The dominant Catholic social theory prior to the Second Vatican Council was referred to under the heading of “The Social Reign of Christ the King.” This remains an important shibboleth for Traditionalist Catholic groups such as the SSPX.
Thomas Droleskey of Christ or Chaos states the matter thus:
” … a nation’s recognition of the Social Reign of Christ the King, and the authority of His true Church is the necessary precondition for the right ordering of civil institutions and the pursuit of fundamental justice …”
This was a major theme of Spiritans Marcel Lefebvre and Denis Fahey, but the authoritative statement of the teaching in modern times was the encyclical of Pope Pius XI, Quas primas (November 12, 1925), establishing the Feast of Christ the King in the Catholic calendar.
We tend to use the term “king” of Christ in a metaphorical sense, or referring in a generic way to his lordship. Not Pius XI. He wanted to exalt Christ’s “necessarily supreme and absolute dominion over all things created.”
This has explicit political overtones.
If, therefore, the rulers of nations wish to preserve their authority, to promote and increase the prosperity of their countries, they will not neglect the public duty of reverence and obedience to the rule of Christ. What We said at the beginning of Our Pontificate concerning the decline of public authority, and the lack of respect for the same, is equally true at the present day. “With God and Jesus Christ,” we said, “excluded from political life, with authority derived not from God but from man, the very basis of that authority has been taken away, because the chief reason of the distinction between ruler and subject has been eliminated. The result is that human society is tottering to its fall, because it has no longer a secure and solid foundation.”
The solution to humanity is a reestablishment of the Empire of Christ (i.e., the Christendom that subsisted in the Middle Ages, when Church and State had a close relationship).
This would bring about real and lasting peace in the world:
If the kingdom of Christ, then, receives, as it should, all nations under its way, there seems no reason why we should despair of seeing that peace which the King of Peace came to bring on earth – he who came to reconcile all things, who came not to be ministered unto but to minister, who, though Lord of all, gave himself to us as a model of humility, and with his principal law united the precept of charity; who said also: “My yoke is sweet and my burden light.” Oh, what happiness would be Ours if all men, individuals, families, and nations, would but let themselves be governed by Christ! “Then at length,” to use the words addressed by our predecessor, Pope Leo XIII, twenty-five years ago to the bishops of the Universal Church, “then at length will many evils be cured; then will the law regain its former authority; peace with all its blessings be restored. Men will sheathe their swords and lay down their arms when all freely acknowledge and obey the authority of Christ, and every tongue confesses that the Lord Jesus Christ is in the glory of God the Father.”
But while the Church thus expects to wield power over the State, by decreeing what is right and moral, it does not allow any interference within its own affairs:
When we pay honor to the princely dignity of Christ, men will doubtless be reminded that the Church, founded by Christ as a perfect society, has a natural and inalienable right to perfect freedom and immunity from the power of the state; and that in fulfilling the task committed to her by God of teaching, ruling, and guiding to eternal bliss those who belong to the kingdom of Christ, she cannot be subject to any external power. The State is bound to extend similar freedom to the orders and communities of religious of either sex, who give most valuable help to the Bishops of the Church by laboring for the extension and the establishment of the kingdom of Christ.
Under this theology, Catholic social teachings would be imposed through legislation, but Catholic clerics and religious would be free from state coercion in any matter (herein lies the seed of that attitude that led Bishops for decades to refuse to cooperate with legal investigation into sexual misconduct by priests and religious).
This understanding of the Social Reign of Christ the King is the context within which to understand pre-Vatican 2 statements condemning religious liberty. In the Social Reign of Christ the King, the Catholic Church and its teachings have primacy in civil life; in it, there can be no such thing as a freedom of religion that treats all religions as the same or which preserves freedom of conscience as a positive good.
Consider, for example, Pope Gregory XVI, Mirari Vos (15 Aug 1832):
14. This shameful font of indifferentism gives rise to that absurd and erroneous proposition which claims that liberty of conscience must be maintained for everyone. It spreads ruin in sacred and civil affairs, though some repeat over and over again with the greatest impudence that some advantage accrues to religion from it. “But the death of the soul is worse than freedom of error,” as Augustine was wont to say.21 When all restraints are removed by which men are kept on the narrow path of truth, their nature, which is already inclined to evil, propels them to ruin. Then truly “the bottomless pit”22] is open from which John saw smoke ascending which obscured the sun, and out of which locusts flew forth to devastate the earth. Thence comes transformation of minds, corruption of youths, contempt of sacred things and holy laws–in other words, a pestilence more deadly to the state than any other. Experience shows, even from earliest times, that cities renowned for wealth, dominion, and glory perished as a result of this single evil, namely immoderate freedom of opinion, license of free speech, and desire for novelty.
15. Here We must include that harmful and never sufficiently denounced freedom to publish any writings whatever and disseminate them to the people, which some dare to demand and promote with so great a clamor. We are horrified to see what monstrous doctrines and prodigious errors are disseminated far and wide in countless books, pamphlets, and other writings which, though small in weight, are very great in malice. We are in tears at the abuse which proceeds from them over the face of the earth. Some are so carried away that they contentiously assert that the flock of errors arising from them is sufficiently compensated by the publication of some book which defends religion and truth. Every law condemns deliberately doing evil simply because there is some hope that good may result. Is there any sane man who would say poison ought to be distributed, sold publicly, stored, and even drunk because some antidote is available and those who use it may be snatched from death again and again?
16. The Church has always taken action to destroy the plague of bad books. This was true even in apostolic times for we read that the apostles themselves burned a large number of books.23 It may be enough to consult the laws of the fifth Council of the Lateran on this matter and the Constitution which Leo X published afterwards lest “that which has been discovered advantageous for the increase of the faith and the spread of useful arts be converted to the contrary use and work harm for the salvation of the faithful.”24 This also was of great concern to the fathers of Trent, who applied a remedy against this great evil by publishing that wholesome decree concerning the Index of books which contain false doctrine.25 “We must fight valiantly,” Clement XIII says in an encyclical letter about the banning of bad books, “as much as the matter itself demands and must exterminate the deadly poison of so many books; for never will the material for error be withdrawn, unless the criminal sources of depravity perish in flames.”26 Thus it is evident that this Holy See has always striven, throughout the ages, to condemn and to remove suspect and harmful books. The teaching of those who reject the censure of books as too heavy and onerous a burden causes immense harm to the Catholic people and to this See. They are even so depraved as to affirm that it is contrary to the principles of law, and they deny the Church the right to decree and to maintain it.
17. We have learned that certain teachings are being spread among the common people in writings which attack the trust and submission due to princes; the torches of treason are being lit everywhere. Care must be taken lest the people, being deceived, are led away from the straight path. May all recall, according to the admonition of the apostle that “there is no authority except from God; what authority there is has been appointed by God. Therefore he who resists authority resists the ordinances of God; and those who resist bring on themselves condemnation.”27
Note, it is not just religious liberty that is condemned, but freedom of the press and freedom of speech, as these are all understood by democratic societies; he also defends burning of books.
Next, Pope Bl. Pius IX, Quanta Cura (8 Dec 1864):
For you well know, venerable brethren, that at this time men are found not a few who, applying to civil society the impious and absurd principle of “naturalism,” as they call it, dare to teach that “the best constitution of public society and (also) civil progress altogether require that human society be conducted and governed without regard being had to religion any more than if it did not exist; or, at least, without any distinction being made between the true religion and false ones.” And, against the doctrine of Scripture, of the Church, and of the Holy Fathers, they do not hesitate to assert that “that is the best condition of civil society, in which no duty is recognized, as attached to the civil power, of restraining by enacted penalties, offenders against the Catholic religion, except so far as public peace may require.” From which totally false idea of social government they do not fear to foster that erroneous opinion, most fatal in its effects on the Catholic Church and the salvation of souls, called by Our Predecessor, Gregory XVI, an “insanity,”2 viz., that “liberty of conscience and worship is each man’s personal right, which ought to be legally proclaimed and asserted in every rightly constituted society; and that a right resides in the citizens to an absolute liberty, which should be restrained by no authority whether ecclesiastical or civil, whereby they may be able openly and publicly to manifest and declare any of their ideas whatever, either by word of mouth, by the press, or in any other way.” But, while they rashly affirm this, they do not think and consider that they are preaching “liberty of perdition;”3 and that “if human arguments are always allowed free room for discussion, there will never be wanting men who will dare to resist truth, and to trust in the flowing speech of human wisdom; whereas we know, from the very teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ, how carefully Christian faith and wisdom should avoid this most injurious babbling.”4
4. And, since where religion has been removed from civil society, and the doctrine and authority of divine revelation repudiated, the genuine notion itself of justice and human right is darkened and lost, and the place of true justice and legitimate right is supplied by material force, thence it appears why it is that some, utterly neglecting and disregarding the surest principles of sound reason, dare to proclaim that “the people’s will, manifested by what is called public opinion or in some other way, constitutes a supreme law, free from all divine and human control; and that in the political order accomplished facts, from the very circumstance that they are accomplished, have the force of right.” But who, does not see and clearly perceive that human society, when set loose from the bonds of religion and true justice, can have, in truth, no other end than the purpose of obtaining and amassing wealth, and that (society under such circumstances) follows no other law in its actions, except the unchastened desire of ministering to its own pleasure and interests?
These various documents are agreed in their vision of a secure world, in which Christian teaching is protected in law and is the basis of legislation, in which princes are trusted as ruling by divine right, in which religious freedom and political freedom are both seen as the basis of anarchy and immmorality, and incorrect religious and political ideas must alike be opposed.
Later in the 19th century, Leo XIII wrote Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae in response to a controversy over a (mistranslated) biography of Isaac Hecker, founder of the Paulists. Leo was worried that people might apply the ideas of “Americanism” (freedom of thought, freedom of the press, freedom of conscience, even democracy) to the Church. He saw that the spread of these teachings in society made it all the more necessary for the Church’s teaching voice to be heard.
But, beloved son, in this present matter of which we are speaking, there is even a greater danger and a more manifest opposition to Catholic doctrine and discipline in that opinion of the lovers of novelty, according to which they hold such liberty should be allowed in the Church, that her supervision and watchfulness being in some sense lessened, allowance be granted the faithful, each one to follow out more freely the leading of his own mind and the trend of his own proper activity. They are of opinion that such liberty has its counterpart in the newly given civil freedom which is now the right and the foundation of almost every secular state. …
These dangers, viz., the confounding of license with liberty, the passion for discussing and pouring contempt upon any possible subject, the assumed right to hold whatever opinions one pleases upon any subject and to set them forth in print to the world, have so wrapped minds in darkness that there is now a greater need of the Church’s teaching office than ever before, lest people become unmindful both of conscience and of duty.
Vatican 2 turned these teachings on their head. Dignitatis Humanae begins by noting the increase in civil societies of the concern for respecting the dignity of the human person, and that this is the basis for limiting government. The Council declares this hunger and thirst for freedom “to be greatly in accord with truth and justice.”
Then comes this statement of what the declaration intends, and what it does not:
First, the council professes its belief that God Himself has made known to mankind the way in which men are to serve Him, and thus be saved in Christ and come to blessedness. We believe that this one true religion subsists in the Catholic and Apostolic Church, to which the Lord Jesus committed the duty of spreading it abroad among all men. Thus He spoke to the Apostles: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have enjoined upon you” (Matt. 28: 19-20). On their part, all men are bound to seek the truth, especially in what concerns God and His Church, and to embrace the truth they come to know, and to hold fast to it.
This Vatican Council likewise professes its belief that it is upon the human conscience that these obligations fall and exert their binding force. The truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it makes its entrance into the mind at once quietly and with power.
Religious freedom, in turn, which men demand as necessary to fulfill their duty to worship God, has to do with immunity from coercion in civil society. Therefore 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.
Over and above all this, the council intends to develop the doctrine of recent popes on the inviolable rights of the human person and the constitutional order of society.
2. This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.
The council further declares that the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself.(2) This right of the human person to religious freedom is to be recognized in the constitutional law whereby society is governed and thus it is to become a civil right.
It is in accordance with their dignity as persons-that is, beings endowed with reason and free will and therefore privileged to bear personal responsibility-that all men should be at once impelled by nature and also bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth. They are also bound to adhere to the truth, once it is known, and to order their whole lives in accord with the demands of truth However, men cannot discharge these obligations in a manner in keeping with their own nature unless they enjoy immunity from external coercion as well as psychological freedom. Therefore the right to religious freedom has its foundation not in the subjective disposition of the person, but in his very nature.
Some have tried to say that Vatican 2 is not as radical as it would appear, that it must really be assumed to be in harmony with existing teachings. But this ignores both the clear teaching of the document itself and the clear teachings of what went before. Folks like Lefebvre, Droleskey, and Ferrara are right: Vatican 2 changed what had been clearly stated Catholic teaching, affirmed repeatedly by popes warning against the evils of democratic societies. This change is affirmed by folks on the other side like John Courtney Murray and (recently) John A. Coleman.
Given this shift, what are we to make of rumored concessions to the SSPX on the matter of the mass, or of attempts at reunion which ignore these and related issues? The SSPX has never been criticized by Rome for its publications on the Jews, religious liberty, and the Social Reign of Christ the King. Individuals advocating these views have never been disciplined by the Catholic Church.
What are we to think? Is this a “development”? It surely isn’t in accord with Newman’s understanding of development as requiring continuity in type. How does one hold together the absolute authority of the Magisterium and deny that the Magisterium has ever erred or changed its mind when confronted with such a drastic turn around?