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August 11, 2004

A King for All Epochs

by Thomas A. Droleskey

Although it is exactly two weeks before his feast day, this reflection on Saint Louis IX, King of France, is being posted at this time as we will be on the road without regular or reliable access to the Internet. Rather than take a chance of missing paying a tribute to this king for all epochs, I thought it best to prepare this article, part of which borrows heavily from a section of “Catholicism and the State,” to offer some food for thought about a true exemplar of the Social Reign of Christ the King.

Saint Louis IX was born in 1214 and anointed King of France at Rheims in 1226. Dom Prosper Gueranger describes this accession of Saint Louis to the throne as follows in The Liturgical Year:

He was only twelve years old; but our Lord had given him the surest safeguard of his youth, in the person of his mother, that noble daughter of Spain, whose coming to France, says William de Nangis, was the arrival of all good things. The premature death of her husband Louis VIII left Blanche of Castile to cope with a most formidable conspiracy. The great vassals, whose power had been reduced during the preceding reigns, promised themselves that they would profit of the minority of the new prince in order to regain the rights they had enjoyed under the ancient feudal system to the detriment of the government. In order to remove this mother, who stood up single-handed between the weakness of the heir to the throne and their ambition, the barons, everywhere in revolt, joined hands with the son of John Lackland, Henry II, who was endeavoring to recover the possessions in France lost by his father in punishment for the murder of prince Arthur. Strong in her son’s right and in the protection of Pope Gregory IX, Blanche held out; and she, whom the traitors to their country called the foreigner in order to palliate their crime, saved France by her prudence and her brave firmness. After nine years of regency, she handed over the nation to its king, more united and more powerful than ever since the days of Charlemagne. . . . Yet who was greater than this humble king, making more account of his Baptism at Poissy than of his anointing at Rheims; saying his Hours, fasting, scourging himself like his friends the Friars Preachers and Minors; ever treating with respect those whom he regarded as God’s privileged ones, priests, religious, the suffering and the poor? The great men of our days may smile at him for being more grieved at losing his breviary than at being taken captive by the Saracens. But how have they behaved in the like extremity?

Saint Louis IX understood that though he had to use the authority as a civil ruler that had been given him by God to rule justly according to His laws, that he would pay a high price at the moment of his Particular Judgment if he did anything contrary to the binding precepts of the Divine positive law and the natural law and/or did anything that put into jeopardy the public honor and glory due the Blessed Trinity and thus damaged the sanctification and salvation of the souls of his subjects,. Saint Louis IX knew that there were limits that existed in the nature of things which he had no authority to transgress. And he recognized that the Church herself had the right to interpose herself if he proposed to do things–or had in fact done things–contrary to the laws of God and thus deleterious to the salvation of souls. Saint Louis understood that being a good Catholic was an absolute precondition to being a good ruler or a good citizen.

Consider, for example, the wisdom of Pope Leo XIII, contained in Immortale Dei in 1885, concerning the nature of the State and the family in the Middle Ages, a wisdom that must be taken into account when reflecting upon the life and example of Saint Louis IX:

It is not difficult to determine what would be the form and character of the State were it governed according to the principles of Christian philosophy. Man’s natural instinct moves him to live in civil society, for he cannot, if he dwelling apart, provide himself with the necessary requirements of life, nor procure the means of developing his mental and moral faculties. Hence it is divinely ordained that he should lead his life–be it family, social, or civil–with his fellow-men, amongst whom alone his several wants can be adequately supplied. But as no society can hold together unless some one be over all, directing all to strive earnestly for the common good; every civilized community must have a ruling authority, and this authority, no less than society itself, has its source in nature, and has, consequently, God for its author. Hence it follows that all public power must proceed from God. For God alone is the true and supreme Lord of the world. Everything, without exception, must be subject to Him, and must serve Him, so that whosoever holds the right to govern, holds it from one sole and single source, namely, God, the Sovereign Ruler of all. There is no power but from God.

The right to rule is not necessarily, however, bound up with any special mode of government. It may take this or that form, provided only that it be of a nature to insure the general welfare. But whatever be the nature of the government, rulers must ever bear in mind that God is the paramount ruler of the world, and must set Him before themselves as their exemplar and law in the administration of the State. For, in things visible, God has fashioned secondary causes, in which His divine action can in some wise be discerned, leading up to the end to which the course of the world is ever tending. In like manner in civil society, God has always willed that there should be a ruling authority, and that they who are invested with it should reflect the divine power and providence in some measure over the human race.

A beautiful expression of this recognition can be found in a letter written to his son by Saint Louis IX:

My dearest son, my first instruction is that you should love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your strength. Without this there is no salvation. Keep yourself, my son, from everything that you know displeases God, that is to say, from every mortal sin. You should permit yourself to be tormented by every kind of martyrdom before you would allow yourself to commit a mortal sin.

That is, one entrusted with the rule over others has an obligation to be especially vigilant about the state of his immortal soul. Mortal sin kills the life of sanctifying grace in the soul, thereby darkening the intellect (which is thus more ready to deny the truth or be slower to accept it) and weakening the will, inclining the sinner more and more to a disordered love of self and to an indulgence in his uncontrolled appetites. A soul in a state of mortal sin is more apt to act contrary to truth and to do so arbitrarily, leading a life of contradiction and confusion that is ultimately reflected in his relations with others. As even Plato himself understood, disorder in the soul leads to disorder in society. Well, disorder in the soul is caused principally by unrepentant mortal sin. If one wants to know one of the chief reasons why the modern State has been corrupted, one should start by looking at the glorification of mortal sin in every aspect of our culture (which is found among those libertarians who believe that the State has no role to play in such issues as contraception or abortion or perversity, that these are all matters of personal liberty).

Saint Louis went on to explain to his son that he must bear his crosses with patience and be ever grateful for the blessings he receives from God, making sure to avoid become conceited because of the privilege he would be given to serve as a ruler over his subjects:

If the Lord has permitted you to have some trial, bear it willingly and with gratitude, considering that it has happened for your good and that perhaps you well deserve it. If the Lord bestows upon you any kind of prosperity, thank him humbly and see that you become no worse for it, either through vain pride or anything else, because you ought not to oppose God or offend him in the matter of his gifts.

That is, Saint Louis IX, who suffered much during his lifetime, including imprisonment by the Saracens, was explaining to his son that we must bear our crosses with manly courage, understand that our sins deserve far worse than we suffer in this life and that there is no suffering we encounter that is the equal of what one of our least venial sins did to Our Lord in His Sacred Humanity on the wood of the Holy Cross. Any prosperity that God sees fit to bestow upon us is His gratuitous gift that can be taken away at any moment. We should be thankful for His gifts but detached from them in order to place our heart where it rightly belongs–to the thing of Heaven, thus building up treasure there.

Saint Louis went on to explain to his that he must be a man of prayer in order to rule justly and thus to be counted among the just when he died:

Listen to the divine office with pleasure and devotion. As long as you are in church, be careful not to let your eyes wander and not to speak empty words, but to pray to the Lord devoutly, either aloud or with the silence of the interior prayer of the heart.

A ruler still must observe the binding precepts of the Divine positive law and the natural law, and the standard of his own Particular Judgment is actually higher than any of his subjects because he has been entrusted with the administration of objective justice founded in the splendor of Truth Incarnate:

Be kindhearted to the poor, the unfortunate and the afflicted. Give them as much help and consolation as you can. Thank God for all the benefits he has bestowed upon you, that you may be worthy to receive greater. Be just to your subjects, swaying neither to the right nor to the left, but holding the line of justice. Always side with the poor rather than with the rich, until your certain of the truth. See that all your subjects live in justice and in peace, but especially those who have ecclesiastical rank and those who belong to religious orders.

The great leader of France during most of the Thirteenth Century concluded his letter by writing:

Be devout and obedience to our mother the Church of Rome and the Supreme Pontiff as your spiritual father. Work to remove all sin from your land, particularly blasphemies and heresies.

There is no more cogent summary of the Social Kingship of Jesus Christ. Saint Louis was telling his son that he, although destined to be a king, was subordinate to the Church founded by Our Lord upon the Rock of Peter, the Pope. All States, no matter the construct of their civil governments, must be so subordinate.

Importantly, Saint Louis admonished his son to “work to remove all sin from your land, particularly blasphemies and heresies.” The State has the obligation to work to remove those conditions that breed sin in the midst of its cultural life. Yes, sin there will always be. True. However, the State, which the Church teaches has the obligation to help foster those conditions in civil society in which citizens can better save their souls, must not tolerate grave evils (such as blasphemy or willful murder) under cover of law. Saint Thomas Aquinas understood that some evils may have to be tolerated in society. Graver evils, however, undermine the common good and put into jeopardy the pursuit of man’s last end, as Pope Leo XIII noted in Sapientiae Christianae in 1890.

Why, though, should the State seek to banish blasphemy and heresies, going so far as to punish blasphemers and heretics? It is quite simple. Those who can violate the Second Commandment in order to do violence against the Holy Name can just as easily do violence against their fellow-men. Those who put into question the received teaching of the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity made Man are worse criminals than those who commit physical crimes against persons and property. Why? Because those who can place into question the truths of Our Blessed Lord and Savior make it more possible for people to reject the necessity of the Faith in their own lives and that of their nations, giving rise to the very statist crimes that are of such justifiable concern to those in the libertarian and/or anarchist camps.

The nature of this sort of fatherly concern for things sacred and temporal that existed in the Middle Ages among many, although certainly not all, rulers was noted by Pope Leo XIII in Immortale Dei:

They, therefore, who rule should rule with even-handed justice, not as masters, but rather as fathers, for the rule of God over man is most just, and is tempered always with a father’s kindness. Government should, moreover, be administered for the well-being of the citizens because they who govern others possess authority solely for the welfare of the State. Furthermore, the civil power must not be subservient to the advantage of any one individual or if some few persons, inasmuch as it was established for the common good of all. But if those who are in authority rule unjustly, if they govern overbearingly or arrogantly, and if their measures prove hurtful to the people, they must remember that the Almighty will one day bring them to account, the more strictly in proportion to the sacredness of their office and pre-eminence of their dignity. The mighty should be mightily tormented. Then truly will the majesty of the law meet with the dutiful and willing homage of the people, when they are convinced that their rulers hold authority from God, and feel that it is a matter of justice and duty to obey them, and to show them reverence and fealty, united to a love not unlike that which children show their parents. Let every soul be subject to higher powers. To despise legitimate authority, in whomsoever vested, is unlawful, as a rebellion against the divine will, and whoever resists that, rushes wilfully to destruction. He that resisteth the power resisteth the ordinance of God, and they that resist, purchase to themselves damnation. To cast aside obedience, and by popular violence to incite to revolt, is therefore treason, not against man only, but against God.

These are strong words. Yes, as both Saint Thomas Aquinas and Saint Robert Bellarmine noted in their respective works, there are grave circumstances in which it might be necessary for a well-organized collection of citizens to rebel against the unjust exercise of power by civil rulers. Such a rebellion must meet the conditions outlined in the Just War Theory. Of particular importance in a consideration as to whether the conditions justifying such a rebellion have been met is the principle of proportionality.

Nevertheless, as Pope Leo XIII noted in Immortale Dei, the Catholics of the Middle Ages understood full well that an unjust ruler would meet with an unhappy end if he did not repent of his injustice. Subjects, though, continued to pray for their rulers at all times, trusting in the power of the graces won for us by the shedding of Our Lord’s Most Precious Blood on Calvary to be applied to even the most hardened of sinners, including those vested with civil rule.

Indeed, it was the Faith itself that served as the check upon renegade rulers and curbed the tendency to absolutism in the State. Pope Leo XIII makes this clear in Immortale Dei:

As a consequence, the State, constituted as it is, is clearly bound up to act to the manifold and weighty duties linking it to God, by the public profession of religion. Nature and reason, which command every individual devoutly to worship God in holiness, because we belong to Him and must return to Him since from Him we came, bind also the civil community by a like law. For men living together in society are under the power of God no less than individuals are, and society, not less than individuals, owes gratitude to God, who gave it being and maintains it, and whose ever-bounteous goodness enriches it with countless blessings. Since, then, no one is allowed to be remiss in the service due to God, and since the chief duty of all men is to cling to religion in both its teaching and practice–not such religion as they may have a preference for, but the religion which God enjoins, and which certain and most clear marks show to be the only true religion–it is a public crime to act as though there no God. So, too, is it a sin in the State not to have care for religion, as something beyond its scope, or as of no practical benefit; or out of the many forms of religion to adopt that one which chimes in with the fancy; for we are bound absolutely to worship God in that way which He has shown to be His will. All who rule, therefore, should hold in honor the holy name of God, and one of their chief duties must be to favor religion, to protect it, to shield it under the credit and sanction of the laws, and neither to organize nor enact any measure that may compromise its safety. This is the bounden duty of rulers to the people over whom they rule. For one and all are we destined by our birth and adoption to enjoy, when this frail and fleeting life is ended, a supreme and final good in heaven, and to the attainment of this every endeavor should be directed. Since, then, upon, this depends the full and perfect happiness of mankind, the securing of this end should be of all imaginable interests the most urgent. Hence, civil society, established for the common welfare, should not only safeguard the well-being of the community, but have also at heart the interests of its individual members, in such mode as not in any way to hinder, but in every manner to render as easy as may be, the possession of that highest and unchangeable good for which all should seek. Wherefore, for this purpose, care must especially be taken to preserve unharmed and unimpeded the religion whereof the practice is the link connecting man to God.

Referring to Saint Louis IX, Dom Gueranger put it this way in The Liturgical Year:

For God, who commands us to obey at all times the power actually established, is ever the master of nations and the unchangeable disposer of their changeable destinies. Then every one of thy descendants, taught by a sad experience, will be bound to remember, O Louis, thy last recommendations: “Exert thyself that every vile sin be abolished from thy land; especially, to the best of thy power, put down all wicked oaths and heresy.”

Saint Louis IX knew that the only way to order a state rightly was by means of the true Faith. Individual citizens must seek first the Kingdom of God by cooperating with the graces made available to them by the Church in the sacraments. They must live for the honor and glory of God at all times, keeping in mind that they could be called home to Him to render an account of their lives at any moment. Everything in social life, including politics and economics, must be subordinated to the Holy Faith. And Saint Louis IX knew that he, a ruler, had the obligation to so subordinate himself to the things of Heaven that he would be willing at all times to lose all worldly privileges, including the throne itself, to be able to have a seat at the throne of the King of Kings in Heaven.

Saint Louis IX won a heavenly crown by his life of sanctity and detachment from the privileges of kingly rule. May he intercede for us to be so consecrated to Our Heavenly Queen, the Blessed Mother, that we may live in such a way in this life so as to have a place with him at the throne of the King all men, citizens and rulers alike, are called to acknowledge publicly and to obey with humility at every moment of their lives.

Our Lady, Mirror of Justice, pray for us.

Saint Louis IX, King of France, pray for us.

Vivat Christus Rex.


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