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The Pope’s Feast of Antifa Sunday

Did the pope institute the Feast of Christ the King as a holiday to celebrate Antifa?

On Sunday, we celebrated the feast of Christ the King (the full name of which is “the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe”). As the last Sunday before Advent, the feast often gets overlooked, particularly in the United States, as it always falls on the Sunday before or after Thanksgiving. But this year, Nadia Bolz-Weber (a popular author and Lutheran pastor and theologian) commented on Twitter: “Pope Pius XI established Christ the King Sunday in 1925 to counter what he regarded as the destructive forces of facism [sic] and the totalitarian claims of Nazi ideologies.” She concluded by wishing everyone a “happy Antifa Sunday.” This is a change for Bolz-Weber, who complained back in 2015 that

I don’t like Christ the King Sunday because unlike Lent and Holy Week and Advent which have been celebrated for more than 1000 years, Christ the King has only been a part of the liturgical calendar since the 1920s and it was added for sort of political reasons. In the fallout of World War One and amidst the Kaisers and Kings and Czars, it felt to the church that it was time to reassert that Czar Ferdinand or Kaiser Wilhelm isn’t king, Christ is king.

So what should we make of these claims? Why did Pius create the feast of Christ the King, and is it fair to call it “Antifa Sunday”? The question is not as crazy as it may sound.

There’s no question where the pope stood on fascism. Pius stood up to Mussolini and the Fascist Party directly in his 1931 encyclical Non Abbiamo Bisogno. While staying “outside and above all party politics,” Pius condemned fascism as being “an ideology which clearly resolves itself into a true, a real pagan worship of the State—the ‘Statolatry’ which is no less in contrast with the natural rights of the family than it is in contradiction with the supernatural rights of the Church.” But it would be a mistake to see his creation of the feast of Christ the King in 1925 as being exclusively or even primarily motivated by his fight fascism, or still less Nazism. (The word Nazi had not yet been coined by this time, and the National Socialist German Workers’ Party was out of power in Germany.)

So what threats did the pope have on his mind? We don’t have to guess. In Quas Primas, the encyclical in which he announced the creation of the feast day, Pius explained his motivations:

If we ordain that the whole Catholic world shall revere Christ as King, we shall minister to the need of the present day, and at the same time provide an excellent remedy for the plague which now infects society. We refer to the plague of anti-clericalism, its errors and impious activities.

This plague, consisting of the “rebellion of individuals and states against the authority of Christ,” leads to a host of “deplorable consequences,” including

the seeds of discord sown far and wide; those bitter enmities and rivalries between nations, which still hinder so much the cause of peace; that insatiable greed which is so often hidden under a pretense of public spirit and patriotism, and gives rise to so many private quarrels; a blind and immoderate selfishness, making men seek nothing but their own comfort and advantage, and measure everything by these; no peace in the home, because men have forgotten or neglect their duty; the unity and stability of the family undermined; society in a word, shaken to its foundations and on the way to ruin.

In other words, Pius recognized that once you reject the kingship of Christ, you create a vacuum where God should be . . . and something else (nationalism, greed, comfort-seeking, etc.) will rush in and fill that void.

So what does it mean to believe in the “kingship of Christ”? In Pilate’s attempted interrogation of Jesus, our Lord responds by saying, “my kingship is not of this world” (John 18:36). Pilate catches the implication of such a claim: “So you are a king?” (v. 37). When Pilate says to Jesus, “Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” Jesus answers that “you would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above” (19:10-11). From this, we can draw out three key points: that Jesus is King, that his kingship is a spiritual (rather than a political) one, and that political authority comes from God.

Put more positively, Pius points out in Quas Primas that “our Lord’s regal office invests the human authority of princes and rulers with a religious significance; it ennobles the citizen’s duty of obedience.” As Pius’s predecessor put it, “be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right. . . . Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor” (1 Pet. 2:13-14, 17).

This doesn’t mean that political authorities can do whatever they want. This isn’t a belief in what’s sometimes called the divine right of kings, nor is it a call for theocracy. (The emperor that St. Peter told his readers to honor was, after all, a pagan who outrageously claimed to be a god.) Rather, it’s that our leaders are “men who will have to give account” (Heb. 13:17). A ruler who defies God also undermines the foundation of his own society, which is why the same Peter who says to “honor the emperor” also ignored the Sanhedrin’s order that he stop preaching Jesus by saying that “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

Although the pagan world didn’t believe in Jesus, they did understand that rulers ultimately received their authority from God. The modern world, in contrast, has largely rejected this idea, trying to create a purely secular (sometimes even atheistic) state. As Pius pointed out, the results have been disastrous and bloody:

Authority itself lost its hold upon mankind, for it had lost that sound and unquestionable justification for its right to command on the one hand and to be obeyed on the other. Society, quite logically and inevitably, was shaken to its very depths and even threatened with destruction, since there was left to it no longer a stable foundation, everything having been reduced to a series of conflicts, to the domination of the majority, or to the supremacy of special interests.

One form this domination took was fascism, in which the state took the place of God. Another form it took was communism, which Pius denounced as “impious and iniquitous,” lamenting that “how much an enemy and how openly hostile it is to Holy Church and to God himself is, alas, too well proved by facts and fully known to all.” Another form was socialism, which Pius described as having “some truth,” but he warned that “it is based nevertheless on a theory of human society peculiar to itself and irreconcilable with true Christianity.”

Eventually, Nazism also emerged as a real threat, and Pius responded by denouncing it as well in his 1937 encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge. In it, he denounced those who idolized “race, or the people, or the State, or a particular form of State, or the depositories of power, or any other fundamental value of the human community,” describing them as “far from the true faith in God and from the concept of life which that faith upholds.”

Given this, is it fair to call the feast of Christ the King “Antifa Sunday”? Not really. The name Antifa derives from Antifaschistische Aktion, a “multiparty front initiated by the German Communist Party in 1932 to counter Nazism.” Antifaschistische Aktion’s logo was of two red flags, representing the union of German communists and socialists. The modern American version of the logo replaces one of those red flags with a black flag (representing anarchism). Pius saw the bankrupt ideologies that the original Antifa was up against, but he also recognized the bankrupt ideologies that Antifa vied for instead. (Indeed, one of the biggest targets of the original Antifa was not Nazism, but liberal democracy, which Joseph Stalin had declared “social fascism”).

The feast day of Christ the King is a resounding rejecting of fascism and Nazism, but also of any other totalitarian ideology, like communism, that seeks to dethrone Christ in favor of anything else—be it “race pride,” or class warfare, or a political party, or the state itself, or nationalism. Instead of buying into the lie of any of these things, we should proclaim with the martyr Bl. Miguel Pro: “Viva Cristo Rey!” Long live Christ the King!

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