The U.S. Bishops have made religious liberty a top priority for many years, especially in the face of serious challenges from the HHS contraceptive mandate to the most recent Bladensburg Peace Cross decision.
For a number of years the bishops highlighted the issue for American Catholics during their “Fortnight for Freedom” campaign. That campaign faced a number of criticisms over the years, including the criticism that it was always playing rearguard defense when what was needed was a better evangelical offense that could begin to make a more positive and persuasive case for the distinctive freedom of the Church in this country.
Now “Fortnight for Freedom” has been reduced to a week, but that change is less important than another one which many might miss if they aren’t paying close attention. The logo for Religious Freedom Week now prominently features an image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Why might that be?
The image of the sacred heart of Jesus is ancient. As St. John himself testified, “one soldier thrust his lance into his side, and immediately blood and water flowed out.” (John 19.15) St. John highlighted the sacred heart of Jesus “so that you may believe,” and so that you may see that God so loved the world. Our redemption flows from the heart of God Incarnate to unite our hearts to his sacred heart. So it is something extraordinary that on this Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, the bishops would also make this the central image on which we should gaze as we speak about religious freedom and the common good.
In 1899, Pope Leo XIII’s Annum Sacrum made the connection with great force, writing that the Sacred Heart gives us “a sensible image of the infinite love of Jesus Christ which moves us to love one another.” This is why he commended all Catholics to consecrate themselves to the Sacred Heart on this day, “binding” ourselves to the divine heart of Jesus Christ. But for Pope Leo this was not simply an act of personal piety, but was something for the commonwealth — the Sacred Heart of Jesus was a palpable image for connecting public affairs more intimately to God. Pope Leo writes in Annum Sacrum:
“Such an act of consecration, since it can establish or draw tighter the bonds which naturally connect public affairs with God, gives to States a hope of better things. In these latter times especially, a policy has been followed which has resulted in a sort of wall being raised between the Church and civil society. In the constitution and administration of States the authority of sacred and divine law is utterly disregarded, with a view to the exclusion of religion from having any constant part in public life. This policy almost tends to the removal of the Christian faith from our midst, and, if that were possible, of the banishment of God Himself from the earth. When men’s minds are raised to such a height of insolent pride, what wonder is it that the greater part of the human race should have fallen into such disquiet of mind and be buffeted by waves so rough that no one is suffered to be free from anxiety and peril? When religion is once discarded it follows of necessity that the surest foundations of the public welfare must give way, whilst God, to inflict on His enemies the punishment they so richly deserve, has left them the prey of their own evil desires, so that they give themselves up to their passions and finally wear themselves out by excess of liberty.”
Our religious liberty fights in America today are often about maintaining space for Christians to live integrated lives in a culture which is increasingly worn out “by excess of liberty.” But the bishops have done something good and right here by shifting our focus to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. They’ve done something Leonine too.
Consecration to the Sacred Heart is about acknowledging Christ as King in every aspect of our lives, including our public lives. The image of the Sacred Heart next to the bishops efforts on behalf of religious liberty in the country also serves another purpose. It makes a subtle but important point which is a real advance: the Sacred Heart is a palpable image of how God has broken down the enmity between men, and “gives to States a hope of better things.”
The bishops will continue to use everything at their disposal to defend religious liberty. But on this Solemnity of the Sacred Heart we can glimpse the positive case for our highest freedom — the freedom to be united to God’s own heart.