No King but Jesus – Part 1 of 2

In December, 1925, Pope Pius the Eleventh made a new feast for the Roman Catholic Church: that of Christ the King.  That this is a new feast is evident.  No such thing existed prior to 1925.  The back-story of the feast is one that reaches only 200 years back from 1925, so it’s clearly post-schism.  That said, the Holy Synods of the Russian Orthodox Church and of the Antiochian Orthodox Church have both allowed this feast to be celebrated by their Western Rite communities, thus signifying that, while it was “new” there was nothing contrary to the teaching of the Church in its celebration.  Mindful that many American Orthodox clergy and laity think they know better than their Bishops on these matters, I will dismiss any objections to this feast out of hand as contrary to the mind of the Church. When exploring the concept of Christ’s Kingdom-not-of-this-World, this feast of Christ the King constitutes part of the teaching of the Orthodox Church, and so should be explored.

Caesaropapism. There a word for you! Essentially it takes (almost) all the powers we non-Catholics like to accuse Rome of wrongly giving to the Pope, and gives it all to the Byzantine or Russian Emperor. This – Caesaropapism – is, for example, why the Eastern Church is so lenient on divorce and remarriage: because the Emperor wanted it so, so the Church caved. The Emperor once changed the liturgy of the Church and we still sing the hymn he stuck in there. Almost all of the heresies that took over the Eastern Church, from time to time, had the support of the Emperor. When Iconoclasm took over the Church it was with the support of the Emperor. When it was finally banished by the Church, it was because icons had the full support of the Empress.

In time, however, Constantinople and all the Patriarchs of the East, came under the control of the Caliphate, a Muslim Emperor. His political style – and the currying of his favor – became the modus operandi of the Orthodox Church. Don’t rock the boat and we’ll all get along. This M.O. played out in Russia and in other parts of the Orthodox world. The Russian Emperor (Tsar) changed the music of the Church; and for a long time, the the Tsar changed the governance of the Russian Church as well! Tsar Peter the Great removed the Patriarch in 1721 and caused the Russian Church to be governed by a council. It was not until after the Revolution in 1917 that the Communists gave the Church permission to have a Patriarch again! The oddest part of that story is that in both cases the Church listened to the “CeasaroPope”, asking no questions about the reasons or politics behind the decree; she listened and made changes accordingly.  In the Modern World, the same style plays out.  No politician would (yet) dare to attempt to change the liturgy of the Church (viz, the marriage issue) but we still see the same wimpish currying of favor:

The West has answered the political question in a different way.  One might coin a new word and call it:  “Papalocaesarism”. The Pope of Rome took on the functions of the Roman Emperor. Although there were times when the Papacy came under the control of local secular government, overall the trend was the reverse of the Byzantine east: a strong Pope dominating (or at least fending off) secular rulers. It’s not all cut and dry in this regard – the fight between Henry IV and Gregory VII didn’t end at Canossa, but rather continued on for a while. Ultimately, however, it was a form of Caesaropapism that took over the West. The Caesaropapists of the West – such as Henry VIII and the German Princes, and the wealthy businessmen of Holland – caused or fully-supported the Reformation: it is much better, when possible, to have a Church under state control! Martin Luther finally reversed the defeat of Canossa. Rome, herself, became her own kingdom, ruling from within the Vatican even when the rest of Italy was under different rulers. This created a different sort of political climate for the Roman Church’s meditations on political questions.

Starting from the same theological place as the East – that the Church was Christ’s Kingdom on earth – the Romans came to see the Hierarchy of the Church as a ruling class, pro se: the Royalty of the Kingdom.  Where Christ is the one and only King, the clergy formed, as it were, the royal court, etc.  Bishops and Cardinals are referred to as “princes of the Church” because, in a real way, they are princes of the Kingdom.  (This, too, is echoed in the East where the liturgical robes of a Bishop are essentially the robes of a Turkish prince – even in Russia and other parts of the Orthodox Church that never came under the Muslim yoke.) In God’s kingdom, secular rulers were only lay people.  Kings and Queens of the world may have their place in the world, and even their own special places in Church, but it was not as a special class of clergy.

There is a story in the Golden Legend that highlights this. This text, compiled in the 13th Century by Jacobus de Voragine, is sort of like the Synaxarion of the East, to which is added various pious customs and legends. Rather than the Synaxarion, it is more like the Prologue of Ochrid, in that it is more like pious reading.  The story concerns St Ambrose and the Emperor Valentinian.  Once, after the Emperor had committed a great sin, Bishop Ambrose of Milan denied the Emperor entrance to the churches until he repented and was reconciled to God and man.  By the Power of God, the Emperor was unable to enter any of the Churches, and so he repented.  The text then relates:

When the emperor was reconciled to the church he stood in the chancel. Then said to him S. Ambrose: What seekest thou here? He answered: I am here for to receive the sacred mysteries; and Ambrose said: This place appertaineth to no man but to priests. Go out, for ye ought to be without the chancel and abide there with other. Then obeyed the emperor humbly and went out. And after, when the emperor came to Constantinople, and he stood without with the lay people, the bishop came and said to him that he should come into the chancel with the clerks, he answered that he would not, for he had learned of S. Ambrose what difference there was between an emperor and a priest. I have found a man of truth, my master Ambrose, and such a man ought to be a bishop.

For our purpose here, we needn’t be concerned with the veracity of the story, but only to note that the teaching of it shows the difference in place for royalty in the West.  I think it is interesting to note that the text also indicates that the West, even in 1260 when the Golden Legend was compiled, seemed to think the East had a different (and perhaps wrong) understanding of the place of the Emperor.  Although in the West no less than the East, the King is appointed by God in the West he is only another layman in God’s Kingdom.

From the latter part of the 1700s and into the 20th Century, this mindset – Church as Kingdom of God on Earth – was met with a rising tide of Secularism.  It started in France where they were beheading clergy long before Muslims got into the act, but it spread through Europe and the rest of the “enlightened” world.  Popes met this with a series of statements and decrees.  Eventually it was discerned that “secularism” itself was only part of the problem. The over-arching issue was labelled “Modernism”; which was seen as a pan-heresy, to use a term some Orthodox will recognize.  Modernism includes everything from the theory of evolution, to the idea that Christianity is only one path among many – all to the same place, to the concept that each person or school’s ideas are equally valid, etc. All of which can be seen by the reader to be the very foundations of our contemporary society and culture.

Pope Pius the Tenth gave a full description and resounding rebuttal of this package of codswallop in his letter Pascendi Dominici Gregis; preceded by a Syllabus, Lamentabili Sane, which last is more of a listing rather than a discussion. In Modernism, Pius X saw that “the number of the enemies of the cross of Christ has in these last days increased exceedingly, who are striving, by arts, entirely new and full of subtlety, to destroy the vital energy of the Church, and, if they can, to overthrow utterly Christ’s kingdom itself.”  That same Pope, to counteract the teaching of this pan-heresy within his jurisdiction, required of all his clergy and teachers at all levels, to swear the “Oath Against Modernism“.  While this defence utterly failed, the Oath also makes it clear what are the enemies of the faith. One passage is crucial for us in our conversation about the Kingship of Christ and the politics of this world:

I also condemn and reject the opinion of those who say that a well-educated Christian assumes a dual personality-that of a believer and at the same time of a historian, as if it were permissible for a historian to hold things that contradict the faith of the believer, or to establish premises which, provided there be no direct denial of dogmas, would lead to the conclusion that dogmas are either false or doubtful.  

In other words: the idea that a Christian must (or even can) hold a public face as of a critic or disinterested observer of the faith while, at the same time hold a private face conforming to the teachings of the Church is entirely anathema.  In his public actions we are to see a Christian’s faith. If we do not see such actions in his public life, they are void in his private life too. The Roman Church saw (maybe still sees) this as a problem. How can a man claim to be Roman Catholic and yet officiate at a gay wedding? How can a woman claim to be Greek Orthodox and yet vote for pro-abortion laws in the US Senate? How can either party claim to be a faithful member of her church and yet claim to be an “ordained woman”? How can a Church claim to be Christian and not attempt to correct such actions on the part of her (not-so-very) faithful members?

This is where we are today, I think, as Orthodox.  We have no Caesar, and so we are pretty much willing to let anyone make any political claim they wish. If, on top of that, they wish to claim to be Orthodox, we’re ok with that, too. Thus, despite centuries of clear teaching on Christian charity and the role of Gov’t, the Acton Institute claims that all real Christians should be libertarian capitalists, and they do it at an Orthodox Seminary and no one has the power to cry foul.* Senator Olympia Snowe can vote for abortion and be an Archon of the Ecumenical Patriarch. The head of the Greek Church in the USA can bless both the Democrats and Republicans in convention without challenging them on their anti-Christian policies.

It’s only a pinch of incense, after all.

* To be fair, the Acton folks, along with the IRD and other Cultural Warriors on the right are doing this in other denominations too, but I’m talking about the Orthodox here. 

Author: Huw Raphael

A Dominican Tertiary living in San Francisco, CA. He is almost 59. He feeds the homeless as a parochial almoner and is studying to be a Roman Catholic Deacon. He is learning modern Israeli Hebrew and enjoys cooking, keto, cats, long urban hikes, and SF Beer Week.

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