The decline in the popularity of the Sacred Heart took place in a world which was increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of sin. Pius XI, who was like Leo XIII a greater promoter of the Sacred Heart and social teaching, argued that the decline in the belief in God and in the sense of sin would have inevitably tragic consequences for civilization. In Caritate Christi Compulsi, for example, 1932, he noted that:
The Sacred Heart, Pius XI taught, was a powerful remedy for the problems of the times which were caused by human pride and avarice. Humanity had to make reparation for the sins which were destroying peoples, families, states and undermining the foundations of a civilization built upon Christian faith. Subsequently his successor, Pope Pius XII, who wrote the defining theological account of the Sacred Heart ( Haurietius Aquas ) in 1956, had ten years earlier ( in a radio broadcast to participants in a catechetical congress in Boston) observed that :
Ultimately, if human beings are unable to follow the law of God written in their hearts, all hell will indeed break lose. The heart is a place wherein the love of God dwells, but it is also where evil lurks.
Evil has its source in the heart of human beings. If humanity loses its sense of its capacity to be sinful, then in truth, God help us. As Pius XII and Pius XI argued, if we lose our sense of sin, humanity will fall prey to selfishness, pride, lust and ambition in all its deadly forms. Of course, we must understand the Sacred Heart as the symbol of God’s love and infinite mercy, but it is also a symbol which about the way sin can pierce and wound us as individually and collectively. In the icon we see Christ in all his majesty and glory- but he still bares the wounds. The cross is held aloft by Gabriel and Michael is ‘exalted’, but it is still the cross on which the Lamb of God. proclaimed by John the Baptist, suffered and died to take our sins away.
A defining characteristic – perhaps the most important defining characteristic – of modernity was its rejection of sin. Given this, it is not so surprising that Pius XII should later write an encyclical which sought to stress the lasting relevance of the devotion to the Sacred Heart. Just like Leo XIII and Pius XI , Pius XII appreciated how important the Sacred Heart was in promoting a sense of sin in the modern world. However, by the time of the publication of Haurietis Aquas in 1956 it was already becoming apparent that the devotion was losing its influence in the Catholic church – as an important collection of papers entitled Cor Salvatoris published in 1954 explored.
By the early 1950s it is apparent that the Sacred Heart, with its emphasis on human sinfulness in the face of God’s infinite love, was losing its appeal. There are many reasons for his, of course, but one of them is undoubtedly that itself ‘sin’ fell out of favour. Joseph Pieper, for example, in his book Uber den Begriff de Sunde, ( On the Concept of Sin) observed in the1970s that it was a word that was no longer used in either casual conversations or in more ‘high toned’ settings.
And given that the Sacred Heart asks us to reflect upon our sinfulness and the sins of the world, it is not so surprising that as people began to lose their sense of sin, Catholics began to lose their sense of the heart of Jesus. Talking about sin went out of fashion, as did the Sacred Heart. But we cannot understand the Sacred Heart without understanding and acknowledging the existence of sin. Hence in the icon we are drawn to contemplate the immaculate heart of the Blessed Virgin – conceived without sin, and St John who points towards the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. And of course, at the bottom, we see Adam and Mary Magdalene who serve to remind us of our sinful nature and our need for repentance.
The idea of reparation and expiation are central to the devotion. But in a world which has lost a sense of sin it is not so surprising that the notion of seeking to repair the damage done by sin and making amends our sins and the sins of the world has also been lost. If we don’t really think that we have sinned, then there is nothing to atone for! If there is no sense of sin, we need not be troubled by guilt. This was, of course, exactly what Nietzsche anticipated and desired: a world free of sin and guilt. In this regard mad and sad Nietzsche was ( as Bloom argues ( The Closing of the American Mind) the true father of modern society. Abandoning the sense of sin would enable humanity to free itself from the shackles of Judeo-Christian morality. And in banishing sin to the wastebasket of history, religion would cease to have any relevance to public affairs. When we proclaim the death of God we also bury the notion of sin. It is in this context we recall that Leo XIII’s encyclical in 1899 on the Sacred Heart ( Annum Sacrum) emphasized the importance of the devotion as a means of combating the exclusion of religion from public affairs.
The renewal of the devotion to the Sacred Heart requires both a bigger, more cosmic idea of the heart of Jesus -as Teilhard urged - but it also involves renewing our sense of sin. We need both a cosmic sense of the Heart of Jesus, but we also need a sense of the sinfulness of humanity. It is wholly erroneous to think that Teilhard was not concerned with the relationship between sin and the Sacred Heart. His writings show that he was intensely aware of sin and what it does to our relationship to God and to our neighbour. But, to narrow the Sacred Heart just into a focus on reparation and expiation was to miss the bigger picture of the symbol of Divine Love as the alpha and omega of all creation. Sinfulness was above all about being wholly self-centred: the Sacred Heart is telling us to be centred on God. Sin is about the love of the self. The Sacred Heart is about the love of God. We are sinful when we put ourselves at the centre of creation: a Christian is called to put Christ at the centre of her or his life. To follow Christ is to put Christ at very heart of your existence. Sin is the step we take to put ourselves at the centre: keep taking that step and we find that we are in a state of mortal sin.
The story of modern man has been the story of the loss of the sense of sin. Saint John Paul echoed the words of Pius XII in his encyclical on reconciliation and penance:
18. Over the course of generations, the Christian mind has gained from the Gospel as it is read in the ecclesial community a fine sensitivity and an acute perception of the seeds of death contained in sin, as well as a sensitivity and an acuteness of perception for identifying them in the thousand guises under which sin shows itself. This is what is commonly called the sense of sin.
This sense is rooted in man's moral conscience and is as it were its thermometer. It is linked to the sense of God, since it derives from man's conscious relationship with God as his Creator, Lord and Father. Hence, just as it is impossible to eradicate completely the sense of God or to silence the conscience completely, so the sense of sin is never completely eliminated.
Nevertheless, it happens not infrequently in history, for more or less lengthy periods and under the influence of many different factors, that the moral conscience of many people becomes seriously clouded. "Have we the right idea of conscience?"-I asked two years ago in an address to the faithful" Is it not true that modern man is threatened by an eclipse of conscience? By a deformation of conscience? By a numbness or 'deadening' of conscience,"(97) Too many signs indicate that such an eclipse exists in our time. This is all the more disturbing in that conscience, defined by the council as "the most secret core and sanctuary of a man,"(98) is "strictly related to human freedom.... For this reason conscience, to a great extent, constitutes the basis of man's interior dignity and, at the same time, of his relationship to God."(99) It is inevitable therefore that in this situation there is an obscuring also of the sense of sin, which is closely connected with the moral conscience, the search for truth and the desire to make a responsible use of freedom. When the conscience is weakened the sense of God is also obscured, and as a result, with the loss of this decisive inner point of reference, the sense of sin is lost. This explains why my predecessor Pius XI, one day declared, in words that have almost become proverbial, that "the sin of the century is the loss of the sense of sin."(100)
Why has this happened in our time. A glance at certain aspects of contemporary culture can help us to understand the progressive weakening of the sense of sin, precisely because of the crisis of conscience and crisis of the sense of God already mentioned.
"Secularism" is by nature and definition a movement of ideas and behavior which advocates a humanism totally without God, completely centered upon the cult of action and production and caught up in the heady enthusiasm of consumerism and pleasure seeking, unconcerned with the danger of "losing one's soul." This secularism cannot but undermine the sense of sin. At the very most, sin will be reduced to what offends man. But it is precisely here that we are faced with the bitter experience which I already alluded to in my first encyclical namely, that man can build a world without God, but this world will end by turning against him."(101) In fact, God is the origin and the supreme end of man, and man carries in himself a divine seed.(102) Hence it is the reality of God that reveals and illustrates the mystery of man. It is therefore vain to hope that there will take root a sense of sin against man and against human values, if there is no sense of offense against God, namely the true sense of sin.
Another reason for the disappearance of the sense of sin in contemporary society is to be found in the errors made in evaluating certain findings of the human sciences. Thus on the basis of certain affirmations of psychology, concern to avoid creating feelings of guilt or to place limits on freedom leads to a refusal ever to admit any shortcoming. Through an undue extrapolation of the criteria of the science of sociology, it finally happens-as I have already said-that all failings are blamed upon society, and the individual is declared innocent of them. Again, a certain cultural anthropology so emphasizes the undeniable environmental and historical conditioning and influences which act upon man, that it reduces his responsibility to the point of not acknowledging his ability to perform truly human acts and therefore his ability to sin.
The sense of sin also easily declines as a result of a system of ethics deriving from a certain historical relativism. This may take the form of an ethical system which relativizes the moral norm, denying its absolute and unconditional value, and as a consequence denying that there can be intrinsically illicit acts independent of the circumstances in which they are performed by the subject. Herein lies a real "overthrowing and downfall of moral values," and "the problem is not so much one of ignorance of Christian ethics," but ignorance "rather of the meaning, foundations and criteria of the moral attitude."(103) Another effect of this ethical turning upside down is always such an attenuation of the notion of sin as almost to reach the point of saying that sin does exist, but no one knows who commits it.
Finally the sense of sin disappears when-as can happen in the education of youth, in the mass media and even in education within the family-it is wrongly identified with a morbid feeling of guilt or with the mere transgression of legal norms and precepts. Here
Benedict XVI also argued that sin is the deepest cause of every evil :
But this statement is not at all uncontroversial, and the word "sin" is not accepted by many, for it presupposes a religious vision of the world and of man. In effect this is correct: If we eliminate God from the horizon of the world, we cannot speak of sin. Just as when the sun is hidden the shadows disappear and the shadows appear only if the sun is there, so too the eclipse of God necessarily brings the eclipse of sin.
Thus the meaning of sin -- which is a different thing from "guilt feelings" as these are understood in psychology -- is only grasped in discovering the meaning of God. The "Miserere" Psalm, attributed to David in the context of his twofold sin of adultery and homicide: "Against you," David says, turning to God, "against you alone I have sinned" (Psalm 51:6).
God's response to moral evil is to oppose sin and save the sinner. God does not tolerate evil because he is Love, Justice, Fidelity; and it is precisely because of this that he does not wish the death of the sinner, but desires that the sinner covert and live. God intervenes to save humanity: We see this in the whole history of the Jewish people, beginning with their liberation from Egypt. God is determined to deliver his children from slavery to lead them to freedom. And the worst and most profound slavery is that of sin. This is why God sent his Son into the world: to free men from the rule of Satan, "origin and cause of every sin." Here
It is very significant that Pope Francis has restated this view. Francis argues that a sense of sin involves a sense of shame. A sinful person is a shameless person. A person without humility and meekness- the very qualities that Jesus asks us to learn from his heart! As Christians we must regularly ask our selves if Christ is at the centre of our life. For, where our treasure is, there we find our heart. This means we must never lose sense of our own sinfulness, and the sin around us. And this calls for humility and a sense of shame. Here.
The Sacred Heart stands as a reminder to be aware of how the human heart can be full of deadly sins that can destroy our souls and destroy our society. Ours is a society which is all about success and winning. Hence it has no use for sin. To acknowledge the capacity which human beings to sin is to recognize that human beings fail- to have a sense of sin is to have a sense of learning from failure, errors and our shortcomings. To have a sense of sin is to understand that we have limits. To have a sense of sin is to be able to feel and express shame: it is to have a sense of regret, and guilt for those things we have done or failed to do.
Perhaps the most dangerous thing is a democracy is to have politicians who are shameless. A sense of shame is amongst the first characteristics of narcissism in individuals, groups and institutions that are so full of themselves and centred on themselves that they lack the humility necessary to have a sense of sin and shame. When human beings are so utterly centered on themselves and can see no cause for shame in how they live, then they are easily tempted by pride, avarice, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth. Look around our self-centered world: it abounds in sin which destroying our world.
The Sacred Heart asks us to look into our hearts and contemplate the humble and gentle heart of Jesus. The Sacred Heart urges us to reflect on the wounds of sin which have been inflicted on our Saviour who loves us, and who desires that we share in the divine life. What stops from placing his heart at the centre of our lives? Sin. What stops us thinking of what Christ did for us? Sin. What stops us thinking of other people, rather than ‘me’, ‘me’, ‘me’? Sin. What stops us living God with all our heart and our neighbour as ourself? Sin, it is always sin.
And so in this month of the Sacred Heart we should remember that although we focus on the heart of Jesus as the great symbol of God’s infinite love and mercy, we must remember that sin is a rejection of love. Sin wounds the loving heart of Jesus, and it wounds the very core of our being. To be devoted to the heart of Christ is to be active in repairing the damage that sin and above all, the lack of a sense of sin, does to us and to the world.