Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The Most Political of Church Feasts

As we approach the end of the liturgical year, many churches will observe the solemnity of Christ the King.

Christ the King is, at this point in history, a reasonably ecumenical event. We are assured by our new Presbyterian neighbor that even his congregation -- so poorly catechized in matters of worship that he is required to teach them what the Epiphany is! -- recognizes it.

However, it was not ever thus.  Unlike those many ancient festivals which are the shared inheritance of the whole Church, or at least its Western portion, Christ the King is distinctively modern, and rooted in the modern experience not merely of Catholicism but of Roman Catholicism.  Those of us among the separated brethren who plan to preach upon it may do well to reflect upon the similarities and differences which condition our own communities of faith, and especially upon how our churches think of their relationship to the civil realm or, bluntly put, to politics.

In 1925, troubled by the rise of secularism and anticlericalism, Pope Pius XI issued his encyclical Quas primas, which established the feast of Christ the King.  These movements are closely connected to the liberalism inspired by the Enlightenment, as well as the nationalism which in its most destructive form gave rise to Fascism in the 20th century.

So, for example, we find that in France, Napoleon's 1801 Concordat made the Church a servant of the State, and the 1901 "Law of Associations" suppressed religious orders and confiscated their property.  The popes had opposed Italian unification, and after it was accomplished found their power quickly reduced; they lost their land holdings, civil marriage was approved, and university theological faculties were suppressed.  Parallel developments took in Germany, Spain, Mexico and Venezuela.  And these were -- excepting perhaps Germany -- "Catholic countries," in which Rome was accustomed to exercising vast influence.

To such developments, Pius responded with Quas primas.  Drafted (it seems) by a French Thomist named Edouard Hugon, this document did more than establish a feast.  It asserted the absolute supremacy of Jesus not merely in spiritual matters, but in political ones:
It has long been a common custom to give to Christ the metaphorical title of "King," because of the high degree of perfection whereby he excels all creatures. So he is said to reign "in the hearts of men" .... But if we ponder this matter more deeply, we cannot but see that the title and the power of King belongs to Christ as man in the strict and proper sense too. For it is only as man that he may be said to have received from the Father "power and glory and a kingdom," since the Word of God, as consubstantial with the Father, has all things in common with him, and therefore has necessarily supreme and absolute dominion over all things created.
This meant that no civil government had the right to interfere with the Lord's earthly community, by which Pius specifically means the Roman church.  In other words, parliaments and presidents and so forth have no right to suppress the Jesuits, or to take away ecclesiastical property.

The point was not, however, that Church and State should rightly be separated, in the American fashion.  On the contrary, Pius retained for the Church a role in civil affairs, calling it "a grave error" to say otherwise.  And then he made a curious move, saying that virtue of the absolute empire over all creatures committed to him by the Father, all things are in [Christ's] power. Nevertheless, during his life on earth he refrained from the exercise of such authority, and although he himself disdained to possess or to care for earthly goods, he did not, nor does he today, interfere with those who possess them. 
In other words, Jesus own your stuff, but chooses not to take it away -- meaning that you retain an effective right to own property, no matter what the Communists say.  This raises a red flag (as it were) for some readers, signaling a preference for one sort of modern statism over another.  And indeed, Quas primas was issued during the early years of Mussolini's reign (which had begun in 1922), when hostility to the Church was a vigorous part of the Fascist program.  By 1929, Il Duce chose to be re-baptized, and enlisted the Catholic faithful as a phalanx in his battle against Communism.

There is another red flag, although we aren't sure what to make of it.  Pius reminds us that Christ exercises a "threefold power which is essential to lordship."  He identifies this as Law-giver, Priest and King, with considerable attention to the first part.

This framing is ... unusual.  We are accustomed to the threefold office of Prophet, Priest and King, first laid out in the patristic era but made much of by Calvin and his successors, including the Lutheran Scholastics.  Now, it is not too very much of a jump to argue that the Biblical prophet was, kinda sorta, a law-giver.  Moses certainly was.  But for the most part, the roles are separate.  Prophets critique unjust rulers, but they do not generally rule.

This reframing is especially problematic for Lutherans, whose confession of faith specifically denies that Christ is a law-giver, and that to claim otherwise diminishes his work as a sacrificial propitiator of the divine law. (Apology 4:15-16, 392).  It is possible to argue that Melanchthon is denying that Christ has given a new moral law, while Pius is asserting that Christ does give a new civil law, and so the two claims refer to different categories and can be thus reconciled.  Such an argument is naturally very technical and, in our opinion, a little dubious.

None of this will keep us from observing Christ the King, nor should it keep anybody else.  But while celebrating, it may be fruitful to recall that the very existence of this most modern feast represents a strong position in several modern controversies -- and not necessarily the position to which preachers are most congenial.  To call Christ "King," in this context, is to assert his primacy not merely in personal morality, but in civil affairs; it is to resist the past three centuries of Enlightenment-driven liberalism, and claim an expansive role for the Church in the political realm.  it is to claim that the Church may judge kings, but not vice-versa.

We're okay with this ... but only if it's our Church.  Those other guys teach some weird stuff that we don't want enshrined in our laws, no-sir, no-how. And therein lies the problem, dunnit?


Anonymous said...

very glad you're posting regularly again...
Dan Pharr

Father Anonymous said...

Aww, thanks. For a while there, I was just too busy - new parish, new state, the kid in Scouts, all that sort of thing. And of course, I've never really been sure anybody reads this stuff!