The Social Kingship of Christ
Quas Primas and Corporate Law

Brian McCall


“It would be a grave error, on the other hand, to say that Christ has no authority whatever in civil affairs, since, by virtue of the absolute empire over all creatures committed to him by the Father, all things are in his power.”

This quotation from the encyclical Quas Primas of Pope Pius XI summarizes the doctrine of the Social Reign of Christ the King. It is absolute in its formulation: “all creatures” are subject to Christ.  Yet, in what way does Christ’s dominion relate to all creatures?  The application of the doctrine to the political and public life of governments and nations has been well discussed (in The Remnant and elsewhere), but its application to the economic business sphere has been less explicated.  Some might even assert, the doctrine bears no relation to business dealings.  We will explore whether and to what extent this doctrine of the Church applies to the economic ordering of society. 

Our method will be to examine the text of the encyclical for indications of its applications.  We will then look at the immediate context of Quas Primas  and in particular the first encyclical of Pius XI, Ubi Arcano.  We will then broaden the context to the philosophical and theological history of this question.  Finally, we will turn to a few practical issues in the corporate and commercial world and apply what we have learned.

So, first turning to Quas Primas itself, we have seen that Pius XI makes it clear that Christ’s kingship extends to all creatures. Pius XI emphasizes that this subjugation extends throughout the entire hierarchy of society.  He does so by referring to the summit and the basic unit of society: “Nor 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.”  By referring to the state, the individual and the family, His Holiness encompasses all of the intermediate levels and associations of society.  This would include corporations, partnerships, trade unions and other business organizations.  No one and no group is excluded. 

One may attempt, however, to limit this application to all people only in the public sphere.  Economics and business involve, one might assert, private orderings and therefore are not affected directly by the public acknowledgement of Christ.  Just as Pius XI condemns the proposition that Christ’s kingship has no place in public life, he likewise does so with respect to private affairs:  “When once men recognize, both in private and in public life, that Christ is King, society will at last receive the great blessings of real liberty, well ordered discipline, peace and harmony.”  Christ’s reign affects every aspect of our lives as Pius XI says: “if this power embraces all men, it must be clear that not one of our faculties is exempt from His empire.”  Thus, just as Christ’s law and kingship cannot be excluded from the public functioning of governments and the making of laws affecting education and marriage, so too it cannot be dismissed from business affairs, whether of individuals or collective associations.  

Quas Primas itself acknowledges that the malady, to which the feast of Christ the King is being instituted as a remedy, involves economic matters.  His Holiness laments “that insatiable greed which is so often hidden under a pretense of public spirit and patriotism, and gives rise to so many private quarrels; a blind and immoderate selfishness, making men seek nothing but their own comfort and advantage and measure everything by these.”  Pius XI refers to the two pillars of Christ’s Reign as it applies to economics: charity and justice. “It [Christ’s Kingdom] demands of its subjects a spirit of detachment from riches and earthly things, and a spirit of gentleness [charity].  They must hunger and thirst after justice. . . .”  

Thus, we have seen that the general description of Christ’s reign contemplates an all encompassing change in society, political as well as economic.  Yet, Pius XI does not explicate in detail the issues he alludes to.  This is primarily because Quas Primas  emerges from a long line of Catholic, and specifically papal, teaching explaining these issues.  Pius XI himself on two occasions in Quas Primas refers to his first encyclical, Ubi Arcano, and explains that Quas Primas is a continuation of this diagnosis of modern errors begun in Ubi Arcano.  Let us turn then to Ubi Arcano.

This first encyclical of Pius XI was written in 1922 when much of the West was in the denial of the Roaring 20s.  “The Great War had put an end to war and brought peace” people told themselves as they charlestoned the nights away.  The Church, however, sees the Truth (the correspondence of the mind to reality) and the Truth was that the world was on the brink of more strife and discord.  World War II and all the intense and bloody conflicts that followed to our very day showed the Truth of Ubi Arcano’s prediction of future discord; the world was sick and needed medicine. 

In Ubi Arcano, Pius XI diagnoses the problems which are preventing true peace; it is, as he made explicit in Quas Primas, the rejection of Christ’s Kingship in private as well as public life.  The Encyclical is a sharp and clear diagnosis of the causes of discord and violence among men.  For our purposes, however, we will limit our examination to the part of the diagnosis dealing with economic matters. 

From the outset, Pius XI indicates his analysis  encompasses both politics and economics when he states that rivalries which give root to war lie in the “manipulations of politics” and the “fluctuations of finance.”  “In the first place, we must take cognizance of the war between the classes, a chronic and mortal disease of present day society, which like a cancer is eating away the vital forces of the social fabric, labor, industry, the arts, commerce, agriculture – everything in fact which contributes to public and private welfare and to national prosperity.  This conflict seems to resist every solution and grows worse because those who are never satisfied with the amount of their wealth contend with those who hold on most tenaciously to the riches which they have already acquired, while in both classes there is the common desire to rule the other and to assume control of the others possessions.” 

This strife over the maximization of individual economic self interest is the root of all disorder.  What fuels this disease? “Many are intent on exploiting their neighbors solely for the purpose of enjoying more fully and on a larger scale the goods of this world.  But they err grievously who have turned to the acquisition of material and temporal possessions and are forgetful of eternal and spiritual things, to the possession of which Jesus, Our Redeemer, by means of the Church, His living interpreter, calls mankind.” 

Society’s end has become disoriented.  Economic acquisition has taken priority over eternal and spiritual things.  What are these spiritual things?  Again, charity and justice are the answer.  The unbalanced attention to material issues is contrary to the charity of Christ’s Kingdom where eternal salvation is of primary not secondary concern.  “It is in the very nature of material objects that an inordinate desire for them becomes the root of every evil, of every discord, and in particular, of a lowering of the moral sense.” 

An inordinate desire for increasing material things makes charity cold and drives unjust decisions.  Pius XI teaches that “it is never lawful nor even wise, to dissociate morality from the affairs of practical life, that, in the last analysis, it is justice which exalteth a nation: but sin maketh nations miserable [Proverbs xiv, 34]”  Thus, morality is not something separate from economics and commercial dealings; the Church is not confined to commanding infallible precepts with respect to sexuality and other private “personal” issues.  She teaches as the viceroy of Christ the King what moral principles need to form economic laws and transactions.  Note – it is moral principles, not economic principles, which must govern.  “[i]t is Jesus Christ who has revealed to the world the existence of spiritual values and has obtained for them their due appreciation.  He has said “For what doth it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his own soul?” [Matthew xvi, 26].”  This statement is qualified lest we interpret it in a Jansenist fashion.  “This does not mean that the peace of Christ, which is the only true peace, expects of us that we give up all worldly possessions.  On the contrary, every earthly good is promised in so many words by Christ to those who seek His peace:  “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His justice, and all these things shall be added unto you.” [Matt vi, 33; Luke xii, 31].”1  The Church is not unconcerned with economic prosperity and meeting the needs of and providing some earthly comfort to, men, but these things must be sought after seeking the kingdom of God and His justice. 

To summarize, Pius XI teaches through Ubi Arcano and Quas Primas that true peace can only come through the acknowledgement of Christ’s Kingdom already present in the world. This kingdom embraces all people, organizations and faculties.  It covers commerce and finance.  Some of the ways in which the economic systems in existence in the world of Pius XI, and today, fail to acknowledge Christ’s kingship is by placing an inordinate desire on material things and economic prosperity.  What constitutes an inordinate desire?  It is when our primary purpose in creating, executing and judging economic laws and behavior is economic prosperity rather than seeking first the kingdom of God and His justice.  To repeat, this does not mean the efficiency or economic effects of law and policy are irrelevant but they must be of secondary, not primary, importance.

Before turning to the practical application of these principles to the making and judging of commercial law and the structuring of our economic activity, we should step back again to the larger context.  As the Angelic Doctor would recommend, we can begin with the Philosopher, Aristotle.  Aristotle teaches that economics and its learning is subject to politics which is that art which directs society to its end, the good.2  He says, “we see even the most highly esteemed of capacities to fall under this [referring to politics], e.g. strategy, economics, rhetoric.”3 

Economics is thus a subordinate discipline.  The Catholic philosophical improvement on Aristotle is that even politics, as that which tells what we ought to do, is subordinate to moral theology.  John O’Hara summarizes the Catholic approach to economics thus:  “The best usage of the present time is to make political economy [or the science of making wealth] an ethical science, that is, to make it include a discussion of what ought to be in the economic world as well as what is.  This has all along been the practice of Catholic writers.  Some of them even go so far as to make political economy a branch of ethics and not an independent science.”4

It is in this philosophical milieu that we can see the papal assertion of the Church’s right and competence to teach definitively on the making of economic laws.  Thus, Leo XIII can state in Rerum Novarum: “We approach the subject with confidence and surely by Our right” because “the question under consideration is certainly one for which no satisfactory solution will be found unless religion and the Church have been called upon to aid.”  Likewise Pius XI states in Quadragesimo Anno “[i]t is Our right and Our duty to deal authoritatively with social and economic problems.  It is not, of course, the office of  the Church to lead men to transient and perishable happiness only, but to that which is eternal.  But she never can relinquish her God given task of interposing her authority . . . in all those [matters] that have a bearing on moral conduct.  For this deposit of truth entrusted to Us by God, and Our weighty office of propagating, interpreting and urging in season and out of season the entire moral law, demand that both social and economic questions be brought within Our supreme jurisdiction. . . .”

Thus, although the Church does not assert authority over the study of economic rules (predicting the likely practical consequences of using wealth or productive assets in a particular way) she, in the name of Christ the King, asserts divine authority over judging the rightness or wrongness of those consequences. 

We can see from this proposition that the doctrine of the Social Reign of Christ the King precludes an approach to corporate and commercial issues which judges laws and actions on the sole, or at least primary, basis of economic results: what decision produces the most efficient or value maximizing result?  Although a Catholic approach can take into account this data, it cannot form the basis for the moral judgment of whether that result, even if value maximizing, is right or wrong. 

Pius XI in accord with Leo XIII and their predecessors, held that no area of our lives, individually or collectively, can be separate from the Social Reign of Christ the King.  This includes our business dealings.  The Church has the right and competence to critique our economic order when it seeks first wealth and efficiency in priority to Christ’s charity and justice.  In the next installment we will see what some of these moral principles are, which need to inform a truly Catholic economic order and examine some practical issues in our economic system that need to be informed by the Social Reign of Christ the King. 

(To Be Concluded Next Issue)


1 Id. at No. 37.

2 Aristotle, Politica, The Basic Works of Aristotle, 1127 (Benjamin Jowett trans., Richard Mckeon ed., Random House 1941).

3 Aristotle, Ethica Nicomachea, The Basic Works of Aristotle, at 936. 

4 Political Economy in the Catholic Encyclopedia,