What the heck? Why is there a posting on the Just Third Way blog about an obscure Catholic religious feast? And by “feast” we mean a religious festival, not the kind with roast turkeys, roast beef, roast pork, roast lamb, roast . . . what were we talking about, anyway?
|"Natural law, Dudes, not theocracy."
Oh, yes. The “Feast of Christ the King” — coming up this year on Sunday, November 20 — is something even a lot of Catholics seem to be unclear about. During the recent election (for those of you whose minds haven’t drawn a dark veil over that particular period), we might have made a comment or two about what seemed to be a slight dearth of qualified candidates for certain offices.
The general consensus seemed to be, just grit your teeth and vote whichever way doesn’t make you as sick as the alternative.
But is that any way to run a country? Is anyone asking specifically what is the proper role of that powerful social tool we call the State? And how do you go about restructuring the system in order to fix it?
During the recent, er, campaign, then, we got a comment that many people today echo. People have failed to run the world the right way, so it’s time to put things back in God’s hands. For a Catholic, that usually means waiting for the “Reign of Christ the King”:
The problem is that restructuring government without an explicit recognition of Christ as King will only lead to a different form of tyranny and failure. In the absence of that (since neither Church nor ‘faithful’ teach or believe that today), the best we can do is work towards the smallest, most impotent government possible.
Let’s be frank. Comments like this raise more questions than they answer, even (or especially) for Catholics. The one we’re going to answer today, however, has to do with this whole “Christ the King” shtick. What does it mean, really?
|"Uh, guys, some of you got it wrong. . . ."
Oddly enough, it’s not all that hard, and it’s a lot less, er, totalitarian than it sounds. Here’s why.
To begin, we have to understand what Pope Pius XI meant by “the Reign of Christ the King.” He explained this in Quas Primas (the encyclical in which he instituted the feast) and expanded it in Quadragesimo Anno and Divini Redemptoris.
First, it would be singularly inappropriate for any form of society, including people in their official capacities, to acknowledge (in the sense of submitting to a system of belief) any deity whatsoever. “The State” is not a natural person. As Pius XI pointed out, “Only man, the human person, and not society in any form is endowed with reason and a morally free will.”
It would, therefore, be a grave injustice as well as an offense against charity and respect for human dignity for the State to acknowledge or impose religion. This is especially true in the case of secularism, the secular religion, the most intolerant of all false religions. As Archbishop John Ireland noted,
|"The liberty that I claim, I grant."
Secularists and unbelievers will demand their rights. I concede their rights. I will not impose upon them my religion, which is Christianity. But let them not impose upon me and my fellow-Christians their religion, which is secularism. Secularism is a religion of its kind, and usually a very loud-spoken and intolerant religion. Non-sectarianism is not secularism, and, when non-sectarianism is intended, the secularist sect must not claim for itself the field which it refuses to others. I am taking my stand upon our common American citizenship. The liberty that I claim, I grant. (Archbishop John Ireland, “State Schools and Parish Schools,” Address before the National Education Association of the United States, 1890.)
Thus, as a social tool, and not a natural person, the State’s role should be strictly limited to providing and protecting the institutional environment within which individual people can (and must) acknowledge “the peace of Christ in the Kingdom of Christ.” As Jesus Himself reminded Pontius Pilate, the word “king” is not even the right word to describe His role, nor is His kingdom of this world — which would not be the case if individual states acknowledged His kingship.
In a sense, demanding that forms of society and not human persons acknowledge the kingship of Christ is to limit Christ’s reign to this world and impose pure moral relativism. That is, in fact, the goal of the modernists down to the present day, and the reason Pius XI repeated the condemnation of modernism in all its forms in § 61 of his first encyclical, Ubi Arcano Dei Consilio, “There is a species of moral, legal, and social modernism which We condemn, no less decidedly than We condemn theological modernism.”
That being said, the State is required to acknowledge that there is a God . . . but it can't get specific. The State can only acknowledge this generally (albeit without prejudice to atheists and agnostics, who must also be free to believe as they wish), as well as protect religious beliefs and practices by law as long as these do not violate the natural law that must underlay human law (e.g., the general prohibition against human sacrifice).
|The United States is a model of Church-State relations (or was).
In a society in which not everyone worships the same way, the State must therefore be strictly neutral in purely religious matters . . . which doesn't mean hostile. This is why Pope Leo XIII held up the United States (at least prior to the 1880s, and despite many lapses from the ideal) as a model of Church-State relations when there is no unity of belief.
Only when a country is entirely of one faith can the State be more proactive, and even that must be done with extreme caution. One of the hardest jobs popes prior to Leo XIII had was to separate their role as civil head of the Papal States from their religious role as Pontifex Maximus.
Frankly, a demand that the State adhere to a particular religion justifies the secular attack on all deistic faith. After all, if it is right and just to impose a God-centered religion, how much more right and just is it to impose a man-centered one, a “Religion Without God”, such as the United States has been saddled with (according to Fulton Sheen) since the 1880s?
There is, in fact, an entirely new religion that goes by the name of Christianity against which G.K. Chesterton, Msgr. Ronald Knox, and Fulton Sheen inveighed their entire careers. It calls itself Christianity, and uses many of the same words and outward forms, but it is a genuinely new religion, as Chesterton explained in his books on St. Francis of Assisi and St. Thomas Aquinas, Knox in Enthusiasm (1950) and Sheen in God and Intelligence in Modern Philosophy (1925) and Religion Without God (1928).
|"No, guys, I'm not running for office!"
The bottom line here is that “Christ the King” reigns in the heart of every individual by each person conforming him- or herself as closely as possible to the natural law by acquiring and developing virtue. Governments “accept” or “acknowledge” Christ the King by conforming laws and other institutions to principles of both individual and social virtue, thereby providing the best possible environment within which every child, woman, and man can grow in virtue and become more fully human, fitting him- or herself for life in this world, and preparing for life in the next, or whatever end one believes is coming.
Thus — strictly speaking — because the natural law written in the hearts of all men is discernible by the force and light of human reason alone, it is possible to “acknowledge” Christ as King of every human heart without some people knowing anything about Him by living a life of virtue as best one can given one’s particular circumstances.
Thus, the “Reign of Christ the King” is not a call for a theocracy of some kind, nor is it a demand for a “divine right” monarchy, or a purely personal thing that one keeps to one’s self. No, it is the restructuring of the social order to conform as closely as possible to the demands of human dignity and the precepts of the natural law. The language may be purely religious, but the concept is purely human.