By: Fr. Paul Scalia
The Incarnation of the Lord, the inspiration of Scripture, the nature of the Church — these gifts from on high all present paradoxes. They are comprised of truths that seem to conflict but, when held in the proper tension, complement one another. That hidden harmony distinguishes paradox from contradiction. Unfortunately, the fallen world gives us not the harmony of paradox, but the din of contradiction. And the first place we encounter it is within ourselves. “More tortuous than anything is the human heart, beyond remedy; who can understand it?” (Jer 17:9)
It takes little reflection to see that man is at odds with himself. He possesses a great capacity for both virtue and wickedness. History reveals extraordinary accomplishments and terrifying descents into depravity. Thus the Church says that man is “split within himself.” We know the good, we know we should choose it…but we still slouch toward evil. This is the result of sin, the loss of the original harmony (what tradition calls “original integrity”) we possessed at the beginning. Our rebellion against God created rebellion within us — our intellect, will, and passions working at cross purposes.
Christ has come to deliver us from this inner conflict that causes all others. He gives His grace for our healing. But it is strong medicine, and His grace at first seems to exacerbate this conflict. Elevated above mere human goodness, made to share in the divine nature (2 Pt 1:4), we nevertheless remain sinners. Saint Paul gives passionate, personal witness to this: “What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate…For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want” (Rom 7:15, 19).
Although a contradiction, this duality does possess one aspect of a paradox: both truths about man must be held at once. We are both sinners and saints. Sinners, because of that deep wound within us, our inclination to sin. Saints, “holy ones,” because we have been sanctified by the grace of Christ, given a share in His life, indeed in His own holiness. If we forget that we are sinners and do not acknowledge our capacity for evil, then we will most certainly fall into it. If, on the other hand, we fail to remember our dignity as Christians — graced children of God — then we will simply experience discouragement and, if unchecked, despair.
And yet, although we experience both realities in this world and cannot forget one or the other, they are not meant to go together. Unlike a paradox, this contradiction awaits a resolution. That is the work of grace, which seeks to pull up sin at the roots and make us perfectly holy — without sin, without the inclination to sin.
Of course, grace does not complete this work until heaven. No one in this world can claim freedom from the wounds of and inclination to sin. As they approached death even the greatest saints, after years of growing in Christian perfection, still confessed themselves as sinners. But in heaven no one can claim a shortcoming of grace. There the contradiction is resolved by grace. There we are no longer sinners but only saints.