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VII: Compassion, and its Deadly Imitation: Sentimentality


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The symbol of the Sacred Heart, of the compassionate love of Jesus, reminds us that we need to have a humane personal warmth at the center of who we are, a sensitivity which shapes how we relate to ourselves, and to God, and to those around us. We are not meant to operate only with the cold objective clarity of the intellect and the rough power of the will.

But when the heart gets detached from objectivity and clarity, and we operate only according to our feelings, it can lead to great injustice and personal disaster. Head, heart, and hands must work in harmony.

The heart and hands must be guided by the head. Personal affectivity on its own - the heart alone, disconnected from the objective principles of reason - can lead us to be swept away by a particular emotionally compelling individual situation, and then lead to action that is detached from objective reality, and that is ultimately destructive, because it is not based on the truth revealed by both faith and reason. Sentimental Christianity, which consists of a warm pleasant emotion detached from a concern for the objective truth of the Gospel call to repentance and holiness, can cause people to replace the life-changing challenge of our faith with a cult of niceness. Such sentimentality is an illusion, and there is no future in that.

The Sacred Heart, because it arises out of the love of Jesus on Good Friday, shows us true love, not a sentimental substitute. Sentimental affection, disconnected from faith, reason, and the commitment to act rightly, is always an illusion and is often destructive.

It is sentimentality, that deceptive substitute for compassion, that can lead judges to think that they can over-rule “Thou shalt not kill”. And sentimentality can lead well intentioned Christians who are unfamiliar with the real Jesus whom we encounter in the actual Gospel to respond to the very real distress of others by seeking to deny the reality of the human condition, persuading those who are suffering distress to find relief by over-riding faith, reason, science, and common sense in order to embrace some trendy woke ideology out of touch with the reality of the human person. It is illusion that destroys, and a sentimentality guided by illusion is not love; it is not compassion. It ultimately causes great and irremediable suffering.

Devotion to the Sacred Heart calls forth from our hearts a loving personal response to Jesus and to the pathway to holiness that he reveals in the Gospel; it is a pathway that begins with his initial message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” (Matthew 4:17) The love of Christ which we celebrate is always found in the context of the truth of God’s will, and the bracing call to holiness. Jesus does not just look kindly on our sinfulness, and say that everything is fine; that would be sentimentality, a subjective warmth out of touch with truth. No, the Lord who has mercy casts light on our sins, and calls on us to change, to repent. Mercy must always be founded on the recognition of sin, and of the call to repentance.

The loving personal warmth of the Sacred Heart is revealed in John 8:1-11, when the heartless crowd brought to Jesus the woman caught in adultery. Jesus courageously challenged their consciences by telling anyone without sin to cast the first stone; imitation of Christ requires such courage from us as well. And when they all left without condemning her, he showed the loving mercy of the Sacred Heart, warmly affectionate: “Neither do I condemn you.” Christians who privilege the warmth of kindness alone stop at this, feeling that this is what it means to do what Jesus would do. Be kind. They do not notice that Jesus then added: “Go, and from now on sin no more.” Affectionate love is only real when it is set within the context of objective truth.

Similarly, when prayer is seen as being totally a personal emotional experience disconnected from the reality of God’s plan for us all, and from the teachings that reveal that plan in Scripture and tradition, and from the community of the Church, then such sentimental prayer experiences can be unhealthy. We turn inward, and become piously self-indulgent. Even the Sacred Heart devotion has sometimes been distorted, and presented with a repulsive and saccharine sentimentality in language and art. But that is not true to the wholesome doctrinal devotion to the Sacred Heart, based on the objective truth of our faith, subjectively intense with affection, and fruitfully decisive in action.


For Reflection:

  1. What does it mean to be compassionate and why is it so important for a disciple of Christ? How can I grow in compassion in the example of the Sacred Heart of Jesus?
  2. What are some of the ways in which I can avoid falling into sentimentality? What are some practical examples of sentimentality vs. compassion that I have witnessed in my life?
  3. When and how have I experienced the true love of Christ? How was this different from other “sentimental substitutes?” How can I (or my parish) reflect this same love of Christ through the devotion to the Sacred Hear of Jesust?
  4. What can I learn from Jesus’ encounter with the woman caught in adultery? Why is his particular response a worthy example of compassion?