The Battle of the Vendée:
“Henri de La Rochejacquelein
at the Battle of Cholet in 1793”
by Paul-Emile Boutigny
Also during the French Revolution the Carmelite nuns of Compiegne, ardent royalists as were most of the French Carmelites, offered themselves as Victims of the Divine Justice to end the Reign of Terror. In fact, their martyrdom at Paris on July 17, 1794 came just ten days before the end of the ten month Terror and has been credited by Catholic sources as the reason for the end of this bloodiest period of the Revolution. The nuns, as royalists, had been particularly devoted to the Infant King (Infant of Prague), a traditional Carmelite devotion.
The Catholic Church suffered terrible losses—of personnel, of property, and of power—not only in the Revolution but in the subsequent development of history. The historic alliance of “Throne and Altar” which had prevailed since Constantine’s recognition of the Church in 312-313 was effectively broken by the secularization of the Revolution and has never been successfully restored. For brief periods of time in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Catholicism has been established as the State religion or given Constitutional preference in various countries, but such privilege has not only not lasted but has led to reactions in which the Church has again suffered greatly. Nevertheless, the image of “Christ the King” has remained a rallying point for those who wish to establish a Catholic dominance over civil culture.
Among the occasions where “Christ the King” became the symbol of Catholic Restoration, a revolution broke out in Mexico in 1911 that had dire consequences for the Church. The Catholic Church had over time acquired extensive land and wealth in Mexico and the clergy, either Spanish or from the upper classes of Mexican society, represented reactionary political and social views. With the revolution Church lands were expropriated, foreign clergy expelled, and the Mexican clergy forbidden to wear religious garb in public, to vote, or to comment on political matters. The situation only got worse over time. In the 1920’s under President Plutarco Elias Calles, an avowed atheist, the anti-clericalism escalated into a persecution of the Church and triggered a rebellion known as the Cristero Rebellion. The cry of the rebels was Viva Cristo Rey!—Long live Christ the King. The Cristero Rebellion, as this was known, was the occasion of a great number of martyrs for the faith—especially to be noted Miguel Pro SJ, whose feast was celebrated yesterday.
In support of the Mexican defenders of the Catholic Church, Pius XI brought the title “Christ the King” to a universal Catholic Consciousness when he instituted the liturgical feast of Christ the King in 1925. At the time it was to be celebrated on the last Sunday of October. The Pope had written on the subject that same year in his encyclical letter Quas Primas. This was meant to be a support to the Catholics of Mexico during their time of persecution but also as a challenge to secularization wherever it might be taking place in the Catholic world. The institution of the feast was the high water mark of Catholic resistance to the French Revolution and all that it stood for in its challenge to royalism and Catholicism.
Americans, of course, never fully understood the political symbolism of the feast as American Catholics have always been rather naïve to the Church’s historical preference for monarchy. Ever since the French Revolution the Catholic Church had seen republicanism as a threat to its theology of power which devolves not from the people but from God directly to the rulers. In the years before Vatican II regimes such as Franco’s Spain which was in name a monarchy (with Franco functioning as regent for an as yet-to-be-named King) and where the Church enjoyed a political hegemony to the exclusion of other denominations and religions, were held to be the ideal. It was only at Vatican II that the Church made peace with the idea of democratic government and in subsequent years it is proving to be an uneasy peace.
Now all this is not to say that Christ is not King. But what do we mean by King? Demagogues such as Michael Vorris or Solange Hertz have advocated replacing the American Republic with Catholic Monarchy but such extremist views relegate them and their more faithful disciples to the realm of religious psychosis. How then are we to understand Christ as King?
I noticed that in the revised Missal that was promulgated last year that the feast previously known as the Solemnity of Christ the King is now the Solemnity of Christ the King of the Universe. This is a significant shift, but not a healthy one. It moves the understanding of Christ’s Kingship from an authority over the hearts of believers to a claim of jurisdiction; that is from a claim of authority to a claim of power.
The difference of power and authority is a significant difference. Power is the ability to coerce obedience. Those who exercise earthly power can force their subjects to conform to their will. They can “make things happen.” A general has power over his army. A bishop (sadly) has power over his priests. A dictator has power over his people. Is this the type of Kingship that Christ models?
Authority, on the other hand, is the moral weight to inspire others to freely follow, to willingly subject their will to the will of the one who exercises authority. This is the sort of conversion of heart to which Christ calls those who hear his gospel. Is Christ to be the Ruler-King or the Servant-King?
Once again we see the struggle today for the Church to emerge from its centuries of an addiction to power and become a Servant Church. As I have pointed out before, Cardinal Avery Dulles says that this is the ecclesiological shift of our times—from the previous millennium of power to yield the future millennium of service (see entry for June 18, 2012). But for those prelates who are crowding Gamarelli’s for their buckled shoes and silk capes and those priests who are given to pom-pommed hats and the Tridentine Mass this shift represents a threat and Christ the King of the Universe means a validation of institutional power. For our part, let’s just remember that our King wears a crown of thorns and reigns from a Cross not a throne.