As I clicked on my colleagues’ website, a large gray banner appeared, with a regal profile in the center.
Underneath was a single line of text: “In memory of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, forever in the hearts of the Thai people.”
Then I remembered that my colleagues in Thailand were mourning the recent death of their beloved monarch, who had reigned 70 years – the longest rule of any king or queen in world history. The Thai people were heartbroken; one man, weeping openly on the streets of Bangkok, cried out, “How will Thailand live without you, father?”
As Americans, we find such devotion to a king incomprehensible. Our nation was founded upon a firm renunciation of monarchy, and our Constitution flatly declares that “no title of nobility shall be granted by the United States” (Article I, Section 9).
We may swoon over Britain’s royal family, but we aren’t about to swap the Oval Office for a throne room.
As Christians, though, we nonetheless profess our submission to an all-powerful ruler. In a curious coincidence, our nation’s Election Day falls just a few weeks before the Feast of Christ the King.
How, then, do we live as both citizens of a democracy and subjects of the Kingdom of God?
Some Christians simply don’t. Religious belief never crosses their razor-sharp line between the things of God and Caesar. As long as civil authorities don’t interfere with the practice of private worship, these folks are content to detach their faith from the surrounding world.
Other Christians immerse themselves so thoroughly in politics that you wonder if they’d have run for Apostle had they lived during Jesus’ earthly time. Some of these Christians even view political power as the primary means by which the Kingdom of God will be realized on earth.
But to what extent, if any, can man’s governmental structures manifest the reign of God – especially in our own nation, which heads to the polls Nov. 8 after a dismal election campaign?
The Catholic Church brings centuries of prayer and thought to this very question. From the days of the early Church – right through the Middle Ages, the Protestant Reformation, and the rise of the modern state – theologians have wrestled with the relationship between temporal government and divine authority. Among others, St. Peter, St. Paul, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Robert Bellarmine, Francisco Suárez, and numerous popes have weighed in.
And from their insights, we can find the guidance we need as we prepare to pull the lever.
First, we must recall that government is actually God’s idea. “Every human community needs an authority to govern it,” states the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC, 1898). “Its role is to ensure as far as possible the common good of the society” (CCC, 1898).
And whether mediated through a monarch or a representative democracy, “the authority required by the moral order derives from God” (CCC, 1899).
The Catholic Church doesn’t prefer a specific form of government, as long as it is just: “If the authority belongs to the order established by God, ‘the choice of the political regime and the appointment of rulers are left to the free decision of the citizens’ ” (CCC, 1901).
God can work through the crown or the ballot box to further his Kingdom on earth. But we also need to do our part.
Governance – like building the Kingdom of God on earth – requires “decisive moral choices” of us (CCC, 1723). In its social justice teachings, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops stresses that “how we organize our society, in economics and politics, in law and policy, directly affects human dignity and the capacity of individuals to grow in community.”
For this task, we must “purify our hearts … to seek the love of God above all else” (CCC, 1723).
Once we’ve submitted ourselves to our heavenly ruler, we can then follow “the paths that lead to (his) Kingdom,” along which Scripture, the apostolic catechesis, and the Holy Spirit guide us (CCC, 1724). And “step by step, by everyday acts” (CCC, 1724) we bring about the reign of God on earth.
The Kingdom of God – already present on earth “in mystery” (CCC, 763) – should therefore permeate our just, though imperfect, governments. Our conscientious participation in the political process should serve as an encounter with the divine. In his encyclical Quas Primas, Pope Pius XI reminds us that “not only do the gospels tell us that (God) made laws, but they present him to us in the act of making them” (Quas Primas, Section 14).
Now, I certainly can’t profess to understand the love my Thai colleagues had for their king. And I admit that I’ll enter the voting booth this Tuesday with a heavy heart.
But I know that our ballot box is ultimately encircled by a divine and perfect crown – one reflected only partially now, but one that will shine clearly and forever in the age to come.
May our prayerful choices bring us ever closer to that day.
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