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Pilate’s Fear, Our Freedom

11/19/2021 | Comments

The liturgical year has not always ended with the Solemnity of Christ the King. This observance is a relatively new innovation. The American bishops, through their Committee for Religious Liberty, urge Catholics to consider the history of this celebration so they might better understand that Christ’s kingdom consists of the faithful exercising their freedom to welcome Christ’s reign in their lives.

In 1925, Pope Pius XI published his “Quas Primas” encyclical that placed this solemnity on the liturgical calendar. He wanted it as an antidote to the age, “an excellent remedy for the plague which now infects society.” “Quas Primas” was issued in the wake of the cultural and political cataclysm of the First World War. That war not only resulted in 20 million civilian and military deaths, mass starvation, and a flu pandemic, it birthed types of intentionally godless regimes never seen before. Gone were the ancient royal dynasties — the Hohenzollerns of Germany and Prussia, the Habsburgs who held the Holy Roman Empire’s throne since 1440, and the Romanovs who ruled Russia from 1613 to 1917. While not always virtuous in their rule, these families at least acknowledged there was a higher Authority.

In their place, there arose political systems antithetical to the Christian faith:  Mussolini’s Fascism in Italy; Hitler’s Nazism in Germany, and Stalin’s Marxism in the newly constituted Soviet Union. Each sought to expand its reach. Pius XI understood this, writing, “we saw men and nations cut off from God, stirring up strife and discord and hurrying along the road to ruin and death.”  The bloody twentieth century proved his observation prophetic.

The Holy Father noted that 1925 was the sixteenth centenary of the creed adopted at Nicaea, a creed that reminded the faithful Sunday after Sunday that “of [Christ’s] kingdom there shall be no end.” The reading from the Prophet Daniel at the Mass celebrating Christ the King echoes this statement noting that the “one like a Son of man” will have “an everlasting dominion that shall not be taken away, his kingship shall not be destroyed.”

The Gospel reading, from St. John’s account of the Passion, begins with Pilate’s interrogation of Jesus: “Are you King of the Jews?” St. Cryil, Patriarch of Alexandria, taught that Pilate, in asking this question, “was full of anxiety and thought Caesar’s rule was endangered.” The mob, calling for Jesus’ death had told Pilate “that Jesus had sinned against Caesar in assuming the dominion that Caesar had acquired over the Jews.”  Pilate, the powerful Roman governor of the province of Judea, was afraid of this carpenter’s son. Governments too often fear conduct  informed by faith.

But Jesus, acknowledging his kingship, explained to Pilate, “My kingdom does not belong to this world . . . my kingdom is not here.” “What in fact is Christ’s kingdom?” St. Augustine asked. “It is simply those who believe in him,” he answered. That belief calls for conduct ordered by faith.  Such conduct requires freedom.

On Dec. 15, America celebrates the 220th anniversary of the adoption of the First Amendment. The founders called conduct ordered by belief the exercise of religion and vowed to ensure its protection.

Nevertheless, governments too often subvert this freedom when it interferes with their preferred programs. Colorado’s early “Stay at Home” order, for example, exempted over 100 secular activities, including firearms stores and marijuana dispensaries, while ordering churches to limit their Sunday worshipers to ten. The Department of Health and Human Services ordered even Catholic dioceses and religious orders to pay for cross sex hormones and mutilating gender transition surgeries in their employee health plans.

Texas denied the pastor of a convicted murderer the right to hold his parishioner’s hand and pray with him at the moment of his execution. Vanderbilt University banned its Catholic student group from campus because the group required its leaders to subscribe to Catholic beliefs. California required a Catholic hospital to perform a hysterectomy on a woman seeking to transition even though it knew this violated the Church’s Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Healthcare Services.

Many states order Christian wedding vendors to celebrate same sex unions by providing cakes, arranging flowers, taking photographs, sponsoring websites, and renting venues even when it violates their belief that marriage is the union of one man and one woman.

Christian-owned pharmacies are ordered to stock contraceptives and abortifacients even when they conscientiously object.  And California adopted Assembly Bill 338 that falsely accused Father Junipero Serra, the saint canonized by Pope Francis, of overseeing the enslavement of native Americans, their mutilation and genocide.

Pius XI believed that “in meditating upon the truths” of Christ’s kingship, Catholics “will gain much strength and courage.” We have witnessed examples of this from Archbishop Hebda of St. Paul and Minneapolis refusing to comply with the ten-person limit on public worship, to the Little Sisters of the Poor not paying for abortifacients, to Jack Phillips declining to provide a wedding cake for a same-sex wedding.  The fruit of allowing Christ the King to reign in our minds, wills, hearts, and bodies, the Holy Father taught, is that “we may . . . be counted by Christ good and faithful servants.”

(L. Martin Nussbaum is the founding partner of Nussbaum Speir Gleason, PLLC, a Colorado Springs firm advising and advocating for religious institutions nationwide, and a consultant to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Religious Liberty Committee.)

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