“The Church of Christ cannot be subject to any external power.”
Image: Vasnetsov’s Last Judgment.
The feast of Christ the King was established by Pope Pius XI in 1925 to commemorate Our Lord’s Kingship, not just over the hearts of his Faithful, but rather over every man, family, state, nation, and society.
In this article we’ll look at what this means – and how Christ has been progressively uncrowned and relieved of his “Social Kingship” since Vatican II. This social kingship is all but forgotten today, and few realize that the meaning, and even the date, of this feast have all been changed, to fit in with a new doctrine of his Kingship and the relationship between Church and state.
Why was the feast established?
When the encyclical Quas Primas was promulgated in 1925, the world still remembered the First World War, and formerly Catholic countries were continuing their decline into secularism. The Mexican revolutionary government was consolidating its control and persecuting the Church. The Weimar Republic was allowing all sorts of immorality and decadence. And only a few years before, the Masonic government in Portugal had been persecuting the three children of Fatima.
Looking around him, Pius XI saw that the world was in the grip of “[a]nti-clericalism, its errors and impious activities”, which manifested itself in the following progression:
- The rejection of Christ’s Kingship itself, “the empire of Christ over all nations”. This leads to…
- The rejection of the liberty of the Church, “the right which the Church has from Christ himself, to teach mankind, to make laws, to govern peoples in all that pertains to their eternal salvation”. This leads to…
- The imposition of religious liberty and indifferentism, namely, the process by which “the religion of Christ came to be likened to false religions and to be placed ignominiously on the same level with them”. This leads to…
- The subjection of the Church to “the power of the state [leaving her] tolerated more or less at the whim of princes and rulers”. This leads to…
- The promotion of naturalism, “a natural religion consisting in some instinctive affection of the heart”. And this leads ultimately to…
- Atheism and atheistic states, which hold that they “could dispense with God, and that their religion should consist in impiety and the neglect of God.”
The pope taught that this panoply of evils facing us today was due to men having “thrust Jesus Christ and his holy law out of their lives,” both in private affairs and in politics. In response, he instituted the feast of Christ the King “to minister to the need of the present day, and at the same time provide an excellent remedy for the plague which now infects society.”
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In what does the Kingship of Christ consist?
Many seem to think that as God is so far above us, that we do not need to be concerned with honouring and protecting his rights. But as Leo XIII said in his encyclical Tametsi: “The world has heard enough of the so-called ‘rights of man.’ Let it hear something of the rights of God.”
Christ is our King both by his divine nature, and by having bought us by the price of his precious blood. By these two “titles,” he has the right to be recognized as King.
He is King of each individual, and therefore of each gathering of individuals, because what applies to each part will also apply to the whole.
So Christ is King also over our families, organizations, and most especially our nations. Nations, which are gatherings of families and individuals, have a duty to recognise his sovereignty, and he has a right to their homage. This – and not his reign over our hearts, which is obvious to all Christians – is the true point of this feast and teaching.
As a “perfect society”, the state is sovereign in its proper sphere – but it is obliged by its own nature not only to operate within the bounds of Christ’s Kingship, but also to recognise this Kingship accordingly. Pius XI teaches that “not only private individuals but also rulers and princes are bound to give public honour and obedience to Christ,” which is manifested most perfectly, of course, in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
As King over the nation, Christ’s “kingly dignity demands that the State should take account of the commandments of God and of Christian principles, both in making laws, and in administering justice, and also in […] education.” The Catholic religion should be established by law; and that the laws of the land should be (at least) “negatively” Christian. By this latter sense, we mean that the laws should be (at least) conformable to right reason and the natural law, and not go against any aspect of divine law. As Fr Edward Cahill wrote:
“A Christian State is one in which the laws and administration as well as the organised activities and general outlook of the citizens are in accordance with Christian principles. These principles, in so far as they are applicable to social and public life, are practically identical with the dictates of the natural law.”
One consequence of Christ’s Social Kingship is, in the words of Pius XI, that, “the Church, founded by Christ as a perfect society, has a natural and inalienable right to perfect freedom and immunity from the power of the state.” She “cannot be subject to any external power” in her exercise of this her mission of teaching, ruling and sanctifying.
Looking through history, we see that St. Thomas Becket was martyred for his defence of the liberty of the Church against the civil power. We see that Pope Pius IX condemned the idea that “the civil authority may interfere in matters relating to religion, morality and spiritual government.” We see that English law recognized the liberty of the Church, making it the first principle in Magna Carta.
It has become trendy, even for Protestants, to talk about “restoring Christendom”. It is very important to understand that the liberty of the Church is at the heart of this – as are debates about the relationship between the Church and state, the true nature of liberty, and the significant problems of “religious liberty.”
But these are not a medieval teachings fitted only for a Catholic confessional state – nor an exercise in twentieth century nostalgia. It is the answer to modern problems facing us today.
His Kingship rejected and forgotten
Although the relevant teachings date to the beginning of the Church, the modern feast was established for a world rebelling against Christ the King. Pius IX taught that the annual and universal observation of this feast would draw attention to and remedy the evils of rebellion against Christ:
“While nations insult the beloved name of our Redeemer by suppressing all mention of it in their conferences and parliaments, we must all the more loudly proclaim his kingly dignity and power, all the more universally affirm his rights.”
Through this feast and encyclical, Pius XI taught that the only hope for lasting peace was that both individuals and states “submit to the rule of our Saviour.”
This teaching has been neglected and forgotten. As Pius XI predicted, the Church has progressively found herself stripped of her immunity, placed on the level as false creeds by claiming religious liberty, and has ultimately arrived where we are now: her mission, life, and liturgy are subjected to the state, and tolerated at the whim of our secular rulers.
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Liturgical changes leading to doctrinal changes
This has been in part caused by the liturgical reforms following Vatican II, which significantly changed the emphasis of the feast.
The original feast was placed at the end of October, soon before All Saints. In so doing, Our Lord is emphasised as reigning in all his saints and the elect. But the reform took the feast from mid-Autumn and placed it on the last Sunday of the year (for centuries, associated with the end of the world), and subtly changed this emphasis. It allows him to be a King, but only at the end of time.
There was always something of an eschatological sense to the feast of Christ the King, but this has become its main feature, including in preaching and in the popular mind.
On its own, this change of date may be inconsequential. But let’s consider how this change in emphasis is also manifested in the readings and propers.
The original epistle (Col. 1.12-20) spoke of Christ ruling now as the “head of the body, the Church,” and “that in all things he may have the first place” – and of how he reconciles all things to God, “whether on the earth or in the heavens.”
The original Gospel (John 18.33-7) saw our Lord, crowned with thorns, affirming his Kingship to Pontius Pilate, and declaring that he was born for this Kingship. In other words, they presented Christ as King, now. By contrast, the new readings refer to our Lord seeking out his sheep in the future, the Resurrection on the last day, and the General Judgment.
The original and the new readings at Matins both deal with the reign of Christ over our hearts. But the original readings, based on Quas Primas, also taught that because of this rule he also has authority also over civil affairs. This is gone from the reformed breviary, leaving our Lord only to reign privately over our hearts.
A real smoking gun, showing the change in emphasis, appears in the verses cut out of the hymns in the Divine Office. These hymns affirm the rights of Christ the King in the social order. The verses that speak most clearly of this social kingship have all been removed – including the following:
2. The wicked mob screams out,
“We don’t want Christ as King,”
While we, with shouts of joy, hail
Thee as the world’s supreme king.
6. May the rulers of the world publicly
Honour and extol thee;
May teachers and judges reverence thee;
May the laws express thine order and the arts reflect thy beauty.
7. May kings find renown in their submission
And dedication to thee.
Bring under thy gentle rule our
Country and our homes.
Given that the last Sunday after Pentecost and its proper texts always had this eschataological significance, we could consider that moving the feast of Christ the King to this date, and “re-packaging” it as being about his reign at the end of the world, are less “changes to the feast of Christ the King”, and more a simple “renaming of the last Sunday after Pentecost”.
In other words, they are less changes, and more an abolition – and with it, a backhanded abolition of his Social Kingship itself.
Lex orandi, Lex credendi
This is why these changes are more significant than they might seem.
It is famously held that the law of prayer determines the law of belief – which in turn determines the law of how we live of lives.
Pius XI explicitly draws our attention to this in the encyclical, and explains why it is so important to establish a liturgical feast in honour of Christ the King:
“[P]eople are instructed in the truths of faith, and brought to appreciate the inner joys of religion far more effectually by the annual celebration of our sacred mysteries than by any official pronouncement of the teaching of the Church. Such pronouncements usually reach only a few and the more learned among the faithful; feasts reach them all; the former speak but once, the latter speak every year — in fact, forever.
“The church’s teaching affects the mind primarily; her feasts affect both mind and heart, and have a salutary effect upon the whole of man’s nature. Man is composed of body and soul, and he needs these external festivities so that the sacred rites, in all their beauty and variety, may stimulate him to drink more deeply of the fountain of God’s teaching, that he may make it a part of himself, and use it with profit for his spiritual life.”
The pope points out many examples from Church history in which truths of the faith have been defended and propounded through liturgical means.
But all this shows the problems that arise from a distorted presentation of the doctrine of Christ’s Kingship in the Novus Ordo liturgy. Is it any wonder that so many have forgotten what his Kingship means, if the liturgical expression of this doctrine has been so vitiated? Is it any wonder that Christ’s Kingship has been reduced to the merely eschatological or interior planes, and that few even realise that it ever represented something different, when this is how it is commemorated liturgically?
As the pope said, many of the faithful are more influenced by the annual liturgical cycle than by intermittent affirmations of doctrine – not that the doctrinal affirmations of Christ’s kingship have been much clearer than that which is presented in the reformed feast.
In light of all this, Pius XI’s description, of the action of the evil spirit with regard to the doctrine of Christ’s Kingship, describe our own time, and represent precisely what we have seen our putative shepherds doing since Vatican II:
“This evil spirit, as you are well aware, Venerable Brethren, has not come into being in one day; it has long lurked beneath the surface. The empire of Christ over all nations was rejected. The right which the Church has from Christ himself, to teach mankind, to make laws, to govern peoples in all that pertains to their eternal salvation, that right was denied.
“Then gradually the religion of Christ came to be likened to false religions and to be placed ignominiously on the same level with them. It was then put under the power of the state and tolerated more or less at the whim of princes and rulers.”
Needless to say, what is true of this feast is also true of the wider Novus Ordo reform with other aspects of Catholic doctrine.
They have uncrowned him
The implications of all these changes are clear: they are calculated to remove Christ from the public sphere, and obscure the idea that he has legitimate claims over civil society.
Many modern traditionalists talk as if the liturgy is the central problem with Vatican II. It is not surprising that Vatican II’s defenders accuse them of being wrapped up with externals and aesthetics (even if this is unfair). However, for men such as Archbishop Lefebvre, the heart of the question was that of doctrine – particularly that of Christ’s Kingship, the relationship between Church and state, the secularisation of society, and religious liberty.
In the encyclical, Pius XI teaches that, at the Last Judgment, “Christ, who has been cast out of public life, despised, neglected and ignored, will most severely avenge these insults.”
We can see that these insults are already being avenged in our own time. When the teaching of Christ’s Kingship over Societies is abandoned, it should not be surprising that the State encroaches into the power vacuum. If those purporting to be our shepherds do not defend the immunity and liberty of the Church, we cannot be surprised to find that the state subjects her to its power, interferes with her life and even suppresses her altogether.
This was, of course, epitomised in the Covid lockdowns, in which the Government presumed to suppress all public worship. This suppression was, in turn, accepted by almost all those purporting to be our shepherds.
But this acquiescence did not come out of thin air. It represented the culmination of a sixty-year betrayal of Christ the King, which emerged most prominently at Vatican II.
Quite simply, Christ is not allowed to reign if his Church is subject to the state; and we cannot call him our King if we try to turn him into a constitutional monarch, or interfere with the extent of his rights over us. As they say in the parable:
“We will not have this man to reign over us.” (Luke 19.14)
Setting the terms by which Christ can be King would make him a mere figurehead, and place the true sovereignty elsewhere – whether in ourselves, or (as increasingly the case today) the secular state itself.
Leo XIII – Libertas
Pius XI – Quas Primas
Aquinas – On Kingship. Despite the title, this is about more than just Kingship: it also deals with the purpose of civil authority in itself. In Opuscula I, from the Aquinas Institute (UK readers) and online at Aquinas.cc
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 Pius XI, Encylical Quas Primas, 1925, n. 24. Available at https://www.papalencyclicals.net/pius11/p11prima.htm. Henceforth QP.
 Ibid. n. 24
 Leo XIII, Encyclica Tametsi, 1900, 13. Available at https://www.papalencyclicals.net/Leo13/l13tamet.htm
 “Further, there would be danger lest the primary and essential cell of society, the family, with its well-being and its growth, should come to be considered from the narrow standpoint of national power, and lest it be forgotten that man and the family are by nature anterior to the State, and that the Creator has given to both of them powers and rights and has assigned them a mission and a charge that correspond to undeniable natural requirements.” Pope Pius XII, Encyclical Summi pontificatus 1939, 61. Available at https://www.vatican.va/content/pius-xii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xii_enc_20101939_summi-pontificatus.html. See also Leo XIII, Encyclical Immortale Dei, 1885, 25. Available at https://www.papalencyclicals.net/leo13/l13sta.htm
 QP n. 32
 Ibid. n. 31.
 Syllabus of Errors, 1864, 44. Available at https://www.papalencyclicals.net/Pius09/p9syll.htm
 Magna Carta 1297, Section I. Available at https://www.legislation.gov.uk/aep/Edw1cc1929/25/9/section/I
 QP n. 25
 QP n. 1
 Vespers hymn of the feast of Christ the King, quoted in Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, Religious Liberty Questioned, Angelus Press, Kansas City MO, 2000, pp 145-6.
 QP n. 21
 QP n. 24
 QP n. 32