Sunday Night Journal — November 20, 2011
Today is the feast of Christ the King. The archdiocese of Mobile has a traditional celebration of this occasion which still involves an actual public procession. I was going to say that that’s probably a rare thing in this country in these days, but I decided to look around on the web first, and it seems that there are at least some others. My wife is the diocesan archivist, and she tells me that photos in the archive and the testimony of older Catholics in the area indicate that it was once a bigger deal than it is now, and included a big parade in which all the Catholic schools took part. Catholics are a minority in this area, but a large one. Even in a time when Protestants in general regarded Catholics with much more hostility than most do now, the local church was not ashamed to take over the downtown streets for a public celebration of its faith.
“King of King, Lord of Lords.” Every Christian believes that. The Catholic Church and, I suppose, the Orthodox in a somewhat different manner, make it more concrete than most Protestants, both theologically and in practice, still rejecting “separation of church and state” in the sense that secular fundamentalists use that phrase. In the fundamentalist sense, no opinion rooted in religious conviction has any legitimate voice in government. As a rule the fundamentalists are not very consistent in that view—they are mostly on the political left, and they are indignant when Christians plead the sacredness of human life as an argument against abortion, but untroubled when we plead the equality of all in God’s eyes as an argument against racism.
The fundamentalists notwithstanding, there is a vast territory between their view that religious views should be absolutely excluded from political debate (not to mention from the actual administration of government) and the theocracy which they accuse us of wanting to impose. When I hear the screech of “theocracy!” from a left-winger trying to shut down religious opinion, I’m never sure whether it’s consciously dishonest or merely irrational.
And yet—there are those on my side in that debate who worry even me a little. When some traditionalist Catholics speak of the “the social reign of Christ the King” I get the feeling that what they really want is “the social reign of me and my friends” They seem to be pretty sure about how the world should be run, and that they would sort things out in a jiffy if they had the power. Of course they pay some deference, at least, to the belief that in a fallen world political and social arrangements will never be perfect, but I sometimes get the feeling that they believe they could do a whole lot better than anyone ever has before, and that the process would be a fairly straightforward implementation of the laws they know to be right. They’re disdainful of secular republics—not altogether without reason, but yet not altogether as appreciative as I think they should be of the real gains in human rights and related matters that have been made in these republics. I have heard that case made quite succinctly: secular governments allow people to do things that endanger their souls; a Christian government would establish laws that prevented these things and thus save souls; therefore the establishment of a Christian government is a moral obligation.
Well, in some sense it is, but not necessarily in the theocratic or near-theocratic sense. It’s the over-confident quality of the prescription that bothers me. It sounds too much like other attempts, beginning with the French Revolution, to enforce an abstract ideal of government on the human race. Or like certain strains of Islam, whose leaders believe that they know God’s will in more or less perfect detail, and that all that remains is to implement it. Of course I don’t think this would-be Catholic authoritarianism is as fundamentally wrong as either the atheistic or the Islamic, because it starts with better premises, but I do think it misguided and that it would, if implemented, be bad for the Church. We don’t need a Catholic utopianism.
I often think, when I watch the behavior of American voters, that democracy really is, from the historical perspective, an unnatural phenomenon that may not last very long. Many people seem to want a king, almost naturally—or maybe not even almost; maybe it is natural, not just in the sense that it comes easily but in the sense that it is part of the nature of man. George Washington reportedly had to resist a movement to make him king. The tendency was especially noticeable in the 2008 election, when many Obama voters clearly saw him as a sort of monarch who would, entirely by his own hand, solve most of our problems. And when you look at our relationship to God it makes sense that the desire for a monarch would in fact be built into us There is certainly no reflection there of the modern idea that the power of the government derives from the consent of the governed. There is no question of who is in charge, and the attempt on the part of the creature to claim equality with the Lord, and to prefer his own will to the Lord’s, is the fundamental source of evil.
Unquestionably, and unlike human beings who take the role upon themselves, God does have, intrinsically, the right to act as an absolute monarch. Just as clearly, though, the gospels do not present this as the way he chooses to act. Christ the King is not Christ the Despot. If we look to medieval civilization for a conception of kingship, we see that our relationship to this king is meant to be not that of his serfs, but of his liegemen and vassals: a sworn fealty, given freely.
It’s not an absolute freedom, of course. There are consequences for choosing wrongly, for defiance, and for oath-breaking. But if God is willing to wait on us, we must be willing to wait on our fellow sinners, and there is only so much a government of any sort can or should do to bypass that process. The social kingship of Christ is something that we can only hope to realize very imperfectly in this world; it can’t be a destination at which we expect to arrive before the end of time.
Having said all that, though, I wonder why I bothered. We are more likely to be wiped out by an asteroid strike within the next thirty years than to witness the imposition on the United States of an authoritarian Catholic government that would ban rock-and-roll and allow no television except EWTN. I suppose it’s just that these views get on my nerves. What is actually happening is that the upper class is working to make Christians of all sorts into a despised minority, and to limit the practice of the faith where it conflicts with contemporary dogma on sex, marriage, and reproduction. Here is a good example of the left-wing fear-mongering about “theocracy.” The pattern—and I don’t say it’s a conscious tactic, but the pattern that emerges—is to paint Christians as a danger to the nation. That’s a very old theme. It’s a little surprising that it would be so effective in a country that is so heavily Christian. But the left-wing position now has the prestige and confidence that mainline Protestantism had a hundred years ago. At the same time, because it is smaller in numbers, and because Christianity is still culturally predominant outside the big cities, the universities, and most of the media, it can pose as the brave rebel. Nice position to be in.