A Kingdom of Truth and Life

Is Jesus Christ the King of whom we want to be a subject? Or do we declare, “We have no king but Caesar?”

Antonio Ciseri, “Ecce Homo,” 1871
Antonio Ciseri, “Ecce Homo,” 1871 (photo: Public Domain)

In the current Roman Calendar, the Church year ends every year with the Solemnity of Christ the King. In the Church’s calendar, it is something of a new celebration. Pope Pius XI instituted it in 1925, amid growing secularism and totalitarianism on the part of states that claimed total allegiance over their citizens: the Pope wanted to underscore that all men owed allegiance first and foremost to God. Pius XI had every reason to fear the omnicompetent state: as papal nuncio in Poland, he witnessed the 1920 Battle of Warsaw, where Bolshevik hoards were turned back in their march west to communize Europe. By the time Pius issued Quas primas, the encyclical establishing the feast, Mussolini had been in power three years and was coming up on the anniversary of his abolition of any pretense to democracy in Italy.

Pius originally put the feast on the last Sunday of October. The 1969 reform of the Roman Calendar gave it greater prominence by making it the final Sunday of the Church year, displacing the earlier arrangement where the last Gospel of the liturgical year focused on the Last Judgment. We conclude the Church year by recognizing, as the blessing of the Paschal Candle on Holy Saturday reminds us, that “all time belongs to Him//and all the ages//to Him be glory and power through every age forever, Amen!” (See also today’s Second Reading, Revelation 1:8).

Today’s Gospel tells us that Jesus proclaims a kingdom of truth: He comes to “testify to the truth” (John 18:37b). Today’s Gospel stops just short of Pilate’s response: “And what is truth?” (v. 38).

These two men, standing opposite each other, reflect the challenge of every age: Jesus, who “testifies to the Truth” and Pilate, the skeptic, who denies there can be such a thing as the Truth.

Whether or not there is such a thing as “the truth” in the area of marital and sexual morality is the lightning rod issue of our times.

Jesus does not “testify to my truth.” There is no “my truth” and “your truth” but rather “the truth.” And it’s the “intolerance” of “the truth” that makes His message a challenge in our own era, especially in the area of marriage and sexuality. We deem it a “right” to live by “my” truth. Former Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy even opined that “at the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of the meaning of the universe, and of the mystery of human life,” a “right” comprehensive enough to decide whether a child may live or die. Against a “liberty” broad enough to empower its holder to “define … the meaning of the universe,” “the truth” seems like a pretty paltry counterweight.

Catholic theology may not yield to Anthony Kennedy’s flights of fancy, but is also sometimes tempted by false notions of conscience that seem to suggest that whatever I “believe” is God’s Will somehow insulates that choice against correction by or even criticism from the teaching Church. Conscience does not invent “truth.” It is called to discover truth as it exists. Conscience recognizes the moral order; it does not create it.

And what is the truth? The truth that contemporary man does not want to recognize is that, from the moment of conception, a real and different human being (with an eternal life and destiny) has come into existence. The truth is that this being’s rights do not depend on my acknowledgment of them, on my “choice.” The truth is that human sexuality is connected with both the possibility of giving life (procreation) as well as the bonding of two persons (unity), and that both of these meanings of the sexual act are good and they are inseparable (see Humanae vitae, nos. 9 and 12).

And it is precisely this truth that is in conflict with the anti-Truth that, in our world, prefers to call itself “my” truth.

I also want to draw particular attention to today’s Preface, which describes clearly what kind of Kingdom Jesus inaugurates. It is:

“A Kingdom of Truth and Life,

“A Kingdom of Holiness and Grace,

“A Kingdom of Justice, Love, and Peace.”

Jesus’ Kingdom is built on Truth and built on Life, on truth about life. It is a Kingdom that recognizes the goodness of life and the fact that God, not man, is its Lord and Giver. It is a Kingdom that recognizes the truth of the invitation to humans of co-creatorship with God, a co-creatorship that acknowledges who is (and is not) the deity.

It is a kingdom of justice: of “justice toward the Creator” (to borrow Karol Wojtyła’s phrase, from Love and Responsibility), acknowledging that giving God His due means recognizing that human beings are invitees, not arbiters, of God’s continuing work of creation through parenthood. It is justice toward the beloved, by recognizing that one’s potential for parenthood is part of the reality of that person, not something separate from and below the “person, and that being just to that person means accepting him/her as he/she is, not as perhaps we might at this moment want the other to be, i.e., infertile. Indeed, it’s not just justice but also the demand of love, which is why, in Christ the King, justice and love are reconciled. (We are sometimes prone to think of justice as something “minimal” while love “pulls out the stops.” But when justice and love focus on the person – the person of the beloved – do they not in fact coincide?)

Is this the King of whom we want to be a subject? Or, like the Jerusalem crowd and the chief priests (who should have known better), we declare: “we have no king but Caesar!” (John 19:15).

For if we are ready to deny the truth of human life and sexuality, if we prefer to think that these fundamental truths about humanity are merely opinions in which every man can “choose” for himself, then at least be honest enough to acknowledge Caesar’s primacy … and join Pilate’s question: “what is truth?”