Pastoral Care, Political Action, and the Royal Office

A. Trouble With the Kingdom

As we turn to the third of Newman’s offices of the Church, the royal office, we are immediately confronted with a cultural difficulty: we Americans do not do royalty. Depending on one’s inclination (and putting aside those Americans who claim, with varying degrees of irony, to be royalists), kings and queens are either oppressive despots or quaint bits of folklore. What they clearly are not is a viable political option. Whether we conceive of the royal office as concerned with the internal life of the Church or the Church’s interface with the world of secular politics, it just seems like a bad idea for those exercising this office to think of themselves as kings. One can, of course, think of many cases of clergy acting like kings with regard to their congregations, and such things inevitably turn out badly. And even those of us who feel a little thrill at the thought of the Emperor Henry IV kneeling in the snow at Canossa, begging Pope Gregory VII to lift his excommunication, must admit in our more sober moments that popes or other Church leaders acting like kings in the political realm has often forced the Church into actions that are difficult to square with the Sermon on the Mount.

And yet Scripture is replete with royal language. The Sermon on the Mount itself begins by telling us that the poor in spirit shall be blessed because the kingdom of heaven belongs to them (Matt 5:3), and it concludes with the claim that those who do the will of the Father will enter that same kingdom (Matt 7:21). Jesus begins his ministry with the proclamation, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15). He says to his disciples, “I confer on you, just as my Father has conferred on me, a kingdom” (Luke 22:29). So whatever our feelings may be about royalty, the language of “kingdom” is so prevalent in the New Testament that we have to give it the benefit of the doubt, at least to the point of asking what the scriptural picture of kingship is and what this tells us about the royal office of the Church.

I think we can safely say that the Bible is ambivalent about kingship. When Israel first asks for a king, God tries to persuade them otherwise, pointing out that their desire for a human king represents a rejection of God’s rule over them. God also lets them know that a king would exploit them for his own purposes:

He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers . . . And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day (1 Sam 8:13-15, 18).

The Israelites think that their king will fight their battles for them, when in fact it is they who will fight his battles for him. There are at least as many bad kings as good in the Old Testament, and in the New Testament kings, demi-kings, and the agents of kings all come off as wicked, weak, or cynically opportunistic.

Yet, there is another line of thought on kingship in the Bible, a line of thought that underlies the New Testament’s language about God’s kingdom. Borrowing imagery from other ancient near eastern peoples, the Old Testament depicts Israel’s kings not only as a rapacious wolves who would devour the people, but as shepherds who would guide and protect God’s people. The paradigm of the good king, of course, is David, and when God calls David the shepherd boy, it is to be a shepherd of Israel:

He chose his servant David,
and took him from the sheepfolds;
from tending the nursing ewes he brought him
to be the shepherd of his people Jacob,
of Israel, his inheritance.
With upright heart he tended them,
and guided them with skillful hand (Psalm 78:70-72).

The image of king as shepherd, and of God himself as the shepherd-king of Israel, runs throughout the Old Testament. In the New Testament, Jesus, David’s messianic son, himself uses the shepherd imagery to depict his mission (Mark 14:27), and in John’s Gospel he famously identifies the good shepherd as one who lays down his life for his sheep (10:11). Jesus further redefines his royal messianic role in his dialogue with Pilate: when asked if he is a king he evades the question (telling Pilate, “You have said so”) and replies that he has come to bear witness to the truth (John 18:37). So there emerges from Scripture a distinct picture of the royal office of Jesus Christ: the shepherd-king who bears witness to the truth by laying down his life for his flock. Thus the royal office of the Church is an office of pastoral service modeled on Jesus.

But lest we too easily make our peace with the idea of the royal office of Christ in which the Church shares by employing comforting clichés about servant leadership, we should also bear in mind the pale rider of the book of Revelation:

His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems; and he has a name inscribed that no one knows but himself. He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is called The Word of God . . . From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will shepherd them with a rod of iron; he will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty (Rev 19:12-13, 15).

The shepherd-king gives his life for his sheep, but also acts as a warrior and judge, who triumphs over the enemies of God. We ought not forget that the first royal act of the shepherd boy David was to sling a smooth stone between the eyes of Goliath. This too must form a part of our understanding of the royal office of the Church.

All of this is to say that when we speak of the royal office of the Church, we do not have to commit ourselves to the ranks of the small but disproportionately annoying number of Americans who claim to be royalists. We can hold fast to the way in which Jesus, through his messianic mission, has redefined kingship by bearing witness and laying down his life in service. But at the same time, we cannot ignore the element of conflict that runs throughout the Gospels or the imagery of warfare elsewhere in the New Testament.

It is easy to forget, when our image of royalty is Queen Elizabeth II, that a king is a warrior and judge, and the Church’s exercise of Christ’s royal office often involves her in conflict and judgment. Jesus, after all, did say, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household” (Matt 10:34-36). The royal claim that Christ makes on his followers is so absolute, so imperious, that it demands unconditional loyalty, and with that unconditional loyalty comes conflict, a conflict in which, by bearing witness to the truth, the king may well become the victim.

So perhaps our discomfort with talk of the royal office is not simply that, within our cultural context, it has a folkloric quality that makes it difficult to take seriously, or that we have disdain for royalty as a political option. Perhaps what is also in play is our aversion to the conflict that is awoken by bearing witness to the truth, and the possibility that such witness might require us in some sense to lay down our lives. I want now to turn to what I take to be two of the primary areas in which the Church exercises her royal office: pastoral care and political action, and ask what it means in those contexts for the Church to exercise the royal office of Christ.

B. Pastoral Care for God’s People

We have all known pastors who understand their exercise of the royal office of Christ as meaning that when they say jump their flock should ask “how high?” We have seen clergy who treat their parishes as little kingdoms in which they exercise their despotic rule. In light of how Jesus redefines kingship and what it means to be a good shepherd, this is clearly a failure to understand the royal office entrusted to the Church.

But this is not the only, nor I suspect the most common and egregious, failure of pastoral care. Within our culture clergy are understood, along with nurses and therapists and social workers, to be in “the helping professions.” They are supposed to help people identify their needs and assist them in fulfilling them. On an ecclesiological level, this sometimes plays out in the idea of the centrality of diakonia to the identity of the Church and her ministers. Pastors are to be servants of their congregations, providing baptisms as occasions to welcome children into the world and funerals as occasions to say our goodbyes, providing weddings as occasions to celebrate love and romance as well as providing emotional support and affirmation of personal worth to couples when those marriages break up. And proper pastoral care should encourage the flock as a whole to be a “servant Church” that seeks to minister to culture and society, a ministry that it carries out by hosting 12-step meetings and running food pantries, founding (and then largely abandoning) colleges and hospitals, lobbying in congress for social justice and “values.” In this way, the royal office takes its cues from Jesus himself, the one who came to serve and not be served (Matt 20:28).

On the face of it, this seems entirely unobjectionable. Certainly pastoral care is about promoting human flourishing. But I worry a bit about this idea of clergy as professional “helpers” (who help the laity to be amateur helpers); I worry that it misses some of the fullness of what the Church means by the royal office. Where in our model of pastoral care is there room for the one who shepherds his people with an iron rod, who treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty? Have cultural models of the helping professions, as well as our own recoiling from the model of the imperious pastor, led us to see the clergy as low-paid and under-trained therapists whose role is to be affirming and nothing else? I sometimes wonder whether, if we must employ a therapeutic model, we might not be better served by looking to the physical therapist, who sometimes makes her patients hurt in order to heal them (something, indeed, that a good psychotherapist must do as well).

But it seems to me that there is an array of cultural presumptions concerning religion that militate against pastoral care that includes challenging and even painful witness to the truth. Our culture tells us that religion is lodged in the realm of private opinion. It is about personal fulfillment, and one person should never tell another person where and how to find their bliss. Our culture tells us that matters concerning God are so murky that we can never say anything about God or God’s will that is simply (or even complexly) true. Religion is something that people do in order to feel good, so it should never make them feel bad. Or perhaps, religion is something too trivial to ever make such a fuss over. Who cares if Bob and Sally want their Buddhist friend to be a godparent, as long as they are satisfied with their choice? How could the Church ever have any opinions about what goes on in the privacy of a couple’s bedroom, as long as they are sexually fulfilled? Your life belongs to you, and if you should choose to end it rather than live in pain, who is the Church to say that in fact your life belongs to God and that suffering can be redemptive?

The suggestion of Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton that the actual religion of American Christians is not Christianity, but what they call “moralistic therapeutic deism,” has resonated among many of those who work with young adults. While some of the values that Smith and Denton identify with therapeutic religion echo Christianity—such as a belief in God’s goodness and God’s desire that humans be happy—it is at the end of the day a faith whose essential creed is simply “it’s nice to be nice because God is nice,”[1] with little place for notions of sin, repentance, and atonement. Even if one wants to give American Christians a bit more credit than this—after all, Ash Wednesday and Palm Sunday remain surprisingly popular among Catholics who rarely attend Mass otherwise—we can still recognize pernicious elements of the therapeutic mindset in our churches. And if one understands religion in this way, exercise of the royal office of the Church becomes extraordinarily difficult and the temptation toward pastoral leadership that is trivially therapeutic becomes strong. Indeed, moralistic therapeutic deism seems almost tailor-made to exclude the shepherd who shepherds with an iron rod.

An example taken from another American religious community—Reformed Judaism—echoes much of American Christianity and gives us some idea of what the endpoint is when we follow individualistic and therapeutic religion to the bitter end. In their recently revised Prayer Book for high holy days, as an alternative to a prayer that addresses the Lord as “Majestic God . . . enthroned beyond time and space” the following is offered:

My Lord is not a shepherd
and I am not His sheep.
No monarch greedy for my praise
is worthy of my prayers.

The revised prayer book is, according to the Washington Post, “a personal guide that Jews can navigate as they wish rather than a user manual to a service with a leader and a follower.”[2] Yet this still indicates therapeutic culture’s rejection of not only the idea of a royal office, but also the seemingly more benign imagery of the shepherd. Moreover, in the end it winds up rejecting the priestly and prophetic offices as well, because it rejects all notions of authority or leadership in matters religious.

But we can only blame our individualist, relativist, therapeutic culture so much. Each of us bears his or her own responsibility. Each of us would like to avoid the painful conversation. Each of us seeks to forestall speaking the truth by saying, “Well, that’s only how I see it.” We must each ask ourselves to what degree we are listening to the siren song of our culture because we are already recoiling from the cost that comes with the exercise of the royal office of the Church. We eschew judging because we know that bearing witness to the truth may very well involve laying down our lives—not, at least in our corner of the world, through dying, but through countless tiny things that eat away at us and our self-image as a helper: the angry letter from the person resigning from a parish committee who blames us for their departure, the glazed looks from those who are clearly tuning us out, the reputation as a hard-liner or someone pushing a personal agenda. All of these things make us feel misunderstood, as if our message is not getting across, as if our desire to be of genuine help to people is going unappreciated.

These might seem trivial, something that big boys and girls should not be bothered by. But most clergy and pastoral workers did, after all, get into the business of pastoring because they wanted to help people flourish, and with the presumption that helping them would actually make them happy. So when they face anger and resentment and indifference, a little something in them dies. They lose some of the self-image that they had built up as a helper, a servant. But if we are truly bearing witness to the truth, then those little deaths we die are in fact the stripping away of a false identity, a self-created image of the pastor as one who is always and everywhere beloved by the flock. We lay down the self that is seeking through the pastoral office to fulfill its own need for affirmation.

Of course, this is not easy. After all, if clergy and pastoral ministers seek to be of service to their congregations, as they clearly should, then it is natural for a servant to want to please those whom he or she serves. It is natural to look for the affirmation, “well done, good and faithful servant” and one is not likely to derive that from poison pen letters or empty offering envelopes. But we ought to remember that in the New Testament diakonia, service, is primarily used in reference to being a servant of God or Christ or the Gospel, and not of the world or even the Church. Paul tells the Corinthians, “Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries” (1 Cor 4:1). For Paul, being God’s servant is a matter of being God’s emissary and steward, having been commissioned by God to handle with care the mysteries of God. His obligation is first and foremost to God, and it is only to the degree that he is a faithful servant of God that he can serve the congregations that God has entrusted to his care. Which means that, in the short term, he might have to displease human beings in order to serve God faithfully. As he writes to the Galatians, “Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a slave of Christ” (1:10).

So when one feels like a shepherd who has been trampled by his sheep, when one feels like a servant who is trying to serve many masters who have different desires and issue contradictory demands, when one feels as if the Gospel mandate is clear but one cannot find a way to convey it in a situation of conflict, then it is necessary to remember that one who exercises the Church’s royal office is indeed a servant, but the servant of God first, and only one who is God’s servant can be his or her people’s servant. God has commissioned those entrusted with pastoral care as servants of the Gospel, which involves bearing witness to the truth and even occasionally shepherding with an iron rod and treading the winepress of the fury of God’s wrath. You do not lay down your life for your people so that they can walk all over you, but so that you can give up your own pastoral agenda and take up Christ’s, so that they can see in you Jesus crucified, risen, and coming in a judgment that is both more just and more merciful than we can imagine.

C. Pastoral Care for the Polis

But the royal office of the Church involves not simply care for those within the Church, but also a kind of care for the world, which is, after all, God’s world. Some think of the Church’s political role entirely in prophetic terms: the Church speaks truth to power and witnesses to the Gospel in the midst of the world as a sign of judgment upon the nations. But it also useful to think of the Church’s political role in terms of the royal office: the Church exercises a kind of “pastoral care” for the life of the polis, even a polis that is non- or anti-Christian. As the early Christian Letter to Diognetus noted, Christians, “dwell in their own countries, but only as sojourners; they bear their share in all things as citizens, and they endure all hardships as strangers. Every foreign country is a homeland to them, and every homeland is foreign” (5:5). As Jeremiah exhorted the Israelites in exile, Christians should “seek the peace and prosperity of the city” (29:7), even if that city is not their true home, the promised land in which they will rest in God.

Of course, as with pastoral care exercised within a congregation, true pastoral care for the world cannot let the world define what counts as “peace” and “prosperity.” As Augustine recognized, what the world calls peace is often just a violence restrained by counter-violence. What the world calls prosperity is often just more consumption. As with pastoral care exercised within a congregation, the royal office of the Church sometimes calls for a shepherd whose role is to exercise judgment, not in the sense of issuing edicts of condemnation (if history is any indication, secular rulers are quite comfortable ignoring those edicts) but in the sense of speaking truthfully about what is just and what is not. This passing of judgment is an important service that the Church renders to the world.

Perhaps the chief way in which the Church cares for the world is by forming a people who seek the peace of the earthly city while never forgetting that their true homeland lies beyond history, in God’s eternity. Christians should be a people who take earthly politics seriously, while not ascribing to it ultimate significance. Particularly as our political divisions become ever more infused with a kind of vehemence typically associated with sectarian religious hatred, the presence in the world of people who have been shaped by worship and preaching to place their ultimate hope in God’s kingdom might in fact be the best service that the Church can offer to the world.

In this sense, one can only serve the world by serving God, if one seeks to be, as St. Thomas More said, “The king’s good servant, but God’s first.” When Pope Pius XI proclaimed the feast of Christ the King in 1925, it was an assertion in the face of the rising tide of Italian fascism that Christ’s claim on humanity had priority over any national identity. If we recall that in the realm of politics Christ reigns supreme, then we will remain his servants and not the servant of any party or ideology. This will not necessarily involve seeking to convert the world to Christ—this is more appropriate for the prophetic office of the Church—but rather in caring for those things that make life more humane. There is a certain irony in the fact that the Church today finds herself witnessing not only to the supernatural Gospel of Christ, but also to purely natural human values such as reason, justice, and civility. It is almost as if we live in a world that, having abandoned the divine, can no longer remain even human.

Writing in the mid-1920s, around the same time the Feast of Christ the King was proclaimed, the theologian Romano Guardini said, “Everywhere we see true culture vanishing, and our first reaction tells us that what is replacing it is barbaric.”[3] Nearly a century later, we might be inclined to think that the situation has only grown worse. I suspect, however, that Christians have always observed the culture around them with a certain dismay. But these are the cultures that we are called to care for if we seek to fulfill the royal office of Christ the King. So despair at the culture is not the solution; it is not even really an option. Rather, just as pastors must care for their congregations by serving them by serving God, by knowing when to comfort and when to afflict, by fostering in them the capacity to judge justly and in accord with the mind of Christ, so too the Church must serve the polis, not on its terms, and not even on our terms, but on God’s terms, because it is ultimately he whom we serve. The task that Christ has entrusted to the Church is vast and complex. John Henry Newman wrote:

Christianity, then, is at once a philosophy, a political power, and a religious rite: as a religion, it is Holy; as a philosophy, it is Apostolic; as a political power, it is imperial, that is, One and Catholic . . . . Arduous as are the duties involved in the three offices, to discharge one by one, much more arduous are they to administer, when taken in combination. Each of the three has its separate scope and direction; each has its own interests to promote and further; each has to find room for the claims of the other two; and each will find its own line of action influenced and modified by the others, nay, sometimes in a particular case the necessity of the others converted into a rule of duty for itself.[4]

Newman had a keen sense of the complexity of the task of the Church. We must have a liturgy that is both truthful and pastoral; we must have teaching that is relevant to the world but also faithful to God’s mysteries that we encounter in the liturgy; we must order and guide the lives of our congregations in ways that involve both worship and witness to the truth.

A monumental task, it is true. But we should not lose hope nor be overwhelmed. The priestly, prophetic, and royal offices that we all exercise as baptized Christians have been given to us by Christ even as he keeps them as his own. What we do in worship, in preaching, and in pastoral care we do in his name, and he has given us his Spirit to be our comfort and our guide.

[1] The tenants of this religion are identified by Smith and Denton as follows:

  • A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
  • God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  • The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  • God does not need to be particularly involved in one's life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
  • Good people go to heaven when they die.

See Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (2005).

[2] Michelle Boorstein, “A revised text for Reform Judaism,” Washington Post, March 14, 2015, B-1.

[3] Romano Guardini, Letters from Lake Como: Explorations in Technology and the Human Race (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 48.

[4] Newman, “Preface” to The Via Media, xl-xli.

Featured Image: Hans Memling, Christ with Singing Angels, c. 1480; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100. 


Frederick Bauerschmidt

Frederick Bauerschmidt is Professor of Theology at Loyola University Maryland and a permanent deacon of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, assigned to the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen. He is most recently the author of The Love That Is God: An Invitation to Christian Faith.

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