John Paul the Great said the Church is a “sign of contradiction,” after the warning of Simeon in Luke 2:34. We, as the Body of Christ, must stand in visible, tangible opposition to anything wrong in the spirit of the age. Contradiction – between what seems right and what the Church teaches, or what you believe and what She teaches, or what the world says you should do and what She teaches – can serve as a warning light, a lighthouse illuminated the shoals before you crash upon them.
One way we can deepen our faith lives is through investigating contradictions when we see or feel them. Since God is Truth and two Truths cannot contradict, we have a rule there for identifying error. We can be on the lookout for the little rocks before we ever come in reach of the big ones.
We find those apparent contradictions in Scripture. Compare Matthew 7:1 and John 7:24. “Aha!” some will say, “there your Bible contradicts itself! Matthew has Jesus saying to ‘judge not’ while John has Him saying ‘judge’.” How can these both be true?
Stated that simply, they can’t. You can’t both judge and not judge in the same way simultaneously, just as you can’t both be and not be sitting down right now.* If Scripture is true and truths can’t contradict, then there must not be a contradiction. In this case, by expanding the verses we read, we find the resolution.
“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.” (Mt 7:1-2 RSV)
“Moses gave you circumcision… and you circumcise a man upon the sabbath. If on the sabbath a man receives circumcision, so that the law of Moses may not be broken, are you angry with me because on the sabbath I made a man’s whole body well? Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.” (Jn 7:22-24 RSV)
In the passage from John, Jesus tells those judging Him that they are not judging rightly. He does not tell them not to judge at all. In fact, Jesus lives out His words in Matthew, judging them by their own judgment: they condemn Him for healing on the Sabbath, yet they circumcise on the Sabbath. If they judge rightly, then they have nothing to fear from being judged themselves. But if they judge poorly, then they ought not judge at all, because they’ll be measured in the same way. (cf Catena Aurea, John 7, 19-24, esp. Chrysostom)
The verses not only don’t contradict but complement each other nicely.
We find those apparent contradictions in theology. On May 22, this year, Pope Francis’ statement on atheists made headline news:
“The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone!”
Doesn’t this contradict the Church’s clear teaching on no salvation outside the Church? Yes, it does, if redemption and salvation mean precisely the same thing, and if “atheists” and “outside the Church” also mean precisely the same thing.
Fr. Hardon’s Modern Catholic Dictionary explains redemption this way:
“Humanity was held captive in that it was enslaved by sin… in bondage to the devil. Moreover, the human race was held captive as to a debt of punishment… On all these counts, the Passion of Christ was sufficient and superabundant satisfaction for human guilt and the consequent debt of punishment.”
Christ paid the debt and freed us from bondage. He bailed us out, so to speak. If I’ve been bailed out, does that mean I can’t be arrested again in the future? Of course not. Moreoever, if my bail has been paid and the bars opened, does that automatically put me outside of the prison cell? No, I still have to walk out by my own will.
Imagine I’ve sent my son to his room for a time out. When I say “your timeout is over, you can come out”, does that physically put him outside his room? No, he has to choose to leave, and he may not. He has been set free but is still in his room. He might do the same naughty thing again and be sent back, as well. (And if my neighbor comes over and says “your time is up, you can come out”, does that end his timeout? No. There is no salvation (from timeout) outside of Mom and Dad. )
All we need to resolve contradiction is one possible non-contradictory interpretation. One such interpretation is that while Christ’s sacrifice redeemed all, they still have to direct their will toward Him to be finally and eternally saved. They still have to walk the walk, and anyone walking it – whether they recognize the Church as His Body or not – will find in the end that the Way has always been the Catholic Church.
No contradiction. The first inkling of a parental god complex, perhaps, but no contradiction.
In Christian Life
We find contradictions in everyday Christian life, too. When we do, we must remember this basic rule for handling contradiction. God is Truth and two truths cannot contradict. If there seems to be a contradiction, one of the statements is false or misunderstood.
“God didn’t answer my prayer!” has an implied contradiction, for example: that God would want you to have what you prayed for, yet He didn’t give it to you. One of the two must be wrong or misunderstood. Perhaps God gave you (or is giving you) what you asked for in a way you aren’t expecting. Perhaps, too God did answer and the answer is “no” (or “not yet”).
Likewise, when we complain that “God can’t bring any good out of this!”, we imply a contradiction: that God always works for good and that we must be able to see that good. They can’t both be true, and the first must be true by God’s very nature. That means the second, implied statement must be false and God may be bringing good out in a way that you can’t see – or won’t ever see.
These resolutions may be hard to understand or hard to accept, but they resolve the contradictions nonetheless.
* Don’t go wordplay on me here. We’re not using any tricky language. Equivocation makes for great riddles and jokes, but bad theology. Case in point: I man was hired to move an entire lighthouse, weighing thousands of pounds. He was able to do it by himself in one night. How? Simple. He walked to the top, turned it on, and made it light.
Copyright © 2013, Joe Wetterling