Today is the Solemnity of Christ the King, a most peculiar Christian holiday and a relatively new one: It was instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925 — practically the day before yesterday, for a 2,000-year-old institution.
Anno Domini 1925 was a dark time in Europe. The Continent had subjected itself to a horrifying war only a few years before, the industrial and mechanized nature of which announced a new kind of uniquely modern horror. In Germany, Adolf Hitler had published Mein Kampf and had just attempted to seize power in the Beer Hall Putsch. In Russia, V. I. Lenin had died after establishing the monstrosity that was the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and his shoes were more than filled by his protegé, Joseph Stalin. Closer to Pope Pius’s own besieged dominion, Benito Mussolini’s fascists had marched on Rome in 1922 and seized power in a bloodless coup d’état. The papacy was at the time in a tenuous position: Though it had been stripped of the Papal States, it had not yet formally renounced all claim to them, and the Lateran Treaty, which recognized Vatican City as an independent sovereign power, had not yet been signed.
From its first days, the 20th century was doomed to be the century of totalitarianism and the playground of tyrants: Communists in Russia and the satellite states dominated by Moscow; fascism in Italy; national socialism in Germany; the Generalissimo in Spain; the Colonels in Greece; Salazar in Portugal; Mao in China; Pinochet in Chile; Trujillo, Papa Doc, Uncle Roo, Park Chung-hee, Idi Amin, Castro, Tito, Saddam Hussein, Ho Chi Minh, Khomeini, Perón, Marcos, Pol Pot, Milošević, Honecker. Even democratic India would fall into autocracy under Indira Gandhi’s permanent “emergency,” while postwar France quietly accepted rule-by-decree under de Gaulle. The United States walked up to the edge under would-be dictator Woodrow Wilson and “war socialism,” but came to its senses with the “return to normalcy” and Warren G. Harding. The English and their offshoots were nearly alone among the world’s great powers in maintaining their commitment to democracy and liberty, perhaps because they’d already had their own experiment in tyranny under Cromwell.
The 20th century was an age of political arrogance unlike any that had come before. Ancient kings and khans had given themselves grandiose titles, and ordinary warlords could, with a little luck and longevity, come to be regarded as gods. But the great idea of the 20th century — putting all of society under the single discipline of a single mind bent to a single aim — was beyond the dreams of Julius Caesar or Henry II. German national socialism, Italian fascism, Russian communism all shared an assumption that was truly new to the age, though there had been a foreshadowing of it in the French Revolution. That idea was that the state is destined to be total, and that this development represents the culmination of its evolution rather than a perversion of its nature. For the Nazi, the fascist, the Soviet central planner, nothing was to be outside of the purview of the state. The state, guided by the enlightened reason of the men entrusted with its power, was to determine everything: which fields to plant with wheat and which to plant with potatoes, how those should be distributed and consumed, how the family should be organized, who should have children and how many they should have and how they should be raised . . . who lives, who dies, who is an Enemy of the People, where to build the concentration camps and how to populate them, how much to bill the grieving families of the state’s enemies for the bullet the state’s agents put into their heads.
The idea of the total state may have been discredited by the horrors of the 20th century — 100 million dead under communism, millions gassed and murdered under Nazism, unknown numbers disappeared, tortured, maimed, murdered, and occasionally eaten under sundry juntas — but the idea never quite dies. Of course we good liberal Americans are going to lock religious dissidents in cages for declining to bake a wedding cake when the state says they must.
The United States has had an uneasy relationship with the Catholic Church. Some of the Founding Fathers believed that it was a mistake to extend religious liberty and other civil rights to Catholics, who had, in their view, pledged their allegiance to an alien power. And the Catholic Church, for its part, has not always had the most enlightened attitude toward Anglo-American liberalism and its separation of the priestly and stately powers. But the spirit behind the institution of Christ the King was and is entirely consonant with the American idea. To the encroaching and arrogant spirit of communism and fascism the Vicar of Christ said: “No. You are not the beginning and the end. You are not the dispositive power in this universe. You are not the final judge. There is something above you and beyond you and infinitely greater than you. You, with all your bombs and bayonets and prisons, may command all the known world to kneel at your feet, but we have seen pharaohs before, and emperors and god-kings, too, and we have in the end stood over their graves, and thought on the grave that is empty.”
We Americans have a related creed, one that holds these truths to be self-evident, that all men are endowed by — there’s no avoiding the question — their Creator with certain unalienable rights. Our founding notion is that even a king may go only so far and no further — because even the greatest powers on this Earth are, in the end, answerable to an infinitely higher power. On this, there is and can be no negotiation and no compromise. It is not mere coincidence that what the Nazis and the Communists had in common was their paganism, reconstituted for 20th-century consumption. The Christian understanding of the universe, in which God and man meet in the person of Jesus, is fundamentally incompatible with the totalitarian view of the universe, the philosophy of man as meat, the understanding of the human being as a herd animal to be husbanded, traded, milked, and, if the powers that be so decide, slaughtered. The message of Christ the King is that while we may owe the legitimate secular powers some obedience, they cannot claim us as property to be disposed of in accordance with their own whims, because there is Another who has a prior and superseding claim on us.
Render unto Caesar? We will what we must — but not a mite more.