Peter Kwasniewski and Aelianus of Laodicea on Temporal Kingship and the Kingship of Christ

In a brilliant essay on the Social Kingship of Christ, Peter Kwasniewski discusses the effect that the organization of temporal political life has on the way in which the doctrine is received. He writes of,

the Catholic vision of society as a hierarchy in which lower is subordinated to higher, with the private sphere and the public sphere united in their acknowledgment of the rights of God and of His Church.

And he writes of how this vision is undermined by the modern, horizontal, secular conception of politics. He argues, quite rightly to my mind, that royal government has a peculiar suitability to communicating a hierarchical vision of social order, and the majesty of temporal kings is help in understanding Christ the King.

My favorite Catholic republican, Aelianus of Laodicea, has responded with a sharp attack on Prof. Kwasniewski’s piece. Aelianus points out that the question of the  political recognition of the Social Kingship of Christ, is separate from the question of the best form of government. The Church has always been content to allow various forms of political rule— monarchical, aristocratic, democratic, or mixed— as long as they are “integralist” in the sense of recognizing the superiority of the spiritual power. Aelianus as is right as far as the argument goes. But he does not thereby disprove Kwasniewski’s point. Kwasniewski was not arguing that the Social Kingship of Christ demands a Christian monarchy as the form of temporal power, but rather that such a monarchy “lends itself most readily to collaboration and cooperation with the Church.” And this seems to be primarily because of the “image of sacred majesty” that it presents to the minds and hearts of its subjects. This image calls to mind the “wonderful resemblances” that according to Pope Leo XIII’s teaching in Diuturnum illud, are to be found in the different levels of authority that are all derived from the authority of the one God.

12 thoughts on “Peter Kwasniewski and Aelianus of Laodicea on Temporal Kingship and the Kingship of Christ

  1. I think that part of the confusion in the argument is the conflation of “Kingship” (which is a specific kind of monarchy derived from the institutions of the Western Roman Empire) with Monarchical government. His late majesty Otto of Austria seemed to take the view that all rightly functioning governments have a monarchical governing element, but this need not take the form of a “kingship”, which is after all a title given to those rulers governing certain traditional territories which they received from the Holy Roman Emperor. Even the Medieval “republics” such as certain Swiss cantons (and Italian city-states which Aelianus gives as examples) were under the direct overlordship of the monarchical Emperor. What do you make of the idea of a distinction between Regēns (Monarch) and Rex (“King” in the western sense)?


  2. The different forms have perfections which exclude each other. The pure forms are most prone to corruption. All concrete forms are all mixed to one degree or another. Rule by a few mixed with some rights for the many seems to fit city states particularly. Hereditary monarchy seems to fit nation states best. There is always some element of monarchy in all concrete forms because governmental authority is naturally monarchical. Heredity is helpful because it emphasises the stability of the civil order and the fact that it is not derived from consent. It is also helpful because the pursuit of power is more corrupting than its possession. It tends towards less efficiency and can induce a sot of Pelagianism because hereditary monarchy is the antelapsarian form. It can also obscure the fact that the eliciting of consent is a highly desirable perfection of the civil order. The absence of a king on the other hand can emphasise that only Christ properly fulfils this position because only He is fit ruler in an unqualified sense. Republican forms also tend to produce more efficient government. However, this can lead to government over reaching its prerogatives. It can also induce constractualist errors concerning the original of civil legitimacy. In view of all this High Mediaeval Christendom seems very satisfactory with its huge patchwork of different forms. What is objectionable is the idea that baroque absolute hereditary national monarchy is particularly (or even at all) desirable. This is the form that ruined Christendom, hamstrung Habsburg Spain, facilitated the Gallicanism and indifferentism of Bourbon France, and failed so miserably to prop-up the Disneyland Christendom of the Congress of Vienna.

    The liturgy provides a nice analogy. Latin emphasises the objectivity of the sacrifice as does communion under one kind. The use of the term ‘sacerdos’ for a presbyter also helps to emphasise the sacrificial nature of the mass. However, it is also good for the congregation to understand the liturgy (so long as they don’t think that is essential). There is no harm in communion under both kinds properly administered as in the Byzantine liturgy (so long as it doesn’t spawn utraquism). It is vital that the congregation understand that the priesthood of the presbyter is derived from Christ’s and the sacrifice of the Mass is the re-presentation of that of Calvary. The different rites in the Church (ignoring the Novus Ordo here) help to emphasise these points in different degrees and should be honoured as of equal right and dignity and preserved and fostered in every way. It is the same with the different governmental forms that composed Christendom. However, the highest temporal ruler in Christendom should not be hereditary and should not per se have the title king because Christ is the heir of Adam, Abraham and David and He alone is Universal King.

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  3. The Habsburg Restorationust makes a good observation—as another example, the United States has an extremely strong monarchical element—stronger in fact than any monarchical office in the modern United Kingdom, despite the latter being commonly said to have a “monarchy” and the former not. But the crux of the debate seems to be how the monarchical element is built, so to speak…that an elective monarchy for a term of years is less inclubed towards “cooperation and collaboration with the Church.”

    One one hand, the experiment is hardly fair because the government’s of Christendom during the ages of faith were generally presided over by hereditary monarchs, while the great republics are found after that period…so a direct comparison between a Christian kingdom and a non-Christian republic as to cooperation with the Church doesn’t isolate the form of government as the only difference. On the other hand, it’s arguably no coincidence that the ages of faith saw the rise of a sacralized, hereditary model of Christian kingship rise as the norm, that model itself being a reflection of the Christian vision of the cosmic order. But on yet a third hand, Christian government was formed in an age marked by sacralized, pagan hereditary monarchy, which was then baptized…and that the practical requirements for large scale republican government (above the city state, that is) we’re not present until modernity.


    • But the tendency at the hight of Christendom was towards the emergence of Republics and Parliaments. The sacral monarchies were (as you suggested) inherited forms from paganism. There was a stronger tendency towards fixed succession in the hereditary monarchies of Christendom. Perhaps this was because of a greater abhorrence of revolution and a stronger commitment towards the rule of law.

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      • I agree–as you alluded to in your earlier comment, the model of highly centralized, national, hereditary monarchy as the decisive institution in government as seen in early modernity is a falling away from high medieval governance–in which the king was more a law-finder than law-giver, and existed in complex relationships with other institutions. The Spain of Charles III was a distortion of the Spain of Isabel I–and the latter was much more difficult to adequately describe simply as a hereditary monarchy.

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  4. I just read Mr Kwasniewski’s essay, and must admit not seeing that it merits the description “brilliant.” I say this with no disrespect to Kwasniewski, who has written many brilliant things. But this essay seems somehow incomplete.

    It rests principally on two claims: that the great number of saints who were hereditary rulers and the relative paucity of sainted republican leaders is deeply revealing, and that democratic forms of government are associated with the error of the separation of church and state. It alludes to a strong argument in favor of hereditary monarchy, but doesn’t actually make it.

    Of course the Severinus Boethiuses, John Storys, and Thomas Mores are outnumbered among sainted politicians by those who inherited their offices. That may be because hereditary monarchy is superior to other forms of government, or it may be because Christianity arose in a time of pagan monarchy whose forms were colonized and baptized by Christianity, and the social circumstances supporting a wide-scale republic did not exist until Christendom was dying of exhaustion. I’d be willing to believe it’s some combination of both, but this essay asks me to disregard the latter out of hand. It argues that “modern democracy” has had 200 years to get it’s act together and start producing political saints, and that this is a sufficient time to judge it. But hereditary monarchy had 1000 years in this experiment, so I’m hardly convinced that the scales are entirely even to begin with. It’s true that right now, things seem to be getting worse. But things were getting worse at several points during the millennium of “Christian monarchy” (leaving aside the various differences in political forms found in that category) before rebounding, so it seems something more is needed to really make the argument.

    The essay also seems to treat the separation of church and state as inextricable from contemporary forms of government, when they are easily extricated. There is no fundamental reason a republic can’t have an integralist understanding of the relation of state to church, or a hereditary monarchy can’t adopt their strict separation. In fact the Reformation became a permanent split in Western Christianity largely because of the support given by hereditary princes to reformist theology and against the political ideal of Christendom (“cuius regio, eius religio”), so I’m hesitant to regard this institution as a strong bulwark of the Christian order when we live in the aftermath of its failure.

    It’s quite true, as the essay points out, that forms of government with a strong democratic element are at greater risk of moral relativism, the fault that underpins the principle of separation of church and state. But the comparison isn’t complete without remembering the faults to which hereditary forms are at greater risk of. Caesaropapism, for one, which has been pronounced in the eastern churches for most of their histories, as well as unfortunate conflation of national identity with Christian fellowship. Nor has the western Church been free from a lamentable tendency for earthly kings to usurp the due of the King whose symbols and servants they should properly be—the history of episcopal investiture alone is enough to show that.

    For that matter, it’s worth remembering that in our fallen world, political governance tends to corrupt any institution with which it is associated. By transferring and exercising political leadership through the family, hereditary forms truly do have certain advantages (bringing to power those who did not seek it chief among them). But under the weight of politics, the family buckled. Marital abuses such as violations of consanguinity and affinity, marriage by proxy, marriage of children, and a temptation toward fast and loose treatment of dispensations and annulments all became commonplace, and hardly to the benefit of the family as an institution. To say nothing of patricidal, fratricidal, and other variations of intra-family warfare.

    I agree that the social Kingship of Christ is a important truth which should be proclaimed, and this is where the essay is strongest. But in arguing about which form of government is best, it’s perhaps worth remembering that ultimately the only government that really measures up is that of Christ Himself, which is not currently to be found on this earth. When one compares Him to Moses or Mohammad, a striking thing about Our Lord is how uninterested He was, during His earthly life, in establishing a regime or any sort. His kingdom is not of this world, and when He spoke of “the ruler of this world,” He did not mean Himself. The Kingdom of God as it exists in this world is mostly orthogonal to our own kingdoms and republics. And while we should fight to bring our polities into as close an alignment with that Divine Kingdom as possible, that Kingdom is too big to fit inside them.

    I’m partial to republican government (at least within certain parameters) myself, but also see the force in arguments for hereditary, sacralized Christian monarchy…and suspect that the latter is a political form more useful in more situations than a Christian republic. So insofar as I am the target audience for this essay, I can only say I wasn’t convinced. Pater Edmund is correct that the essay’s argument is that the Social Kingship of Christ is most readily supported by Christian monarchy (insofar as the latter best fosters cooperation of state with church), rather than demands such. But I can’t say I was any more persuaded of that proposition after reading it than I was before.

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  5. Do you believe that thought is led by leaders or do individuals have the capacity to think for themselves? This determines whether hereditary or democratic systems are superior


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