Arts and Culture

Catholic Conscience as Countercultural

WHENEVER I HEAR of a king, my imagination almost immediately produces someone with a jeweled crown and ermine cape. Needless to say this is not a good image for Christ the King. In fact, it almost seems like an image that would convey the exact opposite of the kingship of Christ.

On the feast of Christ the King last Nov. 26, I found a pattern, harmony and order to the Scripture readings for the day. Perhaps I read the pattern into the readings because of events happening in my life. Who knows? I hope the discovery was the work of the Holy Spirit.

The first reading was from the prophet Ezekiel, (14:11-12, 15-17), the second from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians (15:20-26, 28) and the third was from Matthew’s Gospel (25:31-46). Ezekiel portrays God as a shepherd, totally involved and concerned about His sheep. This is certainly part of the image of Christ as king. Christ is the shepherd-king who gave His life for His sheep.

For me, the image of Christ as the Good Shepherd always conveys the unconditional love that Christ has for us, love that is pure gift. St. Paul stresses that Christ is the first fruits, that His resurrection is a sign of our eventual resurrection, when we will share fully in Christ’s risen life. Our share in Christ’s risen life will be the fruit of our responding to Christ as shepherd-king.

The section from St. Matthew’s Gospel tells how Christ identifies totally with the poor, the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the imprisoned and all people in need and that this is what we are called to do if we want to follow the model of Christ as King.

Identifying Christ with the Poor

The Gospel initially struck me as presenting what seemed like two impossibilities: Christ’s identification with the poor and our identification with the poor. The first is so total that Christ can say that when we do something for the poor, we are doing it for Him, and when we neglect doing something for the poor, we are neglecting Christ.

This kind of identification on Christ’s part is amazing. We can begin to appreciate how amazing when we remind ourselves that the God Who is holding the universe in existence has chosen to identify with those who many dismiss as relatively unimportant. Some look upon the poor as losers and failures. Christ’s identification with them is not impossible since He has done it, but it is mind-boggling.

The other seeming impossibility in the Gospel is that we are called to have Christ’s attitude. Can we honestly look at the poor as being Christ? Can we really have that view and live by the belief? It seems impossible. Is there anything that would be more countercultural?

Of course it would be impossible if we were alone, but we are not. In our journey through life, which is an adventure in love, we have been given by Christ a companion. With the Holy Spirit forming, shaping and inspiring us, what we might have initially thought of as impossible becomes possible. The Holy Spirit is Infinite Love. With Infinite Love as our companion, can anything be impossible?

I think of conscience as a habit which we have because of many influences: family, education, religion and the culture in which we live. We tend to make the same judgments about what is moral and immoral for long periods of time. I am thinking of conversations I have had with people who are bigoted or prejudiced, for example, who think that one race is genetically inferior to others.

I have often found that no matter how many good reasons I offer, and how often I point out that bigotry and prejudice have no evidence to support them, the bigot does not change his or her view. There simply is no evidence to support bigotry or prejudice. But because conscience is a habit, it does not change easily.

However, I do believe that the Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives can help us to allow our consciences to develop and become Christocentric. Such a change may take time – perhaps even a lifetime– but it can happen.

I think one reality in the lives of Catholics that can profoundly influence their consciences is the Sunday Eucharist. That may have happened to me on the most recent feast of Christ the King.

Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, and author of “Pope Francis’ Profound Personalism and Poverty” (Resurrection Press).