The year is 1925. World War I is over, and the United States is enjoying an unprecedented economic boom, but Europe is still devastated from the war (a war that will continue to be called in Europe, “The Great War”). In Italy, Benito Mussolini has seized power as dictator, and Adolf Hitler has just been released from prison and has published his autobiography. The greatest cultural storm to hit the world in modern times – the Second World War and all the changes it will unleash – is brewing. It is in this context that the great Pope Pius XI established today’s feast, the Feast of Christ the King. In doing so, he wrote:
“The rebellion of individuals and states against the authority of Christ has produced deplorable consequences … : the seeds of discord sown far and wide; bitter enmities and rivalries between nations, insatiable greed, a blind and immoderate selfishness, making men seek nothing but their own comfort and advantage; no peace in the home, because men have forgotten or neglect their duty; the unity and stability of the family undermined; society in a word, shaken to its foundations and on the way to ruin” (Quas Primas 24).
At the beginning of the XX Century, the Holy Father is observing the result of a societal earthquake that has shaken everything that was known about the place of faith in public life. Thanks to the Protestant reformation of the XVII Century and the project of the Enlightenment of the XVIII, faith has been relegated to the level of the individual. But in the older, Catholic view, faith is not merely a matter for the individual. It is a matter for the communal, for the Church, and even for the State. This is so much a part of the cultural air that we breathe that it is nearly impossible for us to imagine how it might have been otherwise. The State, we think, ought to be neutral; the State, we think, ought to promote diversity; the State, we think, has nothing to do with faith. Even more severely, we now have a major political party in our country that refuses even to speak of the freedom of religion, instead speaking only of a “freedom of worship,” a reduction of the right to free exercise of religion that limits that right to what we do on Sundays and would remove any vestiges of protection from the right of religious believers to live their faith outside of the walls of their church. “Freedom of worship” instead of “freedom of religion” means that government can force Catholic institutions to pay for immoral medical treatments (or, rather, treatments like contraception that are really not medical treatments at all but merely abuses of the human body), because believers are still free to worship God in the way they please on Sunday morning.
And we can certainly lament this sort of attitude, but my brothers and sisters, we cannot blame it merely on secularist cultural warriors, but we ourselves must take our share of the blame. We must take the blame for all of the times that we have been silent. We must take the blame for thinking that our faith is merely a private matter and not sharing it with those around us. We must take the blame for accepting a myopic vision of faith, for accepting that believing in God only affects what we do for an hour on Sunday morning and nothing more.
Pius XI continues, “But if the faithful were generally to understand that it behooves them ever to fight courageously under the banner of Christ their King, then, fired with apostolic zeal, they would strive to win over to their Lord those hearts that are bitter and estranged from him, and would valiantly defend his rights” (Quas Primas 24). This, my brothers and sisters in Christ, is why today we celebrate Christ the King.
Too often, celebrating the feast of Christ as King is reduced to making Christ the King of our hearts, to putting Him first in our lives, increasing the honor we give to Him in our devotions. But that is most emphatically not what this feast is about. It is about making Christ the King of our society. It is about the honor and respect due to Christ not only by individual Christians, but by all of civil society.
In today’s feast we also recognize a very important fact: all civil authority comes from Christ, because He is the true King of the Universe, Who has delegated power to earthly rulers to watch over the world. This is why our Blessed Lord says to Pilate, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above” (John 19:11).
The fact that our earthly rulers exercise a power given to them by God has two clear implications: The first is that human authority is to be obeyed and respected. This of course does not mean that we do not hold our leaders accountable, that we ought not push them to do what is just and right. Quite to the contrary, the Church teaches that Catholics have the duty to be engaged in civil life and to advocate for what is good and right. But it does mean that their authority is to be respected and, unless it contradict the teachings of the Church and the natural law, it is to be obeyed.
The second implication of the divine origin of civil power is a challenge to those who hold that power: they must recognize the source of their authority in order to govern well. In this regard Pius XI wrote, “If 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” (Quas Primas 18). (In this regard, I found it rather disturbing that in his acceptance speech in the early hours of last Wednesday morning, the president-elect did not once mention Almighty God. I will pray, and I trust you will as well, that this was merely a careless oversight that will not characterize his presidency.) Anyone who holds civil authority and does not recognize that authority as coming from God is bound to end as a tyrant. The XX Century offers the tragic example of men who denied Christ, who saw their power coming only from the will of the people, and used it to terrible ends: Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot. The faith of your politicians really does matter because faith is not merely a private affair. When God is not at the center of society, society crumbles, and God will not be at the center of society if those who lead society (both politicians and others) do not acknowledge the rule of Almighty God.
Unfortunately, the world is riddled with examples of what happens when Christ does not rule, when hatred and selfishness are allowed to hold sway under the command either of dictators or of democratically elected governments. But what would it look like if Christ ruled? What would it look like if society acknowledged Him as King?
Christ being at the head of our society would require a total inversion of our cultural values. We live in a culture that, as Pius XI noted, values the individual above all else, prizing hatred and rivalry over harmony and peace, greed and selfishness over generosity and service, the choices of men and women to live lifestyles contrary to nature over the rights of children to be raised in a family based on the natural reality of marriage, a society, as the Holy Father noted, on its way to ruin.
In contrast to these societal values, we ought to promote an economics that values the dignity of each and every human person over the efficiency of the marketplace, the fulfillment of the basic human needs of the poor over the economic gain of the wealthy, a society that values those who are elderly, the disabled, those with mental illness, those our culture finds not very useful or economically productive. For the past few decades, people in our country have talked about the “culture wars,” a campaign waged to take back the values of our country from those opposed to the traditional, Christian morals that have always guided her. It’s easy to fool ourselves into thinking, in our traditional enclave of Indiana, and having just elected numerous public officials who claim to be pro-life, that we are making progress in this “culture war.” We are not. We have lost it. Badly. We can see it all around us – it is time to stop deceiving ourselves.
This so-called “culture war” has been lost, and lost badly, because what the Church is proposing doesn’t make sense. We propose that that every unborn child has the right to be born, but that teaching doesn’t make sense because our culture does not value the lives of those who are not “economically productive.” We propose that married couples with a legitimate reason to delay childbirth ought to use natural family planning rather than artificial contraception, but that teaching doesn’t make sense in a society that values instant gratification over a life of sacrifice and self-denial, that promotes the selfishness of the human person and divides us from each other. We propose that marriage is a life-long, loving, fruitful union between one man and one woman, but that teaching does not make sense in a society that values the human body primarily as an instrument for physical gratification, in which people look upon each other and images of each other with lust rather than with love.
Pope Pius XI is right: We must begin “to fight courageously under the banner of Christ the King,” but this fight is not a political battle. It is not a campaign on behalf of a politician (many of whom have bitterly failed those whom they have seduced with their promises of being “pro-life”), or a campaign promoting a piece of legislation, or a campaign to overturn a judicial decision, no matter how disastrous and unjust that judicial decision. It is a campaign to make Christ the King of our society by means of lowliness and humility, by becoming like little children. We will never succeed in changing the laws of our country if we do not first change the hearts of our country.
This “culture war” that Catholics and other Christians have so eagerly engaged in and so bitterly lost must be transcended by restoring the inherent dignity of all human persons, no matter their age, economic productivity, immigration status, or seeming ability to contribute to human society. When we become a Church – both collectively and in each and every single one of our members – that is known for truly valuing all persons, that is when our witness on behalf of the Gospel and its hard truths will become credible, that is when we will be able to win hearts and minds, that is when Christ will truly reign in our society.
Each of us has a calling from God, a way in which He wants us to work to bring about His reign. We should each of us think seriously: Who are the people I have neglected, whose dignity I have not acknowledged, in whom I have failed to see Christ? How can I show to the world that each and every person God created is made in His image and likeness and infinitely worthy of respect? How can I make my witness more credible?
My brothers and sisters in Christ, in this sermon today I have challenged you. Hopefully I have made you feel rather uncomfortable – that at least was the goal. But I also want to offer you hope. Christ’s reign is a challenge for us to accept, but it is also a reality to acknowledge. Christ is King, whether the world acknowledges Him or not. His dominion does not depend on weak and sinful men and women. He reigns among us from the Cross, from the tabernacle. He reigns from the unceasing public confession of faith of the Church, unchanged over 2,000 years. And most importantly of all, He reigns from His throne in Heaven. God allows imperfection in this world in order to point us to the next, to that Heavenly kingdom where, in the words of the Creed, His “kingdom shall have no end.” As our Lord says in the Gospel, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). We should desire with all of our hearts for that day when we will enter His kingdom.
In the meantime, we should work ceaselessly to bring about His reign also on earth by valuing each and every human life – born and unborn, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, immigrant or native-born citizen, young or old, sick or healthy – as made in God’s image and likeness and worthy of infinite dignity. Only then will Christ’s reign over our country and our world be acknowledged, only then will our witness to His reign be believed.
The Rev Royce V Gregerson
Parish Church of St Charles Borromeo, Ft Wayne
Solemnity of Christ, King of the Universe, AD MMXVI