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Third, Pius wished to combat anticlericalism. Because the church had been closely allied with the state ever since the dawn of the Constantinian era, when citizens rebelled against an oppressive state, they often also rebelled against the clergy who had wrapped themselves in the power of the state. France and Mexico were two of the most extreme examples; they actually executed some of the clergy. But anticlerical sentiment ran deep throughout the European continent.

Finally, Pius hoped to reassert the church's right to make laws. He asserted "the right which the Church has from Christ himself, to teach mankind, to make laws, to govern peoples in all that pertains to their eternal salvation." That right, he said, was denied as a result of anti-clerical sentiment, and he complained that the Roman Catholic Church was being treated by modern states as one religion among many false ones.

Christ the King in 2012

Modern political life has come a long way since 1925—and so has the Catholic church. Without denying that Christ is indeed Lord of all, most Christians have come to recognize that democratic pluralism, which is anchored in the dignity of every human being, requires the state to treat all religions equally—to recognize the essential liberties that should be accorded to all faiths. In return, religious organizations should cooperate in the public sphere by calling their adherents to faithfully fulfill their duties to God, family, and society.

The American Jesuit John Courtney Murray, the person who helped the Catholic church to finally accept its role in a modern, pluralistic society, was barely 21 when Pius published Quas Primus. Over the years he argued for a different vision of the church's role in society. At times he was silenced by the Vatican and required to withdraw his writings. Yet, his persistence eventually won the day, and the church began to speak in terms of democratic values. In 1963 Murray was invited to participate in the Second Vatican Council and then to draft Dignitatis Humanae Personae, the Council's endorsement of religion freedom.

Turning back to the theology of Christ's kingship, we agree with Pius that the revolutions of modern history debased the notion of divinely sanctioned authority, replacing it in some instances with sheer power, in other cases with popular sovereignty. In Christian worship, it is important to remember that Christ is our king because he has received royal authority from God the Father, not from popular vote. If Christ were merely our president, we would not worship him.

Second, we agree with Pius that the church should be free to exercise its rights to shape the consciences of believers, engage in social ministry, and evangelize those who do not yet believe. But when Pius waxes nostalgic for the day when the church legislated the morals of society, we must simply disagree. Christian citizens—both as individuals and as voluntary associations of believers—are called not to coerce but to persuade and to work with those of other faiths to improve the morals of society.

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