The doctrinal principle of the “social kingship” of Christ means that the construction of human society is unable to attain its own proper and natural ends without being ordered to Jesus Christ, Creator and Savior. Insofar as Creator, He has constituted human society, founding it on matrimony and the family, mutual love and authority. Moreover, ever as Creator, the Lord Jesus re-created the world a second time after sin, and in the end will recapitulate in Himself all things, those of heaven and those of earth. Jesus Christ has an absolute lordship over history and the world because He is the Alpha and the Omega. Moreover, as Joseph Ratzinger wrote: “A God who has no power is a contradiction in terms”. In Memoria e Identità, John Paul II wrote that Christ has a “royal mission. Subject to Him are all things while awaiting to submit Himself and all creatures to the Father so God may become everything in all.
An ever valid principle
The doctrine of the social kingship of Christ was set forth and taught by Pious XI in the Encyclical Letter Quas Primas of 1925, but his predecessors had already expressed the substance thereof; for example Leo XIII in the Encyclical Letter Immortale Dei. This doctrine, however, belongs to the tradition of the Church, and as such is valid today and will be so forever. Unfortunately, often erected is a wall between the social doctrine of the Church before and after Vatican Council II. Therefore, it could be thought that this doctrine, expressed as it was during that earlier period, is no longer valid. But that’s not how things stand at all.
The Constitution Gaudium et Spes of Vatican Council II affirms that “without the Creator the creature would disappear” (n.36). In the Constitution Lumen Gentium we read that the laity must “order temporal things according to God”. The Decree Apostolicam Actuositatem teaches that it pertains to the laity “to infuse a Christian spirit into the mentality, customs, laws, and structures of the community in which one lives (n. 13). These are crystal clear references to the kingship of Christ without any doubt whatsoever.
Especially dedicated to this theme in the Catechism of the Catholic Church is paragraph 2015, which reiterates “the kingship of Christ over all creation and in particular over human societies”.
John Paul II voiced this doctrine from the very outset of his pontificate in the homily he delivered at his first Mass as Supreme Pontiff: “Do not be afraid. Open wide the doors for Christ. To his saving power open the boundaries of States, economic and political systems, the vast fields of culture, civilization and development. Do not be afraid. Christ knows “what is in man”. He alone knows it!” Worthy of note here is how the Holy Father calls on people to open to Christ not only their hearts, but also economic and political systems, whose construction is not alien to Christ.
On more than one occasion Benedict XVI reiterated the concept of the kingship of Christ: “As the light coming from God becomes dimmer humankind is seized by the lack of orientation, whose destructive effects are becoming more and more manifest” (10 March 2009). He said much the same in most concise terms on 19 January 2012: “There is no realm of earthly matters that may be taken away from the Creator and His dominion”
In Evangelii gaudium Pope Francis wrote: “It is not the same thing to have known Jesus as not to have known him, not the same thing to walk with him as to walk blindly, not the same thing to hear his word as not to know it, and not the same thing to contemplate him, to worship him, to find our peace in him, as not to. It is not the same thing to try to build the world with his Gospel as to try to do so by our own lights”. (n. 266).
The Social Doctrine of the Church is based on this principle
Not to be forgotten is the fact that the Social Doctrine of the Church is based on this principle. In fact, why did the social doctrine of the Church see the light of day in its modern form? Benedict XVI said that the need for new evangelization had to be dated back to the 19th century, to the period when States wanted to eliminate God from the public sphere. Yes, the social doctrine of the Church began then, especially with Leo XIII, in order to place God anew at the center of the construction of society and politics as well. In fact, in Rerum novarum he wrote that the social issue is “a question for which a solution cannot be found without recourse to religion and to the Church” (n. 18). Far from being outdated, this conviction holds true today as well, and this to the degree that 100 years later John Paul II broached the point again in Centesimus annus and confirmed this teaching: “Now, as then, we need to repeat that there can be no genuine solution of the “social question” apart from the Gospel” (n. 5). Only reference to Christ saves society and makes it possible to identify and pursue what is the true common good, which is nothing less that the doctrine of the social kingship of Christ.
This is of such importance for the social doctrine of the Church that if we were to eliminate the doctrine of the social kingship of Christ, this social doctrine would turn into a sort of social ethics, a compendium of good intentions, a vademecum of good practices. The Supreme Pontiffs, however, have never understood the social doctrine of the Church in this sense. John Paul II affirmed that the “Church’s social teaching is itself a valid instrument of evangelization. As such, it proclaims God and his mystery of salvation in Christ to every human being, and for that very reason reveals man to himself. In this light, and only in this light, does it concern itself with everything else” (Centesimus annus, n. 55).
The social kingship of Christ is the expression of the Christian claim to announce salvation in Christ. Christ is not just useful in the sense of the Church’s doctrine being a sweetener for the evils of society or a lubricant for the incrustations of forms of inequity or injustice, He is indispensible. Benedict XVI says this quite clearly in Caritas in veritate: “Adhering to the values of Christianity is not merely useful but essential for building a good society and for true integral human development” (n. 4). How could God only be useful and not indispensible? And how could He be indispensible without expressing a kingship over temporal things? This is why the declaration Dignitatis humanae of Vatican Council II affirms that “the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ exists” (n. 1).
The social kingship of Christ in democracies?
However, how do we reconcile the principle of the social kingship of Christ with the modern democracies of pluralism and freedom of expression in which all visions of life and all religions have equal pride of place? Doesn’t the social kingship of Christ go hand in hand with the system of a confessional state where the true religion is protected, while other religions are merely tolerated? Doesn’t it seem that by now the Church has perhaps accepted modern democracy, and in so doing definitively abandoned all this?
The first thing to clarify is that the Church has never canonized democracy, and all the less so modern democracy. In his book Memoria e identità John Paul II penned these words: “In principle, Catholic social ethics supports the democratic solution because it responds all the better to the rational and social nature of man. Nonetheless, we are far removed – it is good to specify this – from canonizing this system”. The Encyclical Letter Centesimus annus places conditions upon democracy such as to render manifest the major shortcomings of its modern forms. The Magisterium rejects above all the linkage between democracy and relativism, and actually links democracy with the need for truth. Therefore, democratic systems render all the more evident “the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ” rather than deleting it altogether.
For a long time this duty was positively expressed in the form of the “confessional State”, and yet also during this phase of history when the confessional state is no longer considered valid as such, the principle of the kingship of Christ over temporal affairs remains evergreen. It can be said that there is an ever valid and ever present principle: the kingship of Christ. There are historical expressions of this principle which can also change with the passing of time; for example, the confessional State as we have known it thus far. What the future holds in store for us depends on God’s Providence and the commitment of believers.
The Kingship of Christ and the principle of the common good
The principle of the social kingship of Christ is of fundamental importance for clarifying the end, purpose and aim of the Church’s social doctrine and Christian commitment in the world: the common good. Nowadays this is an expression understood in a myriad of ways, which are often ambiguous. It is often understood as nothing more than material wellbeing, or as the proper functioning of public institutions to the benefit of all according to justice. Other times it is understood in terms of collective interest: for example, the common good would be assured when everyone is fine and has a job, an automobile, guaranteed health care, etc. Catholics as well often happen to flatten out the concept of the common good to nothing more than a horizontal level.
The common good, however, is, yes, a principle for the material ordering of society, but all the more so for its moral and religious ordering. The common good undoubtedly stands in front of us as an end to be reached and not something to be invented, but it also stands behind us as an order we have inherited and are to respect, as the order willed by God. There can be no common good without respect for the natural order of creation, and there can be no common good without considering that man is made for God. In Pacem in terris Pope John XXIII said: “The measures that are taken to implement the common good must not jeopardize man’s eternal salvation; indeed, they must even help him to obtain it” (n. 57). Part and parcel of the common good, therefore, are the order received from God the Creator, as well as the eternal end of man and the salvation of souls. The common good is therefore a moral and religious concept. God is the principle common good and knowing the Gospel is the first of all human rights.
For example, when people say the recognition of same sex unions can contribute to the common good insofar as said unions enhance both mutual and caring acceptance of one another by the two partners and an affective relationship, left outside of the picture are the moral and religious aspects of the common good. A law contrary to the natural moral law willed by God the Creator just cannot contribute to the common good. Therefore, the kingship of Christ is an integral part of the Catholic concept of the common good.
There is no such thing as neutrality with respect to God. By virtue of both reason and faith, a believer knows that humanity is not able to construct the city of man with its own forces. The secularization that excludes God from the public sphere generates malaise. As Benedict XVI said in Aparecida in 2007: “Where God is absent—God with the human face of Jesus Christ—these values fail to show themselves with their full force, nor does a consensus arise concerning them. I do not mean that non-believers cannot live a lofty and exemplary morality; I am only saying that a society in which God is absent will not find the necessary consensus on moral values or the strength to live according to the model of these values, even when they are in conflict with private interests”. The kingship of Christ saves the world from itself, and in so doing brings it into being.
For more on this topic consult
S. Fontana(edited by), Joseph Ratzinger-Benedict XVI, The place of God in the world. Power, politics, law Cantagalli, Siena 2013.
Id., From the Syllabus to Dignitatis humanae. Rottura? Continuità? Riforma?, “Bulletin of the Social Doctrine of the Church” VIII (2012) 2, pgs. 69-73.
Id., Nuova evangelizzazione e Dottrina sociale della Chiesa: una messa a punto, “Bulletin of the Social Doctrine of the Church” IX (2013) 2, pgs. 59-63.