Christ The King of Civil Rulers

Source: District of Asia

The supreme causes of the calamities by which we see the human race oppressed and afflicted—not only that this deluge of evils has overwhelmed the earth because many men have excluded Jesus Christ and His most holy law both from their conduct and life and from domestic and public circles, but also that a certain hope of lasting peace will never dawn among people as long as individuals and states deny and renounce the rule of Our Saviour. Pope Pius XI, Quas Primas, AAS XVII (1925) 593-618

How is this doctrine to be applied in practice? Of course, In the concrete, the particular circumstances of time and place can greatly modify and restrict the manner and measure of the homage and obedience that a government can and should manifest to Christ the King But here we are concerned with what per se is required for the fulfilment of this obligation. It is quite evident that, although “men joined in society are no less under the power of Christ than individuals,” as Pope Pius XI expressed it, the parallel between personal and civic duties cannot be followed out in every respect.  A government cannot be baptized, nor is it liable to eternal punishment.  On the other hand, a government through its lawful rulers can express homage, it can adapt its legislation to the moral principles laid down by the Son of God. However, in its supervision and regulation of the conduct of its citizens in relation to the law of Christ, the state must confine itself to matters that affect the common good.

  1. The government has the obligation to express in some public manner its dependence on God and on Jesus Christ. A beautiful example of such an acknowledgment is found in the opening paragraph of the Constitution of Ireland: “In the name of the Most Holy Trinity, from whom is all authority and to whom, as our final end, all actions, both of men and states must be referred, we, the people of Eire, humbly acknowledging all our obligations to our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ, etc.”
  2. Occasionally there should be religious ceremonies at which the rulers will assist in their official capacity. These ceremonies should be in conformity with the belief and worship of the Catholic Church. As Pope Leo XIII expressed it: It is a sin in the state not to have care for religion, as something beyond its scope, or as of no practical benefit; or out of many forms of religion to adopt that one which chimes in with the fancy; for we are bound absolutely to worship God in that way which He has shown to be His will. (Immortale Dei) 
  3. The civil rulers have the obligation to permit the Catholic Church to teach its doctrines to the people, whether baptized or unbaptized. the Church received her commission to preach directly from Christ Himself, she has the right to announce her message in non-Christian lands whether the government consents or not. Ho-ever, the usual procedure of missionaries to pagan lands has been to seek governmental confirmation of their mission, when it is prudently possible to follow this procedure.  The state is bound to promote religion. To quote Pope Leo XIII again:  All who rule should hold in honor the holy name of God, and one of their chief duties must be to favor religion, to protect it, to shield it under the credit and sanction of the laws, and neither enact any measure that may compromise organize nor promise its safety. This is the bounden duty of rulers to the people over whom they rule. ... Wherefore, tare must especially be taken to preserve unharmed and unimpeded religion, the practice of which is the link connecting man with his God.
  4. However, the civil rulers have no right to force their subjects to embrace Christianity or to enter the Catholic Church. Pope Leo XIII enunciates the principle "The Catholic Church is wont to take great care that no one shall be forced to believe unwillingly."  The civil rulers should not prevent the private exercise of false religious cults, when no harm is thereby done to the public welfare. But it is fully within their right to restrict and to prevent public functions and activities of false religions which are likely to be detrimental to the spiritual welfare of the Catholic citizens or insulting to the true religion of Christ. Nowadays, it is true, greater evils would often follow such a governmental course of action than would ensue if complete tolerance were granted; but the principle is immutable. It is the same principle that our government employs when it prohibits the preaching of ideologies destructive of our constitution, however sincere may be those who proclaim them.
  5. It is especially in the realm of marriage that the obligation of the civil government to uphold the law of Christ is manifested, more particularly with reference to the granting of divorces. It is certain that by the positive law of Christ the civil authority now possesses no power to grant any couple a divorce with the right to remarry. The rulers of a nation are obliged to recognize this fact, and realize that under no circumstances may they positively grant a citizen the permission to marry again as long as his legitimate spouse is living.  On the other hand, since the bond of marriage can be broken under the Christian dispensation in certain extraordinary circumstances, with the authorization or dispensation of the Church as in the case of the Pauline privilege and matrimonium ratum et non consummatum the civil authorities are bound to recognize these exceptions as lawful, and to abstain from inflicting any penalties on those receiving such concessions. This, too, is a duty of the state toward Christ, since it is through His authority that these exceptions are authorized or granted by the Church. Similarly, the government is bound to recognize the exclusive right of the Catholic Church to establish impediments for the marriages of baptized persons. Although the actual institution of a matrimonial impediment is an act of jurisdiction on the part of the Church, yet the authority to make impediments comes from Christ Himself. For It was He who established the contract of Christian marriage as a sacrament, and by that very fact deputed the Church to exercise authority over the conditions required for the lawful and valid entrance into Christian marriage.

Sometimes the argument is raised that the Popes in recent times, when delivering exhortations to the civil rulers of the world have referred only to obligations of natural law, from which we may conclude that these represent the whole duty of those in civil authority. But the answer is simple. The Popes are well aware that in view of the tragic neglect of the moral law that characterizes the activities of governments today, there would be a great improvement of conditions if civil rulers could be induced to obey even the natural law. It should be noted, too, that when the opportunity presents itself the Popes have not failed to indicate that the law of Christ binds those in posts of civil authority. Thus, Pope Pius XII, in his Encyclical Summi Pontificatus, asserted. "In the recognition of the royal prerogatives of Christ and in the return of individuals and of society to the law of His truth and His love lies the only way to salvation. Again, at the consecration of twelve missionary bishops on October 29, 1939, the Holy Father stated: “Most happy are those states that establish laws inspired by the doctrine of the Gospel, and do not refuse to render public homage to the majesty of Christ, the King.”

'No one can be so optimistic as to believe that the ideal of a Christian state is going to spread throughout the world tomorrow or next year, apart from the extraordinary intervention of Divine Providence. Yet...that should not prevent Catholics from proclaiming unhesitatingly the absolute necessity of a return to Christ on the part of governments as well as of individuals, if there is to be any lasting peace in the world! This was the message of Pope Pius XI, at the beginning of his pontificate: "True peace, the peace of Christ, is impossible unless we are willing and ready to accept the fundamental principles of Christianity, unless we are willing to observe the teachings and laws of Christ, both in public and private life." We must not compromise with the spirit of the times so far as to admit that the state is bound only by the natural law. We must unhesitatingly proclaim that the state cannot attain its destiny, save through Christ the King, even though that destiny is temporal, not eternal happiness.

The words of the Quas Primas should be our unhesitating message to the harassed and unhappy world of today:  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. . . . 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 ; they will make laws and administer them, having in view the common good and also the human dignity of their subjects. The result will he order, peace and tranquility, 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 sec reflected in them the authority of Christ, God and Man.

Extracted from an article under the same title by Rev. Fr. Francis J. Connell, C.SS.R. of The Catholic University of America. (AER, CXIX, 4 [Oct. 1948], 244-253)