Monday, November 21, 2011

11-11-20: Solemnity of Christ the King

Solemnity of Christ the King

Ezekeil 34:11-12,15-17 / Psalm 23 / 1 Corinthians 15:20-26,28 / Matthew 25:31-46

The old Protestant hymn went something like this: “If Christ is not King of everything; then he’s not King at all.” The words of the hymn refer to the inner, spiritual horizon of the believer’s life and lay no claim to politics or the like. In 1925 Pope Pius XI instituted the liturgical feast of Christ the King or, more properly, Christ King of the Universe. Europe had just emerged from WWI, arguably the most devastating event in its history till then. The Bolsheviks were cementing their hold on the Russias, transforming them into the Soviet Union. And the tide of fascism was about to sweep on shore in Germany and Italy, right up to the doors of St Peter’s. Pius XI was certainly no Protestant. His idea of Christ, as King, was not limited to the inner world of the believer but had everything to do with the visible world of everyday life: politics, business, and religious liberty.

For centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire the Church, as Christendom, was equated with the Kingdom of Christ whose Vicar, the Pope, ruled in his stead. With the Reformation, the rise of the nation-state, and the scientific advances engendered by the Enlightenment, Christendom disappeared as a political entity and Christianity no longer could claim dominance in the culture of the West. It was not an easy death. We see in the pontificate of Pope Pius IX a desperate attempt to retain what once was. Pius IX’s thirty-plus year reign in the nineteenth century witnessed the dissipation of the Papal Sates, the last vestige of the former Christendom, when the Italian peninsula unified in 1870. Just as Italy was struggling to find its feet as a nation-state, Pius called the First Vatican Council; its most important and stunning teaching being that of papal infallibility. The pope might no longer possess the temporal power he once did, but now is deemed infallible in matters of faith and morals. Pius, who had started his pontificate much more liberally than he would end it, had already in 1864 issued the Syllabus of Errors. Under the axiom that “error has no rights,” Pius condemned the notion of religious liberty - where any and all religion should be given equal footing, and Catholicism seen as only one religion among many. For Pius IX there seems to have been no distinction between the spiritual Kingdom of Heaven and the very visible Christendom he desperately wished to retain.

A century later the Second Vatican Council would seem to either reverse or simply ignore Pius IX’s condemnation of religious liberty and promote the notion that all people have the right to follow their conscience concerning religion and that that right should be politically protected by the state. The Church realized, it seems, that it was no longer the dominant culture of the West; it had become just one of multiple worldviews. Last week that realization was voiced at the annual meeting of American bishops, where the bishops claimed their religious liberty was not being protected by the state regarding a number of social issues: from same-sex marriage to conscience clauses regarding insurance payments for contraception. It is perhaps one of the great ironies of history that the phrase which Pius IX heard with such disdain - religious liberty - is now invoked by his successors in defense of the Church.

The lessons of history are not easily learned. Apart from the ultramontane within the church – and the Traditionalists who have long denounced the teachings of Vatican II – there are few who would see the dissipation of Christendom, and especially the demise of the Papal States, as an especially bad development. No longer weighed down by the vicissitudes of secular government, the pope is freer to act as shepherd, pastor of the universal church. In fact one could argue that the loss of temporal power has enabled the Roman Pontiffs to become heralds of gospel values, challenging the disparate cultures in which the church exists – precisely because they no longer have the political or military means to enforce their point of view.

Of course not everyone will listen, and the obedience which was once got by fear or force must now be embraced by choice. The results may only be gradual and partial, tweaking the import of the words of that old Protestant hymn: Christ’s kingship need not be all or nothing, but the very thing that engenders the evolving nature of history. The recent Vatican document Toward Reforming the International Financial and Monetary Systems in the Context of Global Public Authority, calling for a “world political authority,” may or may not be a step forward in that evolution. For the believer there is no doubt that Christ’s kingship is a spiritual reality; as to its visible manifestation, we need be careful to assume we know what that might or should look like - even the doctrine of papal infallibility cannot claim to fathom that mystery.

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