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Christ the King

by Tony M.

To touch on a matter that seems particularly significant to a site devoted to Christendom, Catholics today celebrate the solemnity of Christ the King. We acknowledge Jesus Christ as the King over all.

But what does that mean? What sort of kingship are we talking about, and how far does it extend?

First of all, when Christ speaks of His kingdom, it seems that his references are first toward the spiritual reign over our hearts and souls: “my kingdom is not of this world.” And “the kingdom of God is like a man who goes out to sow seed,” and “the kingdom of God is like a vineyard.” Christ establishes quite clearly that in His teaching, His kingdom regards the rule of the mind and heart and soul, a way of ruling that is not visible (though its effects are visible to those with eyes to see). He sorely disappoints the disciples who expect His kingdom to be political.

And yet, when we celebrate the kingship of Christ at the end of the church year, we are also celebrating the last things, including the final complete reign of Christ over every other sovereignty:

when he hands over the kingdom to his God and Father, when he has destroyed every sovereignty and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. (1 Cor 15)

It seems that in the long run, His kingship will be exercised not solely by way of the spiritual realm, but in every sphere of sovereignty. And this suggests that Christ will reign over all the nations visibly and in concrete terms – or that He will reign over all the peoples, and nations will wither away to nonexistence, and Christ’s reign will take the place of political authority insofar as that applies .

Then the question comes up: since we know that His kingship over spiritual matters is now, and does not wait until the eschaton, does this have bearing on the situation for political authority now? What is the relationship between Christ’s kingship and current political authority? Is Christ’s kingship so much “not of this world” in this current age that current kings and presidents are not obliged to submit to His reign in temporal matters?

Or if they are, then in what sense do we mean that? Do we think, like the Islamic theocrats, that a theocracy is the only normal form of government? Do we really want to institute a government with the Church in charge of everything?

Not likely. Christianity started by rejecting the notion that the religious authority and the temporal authority must be unitary at all times: "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and give to God what is God's." It was the Egyptians, and the Persians, and the Romans, who insisted on the political authority being suffused with direct divine authority, by assimilating the king or emperor into the divine ranks. Christians did otherwise: the God-made-man went back to heaven to leave men to work out their lives without His visible hand at the till: He is content to work (politically) invisibly and interiorly in this age. Therefore, the authority of the Church is a distinct authority from that of the state and does not subsume it entirely.

And yet, Christendom as a concept assumes that there is a relationship between the 2 authorities, for God who is above both, and the maker of both, makes all things ordered. Orderliness implies that there is a model of inter-relation that provides a sound basis for peace and harmony between the 2 spheres of authority. Tension between them, given that men are fallen and not angels, is realistic; but direct opposition is a defective situation that cannot be allowed to remain. This is the thesis of Christendom: that any theory of politics that assumes the church and the state are at odds, or are fighting over the same piece of turf, is bad theory; that political science ought to endeavor to establish models under which the state and the church can cooperate, and succeed each in its own mission better for that cooperation.

Comments (16)

Thanks for this post, Tony. Now might be a good time to revisit "Quas Primas" by Pope Pius XI:


If, therefore, the rulers of nations wish to preserve their authority, to promote and increase the prosperity of their countries, they will not neglect the public duty of reverence and obedience to the rule of Christ. What We said at the beginning of Our Pontificate concerning the decline of public authority, and the lack of respect for the same, is equally true at the present day. "With God and Jesus Christ," we said, "excluded from political life, with authority derived not from God but from man, the very basis of that authority has been taken away, because the chief reason of the distinction between ruler and subject has been eliminated. The result is that human society is tottering to its fall, because it has no longer a secure and solid foundation."

When once men recognize, both in private and in public life, that Christ is King, society will at last receive the great blessings of real liberty, well-ordered discipline, peace and harmony. Our Lord's regal office invests the human authority of princes and rulers with a religious significance; it ennobles the citizen's duty of obedience. It is for this reason that St. Paul, while bidding wives revere Christ in their husbands, and slaves respect Christ in their masters, warns them to give obedience to them not as men, but as the vicegerents of Christ; for it is not meet that men redeemed by Christ should serve their fellow-men. "You are bought with a price; be not made the bond-slaves of men." If princes and magistrates duly elected are filled with the persuasion that they rule, not by their own right, but by the mandate and in the place of the Divine King, they will exercise their authority piously and wisely, and they will make laws and administer them, having in view the common good and also the human dignity of their subjects. The result will be a stable peace and tranquillity, for there will be no longer any cause of discontent. Men will see in their king or in their rulers men like themselves, perhaps unworthy or open to criticism, but they will not on that account refuse obedience if they see reflected in them the authority of Christ God and Man. Peace and harmony, too, will result; for with the spread and the universal extent of the kingdom of Christ men will become more and more conscious of the link that binds them together, and thus many conflicts will be either prevented entirely or at least their bitterness will be diminished.

If the kingdom of Christ, then, receives, as it should, all nations under its way, there seems no reason why we should despair of seeing that peace which the King of Peace came to bring on earth—he who came to reconcile all things, who came not to be ministered unto but to minister, who, though Lord of all, gave himself to us as a model of humility, and with his principal law united the precept of charity; who said also: "My yoke is sweet and my burden light." Oh, what happiness would be Ours if all men, individuals, families, and nations, would but let themselves be governed by Christ! "Then at length," to use the words addressed by our predecessor, Pope Leo XIII, twenty-five years ago to the bishops of the Universal Church, "then at length will many evils be cured; then will the law regain its former authority; peace with all its blessings be restored. Men will sheathe their swords and lay down their arms when all freely acknowledge and obey the authority of Christ, and every tongue confesses that the Lord Jesus Christ is in the glory of God the Father."

Trivia note: The Feast of Christ the King in the Anglican communion is always the last Sunday of October, whatever date that happens to fall on. I wonder how this difference came about and which is the older tradition.


In the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite, the Feast of Christ the King is also celebrated on the last Sunday of October, the change (in the Catholic Church) came about when Pope Paul VI changed the liturgy and the calander. I'm told that the reason for the change was a desire on the part of thee the prelatds who created the new liturgy to make the social reign of Christ the King out to be an eschatological hope rather than a temporal aim, which as Jeff has already pointed out was a mistake.

In other words, putting it immediately before the beginning of the Advent season was supposed to associate it in people's minds with the Second Coming? Seems a bit of a lame reason. One could teach that about it at the end of October just as well.

On the other hand, being entirely pragmatic, things do get a tad crowded just then, what with All Saints coming on November 1, etc.


I think the reason for placing the feast at the end of October was to avoid the fact that for Catholics November is a purgative month (praying for the dead)and it was felt that theme of the Feast of Christ the King would be better suited to October (month of the Rosary.)

Jack, is that pure guesswork? Do we even know when the feast day originated? Was it possibly even before the Rosary?

In instituting the feast in 1925, Pius XI wrote:

The last Sunday of October seemed the most convenient of all for this purpose, because it is at the end of the liturgical year, and thus the feast of the Kingship of Christ sets the crowning glory upon the mysteries of the life of Christ already commemorated during the year, and, before celebrating the triumph of all the Saints, we proclaim and extol the glory of him who triumphs in all the Saints and in all the Elect.

I think there were other, earlier feasts celebrating Christ's kingship. The feast of the Holy Rosary on October 7 was instituted by Pope St. Pius V in 1572.

The collect for this feast in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer is beautiful:

ALMIGHTY and everlasting God, who hast exalted thy beloved Son to be King over all worlds, and hast willed in him to make all things new: mercifully grant that the kindreds of the earth which are wounded and dispersed by sin: may speedily be knit together under his gracious sovereignty. Who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end. AMEN.

Lydia, I'm curious about the history of this feast in the Anglican communion. Was it added immediately after Pius XI's institution in 1925? Or is there some earlier precedent?

Jeff, I cannot tell a lie. The 1928 BCP doesn't have the feast at all. The prayer you are citing I find in my copy of the People's Anglican Missal (American edition), copyright 1988. That missal appears to be an American adaptation of the (English) Anglican Missal, originally published (according to La Wik) in 1921 for use by high churchmen. To be honest, plenty of what's in it is too high for me, but I'm glad of the addition of the Feast of Christ the King, though I take the earthly reign to have pretty much solely eschatological significance. If I had to guess, I would guess it was first inserted in 1925 when instituted in the Roman Catholic Church.

Years ago when I first became organist, our late priest would balk a bit at singing many hymns that I loved about the kingship of Christ _except_ at the Feast of Christ the King. That made the feast special to me as a musician.

Ha, Lydia, I should have known that, except that I searched online and found this very 1928ish-sounding collect somewhere. It didn't surprise me because we did commemorate the feast in the APCK ... perhaps from the Anglican Missal? Thanks for the info.

Even granting that there should be harmony between church and state, that doesn't really tell us under what model this cooperation will work. Are there many alternatives, or only a few, or only one? Does it belong to the ecclesiastical authority to designate the political leader? Some of the late medieval popes thought so. Not so much today: it is my impression that under coarse and slanted readings of Dignitatis Humanae the Vatican supported revolutionizing the constitutions of several Catholic countries so that Catholicism was no longer the official religion of the state: does the Catholic Church now officially teach that there should never be a state religion? Not necessarily - it is well known that state departments in western entities (including the Vatican) are usually several steps leftwards of official positions, and feel quite happy pushing positions that have never received official approval. But even if that were true, it would only be a negative indicator, it would not tell us what model(s) of cooperation actually make sense for church and state.

Tony the feast originated in 1925 (Pope Pius XI), I was suggesting that because October is a month Dedicated to the Rosary that placing it there made more sense than in november which for Catholics is the month where we remember the faithful departed.

Does it belong to the ecclesiastical authority to designate the political leader?

It'd better not. :-)

Even looking at history, one can see that where church and state have worked in harmony this has either been a coincidence of sorts--e.g., the people in charge in the states *did in fact* want to follow a particular religion in their decision--or has required certain "tugs" backward and forward. The Catholic Church's "tugs" would be things like interdicts. The state's "tugs" would be things like the use of force to expropriate church lands or privileges. What happened eventually is that people stopped caring about interdicts and papal proclamations, so these were no longer effective worldly instruments. Unlike in the case of King John or Frederick the Great, the pope's declaring some king no longer to be king and absolving Catholics of their loyalty to him, or putting the country under interdict, could not bring a credible threat of revolt and deposition or of successful war from "approved" invaders, so the kings could thumb their noses at it. When a pope tried something similar against Queen Elizabeth in the late 1500's, he was behind the times; it only caused Elizabeth to have an excuse to persecute Catholics within her country more fiercely. It certainly didn't depose her.

This meant that _either_ the state would be directly in charge of religion, as in modern countries like China or Turkey, or that the state would willingly exercise restraint, as in modern America. The latter is obviously a lot preferable for everyone involved, of course, but problems still arise, especially when secularism gets aggressive and the public schools start looking and acting more like a modern Communist country from which God is banned than like the land of the free.

This meant that _either_ the state would be directly in charge of religion, as in modern countries like China or Turkey, or that the state would willingly exercise restraint, as in modern America. The latter is obviously a lot preferable for everyone involved, of course, but problems still arise, especially when secularism gets aggressive

Are there no other options? My sense is that there are, but we democratic pluralists have a lot of trouble articulating them.

If a state embraces formally, as an official part of the constitution, a particular religion, but also embrace the principle that the state is not in charge of the religion (more, the state has no official oversight of religious standards) and that the religion is not in charge of the state, is this possible as a long term arrangement? It seems to lend itself to problems: when the religious leaders get into a disagreement about a fundamental matter, how does the state "cooperate" with one and not the other without choosing sides, and thus enforcing one over the other? In practice, the state cannot make concrete its embracing one particular religion without having a mechanism for defining who is in charge of interpreting that religion, to which the state will adhere. The monarchs of Britain have shown us this: if the defining authority is not located in the leadership of the religion, it MUST be located in the state. And then it becomes not merely a state-adhered religion, but a state-controlled religion.

Modern America represents one alternative, the state "exercising restraint" as Lydia puts it. But the evidence is perilous: when the state eschews all loyalty to any particular religion, it seems to eschew loyalty to religion itself. As a result, the state begins to impose a-religion as the state's faith sentiment, a non-evidence-based belief in a world-view that ignores religion as an irrelevancy.

So, I ask: is it possible for a state to BOTH exercise restraint (n terms of imposed religious particularities) while also professing loyalty to a religion? Or, is it possible for a state to exercise restraint in a principled way so as to not begin to promote a-religion? I don't think the latter is possible, because the lack of paying notice to the God who deserves notice for all good is itself a kind of anti-religious lack: it constitutes an actual defect, rather than a mere negation of adherence to a religion.

is it possible for a state to BOTH exercise restraint (n terms of imposed religious particularities) while also professing loyalty to a religion?

I think it might be possible for the state to refuse to impose religious particularities across a wide range of religions while still giving some degree of preference to religions that fall into that "family." Religions that didn't fall into the "family" (which might indeed be defined in a rather ad hoc way) would be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. Whether they needed to be noticeably disfavored in law would probably depend on the extent to which they posed other threats to the lives and well-being of other citizens or to the state itself.

My guess is that this is broadly the situation the founders envisaged. They had no problem with what the ACLU would consider "impositions," where these "impositions" were such soft things as the declaration of national holidays (and atheists just have to deal with the fact that they don't get their mail on those holidays), Congressional prayers, and the expectation that chaplaincy in the military would be restricted to the "family." I find it difficult to imagine that Americans even at the time of World War I would have been able to wrap their minds around Muslim, much less Wiccan, military "chaplains."

Part of what kept such a situation so flexible for so long was that it really was rather broad. Modern atheists wouldn't think so, but a state that gave equal privileges even to Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and Quakers (who are non-Trinitarian, to the best of my knowledge) was, in 1789, a pretty rad idea and an idea that gave the country a lot of room to grow. I don't think there was any sense that the state was imposing religious particularity until the latter half of the 20th century when secularists and others started getting all hot and bothered about the "soft" preferences given in civic religion to the "family" of religions envisaged from the founding onward as a part of the country.

The fact that a whole family of religions was envisaged as "within the pale" also meant that there was no good place for corruption and wrongful control to start to take root--e.g., why would the government try hard to get the power to appoint specifically Catholic bishops when Catholics were treated no differently than many other forms of Christianity and even non-trinitarian monotheism?

What I don't think is practically possible is a real, serious state religion of a highly specific type--e.g. Calvinist Presbyterianism, Roman Catholicism--which does not end up with undesirable control either by the state on that religion, by that religion on the state, or by the state on those who don't adhere to that highly specific religion.

Religions that didn't fall into the "family" (which might indeed be defined in a rather ad hoc way) would be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. Whether they needed to be noticeably disfavored in law would probably depend on the extent to which they posed other threats to the lives and well-being of other citizens or to the state itself.

Unless I misunderstand the history, it is precisely this that led directly to our current problems. The position that we would deal with others "not in the family" on an ad-hoc basis means that we don't deal with them in a principled manner, and the net result is (according to those disfavored) civil servants making decisions to promote (or at least protect) the favored family of religions in public practices merely because they are on the favored list (if you want stick-in-the-mud tradition), or the personal preference of those officials (if you move away from those traditions), not because of principle. But in a country that professes the rule of law instead of rule of personality or rule of cult, this is a violation of the American way of doing things.

The problem with taking note of, and acting on, the extent to which they posed other threats to the lives and well-being of other citizens or to the state itself is that the state's authorities, whether administrative or legislative, can propose threats that are quite long-range, and thus depend on the application of political prudence in even ascertaining the threat much less the gravity, and thus are inherently subject to political argument relying on probabilities instead of certainties. It is readily possible to project truly grave damage to the American constitutional order from muslim immigration moving toward sharia law, but it is never more than a probable argument as to just how near, definite, and grave the damage would be: does that constitute a politically valid basis to not favor Islam and instead institute soft (or hard) unfavorable conditions on it? If the test required is under a strict standard, it is virtually impossible to meet for ANY long term threat, no matter how reasonable it appears or how damaging it could be.

The fact that a whole family of religions was envisaged as "within the pale" also meant that there was no good place for corruption and wrongful control to start to take root

This enshrines religious pluralism as an essential concomitant of the political order. While such pluralism was a given for America (i.e. given her history), the evidence for its working out well is not all that great. We would be hard pressed to prove that such pluralism can be operated in such a way as to NOT lead to religious indifferentism (which we know then leads to a-religion established in law).

One thing I have never understood is why and how the states dis-established religion during the 1800's. One reason for the federal constitution's hands-off about religion is that most of the individual colonies already had established religion, and they weren't all compatible with each other. What if the pluralism we ought to accept is the multi-state pluralism allowed inside the federal system that envisages many differing state religions? But most of our states abandoned state established religions even before the 14th amendment, and long before the vast over-reach of applying the 14th amendment to limit states' authority via the incorporation theory.

Given the kinds of things we are saying over on Jeff's post on Tradition and Community, the obvious tendency for pluralism to lend itself to atomization and loss of custom, culture, and tradition is not trivial. I feel, without having a full account just yet, that a long-term viable community needs to be able to promote (or at least protect) its culture in the political order as well as through other means - and this applies to each faith-community separately. Even if this means that different states in the federal order have different faiths protected and promoted.

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