Friday, March 15, 2013


One of the reasons I've never quite jumped on the Chesterton bandwagon is that I get a little irritated by his reliance on paradox.  Somehow, even if I see the truth in one of his nifty little turns of phrase, I can't get past the glibness.  They seem like philosophical gimmicks rather than developed arguments.

However, it's been coming clear to me recently how revelatory it can sometimes be to take a tired truism and turn it simply and neatly upside down.

Take this one for example:

"If lay people aren't allowed to do what priests do, that's a sign of clericalism."

The arguments that I'm used to making in response to this usually have to do with the dignity of the clerical state.  But to those who are used to thinking of this statement as an accepted fact, that just sounds like more clericalism.  As true as my counter-argument might be, it is not going to do much towards changing hearts - instead, it's just going to sound like one more example of the problem. 

But take that example and flip it.

"If lay people ARE allowed to do what priests do, that's a sign of clericalism."


Our wonderful new Holy Father is quietly making pundits' heads explode the world over by not fitting tidily into any of the established categories they rely on to make it easy to choose sides.  Mark Shea quotes an incredible interview with then-Cardinal Bergoglio. In response to a question about the role of the laity, he responds:

Their clericalization is a problem. The priests clericalize the laity and the laity beg us to be clericalized… It really is sinful abetment. And to think that baptism alone could suffice. I’m thinking of those Christian communities in Japan that remained without priests for more than two hundred years. When the missionaries returned they found them all baptized, all validly married for the Church and all their dead had had a Catholic funeral. The faith had remained intact through the gifts of grace that had gladdened the life of a laity who had received only baptism and had also lived their apostolic mission in virtue of baptism alone. One must not be afraid of depending only on His tenderness...
Boom.  Flipped.  Thinking lay people should be able to do whatever priests do is not a rejection of clericalism - it is clericalism, because it is implies that the specific role of the priest is more valuable and has more dignity than the role of the lay person.  In reality, each of these roles has its own special value and dignity, and each is needed for the Church to carry out her mission in the world.
That's the value of paradox - its unexpectedness, its "upside-down-ness" jars us out of our regular habits of thought and lets us see the same truth in a new way.

And of course when we think we are turning an argument upside down -- we might just be turning ourselves right side up.

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