Caritas in Veritate:

But Is Christ Still King?

Christopher A. Ferrara


(Posted 07/22/09  In Caritas in Veritate, his long-awaited encyclical on Catholic social doctrine, Pope Benedict XVI insists that “It is not a case of two typologies of social doctrine, one pre-conciliar and one post-conciliar, differing from one another: on the contrary, there is a single teaching, consistent and at the same time ever new.” Caritas, n. 12.

The Pope’s application of his own “hermeneutic of continuity” to the Church’s social doctrine prompts a recollection of Church teaching on what Pope Pius XI, in Ubi Arcano Dei (1922), called “the social rights of Jesus Christ, Who is the Creator, Redeemer, and Lord not only of individuals but of nations.”

Recalling the Social Kingship Doctrine

Before the Second Vatican Council, the Social Kingship of Christ had been the paradigm of the Church’s social doctrine for centuries, especially evident in the long line of anti-liberal encyclicals issued by Pius VI, Pius VII, Pius VIII, Gregory XVI, Blessed Pius IX, Leo XIII, Saint Pius X, and Pius XI.

But then came Dignitatis Humanae (DH), whose “on the one hand/on the other hand” ambiguity concerning “religious liberty” in contemporary political circumstances has produced endless contention over whether the Social Kingship doctrine “remain[s] still in full force,” as Pius XI insisted a mere 40 years before the Council, condemning the “moral, legal, and social modernism” of Catholics who suggested otherwise. Ubi Arcano, nn. 60-61.

Tellingly, DH itself begins by declaring that it “leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ”—that is, the duty of men and nations to profess the true religion and submit to the authority of the Catholic Church. This duty is the Social Kingship in its essence. DH had to leave this doctrine “untouched” because it is not some piously “triumphal” sentiment of a bygone era, nor even a matter of faith alone, but rather a dictate of reason informed by faith.

Respect for the rules of thought without which reason is impossible requires that he who says A must also say B, if B follows logically from A. To accept the premise while rejecting the conclusion is simply to refuse to think. Thus, if one accepts the premise that Christ is God Incarnate then it follows—as B follows from A—that the Church He established is “the kingdom of Christ on earth, destined to be spread among all men and all nations.”  So Pius XI declared only 37 years before Vatican II in Quas Primas (1925), echoing the words of the divine Founder Himself.  Cf. Matt. 28:19-20.

Nor can it be argued logically that an omnipotent and infallible God would found a Church of unknown identity, or that it would lose its identity, divide into parts, or fall into error. The Church that God founded would have to be—and would declare itself to beindefectible and infallible concerning what she actually imposes as binding in matters of faith and morals. Only one Church in human history answers to that description.

Moreover, if Christ is God then it follows—as B follows from A—that His kingdom cannot be limited by geography or the boundaries of human polities. Hence the kingdom includes, as Pius XI insisted, “not only Catholic nations, not only baptized persons who, though of right belonging to the Church, have been led astray by error, or have been cut off from her by schism, but also all those who are outside the Christian faith; so that truly the whole of mankind is subject to the power of Jesus Christ.”  Cf. Quas Primas, n. 18.

Nor, said Pius, “is there any difference in this matter between the individual and the family or the State; for all men, whether collectively or individually, are under the dominion of Christ. In him is the salvation of the individual, in him is the salvation of society.”  Ibid.

In Him is the salvation of society. This is the doctrine of the Social Kingship in a single phrase. From which it follows—as B follows from A—that in the Church of Christ are the means by which not only men but societies are to be saved: the sacraments as channels of His personally and socially transformative grace; the Magisterium as the infallible preceptor of individuals and communities; and a hierarchy to govern a kingdom embracing all nations.  For if Christ had failed to provide these means in His Church then He would not be God, but just another false prophet who left error and confusion in his wake.

From all of this three other conclusions follow as B follows from A, and all three were set forth by Pius XI in Quas Primas:

- First, thatthe Church is by divine institution the sole depository and interpreter of the ideals and teachings of Christ….”

- Second, that “she alone possesses in any complete and true sense the power effectively to combat that materialistic philosophy which has already done and, still threatens, such tremendous harm to the home and to the state,” and

- Third, that “No merely human institution of today can be as successful in devising a set of international laws which will be in harmony with world conditions as the Middle Ages were in the possession of that true League of Nations, Christianity,” but rather “the Church alone is adapted to do this great work” because she is “divinely commissioned to lead mankind” and thus “cannot but succeed in such a venture where others assuredly will fail.”

A corollary conclusion—following as B follows from A—is that if men and nations reject the Social Kingship as exercised through the Church, the world will see all of the social, moral and economic problems Pope Benedict now seeks to address in Caritas. Pius XI lamented the resulting civilizational crisis:

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...

The rebellion of individuals and states against the authority of Christ has produced deplorable consequences…. bitter enmities and rivalries between nations… that insatiable greed which is so often hidden under a pretense of public spirit and patriotism… a blind and immoderate selfishness, making men seek nothing but their own comfort and advantage… no peace in the home, because men have forgotten or neglect their duty; the unity and stability of the family undermined; society in a word, shaken to its foundations and on the way to ruin.  Quas Primas, n. 24.

Whither the Social Kingship?

Where does the doctrine so conspicuously left “untouched” by DH stand today?  It remains, of course, untouched, for the Church has no power to repeal her own doctrines, nor (as the First Vatican Council made clear) to reveal “new” doctrine contrary to “old” doctrine.  Pope Benedict himself has insisted upon this since his pontificate began.

Yet the promises of Christ do not insure that Churchmen will forthrightly affirm the Church’s teaching on any given doctrine at any given time. So, in the face of “a rebellion of individuals and states against the authority of Christ” that has reached a level not even Pius XI could have imagined, we are indubitably witnessing a timid retreat from the Social Kingship doctrine by the Church’s human element. The situation here is the same as with other “hard sayings” of Catholic doctrine contemporary Churchmen are loathe to mention for fear of the world’s mockery or persecution.

But what of Caritas in Veritate, which treats of the same civilizational crisis for which Pius XI prescribed the Social Kingship doctrine and which, moreover, insists upon the unity of faith and reason which underlies that doctrine?  Cf. e.g., Caritas, n. 56-57.

First, it must be said that the encyclical is burdened by jargon the likes of which no previous Pope has ever employed, including “quotas of gratuitousness,”  “a deeper critical evaluation of the category of relation,” “new efforts of holistic understanding,” “a new humanistic synthesis,” and “a metaphysical interpretation of the ‘humanum’ in which relationality is an essential element.”

It is hard to believe such distinctly non-Magisterial locutions came from the Pope as opposed to the widely-reported drafting committee that clearly added words, phrases and probably entire paragraphs to the document. The facile objection “Well, the Pope signed it” hardly suffices to address the problems posed by poor draftsmanship, against which the Holy Ghost offers no guarantee.  And it must be stressed that we have yet to see the official Latin text, absent which the English text must be viewed as tentative.

As it stands, however, the English text reminds one of an omnibus bill to which numerous congressmen have appended amendments. The encyclical covers everything from the Holy Trinity to microfinance and tourism in a long series of paragraphs which (especially in Chapter 5) combine unrelated subjects or jump from one topic to another without any logical transition.

Second, in the midst of all the verbiage, Caritas nevertheless presents important teaching on faith and morals concerning the sociopolitical effects of Original Sin, the natural law, the moral primacy of duties over “rights” (a long overdue statement), the sanctity of human life at all stages, “the centrality and the integrity of the family founded on marriage between a man and a woman,” happiness as the cultivation of one’s immortal soul, and—in a decisive setback for the propaganda campaign of “traditionalist libertarians”—a reaffirmation of the Church’s staunch opposition to the claim that the market economy is an “autonomous” entity exempt from the Church’s thoroughgoing moral scrutiny at every level.

Nevertheless, it must be said that the Pope’s teaching is weakened by an appeal to “human development,” “holistic development” and “the dignity of the person” as grounds for accepting these truths, with no reference to the eternal law, the divine positive law of Christ (and thus no mention of the radical evil of divorce), the Ten Commandments, or the eternal consequences of Original and personal sin. Original Sin is introduced with the almost apologetic phrase “in faith terms” (par. 37), as if it were slightly embarrassing.

Nor does there appear in the encyclical a clear offer of anything beyond human flourishing in this world as the fruit of “charity in truth,” when in the traditional Christian view  “God’s eternity” is the goal that, as Charles Taylor observes in his monumental study A Secular Age, unites “ordinary time” with the “eternal paradigms” of divine revelation, giving humdrum earthly existence the “coherence we find in a melody or a poem,” the poem of Christian life with its liturgical year—a coherence that would be lacking in any attempt at “integral human development” only in “ordinary time” without a consistent theme of eternity and final beatitude. Which is to say nothing of the infinite value of beatitude versus the finite good of earthly “human development,” even if that development involves a certain noble cultivation of the soul. The mysterious post-conciliar boycott of the Four Last Things, admitted by John Paul II himself in Crossing the Threshold of Hope, continues. But what is more important to man’s progress and development than these very things?

Revelation itself is given a humanistic turn: “God reveals man to himself” says Caritas (par. 75), echoing Gaudium et spes. Of course this is true, if rightly understood, but is it not time to admit the utter failure of the Council’s verbal Jiu-Jitsu move in attempting to “flip” contemporary man into turning from his sinful ways by being “more human,” as opposed to simply repenting, being baptized, and receiving the grace of sanctification and justification? Was it not the Pope himself, writing as Father Ratzinger just after the Council, who accused Gaudium et spes of employing “a downright Pelagian terminology”? (Cf. Tracey Rowland, Culture and the Thomist Tradition, pp. 24-25). Might it not be prudent to remind a world on the brink of an apocalypse that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”? (Cf. Psalm 111:10).

Third, Caritas also contains numerous vague prudential prescriptions for economic and sociopolitical problems. Chief among these is the Pope’s astonishing call (in par. 67) for “a true world political authority” with the power to compel nations to obey its decisions on such matters as “manag[ing] the global economy…reviv[ing] economies hit by the crisis… integral and timely disarmament, food security and peace… the protection of the environment and… migration.” There is no use denying that the Pope has called for the establishment of a world government, be it a reformed United Nations (as suggested in the same paragraph) or some newly created body.

A Pope has no divine authority to bind Catholics to a fallible prudential judgment of this sort. Quite the contrary, Catholics have every right respectfully but vigorously to oppose creation of a “true world political authority” on grounds that it would only accelerate an attack on the moral order that has already reached apocalyptic proportions, undermine legitimate sovereignty, and persecute the Church and her members, as we have already seen with the UN and the EU. Moreover, the idea of a world government that would “observe consistently the principles of subsidiarity” (par. 67) seems very nearly a contradiction in terms.

Fourth, and most important for this discussion, candor requires one to admit that the Social Kingship doctrine is nowhere to be found in Caritas. Consider that Pope Pius XI’s first encyclical on the Church’s answer to the civilizational crisis, Ubi Arcano, is subtitled “On the Peace of Christ in the Kingdom of Christ,” whereas Pope Benedict’s encyclical on the same crisis 87 years later is subtitled “On Integral Human Development in Charity and Truth.” The radical change of terminology is as unsettling as it is revealing.

Caritas celebrates the teaching of Paul VI in Populorum Progressio (1967), which clearly reflects the “integral humanism” of Jacques Maritain. As the late great traditionalist writer Hamish Fraser noted during the reign of Pope Paul,  “Giovanni Battisti Montini (the future Paul VI)… was so enthused and excited by Maritain that he volunteered to translate [Maritain’s] ‘Integral Humanism’ into Italian… Pope Paul is indeed a disciple of Jacques Maritain. So much so that when one reads a typically Pauline socio-political allocution, one might well be reading Maritain.” (Hamish Fraser, “The Kingship of Christ 1925-1975,” in Approaches n. 47-48 [February 1976]).

Maritain, writing just after the reign of Pius XI and during the reign of Pius XII, appeared to affirm the Social Kingship doctrine in advocating a “new age of Christendom.” But his description of this new Christendom is incoherent: “a ‘secular’ Christian civilization” in which the “Gospel leaven” will “penetrate the secular structures of civil life” while leaving intact a “personalist democracy” of “the pluralist type” in which “men belonging to very different philosophical or religious creeds… cooperate in the common task and for the common welfare of the earthly community” based on “assent to the charter and basic tenets of a society of free men.” (In The Social and Political Philosophy of Jacques Maritain, pp. 138, 189, 367).

Maritain was describing a “new Christendom” that is not corporately Christian but rather a pluralist democracy “leavened” in some vague way by Christian influences. The concept makes about as much sense as a “new square” that will have only three corners. Yet it sounds quite familiar today, when the “Gospel leaven” is failing catastrophically to produce the “new springtime for the Church” that both John XXIII and Paul VI (in their fallible prudential judgment) thought they were inaugurating by “coming to terms” with “the modern world” rather than preaching against it with grave warnings as every single one of their predecessors had done.

But, as Fraser observed at the time, “like Maritain, Pope Paul has the faith of Peter,” so that neither man was “a logical ‘integral humanist.” A logical integral humanist, Fraser explained, “rejects the social kingship of Christ and at least implicitly asserts that Christ’s empire does not include human society, and therefore that Christ is not omnipotent,” which amounts to “an implicit denial of the divinity of Christ, and must eventually lead to the transposition of the Catholic faith into the key of naturalism. Which is precisely what has already been done by the most logical ‘integral humanists’.”

Thus, as Fraser observed in 1975, “Paul is continually at war with himself. That is also why he is continually at loggerheads with the entourage he himself appointed. For though like him they too are enthusiastic ‘integral humanists,’ unlike him they are not similarly inhibited concerning ‘integral humanism’s ultimate implications.”

Hence it not surprising that Maritain ended up writing The Peasant of the Garonne to protest many of the “reforms” undertaken in the name of Vatican II, while Pope Paul “found it necessary to write Mysterium Fidei, the Credo of The People of God, Humanae Vitae, etc.” (Fraser, op. cit.). Both Maritain and the Pope he influenced so greatly wanted it both ways: an “updated” Church that remained nonetheless wholly orthodox. The tug-of-war between infallible Tradition and a fallible prudential accommodation to “the modern world” is the cause of the entire postconciliar crisis.

That tug-of-war is apparent throughout Caritas, which oscillates between “integral human development” as made possible only by divine grace, supernatural charity, Christian fraternity, and the Gospel as “fundamental” and “indispensable”—an indirect affirmation of the Social Kingship—and “integral human development” based on “fundamental values,” “universal values” and “reason open to transcendence,” all of which seem to be presented as available to non-Catholics and even non-believers of “good will.”  Cf. Caritas, nn. 55-57.

Nowhere does the encyclical state clearly (although it faintly implies) what Pius XI and his predecessors affirmed explicitly: that only the Catholic Church can bring true peace, justice and charity to the world by uniting mankind in one faith and one baptism under Christ the King; that only Christendom, not any merely human alliance, can save a tottering civilization.  From which it follows—as B follows from A—that those who say the restoration of Christendom is impossible are also saying that our civilization is in its death throes.

But, like Paul VI, Benedict XVI is not “a logical integral humanist,” even if Caritas employs integral humanist lingo throughout.  One need only read the Pope’s closing exhortation to understand this:

Christians long for the entire human family to call upon God as “Our Father!” In union with the only-begotten Son, may all people learn to pray to the Father and to ask him, in the words that Jesus himself taught us, for the grace to glorify him by living according to his will…. May the Virgin Mary—proclaimed Mater Ecclesiae by Paul VI and honoured by Christians as Speculum Iustitiae and Regina Pacis—protect us and obtain for us, through her heavenly intercession, the strength, hope and joy necessary to continue to dedicate ourselves with generosity to the task of bringing about the “development of the whole man and of all men.”

We are within our rights as members of the laity to state the obvious: Caritas is a Janus-headed document that tries to speak in two different voices in two different directions at once—to the faithful and to an unbelieving world—in an effort to persuade both audiences to make common cause for the salvation of human society (whose imminent self-destruction is barely hinted at lest the audience of unbelievers be offended).

But a radical civilizational crisis requires a radical cure, and the only one that exists is the one that Christ prescribes in the Gospel.  Which is why, in rejecting as utopian the very notion of a pan-religious alternative to Christendom, Pope Saint Pius X declared in 1910:  “[I]n these times of social and intellectual anarchy… society cannot be set up unless the Church lays the foundations and supervises the work; no, civilization is not something yet to be found, nor is the New City to be built on hazy notions; it has been in existence and still is: it is Christian civilization, it is the Catholic City. It has only to be set up and restored continually against the unremitting attacks of insane dreamers, rebels and miscreants. OMNIA INSTAURARE IN CHRISTO.”  Cf. Notre Charge Apostolique.

Is Christ still King of all men and all nations? Reason itself tells us it cannot be otherwise, and nothing in Caritas is to the contrary. The answer to the crisis in the Church and the world lies, however, in what Caritas fails to say about the very doctrine the Fathers of Vatican II were at such pains to declare “untouched.” We will know the crisis is coming to an end when the untouched doctrine of the Social Kingship is proclaimed openly and boldly once again. The way things are going, humanly speaking it does not seem likely that that proclamation will occur before the world suffers the terrible witness of its rebellion against the King.