to morality lite and salvation to sentimental universalism” are two among many instances of this tendency towards polemics at the expense of helping his readers to see what Christ is actually telling them in parabolic form. Many priests who celebrate in the OF believe the teaching, as Rutler baldly states it in the parable of “the net”, that “not all will be saved”.

Having made this point I suspect I might now be dismissed as a shallow modernist by those who favour the Tridentine rite. The thing is, whatever my many failings, I’m not.