In one scene from the iconic Pixar movie Cars, protagonist Lightning McQueen is being schooled by seasoned race car Doc Hudson. In this scene Doc tells him he needs to “turn right to go left.” Doc tells McQueen to drive with the front of his car, that if he’s going hard enough left he will find himself turning right.

The overly-confident McQueen mocks this advice from an old-timer; he simply cannot accept the possibility that he may be wrong, or have something new to learn. What the stubborn rookie does not realize is that Doc is recommending countersteering, which is a technique used when a car’s rear wheels have little to no traction, to avoid a spin-out.

Turn right to go left: a classic example of paradox. How often we see in the teachings of Jesus a use of paradox, challenging our pre-programmed notions of “the way things are.”

Elmar Salmann, a German Benedictine monk, is known for his penchant for paradox. In an interview with L’Osservatore Romano on July 14, 2023, Fr. Salmann spoke of a “new adventure in Christianity,” one led by the Spirit, in which the Church would be a minority, and once again the salt of the earth.

The words are familiar.

“Being strong without being powerful. Being truthful without being fanatical. Having a sense of aesthetics without being aesthetic. Having a sense of righteousness without being moralistic. To be one, but not without the other,” says Salmann.

Salmann is speaking of achieving a sort of balance in the Christian life. Jesus was often a mystery and stumbling block to those to whom He ministered, uttering truths intermingled with seemingly illogical euphemisms. If being misunderstood was a daily occurrence in the life of Jesus, it is similarly present in the pontificate of Pope Francis.

We as Americans, especially, live in a society that continually forces us to choose a side. Are you a Democrat or a Republican? Conservative or liberal? Full-time mom or working mom? Public sector employee or private sector? Catholic or non-denominational? Small-town native or city dweller?

We know very little of compromise; we are always asked to choose, one or the other. These are generally, but not fundamentally, diametrically-opposed factions. And what does choosing breed, but division?

But Jesus rarely dealt in ultimatums. His wisdom was far more subtle, always pushing the limits of conventional thought and challenging the status quo without contradicting the eternal truths He came to bring to fulfillment.

A New Era

Salmann identifies the Holy Father as the embodiment of a “new chapter” in the history of Christianity.

He is the first chapter, but he will also be the last of the preceding epoch, because reconciling the charisma with the administration of a ‘company’ like ours is beyond the limit of feasibility. Only in this way can we understand his dramatic characteristics.

Perhaps the stark differences between Francis and his predecessor sounded an alarm bell to those in the Church who were comfortable with a more conservative, “old-school” pontiff at the helm, igniting a backlash against anything new or unfamiliar.  Salmann mentions his experiences as a monk in reference to “healthy changes” in religious communities.

“A sensible convent always elects an abbot with the opposite characteristics to his predecessor,” says Salmann.

Most of Pope Francis’s papacy has been plagued by misunderstanding, mischaracterization, and a call for returns to the “basic tenets” of the faith. These calls are repeated and lauded via various social media channels. This, however, begs the question. Did we ever really leave those basics? Or have we just ventured into deeper waters, fine-tuning the truths that Jesus came to impart?

The Beatitudes are a prime example.

Richard Rohr’s 1996 book Jesus’ Alternative Plan: The Sermon on the Mount explores the deeper meanings within the Beatitudes and brings them into the cultural settings of modern-day America:

Notice how Jesus now leads into his teaching on the Law: ‘I have not come to abolish the Law’ (Cool it, liberals!); the Law will not disappear ‘until its purpose is achieved.’ (Beware, mindless legalists!) ‘Your virtue must go deeper than the scribes and Pharisees or you will never enter the Reign of Heaven.’ (It’s about God’s values and depth, not just external behavior). Here we have the balance Jesus strikes between what we call conservative and liberal. He holds onto the foundation and center of the old, while moving the boundaries out much farther than almost anyone expected.

And this is what Pope Francis seems to embody, making him the subject of criticism and attrition.

The Beauty of Opposites

Christ during His earthly ministry, spoke often in paradoxical statements. “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”—Matthew 16:25

In The Paradoxes of Catholicism, Robert Hugh Benson wrote:

For every paradox in the world of matter, in whose environment our bodies are confined, we shall find a hundred in that atmosphere of spirit in which our spirits breathe and move— those spirits of ours, which themselves, paradoxically enough, are forced to energize under material limitations.

This is why the Beatitudes are so strikingly attractive to us, yet seemingly elusive.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the land.”—Matthew 5:3-5

Jesus tells us we are indeed blessed when we are persecuted, that our lowest moments in life will become our greatest in the light of eternity.

The power of paradox is that when two extreme ends of a spectrum meet and find a means of compromise, a certain fulfillment of a truth is completed. And this is how our Lord proposes to bring the Law to fulfillment, as well—if only we have the humility to “turn right to go left.”

Image: “The Beatitudes Sermon” by James Tissot. From Wikimedia Commons.

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Kristi McCabe is an award-winning freelance writer, Catechist, a former teacher and editor who lives with her family in Owensboro, Kentucky.  As an adoptive mother of four and an adoptee herself, Kristi is an avid supporter of pro-life ministries.  She is active in her local parish and has served as Eucharistic minister and in various children's ministries.

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