The Catholic Thing
The Christmas Paradox Print E-mail
By Robert Royal   
Monday, 27 December 2010

In one of his Christmas sermons, John Henry Newman explains the deep peace of mind that a Christian should strive to attain – like the depths of the ocean that remain in mystery-wrapped repose even when the fiercest storms roil the surface. And at the same time, says the great English convert, a Christian is also urged to joy – and fear: joy at what God has done for us and fear at what, by our sins, we do to God and one another. All this seems contradictory, obscure, true – but paradoxical in the extreme (this column’s title is not taken from a Robert Ludlum spy thriller).

It’s good to reflect on these puzzles between Christmas and New Year, even though the celebration of the savior’s birth is more a time for hope than reflection. When we look at the way the world and our dear country are going, there seem to be so many fundamental threats – disrespect for human life, the denaturing of marriage, the rise of a serious anti-Christian ideology in the public realm in America and the rest of the developed world, and the likelihood that they will all get worse in the coming year – that it’s hard to know what to do.

The first thing, as always, is to begin with ourselves. Newman’s advice: “How joy and fear can be reconciled, words cannot show. Act and deed alone can show how. Let a man try both to fear and to rejoice, as Christ and His Apostles tell him, and in time he will learn how; but when he has learned, he will as little be able to explain how it is he does both, as he was before.” This is why Catholicism is often accused of opposing faults: pride and subservience, simple-mindedness and cunning, strictness and laxity, otherworldliness and worldliness, slavishness to ancient books and unfaithfulness to the real Jesus. People who don’t understand what’s deeply in play in many questions won’t see why the Church seems to take such seemingly odd views. Why does this institution – almost alone – not simply get with whatever’s ascendant in the culture?

Lots of Catholics have, of course. Our Catholic vice president, just the day before Christmas, spoke to a TV audience about gay marriage: “I think there’s an inevitability for a national consensus on gay marriage. That is my view. But this is the president’s policy, but it is evolving. I think the country’s evolving.” The vice president – a self-proclaimed Catholic – did not say this in sorrow or apprehension over what it might mean to marriage or morals. He merely did the political triangulation with his boss and his political party – and no doubt went home to his family in a self-congratulatory mood.

Christmas is not the time to debate gay marriage. But it is the time to think about whether anything human is inevitable. If God made us and came into the world to save us, all bets are off. Yes, it’s highly likely that Chicago politics will continue to give corruption a bad name; that foreign dictatorships will denounce alleged American crimes in prestigious international forums; that rock and movie stars will enter rehab in a steady stream. And it’s likely that the decline that has begun amidst our almost chosen people will gain momentum.

But unlike the materialists and cynical know-it-alls, we are not determinists. We don’t believe that anything human is inevitable. The things that look inevitable in the news are always avoidable – if people repent and believe the Good News. If a vice president told us that it was inevitable that Americans will be racists or that our economy will tank, we would likely tell him: thanks a lot, we’ll take it from here. Even in the relatively crude matters of politics and economics, Americans mostly still think like a people formed by the Bible. We know it’s dangerous to pursue utopias and, at the same time, we work to achieve all the good we can. It’s a paradox, but not incoherent.

       Augustus Caesar: his time has passed.

This season, I fear that our belief in human freedom is going to be sorely tried in the next few years. It’s not just the ways that governments everywhere grasp after power, both subtly and crudely. They’ve always tried that. What’s starting to slip is our belief that we can do anything about it, that our slide is inevitable.

But ask yourself this: around the beginning of the Christian era, Caesar Augustus was the biggest thing in the Mediterranean; his army dominated wherever it really wanted to; various philosophers and thinkers looked important to the imperial elite. Yet though we study them all, they mean little to anyone today. Instead, an obscure Jewish preacher changed all that, then replaced it with something else that still attracts about a quarter of the people on earth, deeply influences even more, and shows no sign of weakening – except in certain hyper-developed enclaves.

We Americans should feel both hope and fear at this longer perspective, because we have been given much and are obviously expected to play a role that we are failing in just now. And yet, we always still hope, not merely because decline is not inevitable. We have a far greater reason to think fresh forces can comes to us, if we decide to look for them.

Politicians can flatter the alleged “wisdom of the American people.” But whether we are wise, or not, depends on what we think and choose to do. At the moment, much of what we think and do is not Christian, even anti-Christian, and therefore bad for human flourishing in general.

But the biggest failure of all would be to think what we do does not matter, that we are not redeemed and free, but condemned to mere fate. The Christmas paradox is that God Himself has made it possible for us to do things no one could have anticipated.

Will we?


Speaking of doing wonderful things, we want to thank all of you who donated so generously to our end-of-year fund drive. We’re at about 80 percent of what we need in this final week of the year. If you can, please, make an extra effort in these last few days so that The Catholic Thing can enter 2011 stronger than ever. – RR

Robert Royal
is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

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Comments (11)Add Comment
written by Oliver Wilson, December 27, 2010
I am a weakling so, two year ago I said my wife,"I need training for martyrdom." I don't want to be martyr but I pray for the Helper if anticipated.

written by Mark, December 27, 2010
"It’s good to reflect on these puzzles between Christmas and New Year, even though the celebration of the savior’s birth is more a time for hope than reflection."

Focusing on hope without reflecting on the source of that hope and the goals toward which that hope trends is a large part of what got us in our current mess. At the Nativity, the Blessed Virgin kept things in heart to be pondered, and we should do likewise.

"Catholicism is often accused of opposing faults: pride and subservience, simple-mindedness and cunning, strictness and laxity, otherworldliness and worldliness, slavishness to ancient books and unfaithfulness to the real Jesus."

To paraphrase Chesterton, if one gets such widely different descriptions of the same man from various people, it stands to reason none of them actually saw the man.
written by John, December 27, 2010
Quoting JPII: "Andre Malraux was certainly right when he said that the 21st century would be the century of religion or it would not be at all."

It seems the Catholic Dark Age has arrived, as Fr. Benedict Groeschel feared in a sermon some years ago. Rather than regeneration, we see decomposition. Look no further than the VP of the United States, a self-professed Catholic and supporter of abortion, pronouncing gay marriage "inevitable."

I want so desperately to embrace the Catholic Church, which I was born and baptized into and have since strayed from, but I cannot be convinced it is the True Church when so many of its professed adherents are dismissive of its teachings. The dogma of the Church, which I once considered solid and unshakable, has softened and shifted under the sands of modernity.

The nearly last straw came with Pope Benedict's approval of condoms, albeit solely for prophylactic purposes and not contraceptive, has been confusing and undermining to those who look for moral and spiritual leadership in a world bereft of it.

Though Jesus advises us to ask, seek and knock continually, I find no answers to the doubts that have plagued me since boyhood. I am now well advanced in years and no closer to the truth as I recall Emily Dickinson's line:

"Because I could not stop for Death,
he kindly stopped for me."
Benedict's comment on condoms
written by Brad Miner, December 27, 2010

Dr. Royal may have more to add, but I feel compelled to note that your "nearly last straw" repeats the press account of the pope's comments but not the truth about them. What Benedict said is that a male prostitute's use of a condom may be an act of compassion (protecting his client from disease) and indicate the beginning of a moral awakening. But neither the use of the condom nor the homosexual act (or any sexual act outside of heterosexual marriage) are in any way licit.
written by John, December 27, 2010
Brad, while I appreciate the distinction, one could liken your analogy to an armed robbery. Whether the gun was loaded or not does not make a difference. It's still a crime to steal.
written by Charlotte, December 27, 2010
John, Please be careful. Your reasoning was once my own. I told myself that a Church that was, in my judgment, so unfaithful to its own professed beliefs could not possibly be what it claimed to be. I don't pretend to know what is going on in your own heart or mind, but I do know that in my own case, it was a total sham. I finally had to admit that I was expecting God to be impressed by my fine moral sensitivity. If it turned out that this church really was The Church and I was deceived, it would be because I was just so darned good. Surely God couldn't hold that against anyone. It took a real blow to the gut for me to see through this absurdity. I'm not saying that you're doing the same thing, only that in my case I needed to experience some real humility before I could perceive the truth, even about my own motives.
written by debby, December 27, 2010
Dear John,
A Mary and Joseph Christmas to you! i say "Mary and Joseph" because we are a little like them and need to be more like them. That there are pains and problems and confusion and weaker members of the Church is nothing new or even unexpected in this Age longing and waiting, yes groaning, for the Return of the King of Kings. Jesus said that Hell would not prevail which tells us quite plainly that Hell would unleash its rages and fury and hate upon Her, His most beautiful Bride.
Mary pondered all these things in Her heart....all that was revealed to Her, that happened in Her, Her very life, and Life Himself before Her. Holy Scripture never says She understood all these things or did not need any eyes of Faith. St. Joseph had the most difficult of lives to live: he had to lead, guide, protect, provide for God Himself while yet just a mortal man, a just man yes, but still a sinner. Our Father God has never requested a single person to Know everything - understanding all things. We are to trust Him.
so please my dear brother, before sister Death comes for you, reconcile yourself to your Holy Mother and allow Her to assist you in your union with Jesus Christ our Savior, Lord, and Lover. You need the Holy Eucharist and all the graces She has to offer.
Come let us Adore Him!
Merry Christmas to you! your sister in Him.
a little p.s.- NEVER trust ANY SECULAR MEDIA in regards to relaying any information ever. the Love of Truth is not present and therefore cannot be relayed.
written by Bill, December 27, 2010
John: Read the Summa Theologiae, or a precis of it for laymen, and you will find richness there you cannot imagine. You will learn that Catholicism has enormous depth. I am 70 years old and I have never been involved with prostitution, aberrosexuality, AIDS or condoms in my life!
At the Christmas Mass in St. Peter's this year, the Pope insisted that all who wished to receive Holy Communion, must receive it on the tongue! Ignore the popular press. It is merely a tool of Satan to lead the faithful astray. Joe Biden? Read the entire passage of John 6. "And many of them left Him including some of His disciples and they never walked with Him again. He turned to His apostles. 'Will you leave me also? 'Lord to whom shall we turn? We have come to believe that You have the words of eternal life.'
written by Thomas C. Coleman, Jr., December 27, 2010
Thank you Dr. Royal for your very inciteful and needed article. Now, isn't it about time that more offical leaders of the Church follow the lead of Abp Chaput and Cardinal Burke and start publically telling public figures who call themselves Catholics that their words and deeds put them out of Communion with Holy Mother Church? It would be a sin against Hope to claim that the situation is hopless, but I fear that without the loud, clear, and collective voices of the Descendents of the Apostles more and more Catholics will think and act like Biden, whom The Presdient introduced at a "committed Catholic" without much noticable objection from our Shepherds. I know I'm not the only layman who, after noting these scandals, has been rebuked by someone using the ludicrous analogy of the woman taken in adultery, to whom Our Lord did NOT say that there is no such thing as sin. Yesterday when Cardinal Wuerl was aksed by Chris Wallace about the elimination of DADT the Cardinal gave a vague and ambigious answer, when in fact in 1992 the USCCB took a strong stance against Pres. Clinton's announced plan to allow what the new law allows. Yes, I know that we can catch more flies with honey, but who wants to catch flies? Let's get some vinegar and start cleaning up this place!
written by Mark, December 27, 2010
"I want so desperately to embrace the Catholic Church, which I was born and baptized into and have since strayed from, but I cannot be convinced it is the True Church when so many of its professed adherents are dismissive of its teachings."

So, in protest against people not being faithful, one chooses to be unfaithful? That hardly makes sense. In troubled times, greater fidelity is required.
written by Robert, December 27, 2010
John, I believe the difficulty you are having with accepting the Christian Church is that you are putting your faith in sinners rather than placing it with Christ. Once you strengthen your trust in Christ, you will see that Judas was not the death of the Church. As the others have said, study the actual teachings of the Church while in prayer with Jesus and the Holy Spirit, not the wishful thinking of the anti-Christian secular media. May this blessed Christmas bring you peace and joy in further union with Christ and His Church!

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