The Most Sacred Heart of Jesus is depicted in a stained-glass window at St. Andrew Church in Sag Harbor, N.Y. CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz

Editorial: Preferences, questions, paradoxes

  • June 6, 2024

Concluding his letter to the Catholic faithful on devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus during June, Archbishop Francis Leo offers vital watchwords for the current moment and mood. 

“Let us prefer Christ to politicization, devotion to guile, grace to odium, truth to ideology,” Toronto’s Archbishop says in appealing directly to his flock in the archdiocese and indirectly to Catholics everywhere.

There are echoes in the 15-word sentence to the precautions of Pope Francis throughout his pontificate, to the discernments of Pope Benedict in encyclicals such as Deus Caritas Est, and to the courage of St. John Paul II in his historic commitment to bringing freedom through Christ.

On its face, it is a disarmingly straightforward urging from the shepherd to his sheep. What sentient Christian, what Catholics, could fail to nod their heads, smile yes, feel a heartfelt surge of: “That is surely what I will do”?

Yet as the summation of a 1,700-word teaching document, the Archbishop’s call to collective action is anything but a comfortable pass. True, it sets out that call with admirable Scriptural and magisterial clarity. But as intentional direction, it meets the classic test of being simple but not easy. Inviting us to amend our ways and grow in faith, it still raises an abundance of questions, each of which can be the instigation for profound self-examination and search for meaning.

Working from the middle of the sentence outward we can ask how, in the context of active faith, can devotion and guile be connected even as opposing forces. True, no Christians can be well with their souls if they “smile and smile yet be a villain.” But can we not be devout and simultaneously the bearers of an effective poker face? As part of any examination of conscience, the question bears pondering. 

Likewise, the preference for grace over odium. Sure, we’re all very much for the former over the latter. But then there are the Misfit’s words in Flannery O’Connor’s classic short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” As the Misfit says to the odious grandmother who begs forgiveness at the hour of her own murder: “She would of been a good woman if it had been someone there to shoot her every minute of her life.” Grace above odium, yes, but how to get from fallen here to risen there in the course of an ordinary life?

The bookends of Leo’s sentence have the most direct applicability to public life, and so are probably the most compellingly perplexing for our agency as Catholics. What, bluntly, does a preference for Christ over “politicization” mean? What, as they say in Quebec, does it eat in winter? In other words, what acts constitute its test? How do we know when we’re putting our thumbs on the “politicization” scale to tilt it away from Christ?  The questions are not mere rhetorical refutations. They’re catalysts for awareness of the foundation of our faith: When in doubt, the correct answer is Christ. The first step is recognizing the doubt. 

Even that runs up against the hard wall of current reality vis-a-vis preference of truth over ideology. Daily, we can witness the vanishing point where ideological belief and truth seem inseparable, or at least indistinguishable. We live, after all, in the moment of “my truth” when one’s particular way of seeing the world — one’s ideological lens — no longer just explains the world as it might be but recreates it in one’s own image as truth. No matter if those “re-creations” are half-understood borrowings from someone else’s speculative fictions, the operating principle of the day is that all must be accepted as equally (equitably?) valid. In such a world, to borrow a phrase from a certain Mr. P. Pilate: “What is truth?”

The clear and present Catholic answer is in the very purpose of Archbishop Leo’s call: Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. It is, in an invigorating paradox, an answer we must insist upon for ourselves but which we can no longer rely upon to be understood, much less functional, in the world around us. Of course, such was the state of the world as well when Our Lord was incarnate among us, which is the paradox at the heart of our faith. It is what makes Archbishop Leo’s watchwords so vital for this month of June, for the current mood and moment, but most of all for Catholic life at all times in all places. 

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