By: Rev. Scalia
More than one author has commented on the centrality of paradox in Catholic thought. One century ago, Robert Hugh Benson published his Paradoxes of Catholicism. Later, Henri de Lubac wrote his Paradoxes, and then, More Paradoxes. Along the same lines, but in a slightly different vein, Anthony Esolen has his Ironies of Faith. Chesterton and, well before him, St. Augustine loved to traffic in the wordplay that paradox enables.
A paradox is something that in one sense appears contradictory but, upon further reflection, emerges as true. And indeed at the heart of Catholic doctrine we encounter precisely this reality: that there are three Persons in one God, Jesus is both God and man, the Virgin is a Mother, the Lamb is a Shepherd, and so on. But the place of paradox in Catholic thought goes deeper than this. We can say that paradox characterizes – not just a doctrine here and there, and not even the highest dogmas – but, in fact, the very pattern of catholic thought.
Consider, for example, the parables of our Lord. More than one of them delivers its lesson in a shocking, paradoxical manner that forces us to surrender our worldly way of thinking and submit to the Lord’s. The tax collector goes home justified, not the Pharisee. The younger, dissolute son – not the older, obedient one – enjoys his father’s blessing. The dishonest steward is commended, and the unjust judge is godlike!
Paradox is also essential to Catholic worship. At Mass most especially we find that God draws near, but remains far off. We find in the Church’s prayer both great intimacy and transcendence. The sacred Host both reveals and conceals Him. And Chesterton’s paradoxical line from The Man Who Was Thursday summarizes well the liturgical vestments: “these disguises did not disguise, but reveal.” Ultimately, in the Liturgy indeed we find mystery. And mystery rests on paradox.
Perhaps most importantly, paradox calls for a certain disposition in us in order to grasp it. It is something both reasonable and beyond our reach, and that can make us uncomfortable. Both three and one…both God and man…both Virgin and Mother… These paradoxes have been the occasions for many theological shipwrecks. And the pattern of heresy is always the same – discomfort with the mystery, discomfort with the paradox, wanting to solve it one way or another. Those who, for the sake of ease try to eliminate the paradox, who try to smooth out all the seemingly rough spots of Catholicism, inevitably fall into doctrinal error. They reduce the Son to a mere creature, Jesus Christ to a mere man, and Mary to only a mother.
Paradox therefore calls for humility – indeed, docility, that willingness to be taught. Pride is to think that we can grasp all of reality and fit it into our minds. Humility is to recognize that reality is greater than we can grasp or comprehend. Paradox resists the proud and lifts up the lowly.
In this Year of Faith, then, perhaps a consideration of the pattern of paradox in Catholic thought might help us appreciate what we profess. So, with this piece as an intro (and with apologies to Benson, De Lubac, and somewhat also to Esolen), this column will examine different Catholic paradoxes. It will examine not so much each particular doctrine, but rather those ways of thinking very much at odds with the world, seemingly at odds with common sense, but more profoundly true – and satisfying – than anything else.