The doctrine of Christ the King: the best defence against clericalism

A 1931 portrait of Pope Pius XI (second left) and a group of officials, including Cardinal Pacelli (left) (Getty)

As Vatican II teaches, the laity's vocation is to conform society to Christ

In the Missal first issued in 1969, yesterday was the Feast of the Kingship of Christ. Until that year this feast was held on the last Sunday in October. The transference of the celebration has particular significance: it demonstrates a shift in emphasis, from Christ’s reign in the here-in-now, to his reign in eternity.

When Pope Pius XI instituted the Solemnity of Christ the King in 1925, he wrote that it was established in order to impress upon the faithful the doctrine that “all men, whether collectively or individually, are under the dominion of Christ” and that we must “recognize, both in private and in public life, that Christ is King”. This made clear that the Church must try to win over the social and political order to public Christianity – an impression reinforced by Pius XI’s successor. In his opening encyclical, issued as World War II was breaking out, Pius XII taught:

Can there be anything nobler than to unfurl the “Ensign of the King” before those who have followed and still follow a false standard, and to win back to the victorious banner of the Cross those who have abandoned it? What heart is not inflamed, is not swept forward to help at the sight of so many brothers and sisters who, misled by error, passion, temptation and prejudice, have strayed away from faith in the true God and have lost contact with the joyful and life-giving message of Christ?

But in 1969 a change occurred. The feast was transferred to the end of November: by this, Paul VI explained, “the eschatological importance of this Sunday is made clearer”. Liturgically the reign of Christ on earth was transferred from historical to eschatological time. In two stages the formula of consecration of the Human Race to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, instituted by Leo XIII in 1899, and made an integral part of the feast of Christ the King by Pius XI in 1925, was severely pruned to remove references to the conversion of non-Christians.

This reflected a shift in policy by the Roman Curia away from the struggle to win over the social and political order. Instead, the Curia would be more sympathetic to a confessionally neutral civil order in which the role of Christianity in the legal and political sphere is anonymous and indirect.

Whatever the fate of the feast of Christ the King, the doctrine of Christ’s Social Kingship cannot be so easily suppressed. As far back as 1864, Pius IX solemnly – that is, as theologians as eminent as St John Henry Newman have insisted, infallibly – condemned the false teaching “that the best condition of civil society is one in which no duty is recognized, as attached to the civil power, of restraining by enacted penalties, offenders against the Catholic religion, except so far as public peace may require”.

Vatican II, even as it proclaimed a right to religious liberty “within due limits”, asserted that “it leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ.”

One aspect of this doctrine is often forgotten, but is clearly upheld by Vatican II: the essential function of the laity in establishing the Social Kingship of Christ. It is lay people who must take on the task of conforming temporal realities to the Gospel. As Vatican II puts it: “The effort to infuse a Christian spirit into the mentality, customs, laws, and structures of the community in which one lives, is so much the duty and responsibility of the laity that it can never be performed properly by others.”

The decades since 1969 have shown that when we strive for neutrality, what we get is intolerant secularism. As John Paul II observed, “the rights of God and man stand or fall together.”

When we neglect the social and political implications of the Kingship of Christ – as has often happened in recent decades – the result is clericalisation. The hierarchy, having stripped the laity of this vocation, have been driven to turn them into little clerics in order to give them some purpose.

The clergy too often pontificate about technical questions of temporal policy for which they have no competence or jurisdiction, while refusing to preach the Gospel. It is time for the hierarchy to return to its own task – the neglect of which will not go well for them – and to cease obstructing the laity in theirs.