Let’s take a quiz, who said:
It is obvious that in our days not only is wealth accumulated, but immense power and despotic economic domination are concentrated in the hands of a few, and that those few are frequently not the owners, but only the trustees and directors of invested funds, who administer them at their good pleasure
(Quadragesimo anno 105)
Obviously, no one who wished to be elected to any office in America would allow this to be published under his or her own name. It seems written by Karl Marx, another Communist, or some species of socialist. It was in fact Pope Pius XI in 1931. It was not an isolated statement. He wrote in the same letter (encyclical):
For certain kinds of property, it is rightly thought, ought to be reserved to the State since they carry with them a dominating power so great that cannot without danger to the general welfare be entrusted to private individuals
(Quadragesimo anno 114)
And my favorite:
“No vicarious charity can substitute for justice which is due as an obligation and is wrongfully denied.”
(Quadragesimo anno 137)
These are powerful thoughts for any time or place but most appropriate for today’s celebration. Pope Pius was the author of the feast of Christ the King and thought that it addressed the same problems as his social writings
Achille Ratti was born in 1857 and became Pope in 1922 taking the name Pius. The world had changed significantly in his lifetime but unlike most leaders in or out of the church, he realized this and sought to address it in a positive way. He was born in comfortable circumstances and destined for the quiet life of an intellectual. Indeed, he was a librarian for most of his life. He was not, however, trapped in an ivory tower. He understood that the First World War and the flu epidemic had broken the connection with the past. Many developing movements and ideologies tried to interpret life in this new world. Marxism had taken over Russia and sought to extend its hold elsewhere. Achille Ratti’s one nonacademic job was as papal ambassador to Poland. There he attempted, unsuccessfully, to make peace with the new Soviet government. Simultaneously, many groups were contesting for rule in Germany, and most importantly to him, Mussolini and his fascists had seized control of Italy. Indeed, Pope Pius and Mussolini were on covers of Time magazine in 1924.
He understood that the situation of working people was dire and if the church did not support the workers, it would become irrelevant. He wrote passionately and perceptively on social concerns. The passages quoted above were particularly prophetic. Concentration of capital in the hands of the few is always dangerous but when it is controlled by anonymous groups who have no relationship with the workers it will inevitably lead to massive inequalities. He saw as well that when people do not have access to basic goods and services, they will seek explanations and remedies from almost anywhere and anyone.
Pope Pius articulated a sophisticated view of private property. He held that personal ownership gave people a sense of participation in their society and a means for personal expression. But as you can see from the second quote today, he believed that some services should belong to everyone. He found Communism destructive, most forms of socialism naïve and laisse faire capitalism, what Europeans would call classical liberalism, alienating. He could not deny, however, that they were based on powerful and effective myths with symbols that could explain what was occurring to people and why. He knew that the church must do more than respond to individual situations but provide a counter vision.
The theology behind Christ the King was his response. It is odd that a title that seems so archaic was not celebrated by the universal church until 1925. Since the 18th century, there were those in the Global North, mostly intellectuals, who denied the existence or at least the relevance of God. Most people however gave a least lip service to a God who was the motivating force of history. This was no longer the case. Communism, popularism, nationalism, classical liberalism, and fascism all had persuasive explanations. Pius felt that while the church addressed the individual evils in society, she must proclaim that Jesus is the motivating force in history and that all powers are subject to him.
This was connected to a plan of deep biblical and theological study that bore fruit a generation later in Vatican 2 but in truly Catholic fashion it began with celebrating the Eucharist. In today’s liturgy, we proclaim that Jesus is superior to, as we hear in our second reading “thrones or dominions, principalities and powers.” The gospel brings this out even more clearly. Jesus is hanging on the cross, a hideous death that was the ultimate sign of the invincibility of the Roman empire. Yet a man being crucified with him asks to be remembered in his kingdom. This man as he is dying by the order of Rome sees another victim as more powerful than Rome. Truly the force that rules the universe.
Pius also saw this vision could not be made real without the laity’s participation. He said that celebrating the Eucharist and meditating on the reality of the Lordship of Christ will form the laity “as instruments for the interior sanctification of our souls, or to use the words of the Apostle Paul, as instruments of justice unto God” (Quas Primas 33, the encyclical that created the Solemnity of Christ the King)
Pius was also the first Pope to condemn worldwide antisemitism and American racism. If he looked at the world today; he might have been surprised and saddened that his concerns were still alive and well. I think however he would have been heartened by the synodal process under his successor Pope Francis. Through this, the laity in whom Pius put so much hope can express their concern for each other and most especially for the marginalized. This practical recognition of the kingship of Christ assures us all that when Christ is served justice and peace will abound.