Paradoxes, in a vacuum, can be easily analyzed, classified and stored. With scientific detachment or Chestertonian aplomb, we can dissect a logic-defying juxtaposition of conflicting truths and coolly discuss why some apparent contradiction is no contradiction at all. Paradoxes in the wild are an entirely different matter.
Take, for example, the May 18 release of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice report on the “causes and contexts” of child sexual abuse by American priests, on which we report on page one of this issue. Setting aside the obvious controversy regarding the issues the report seems unwilling to engage openly, it’s clear to any rational observer that, yes, the abuse crisis is over. As an online editorial in the U.K.’s The Guardian put it, “American Catholic clergy are now vanishingly unlikely to abuse children sexually”: Reported incidents declined from just under 800 in 1980 to 17 in 2008. But it’s also clear that, yes, other media outlets are just as correct in stridently insisting that we still have a serious problem on our hands. Yes, our society is in the icy grip of a culture of death. But, yes, as the Register doggedly and ceaselessly brings to light, there is a vibrant movement for life at work in our society like never before. Yes, God didn’t return on May 21, as some had predicted. But “Yes,” he says, “I am coming soon” (Revelation 22:20).
In The City of God, St. Augustine made extensive use of Our Lord’s parable of weeds and wheat that grow together until the final harvest to describe how a City of God and a City of Man are always intermingled in a single society and even in a single heart. Jacques Maritain packaged the same idea into what he called a “Law of Twofold Contrasting Progress”: History is always progressing simultaneously in the directions of both good and evil, drawn upwards by God and downwards by the prince of this world. Our complex reality is a veritable jungle of paradoxes. As Maritain wrote, history at any given moment offers us two faces, giving grounds to both the optimist and the pessimist. Society is constantly going to pot and discovering new hope — all at the same time. No one person is ever quite as saintly or quite as malicious as we imagine. No evil is so great that God can’t bring some good out of it. Yes, God is that powerful. But neither secularism nor the implicit Calvinism, which underpins most Protestant theology in America, is capable of processing paradox properly. It’s the Catholic Church that is uniquely equipped to handle the “both/and” nature of the stuff of life.
Recognizing that God is, in Augustine’s words, “beauty ever ancient, ever new,” that Jesus Christ is perfect God and perfect man, that God’s perfect justice is his perfect mercy, that the Eucharist looks like bread but is truly God, that we are sinners and yet redeemed adopted children, that this world is fallen and yet it is the great playhouse of the drama of grace … all of this gives a Catholic one of the great life skills: the ability to be “at home” in paradox.
The more we can recognize the Yes/Yes nature of today’s challenges without falling into the facile cookie-cutter stereotypes by which the media — both “old media” and the blogosphere — exalts or savagely demonizes people and organizations, the more we will truly have understood God’s good earth, and the more we will be not the Church of No, but the Church of Yes.