Comfortable With the Paradoxes of Our Faith


Once a month I have the privilege of visiting men at our local prison for two hours. I go by myself and have free reign in structuring my visits, a set-up I appreciate because it gives room and freedom for the Holy Spirit to set the agenda rather than abiding by a scripted program. Because Christ is present in His Word, I find it is most beneficial to simply read scripture to the men rather than giving them “life lessons.” I do take the opportunity, if the Spirit leads, to instruct them on Catholic teaching using the particular scripture passage we are addressing that evening. For instance, when I started the book of Job, I spoke about trials, about how God allows us to be tempted, about suffering and righteousness, and about counsel.

The Trinity as paradox

Last month I was reading from Romans, Chapter 5, about Christ, the “New Adam,” when a couple of the men brought up the subject of the Trinity. I forget how it came up, but I used it as an opportunity to mention that Catholics do not believe in “sola scriptura” (Scripture alone) as our rule of faith. “We believe in One God in Three Persons, but the term ‘trinity’ never appears in the Bible,” I said. “That is because the theology was developed over time and in the context of Tradition to help explain this concept.” Still, I told them, such a thing is a Christian mystery, and it is easy to slip into heretical explanations about it. Even priests inadvertently do it in their homilies from time to time!

So, you have this complex and precarious idea of three persons in one God that we can explain to a certain degree, but it is something that should also be appreciated and understood as a mystery that can never completely be comprehended by reason alone. This is faith and reason, will and grace, the humanity and divinity of Christ, feasting and fasting. These are the beautiful “both/and” paradoxes that mark Catholicism and which we hold and celebrate in healthy tension.

Holding all things in balance

But sometimes tension can be hard to endure, and we are faced with the temptation to veer harder in one direction or another. We may emphasize free will over grace; piety over charity; Christ’s divinity over Christ’s humanity; justice over mercy. And so on.

I have always been fascinated by how heresies cropped up almost immediately in the early Church; but that has been true of the whole of Church history. I am even more fascinated by how the Church has survived them all! Some were more pernicious than others and harder to stamp out; others were a “close but no cigar” doctrinal slug-fest that drove home the importance of getting it right when it comes to Christology, soteriology, and ecclesiology. Two in particular come to mind that have something to teach us today: Donatism in the 4th century AD, and Jansenism in the 17th century AD.

Heresies summarized

Rather than retype a summary of their principal errors, it will be easier to relate some background on these heresies from our friends at Catholic Answers. Regarding Donatism:

His predecessor, Majorinus, was elected as a rival bishop in Carthage because the bishops who had elected Caecilianus had dealt leniently with the traditores, men and women whose faith was compromised during Diocletian’s brief but bloody persecution, initiated in February, 303. The Catholic Church was outlawed, and professing the Catholic faith was a crime punishable by death. Those who refused to offer incense to Roman idols were executed. Churches were razed, relics and sacred vessels were seized, and any copy of Scripture that could be found was burned.

The traditores were those who renounced Christ to avoid martyrdom or who, when their churches and houses were searched by the Roman authorities, handed over sacred artifacts rather than face death. In light of the many who endured martyrdom rather than renounce Christ, those who survived the persecution (which ended in 305) were outraged that priests and deacons who were traditores were allowed to resume their ministry after being reconciled to the Church through confession. This perceived injustice provoked a popular backlash with grave theological implications.

Majorinus and other leaders of this faction asserted that the sacraments were invalid, even wicked in the eyes of God, if dispensed by a traditor bishop, priest, or deacon. This view expanded to include clergy who were in a state of mortal sin of whatever sort.

By denying the intrinsic efficacy of the sacraments the Donatists claimed the sacraments could be celebrated validly only by those in the state of grace. They required the re-baptism of any Catholic who came over to their sect.

Regarding Jansenism:

In the wake of the Reformation, theologians turned much of their attention to the issue of grace and to reconciling the efficacy of grace with man’s free will. One tradition, the Augustinian, saw the divine role in providing grace as primary and the human capacity to receive and act on grace as real but weak, owing to original sin. The newly-formed Society of Jesus put forth a more optimistic view. Summed up in the writings of Luis de Molina, this view ascribed a greater role to man’s free will.

In the universities, where the Augustinian tradition was firmly rooted, there arose a movement against the new Jesuit ideas. Cornelius Otto Jansen, better known by the Latinized “Jansenius,” rose to become the spearhead of the conflict. A professor at Louvain University in Belgium, Jansenius became convinced of the Augustinian position in 1619 and eight years later set out to produce a great work presenting the complete thought of Augustine on grace. He was appointed bishop of Ypres in 1636 and completed his work, Augustinus, shortly before his death in 1638. What we know of Jansen shows him to have been a thoroughly orthodox Catholic. Ironically, it is quite possible he would have recoiled at the heresy which was to be his namesake.

His multi-volume work covered the heresies of the Pelagians and semi-Pelagians, as understood by Augustine, and tried to connect Pelagianism, which overestimated man’s role in his own salvation and was clearly heresy, with the teachings of Molina and the Jesuits. Though condemned by the Holy Office in 1641, a year after its publication, and again in Urban VIII’s 1643 bull In Eminenti, and dismissed by many as nothing but a rehashing of the errors of the reformers, Jansenius’s ideas as expressed in Augustinus gained a small but loyal following of Jansenists, who became known for the extreme moral rigorism which is today commonly connected with the name.

Modern applications

When we are living in an age of severely compromised prelates and clerics, the Donatist heresy helps us to remember that the ex opere operato (by the work worked) nature of the sacraments do not depend on the state of grace of the minister, but rather, on Christ’s work. The Jansenist heresy downplays the need for grace, so it is easy to slip into when one starts to undertake practices such as fasting and various mortifications as a way to sanctification. We must never forget that we are helpless without grace.

And yet, most people living uncritically in our post-modern, largely agnostic, age do not have the intellectual integrity or fortitude to challenge the doctrinal foundations of Catholicism outright. As a result, the dominant heresies of the culture today are less based in the theological questions about the nature of God and Christ and more in a kind of relativistic cultural passivity, especially among the young. The term Moral Therapeutic Deism comes to mind to describe this phenomenon.

For those inside the Church seeking to change accepted traditional practices, laity and clergy alike, we see a push for a kind of “relaxing” of doctrine and a so-called pastoral approach to issues such as divorce and remarriage, Communion for those living in a state of adultery, and backhanded acceptance of homosexual unions, among others. Charges of rigorism and legalism rise up in such factions when those concerned with the integrity of Church teaching raise the point.

Principles and practices for avoiding heresy

From a practical standpoint, it can be hard to navigate these moral and theological dangers today when we are not grounded in prayer and the Holy Spirit. So, that is where I start. We must first and always pray, every day. When we let that slide, we open ourselves up to the potential to be lead astray. He who does not pray will certainly be damned, said St. Alphonsus.

Secondly, we must strive for balance. Jesus had balance. He feasted and fasted. He picked grain on the Sabbath and still asserted that the slightest letter of the Law will never pass away. He instructed His followers to observe and do what the Pharisees tell them but not to follow their example.

Thirdly, try to maintain a sense of humor, charity, and humility. Take to heart, when fasting, the Lord’s advice to “anoint your head and wash your face” (Matthew 6:17). In other words, try not to be grumpy. Give alms generously recognizing that everything you have is on loan and that you can truly encounter Christ in the poor person as you do when you receive Him in the Eucharist. Keep in mind the publican’s disposition in the Temple, not raising his eyes but striking his breast saying, “God be merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18:13).

Fourthly, be willing to live for Christ as much as you might be willing to die for him. Doctrine is important; the martyrs went to their death rather than deny Catholic teaching. But while we do not downplay its importance, we keep it in its proper context and do not clean the outside of the cup while neglecting the inside.

Seek mystery and balance

Fifthly, be OK with the tension of mystery. Do not try to figure everything out. Marvel and be awe-inspired by the Incarnation, the Eucharist, the Trinity, and Creation itself. Mystery is what makes life worth living.

Finally, do not be intellectually or morally lax, and do not be a rigorist unless Christ calls you to greater discipline in your life. Most of us would do best to find a balance of life and maintain the integrity of teachings of our Tradition while making room for grace, forgiveness, and human frailty in how we live it out.

We cannot save ourselves. We need Christ. We need grace, mercy, and forgiveness. We need Our Lady to help lead us to Christ. We need the friendship of the saints, the poor, and even prisoners, to remind us of our duty to the least among us. Fast when you feel called and when called for. Have a dance, and have a drink. Remember your death, and remember to live.

Share on facebook
Share on google
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: