"Thou wouldst have no power at all over Me were it not given thee from above."1
These words of Pontius Pilate are found in Saint John's Gospel, in the chapter just following the one read at Mass this morning. Together with a few other things we find in Saint Paul's writings -- particularly in Romans xiii -- this passage suggests rather strongly that the power of government comes from God. In medieval times we used to speak of the "divine right of kings"; but clearly the scriptures mean to say that legitimate government in any form is some how empowered by God. Rome, after all, was at least theoretically a republic, although by the time of Christ we recognize in it many of the signs of a corrupting republic. Nonetheless, our Lord recognized at least the general the legitimacy of Rome's power, as did Saint Paul, even though both would be put to death by that power.
The questions of how God's power is communicated to government, and just what makes a government "legitimate" have been of interest to philosophers and theologians since the time of Christ. In the first few centuries, Christians had no political power, and simply had to accept Roman rule. Then for about a thousand year period, Christianity became not only legal, but was a dominant force in western politics. A few popes in the middle ages literally exercised the power of making kings. The rise of the nation-states from about the fourteenth century gradually reduced the Church's political power, until it was virtually extinguished in the nineteenth century. But even today, the Church retains a substantial measure of political influence if not power. But the question remains: What made any of these governments legitimate, and how did they derive power from God.
Perhaps the best answer we have for the question came from Saint Thomas Aquinas just after the time of the great Crusades, when many Catholic soldiers had been exposed, for the first time, to the concept of government without the sanction of the Catholic Church. "How," they asked themselves, "can there be legitimate governments among the Moslem infidels, or any of the other races not in communion with the Pope, and not even recognizing the overall Kingship of Christ?" "And how can infidels, in some cases, even rule over Christian subjects?" "How can human laws" in other words, "be passed with the authority of God?" Saint Thomas answers quite simply, that "all laws, insofar as they partake of right reason, are derived from the eternal law," and therefore are with the authority of the eternal Lawgiver.2
Aquinas, you see, was basing his argument on the natural reasoning powers of man. Man is capable of knowing that there is a God, even without being told so by God in divine revelation. And likewise, man is capable of knowing right from wrong. and truth from error; and capable of acting on that natural knowledge of the divine law, even without it being given to him as commandments etched in tablets of stone. Even in the most rudimentary civilizations, people can figure it out that God's world works so much better if they refrain from killing and beating and stealing and lying and cheating on one another. Even primitives recognize that there is a higher Power who must be respected and even worshipped, and whose Holy Will must guide their behavior.
Of course, man in this "state of nature" doesn't always get God's Will completely right -- and doesn't quite know how to worship his Creator -- sometimes he makes downright bad things part of his culture. He is often particularly bad to those outside of his own society. That, of course, is why God chose to reveal Himself, to reveal His worship, and His divine positive law -- first through Moses and the prophets,, and then finally through Jesus Christ. With that knowledge, well intentioned man will not be lead through error to make tragic mistakes.
It goes without saying that we have seen our share of tragic mistakes; both in antiquity, before God chose to make Himself known; and even after His Incarnation, when all men should have know better.
Yet, we must give credit to God for the fact that mankind has done surprisingly well over the centuries. For the most part, in societies where people have been concerned with making creation work according to plan, and where they have understood the need to control base desires like greed and lust and craving for power, mankind has put together reasonably just societies that come close to fitting Saint Thomas' definition of "right reason" approximating "the eternal law." They didn't always get the eternal law exactly right, but the fact that all of us know names like Socrates, and Confucius, and the Buddha, suggests that our heritage includes some well meaning pagans who tried very hard (and were relatively successful) at knowing the eternal law -- even if they were a bit mistaken about the identity of the Eternal Lawgiver.
We might then ask ourselves, "how did things go so wrong?" The fact that were are celebrating this feast of Christ the King today is due to the observation of the saintly Pope Pius XI, who (in 1925) between the first and second world wars recognized the need to reverse the ever accelerating drift of mankind away from the Eternal Lawgiver.
But again, "how could this be?" Don't we have the fullness of God's revelation? Don't we know His eternal law in detail? Don't we know how we are expected to worship Him, and what we are to believe about Him? Didn't He send His Son to establish the Kingship of that eternal law throughout human society? Don't we have the Church to guide us on earth along the path to heaven? "How could this be? ... who is to blame?"
If we look back over history, we can find any number of forces that seem to have distorted the message of Christ the King. We might blame the Arians or any of a number of groups of early heretics. We might be tempted to blame the Eastern Schism or the Protestant reformation for confusing the message and diluting the authority of Christ's Church. We might blame the absolute monarchs who so altered the governments of Europe; or their successors in the republics and democracies; or the modern theoreticians of economics and politics; or the Freemasons and the other secret societies; certainly, the French revolution, the Communists and the Nazis. Many today want to blame the rise of science and industry -- it's Copernicus' fault for removing the earth from the center of the universe, or Galileo, or Newton, or Einstein. Freud and Jung, certainly among the psychologists; as well as any number of modern philosophers. Probably not last, and certainly not least, we can lay blame on Catholics popes, bishops, priests, and laypeople who did not do as they should have done.
But placing blame like that doesn't work all that well. Some of these historical developments were bad, some were good, and many were morally neutral. The problem's roots are found more in the vices that inhabit men's hearts; in selfish men who want to overthrow the eternal law; and in movements of men who band together to remold society in the image of human vice rather than to live under the peaceful rule of Christ the King.
If we are decent people, we know the eternal law, both through the use of our natural reasoning powers and through God's revelation through His Church. And we ought to recognize that we have an obligation to God, to our families, to our communities, and even to ourselves to foster God's kingdom and God's rule over the world around us -- "on earth as it is in heaven."
At the end of today's Mass we will be asked to renew the "Consecration of the Human Race to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, as we were first asked by Pope Pius XI in 1925. We will pray for the vast number of people throughout the world who do not know Jesus Christ and His Kingship, and for those who know Him yet reject Him. But let me suggest though, that during the course of this Mass, we make a brief examination of our own consciences, asking ourselves the question: "How truly do I consider Christ to be my King?" "Do I honor Him daily with my prayers, and with obedience to His eternal law? Do I seek a place in my King's court when He receives His subjects publicly each day at Holy Mass? Do I strive to receive the precious sacramental gifts He distributes to those who call at His court. Am I enflamed with righteous zeal when others speak against Him or His Holy Mother, against His laws, use His holy Name in vain, or otherwise behave with no respect for His divine majesty? Can I honestly say that in all things, I show greater respect for Jesus Christ the King than for any human king, or president, or governor? Do I dress better, come earlier, stay later, smile wider, and feel better for having spent time with Christ the King, more than for any earthly ruler or anyone else on earth?" The answer to all of those questions ought to be "yes."
Today, when we consecrate the Human Race to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, let us be sure that -- first and foremost -- we are consecrating ourselves to Him. That we are consecrating ourselves to the eternal law of Jesus Christ our Sovereign King.