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Devotion to the Sacred Heart and Modern Christology

IIHJ Conference given by
Rev. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Any balanced approach to the modern devotion to the Sacred Heart must take into account what kind of thinking is going on in some nominally Catholic theological circles in our day.

No doubt, there are some thoroughly orthodox theologians writing about the Devotion to the Heart of Christ. They are totally committed to the teachings of the Church, basing themselves squarely in the tradition of Chalcedon, Ephesus and the Nicene Creed. But they are being overshadowed, not to say silenced, by the highly publicized spokesmen for a new brand of Christology. They might even speak piously about the Sacred Heart Devotion, but they have in greater or less measure removed its doctrinal foundation.

At the risk of starting with an over-long quotation, I will give some sentences from Richard McBrien’s widely used book Catholicism, to set the stage for this presentation. McBrien opens his chapter on “The Christ of Twentieth Century Theology” with these statements:

Catholic Christology from the time of Aquinas to the middle of the twentieth century remained essentially the same in structure and in content…The residual medieval influence was particularly evident in the raising of subsidiary questions—e.g., whether Christ could have been called a human being or the Christ while he lay in the tomb between Good Friday and Easter Sunday; the reconciliation of the “sadness of Christ with his smilessness; the legitimacy of devotion to the Sacred Heart.” (Catholicism, pp. 469-470).

The value of quoting McBrien is not to cite him as an example of a theologian who trivializes Devotion to the Heart of Christ. It is rather to show how some “name” writers, ostensibly Catholic, are talking about a residual medieval Christology that still advocates Devotion to the Sacred Heart, and an updated Christology that has moved beyond such unenlightened piety.

My plan for this paper is to do three things: first, to identify some of the prevalent errors in modern Christology which threaten to undermine the Sacred Heart Devotion; then to point out some of the legitimate developments of doctrine on the person and work of Christ, and again show how they bear on this Devotion; and finally to draw some practical conclusions.

Christologies at Variance with Catholic Doctrine

In scores of volumes and several hundred articles in journals in Europe and the Americas, three main types of modern Christology have emerged at variance with the Catholic church’s accepted teaching. They may be conveniently called Christology “from below,” “liberation” Christology, and “process Christology.”

Christology from Below

Christology “from below” is contrasted with Christology “from above.” The latter is also called “high Christology,” and begins with the premise that there has always been an infinite God, who at a point in time “came down” to earth to take on human nature and to redeem us by dying on the Cross. He is supposed to have risen bodily from the grave, actually ascended into heaven and is now literally at the right hand of His Father, from where He will come on the last day to judge the living and the dead.

Compared with this medieval notion, the new Christology “from below,” or “law” Christology starts with the Jesus of history. He was always a human being like use, even when with St. Paul we claim He was without sin. He stands out above other human beings not because He is God in human form, but because more than anyone else He proclaimed the Kingdom of God and gave Himself to the extension of this Kingdom as no one has ever done or, we may suppose, ever will do.

Inevitably, there is a wide and irreconcilable variety of these Christologies “from below.”

Some of them claim that all the titles to divinity applied to Christ in the New Testament are merely honorary. There is no pre-existence, no real incarnation, and no redemption in any traditional sense of the term. Such doctrinal assertions are simply the combined product of the ferrial faith of the early Christians and of Greek speculation.

On these premises, the Christ of Christian faith is only and uniquely the historical Jesus of Nazareth. In spite of what the evangelists or St. Paul say, Jesus was not interested in proclaiming Himself. He was completely subordinated to God’s cause, the Kingdom of God over the hearts and minds of the human race. Jesus preached merely the direct, unrestricted rule of God over the world.

Confronting the selfish people of His day with this absolutist doctrine, Jesus became a divisive figure. Some feared and hated Him beyond reason; others loved and believed in Him, also beyond reason.

No doubt some of the statements that Jesus made about Himself were exaggerated. They were never intended to claim that He was God. But no matter, the opposition He aroused because of His incompromising stand on doing God’s will finally aroused the hatred of His enemies until they brought Him to His death. All the evidence, the law Christologists say, indicates that Jesus did not simply accept His death. He actively provoked it. He appeared in His day as the personification of sin and as the representative of all sinners. Not surprising the God with whom Jesus had rhetorically identified Himself did not identify Himself with Jesus at the end. Jesus was literally forsaken by God.

Everything seemed to have been useless. But Jesus’ death was not to be the end. His devoted followers believed in Him so strongly that after His death, they subjectively experienced Him as alive. The so called resurrection of Christ was merely something that happened to the disciples. In the words of Hans Kung, “there remains the unanimous testimony of the first believers, who regarded their faith as based on something that really happened to them” (Signposts for the Future, p.21, Thesis #10). To be stressed, however, is that the resurrection of Christ did not actually happen outside the disciples minds. It was not an empirical, historic fact.

Other advocates of a Christology, “from below,” are not as crude in their denial of the hypostatic union. But their steady criticism of the Church’s preoccupation, since Nicea, on one Christological model, a Christology “from above” has improverished the Church of the insights now available in seeing Christ from a different perspective. What is this perspective? To see Jesus as the parable of God, as the paradigm of humanity, the one who realizes that human concerns and God’s concerns really coincide; and that we should realize that we, like Christ, are “of God,” even when death seems to contradict it. As expressed by Edward Schillebeeckx, “Through his historical self-giving, accepted by the Father, Jesus has shown us who God is: a Deus humanissi mus (most human God),” Jesus, An Experiment in Christology, p. 669.

The number and diversity of these “from below” Christologists are past counting. What they all have in common is a profound discomfort with the Church’s magisterial teaching about Christ’s divinity, and the resulting doubt they leave in any sympathetic reader as to whether the centuries-old doctrine on the hypostatic union is still unqualifyingly true.

Liberation Theology

A distinctive form of Christologists “from below” has emerged in recent years. For want of a better term, they have come to be called “liberation theologians.” Some of them are more systematic than others, but they all have one feature in common, they stress the historical Jesus over the Christ of faith, and they do so on one main premise: that Jesus did not preach Himself but His Kingdom, and His Kingdom is to liberate the financially and materially poor from their earthly poverty.

Perhaps the most systematic among these theologians of liberation is Leonard Boff, the Brazilian writer, whose book Jesus Christ Liberator has become something of a classic.

According to Boff, Jesus did not come to give an explanation of reality, but to make an urgent demand for a complete change of reality. The Kingdom that Jesus came to preach, says Boff, is “the realization of a utopia, involving complete liberation, a liberation that is also structural and eschatological” (p.280).

Jesus preaches a God, says Boff, who is to be reached not so much through prayer and religious observance as through service of the poor, in whom dwells the true God. Jesus establishes kinship, by preference, with society’s outcasts. He rejects wealth; He abhors political power; and He teaches a totally new religion, which is glorifying God by struggling for liberation from earth’s oppression.

Summarily, then, it is quite secondary and quite dispensable, in Boff’s theology, what Christians think of Christ. It is peripheral to Christianity whether Christ was a divine person who assumed a human nature; whether the hypostatic union is really true; or whether Jesus actually rose in a physical body from the dead. What matters is whether the central message of the Gospels is carried into effect; whether the poor are being delivered from their world oppressions, in a word, to quote Boff, “Life is more important than reflection” (p. 157).

John Sobrino of El Salvador, like Boff, emphasizes the primacy of function, over doctrine, and of action over splitting hairs about who Jesus is.

Critical to Sobrino’s reading of the New Testament is the claim that Jesus’ past can be recovered only to the extent that it pushes us towards the future. Sobrino defines Christology as “Liberation theology, (which) reflects on Jesus himself as the way to liberation” (p. 37).

Sobrino is unapologetically functional. What alone truly counts is what Jesus is for us, not what He is in Himself. Sobrino does not hesitate to say in his Christology at the Crossroads, that if at any time Christ ceased to be of interest to people, or to serve the function of liberating people from their earthly trials, he “would cease to be the revelation of what human beings are, and hence the revelation of who God is” (p. 388).

As is obvious, when liberationists of this school of thought speak of the Jesus of history, they are speaking mainly of present and future history. Christianity thus becomes the record of what Jesus is doing for contemporary man, delivering him not precisely from sin and the forces of moral evil, for a Kingdom in eternity. Rather, Jesus is the Savior who redeems mankind from human and political slavery in the here and now.

Process Christology

The third and final form of Christology that challenges the Church’s teaching is more difficult to classify. When I call it “Process Christology,” I am borrowing a term that has broader meaning, namely, Process Theology, and classifying Christologists among those who—in some measure or other—place God in the evolutionary process of the world.

The prevalence that popularity of process Christology among Protestants is a fact of contemporary scholarship. Men like Ponnenberg and Voltmann have become almost classic in their field. One of my students at the University of Ottawa, whose thesis on Ponnenberg I directed, spent several years just reading and trying to decipher Ponnenberg, before he could decisively start analyzing Ponnenberg’s Christology. It is subtle and complex in the extreme.

Among professed Catholics, the most important in point of time, is Teilhard de Chardin. In Teilhard’s thought, all history is a movement toward Christ, whom he calls the Omega Point. In this perspective, Christ, like God Himself, is in a constant evolutionary process—the world is becoming perfected in and through Christ even as Christ is becoming perfected in and through the world.

The critical issue for Chardin is his position on the nature of God. The problem, he says, with people who consider Marxism atheistic is that they define God too narrowly. Certainly if you conceive God as totally transcending the world, then Marxism is godless. But once you realize that God is autologically part of the universe, you see that Marxism is quite theistic and compatible with Christianity.

On these premises, Christ and Christology and the hypostatic union take on a very different meaning than the one taught by the Nicene Creed.

Karl Rahner is not commonly placed among Process Christologists, but I believe he can be best understood in this way.

Rahner’s notion of evolution rises through much of his writing. It is deeply influenced by Hegel. Matter and spirit, Rahner believes, are essentially related to each other. They derive from the same creative act of God, and they have a single goal or purpose in the fullness of the Kingdom preached by Christ. The world and its history are moving ever forward. They are in constant process of development, toward a unity of spirit and matter. Rahner, like Hegel, sees this as a becoming higher. He calls this capacity for becoming something higher as the power of “self-transcendence.”

How does Christ fit into this predetermined process of evolution. Says Rahner, “The permanent beginning and the absolute guarantee that this ultimate self-transcendence, which is fundamentally unsurpassable, will succeed and has already begun, is what we call the “hypostatic union,” (Foundations of Christian Faith, p. 181).

In other words, the Incarnation was not so much God becoming Man, as the universe, including man, becoming slowly but inevitably divinized. Jesus Christ, Rahner insists, cannot be properly understood except from this evolutionary process.

Development of Christological Doctrine

By way of introduction, we should briefly explain what is development of doctrine, for our purpose the doctrine of Christology.

True development of doctrine is the growing depth and clarity of understanding of revealed mysteries. It is the progress in understanding what God especially in the person of Christ, has revealed to the world. This growth in subjective understanding by the Church takes place through the action of the Holy Spirit, dwelling in the Church as her soul, and has to be validated by the Church’s magisterium to be assured acceptance by the faithful.

One more note. Doctrinal development or dogmatic progress must be continuous. This means it must be consistent with the Church’s teaching over the centuries. To be authentic, it cannot be discontinuous or at variance with, or in contradiction to what the Church has always held since the time of Christ.

Building on these premises, we can say that many areas of Christology have developed in modern times. In fact, every aspect of Christology has witnessed authentic progress. For the sake of convenience, I will here give only three, namely: communitarianism, anthropocentrism, and Soteriology. Each of these deserves a volume of commentary.


A phrase that is being used today symbolizes what the communitarian development means. The world it is said, is becoming a global village. Due to many factors, including the communications media, the human race is fast growing into a single community, where people everywhere are aware of one another, relate to one another, sense a kinship with one another and see themselves responsible for one another in a way and to a degree never before known in human history.

Inevitably this has had its influence on religion, every religion, including Catholic Christianity, and within Christianity on the Catholic understanding of it Founder, Jesus Christ.

There is a new sense of meaning to Jesus Christ as the one whom the world, the whole world, desperately needs. The world includes the millions who have so far never heard of Christ, but for whom Christ is desperately needed. More still, Christ is needed not only (though primarily) to lead mankind to salvation in the life to come. The world needs Christ even, and also, for this life, here and now.

The consequences of this new insight are far-reaching. Christ is coming to be seen as the only true answer to the staggering problems facing the modern world. The responsibility this places on Christ’s followers, especially the Church’s leaders, is staggering. They are to see Christ, as the Gospel presents Him, only now as the Christ for everyone, whom everyone needs with an urgency that can stand no delay.

One important proviso, however, Christ will save the world from its chaotic situation, and the future of the Gospel is secure only if those who have the true faith also have the humility and the wisdom to preach the true Christ, the whole Christ, and not some mental construct of their, perhaps zealous imagination.


There is a valid explanation of the preoccupation with Christ’s humanity these days. One reason is that Christ is being recognized for what He is, God in human form indeed; but nevertheless true man who came for men.

The Second Vatican Council could not have been plainer. It portrays Christ as God who became a human being in order to identify with us human beings in every way but sin.

Authentic development of Christology here means that the faithful are seeing Christ more than ever as their Savior, of course, but as One whom they are to follow, in fact strive to imitate in the practice of virtue and with resounding emphasis, in the practice of charity.

Christ is, after all, God become Man. Given this doctrine of faith, the human virtues of Christ are the attributes of God made manifest to us, for our imitation and even duplication in our age of history.


Perhaps the single most significant development of modern Christology has been in the field of Soteriology.

The mistaken stress of liberation theologians on the function of Christ is freeing people from earthly oppression has this however. It focuses attention on the forgotten fact that Christ is our Redeemer.

It is here that I cannot stress too much the importance of Pope John Paul’s Encyclical Redemptor Hominus.

It is the magna charta for anyone who wants to properly understand what true Christology is all about in our day, and who wants to put this Christology into practice. Parts of this precious document deserve to be memorized and whole sections could be quoted profitably to show how critically important it is for us, the Church’s leaders, to know Christ, the true Christ, so as to proclaim Christ, the whole Christ, to a Christless world that is desperately in need of a Redeemer.

Let me first quote one lengthy paragraph from Pope John Paul II.

Jesus Christ is the stable principle and fixed center of the mission that God Himself has entrusted to man. We must all share in this mission and concentrate all our forces on it, since it is more necessary than ever for modern mankind. If this mission seems to encounter greater opposition nowadays than ever before, this shows that today it was more necessary than ever and, in spite of the opposition, more awaited than ever. Here we touch indirectly on the mystery of the divine “economy” which linked salvation and grace with the cross. It was not without reason that Christ said that “the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and men of violence take it by force” and moreover that “the children of this world are more astute…than are the children of light.”
We gladly accept this rebuke, that we may be like those “violent people of God” that we have so often seen in the history of the Church and still see today, and that we may consciously join in the great mission of revealing Christ to the world, helping each person to find himself in Christ, and helping the contemporary generations of our brothers and sisters, the peoples, nations, states, mankind in developing countries and countries of opulence—in short, helping everyone to get to know “the unsearchable riches of Christ,” since these riches are for every individual and are everybody’s property.

I make no apology for the long quotation. It is meant to serve as an introduction to my conclusion of this paper on “Devotion to the Sacred Heart and Modern Christology.”

Summary Conclusions

We end where we began, by emphasizing what Pope Pius XII stressed in the opening paragraphs of his definitive document, Hariatis Aquas. Before he went on to explain the meaning of Devotion to the Heart of Jesus, and urge its promotion among the faithful, the Pope went to considerable effort to alert the Bishops and Church leaders to the errors prevalent, not outside the Church, but among Catholics regarding what he called a synthesis of Christianity.

These errors, declared the Pope, “are in outright disagreement with the teachings which our predecessors officially proclaimed from this seal of truth” (#14).

There is no doubt that Devotion to the Heart of Christ has a promising future in the Catholic Church, and from the Church to the whole family of the human race. But on one condition: that we who promote this devotion are alert, in our day, to the erroneous ideas widely prevalent in nominally Catholic circles; that we recognize and are able to distinguish true Christological development from its spurious counterpart; and that we follow the teachings of the Church’s magisterium, specifically of the Bishop’s of Rome in answering for our contemporaries what Christ asked His contemporaries, “Who do you say that I am.” On the correct answer to Christ’s question depends all the good, the marvelous good that in God’s providence we can do in our world by advancing the knowledge and love and service of the Heart of Jesus, who is our God become man for our salvation.

Copyright © 2004 Inter Mirifica

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