Cardinal Pie and the Social Kingship of Christ

Near the close of the year 1925, Pope Pius XI issued his encyclical Quas Primas, introducing the Feast of Christ the King.  By the celebration of this feast, it was thought that the teaching on Christ’s Social Kingship would more perfectly permeate the minds of men.  Among other things, attacking the increasing secularism in social and political life, Pius taught that “It would be a grave error … to say that Christ has no authority whatever in civil affairs, since … all things are in his power.”  Moreover, Pius unflinchingly asserted that Christ’s empire was universal, saying that “truly the whole of mankind is subject to the power of Jesus Christ.”  Furthermore, the pope declared in no uncertain terms that “nations will be reminded by the annual celebration of this feast that not only private individuals but also rulers and princes are bound to give public honor and obedience to Christ.” Although it was not until the twentieth century that a pope formally introduced the faithful to the Social Kingship of Christ with both an encyclical and a feast day, the foundations for this teaching were firmly laid in the nineteenth century by a French prelate, Cardinal Louis-Édouard-François-Desiré Pie, Bishop of Poitiers.

Cardinal-PieDescending on both sides from a family of tradesmen, Pie was born near Chartres on September 26, 1815.  Both his father and his maternal grandfather were shoemakers.  Pie’s father died when he was young and he was brought up by his devout mother, who did much to cultivate his piety.  Nevertheless, it was his parish priest—a priest who had heroically survived the French Revolution—who discerned and cultivated the young Pie’s vocation. At the age of twelve, Pie was sent first to the minor seminary of Chartres and then to the seminaries of the Sulpician.  Studying under some of the finest theological teachers of the time, Pie entered deeply into the study of Holy Scripture and the Fathers of the Church. Among the doctors, he had a special predilection for the works of St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and St. Francis de Sales.  During this time, he also made the acquaintance of the works of the great French theologian and preacher, Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet.

In 1844, after being a priest for only five years, Mgr. Montals appointed the Abbé Pie as his vicar general.  Then, in 1849, the Comte de Falloux, the Minister of Religion, presented Pie to Pope Pius IX for the bishopric of Poitiers.   After the pope confirmed this presentation, Montals consecrated Pie bishop on November 25, 1849.  In his first pastoral letter, the new bishop declared to his flock that “We are, we will be the man of God among you; we belong, we will always belong to the party of God; we will employ all our efforts, we will consecrate our whole life to the divine cause.”  As his episcopal motto, Pie took “To Restore All Things in Christ,” based on Eph. 1:10.  This phrase informed all of his teaching.  Many years later, Pie’s great admirer, Pope St. Pius X, would also take this as his papal motto in his first encyclical, E Supremi Apostolatus.

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For Pie, the proper formation of his priests was dear to his heart.  Each year he assembled all the priests of his diocese for a pastoral retreat.  He regularly convoked diocesan synods.  In his synodal instructions, with his priests assembled for a diocesan synod, he formally assumed his magisterial role and taught his presbyterate.  Often in these works, he comments on recent pontifical documents.  Three of his most famous synodal instructions “On the Principal Errors of the Present Time” were published in 1855, 1858, and 1863.  He also issued two others, one in 1856 “On Rome Considered as the Seat of the Papacy” and another in 1871 “On the First Constitution of the Council of the Vatican.”

Over the years, Pie welcomed the Jesuits, Benedictines, and the Dominicans to his diocese.  Being a close friend of Dom Prosper Guéranger, he facilitated the arrival of the Benedictines at Ligugé in 1853.  To the Jesuits he gave the direction of the college of Poitiers.  Later, he drew on their resources again, placing them at the helm of his newly instituted Faculty of Theology in 1874.  Furthermore, in 1855, Pie himself founded the Oblates of St. Hilary, a society instituted to oversee parochial missions within his diocese.

Through the mediation of Cardinal Fornari in 1852, Pius IX sought the aid of Pie and other bishops in clarifying the contemporary errors of the age.  He was asked to fill out a twenty-eight chapter Latin questionnaire.  He performed his job well.  As it turned out, this preparatory work culminated, twelve years later, in the publication of Quanta Cura and the Syllabus of Errors.  When these two documents appeared, Pie saw all his episcopal warnings and lessons clearly verified and reinforced. As the movement for the Risorgimento progressed, Pie proved himself to be a staunch defender of the papal temporal power.  When he became aware of Napoleon III’s disingenuous attitude towards the despoliation of the states of the Church by the Piedmontese government, his rhetorical powers reached a new height as he censured the emperor for his cowardice.  Likening the emperor to Pilate and the pope to Christ, Pie inveighed, “Wash your hands, O Pilate, declare yourself innocent of the death of Christ.”

Pie was one of the leaders of the ultramontane party at the Vatican Council.  At the Council, Bishop Pie was elected to the Deputatio de fide.  After the rejection of the first draft of the Catholic faith, Pie, with two others, formed a sub-committee to redraft the schema.  He then became the spokesman for the deputation to the general congregation, seeing the dogmatic constitution Dei filius passed by the council fathers unanimously on August 24, 1870.  Pie was also the spokesman for the deputation which drafted the schema on the papacy.  Thus, it fell to him to present the schema to the general congregation.  Bishop Ullathorne described his exposition as “a masterpiece, both of pith, learning, and apology.” Because he took the espousal of his diocese very seriously, he refused Pius IX’s offer of the archbishopric of Tours in 1871 and that of Lyons in 1876.  Even so, Leo XIII raised him up as a prince of the church, creating him a cardinal in 1879.  He died at Angouleme, France on May 18, 1880.

Cardinal Pie was held in high esteem by several popes, most particularly Pope St. Pius X.  Beyond using the same motto as the bishop, Pius X studied the works of Cardinal Pie assiduously.  To some Poitevin clergy visiting Rome, he admitted the influence of Pie’s works over his own thought.  He said, “I have read nearly all of the works of your cardinal, and there are many years in which I have scarcely passed a day without reading some of his pages.”

Bishop Pie saw naturalism as the chief heresy of the modern age and combated it vigorously.  As Leo XIII described it in Humanum Genus, naturalism is the doctrine stating “that human nature and human reason ought in all things to be mistress and guide.”  Pie himself defines it thus, “This independent and repulsive attitude of nature with regard to the supernatural and revealed order, properly constitutes the heresy of naturalism.”  In short, he called it “anti-Christianity.”  Continuing on, he insists, “By neither allowing the Incarnation of the natural Son of God nor the divine adoption of man to remain, it suppresses Christianity both at its top and at its bottom, it harms it in its source and in its branches.”  Comparing naturalism with ordinary heresy, he states, “Heresy denies one or several dogmas; naturalism denies that there are dogmas, and that there may be any.  Heresy more or less alters divine revelations; naturalism denies that God is revealer; heresy dismisses God from such or such portion of his kingdom; naturalism eliminates him from the world and from creation.”

Throughout his work Pie maintains the “primacy of the supernatural.”  Repeatedly, he insists “that the supernatural order … is obligatory and indispensable.”  Given that God, by his will and love, has constituted our nature within the supernatural order, it is necessarily binding on us.  Drawing this out further, Pie declares, “By assigning us a supernatural vocation, God has made an act of love, but he has also made an act of authority.  He has given, but by giving he wishes that we accept.  His benefit for us becomes a duty.”  Hence, he famously asserts, “Jesus Christ is not optional.”

Concerning the kingship of Christ, Pie declares, “Jesus Christ is king … not only of heaven, but further of earth, and it belongs to Him to exercise a true and supreme kingship over human societies: this is an indisputable point of Christian doctrine.”  Pie goes onto say that men are prepared to accept Jesus Christ as redeemer, savior, and priest, but seem frightened of Jesus Christ the King.  The bishop, commenting on Eph. 1:22, says, “God has made him [Christ] head and leader of all things says Saint Paul, and of all things without exception.”  With St. Augustine, Pie notes that it is not enough just to “believe that God exists,” it is necessary for us to “believe in God.”  According to him, this means that while “recognizing the existence of the sovereign being, we have duties to fulfill towards Him.”  That being said, if we believe in God, we must subject our reason to his revelation, our will to his will, and our actions to his law.  The bishop adds, “We have at least to offer to God this tribute of public religion, this act of national faith, which would be the recognition of his empire and the proclamation of his supreme rights.”

To those who claim that Christ’s kingdom is limited to heaven and he is not concerned with temporal matters on earth below, Pie clarifies the meaning of Christ’s words “My kingdom is not of this world,” taken from John 18:36.  Regarding Christ’s words to Pilate, Pie notes, “His kingdom is assuredly not of this world, that is to say, it does not originate from this world … and it is because he comes from above, and not from below.”  In other words, Christ is here referring to the provenance of his kingdom, not the actual dominion or the sweep of his kingdom.

The overtly secular order of things is part and parcel of the modern age.  Pie notes, “But the principle placed at the base of the modern social edifice, this has been the atheism of the law and of institutions.  That we disguise it under the names of abstention, of neutrality, of incompetence, or even of equal protection; … the principle of emancipation of human society in relation to the religious order remains at the bottom of things, it is the essence of what we call the modern times.”  Even the pagan sages of ancient Greece and Rome understood that “one can more easily build a city in the air than a society apart from worship of the gods.”  Condemning the practical atheism of the day, in which society does not formally deny the existence of God, but rather rules itself as if God does not exist, Pie states, “He [God] will reign; and if he does not reign by the benefits inseparable from his presence, he will reign by calamities inseparable from his absence.”

Against the facile charges that he is supporting thoroughgoing theocracy, Pie claims that Jesus Christ has put an end to the more or less theocratic regime of the Israelites.  Nevertheless, Pie is willing to acknowledge that a modern theocracy can exist today in the modern State.  Taking his cue from Psalm 2, the bishop underscores the hostility and rebelliousness of modern secular society.  It only recognizes its rulers and leaders as those who are rebels against the Lord and His anointed and who refuse to be constrained by the Lord’s “bonds and yoke.”  These secularists wish to consign to oblivion any notion of “the Christian State, of Christian Law, and of the Christian prince.”  What follows is no longer the sweet yoke of Christ, but absolute bondage.  Here, the “imaginary theocracy of the Church” is replaced with a “theocracy as absolute as it is illegitimate, the theocracy of Caesar, head and arbiter of religion, supreme oracle of doctrine and law.”  In fact, this is a “renewed pagan theocracy,” soon to be carried out “in the reign of high-priest people and of the God-State” through socialism.  He claims that this “politics without God” has a name.  In the Gospel it is called “the prince of this world” or “the power of the Beast,” but today it is called “the Revolution.”

Although the teaching on the Social Kingship of Christ in Quas Primas has clearly been ignored by many in the Church since its promulgation, nevertheless, it still retains its binding character.  Even the Second Vatican Council gives witness to this.  In Dignitatis Humanae, the council fathers teach that “it [the Council] leaves intact the traditional Catholic teaching on the moral duty of individuals and societies towards the true religion and the one Church of Christ.” Never one to mince words, Pie made it clear that the Social Kingship of Christ was not optional.  Like the intrepid bishop that he was, he defied Napoleon III.  Addressing this latter-day potentate, he declared, “If the time has not yet come for Christ to reign, ah well!  Then the time has not yet come for governments to last.”

Author’s note: Direct quotes of Cardinal Pie have been taken from Étienne Catta, La Doctrine politique et sociale du cardinal Pie (Paris: Nouvelle Éditions Latine, 1991) and Paul Vigué, ed. Pages choisies du cardinal Pie, 2 vols. (Paris: H. Oudin, 1916).

Other sources used for this column include Louis Baunard, Histoire du cardinal Pie, Evêque de Poitiers, 2 vols. (Paris: H. Oudin, 1886); Dom Cuthbert Butler, The Vatican Council, 1869-1870 (Westminster, MD: The Newman Press, 1962); and Théotime de Saint-Juste, La royauté sociale de notre seigneur Jésus-Christ, d’après le cardinal Pie (Vouillé, France: Éditions de Chiré; Villegenon, France: Éditions Sainte Jeanne d’Arc, 1988).

 Editor’s note: Translations of Pie’s works from the French are by Joseph F.X. Sladky; all rights reserved.


  • Joseph F. X. Sladky

    Joseph F. X. Sladky holds a Ph.D. in Church History from the Catholic University of America. He teaches at Chelsea Academy in Front Royal, Virginia.

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