God, not man, reigns supreme

April 10, 2006

Read: Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, nn. 377-383

Canada's official motto, "from sea to sea," was lifted from Psalm 72. When adopted in 1921, it no doubt reflected the country's pride in having Canada stretch from the Atlantic to the Pacific. More basic, however, was the desire to have the motto reflect the kind of country Canada is to be.

"Justice shall flourish in his days, and profound peace, till the moon be no more. May he (the king's son) rule from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth." Christians, of course, take the references to the king's son in Psalm 72 to refer to Jesus Christ.

Now some are arguing that the motto should be changed to "from sea to sea to sea." This would be more inclusive of Canada's North, they say. It's hard to escape the feeling that such a change, which blurs the motto's biblical roots, would also symbolize a shift in Canada's unofficial religion from Christianity to a vague inclusiveness.

- Design Pics photo

When God gave Israel a king, it was to be a different sort of kingship than that of neighbouring nations. If those other kings were despots, the king of Israel was "to make God's dominion and plan of salvation visible." He was to be "the defender of the weak and the guarantor of justice for the people" (Compendium, n. 377).

This was a radical shift. Ancient kings and rulers were often little more than trumped-up warlords. To have a king who would represent God's loving dominion over his people was a new thing. Israel's kings often did not live up to this lofty ideal, but the ideal was there nevertheless.


Jesus, however, did not present himself as a political messiah. He did not directly oppose the authorities of his day and even gave temporal leadership its due. His notion of leadership, even more radical than that of Israel, was for leaders to be servants of all.

St. Paul urged early Christians to respect earthly authorities. He prayed that those in high office would allow Christians to "lead a tranquil and quiet life in full observance of religion and high standards of morality" (1 Timothy 2:2).

The Compendium says political power "comes from God and is an integral part of the order that he created" (n. 383).

But when political authority oversteps its bounds and makes itself out to be like God, then it becomes the Beast of the Apocalypse who is "drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the martyrs of Jesus" (Revelation 17:6). Political power will not be exercised within proper limits unless worldly authority recognizes Christ as reigning over all the universe.

To say that politics is God's dominion is not to propose a theocracy. There is a legitimate autonomy to political governance just as the early chapters of Genesis should not be expected to guide science. But the earthly ruler is called to respect justice and build peace.

Moreover, earthly rule has limits. As political philosopher George Weigel argues, "Because God is God, Caesar is not God. And because Caesar is not God, Caesar's 'reach' into our lives is limited." A political dominion that respects God also respects human freedom, especially freedom of conscience and worship. These things the state cannot control. It cannot coerce consciences.

When agnosticism becomes the state religion then it becomes very easy - almost an unavoidable temptation - for the state to drift towards the "thinly disguised totalitarianism" that bothered Pope John Paul II in his encyclical Centesimus Annus (n. 46). Power that is not in the service of God easily becomes power for the sake of power.

To recognize that God's dominion has priority over earthly dominions is to take the first step to putting politics in its proper perspective. It gives one critical distance from earthly structures. The demands of the party or some ideology become relative. God is the only absolute.

Human dignity requires that the inner sanctuary of conscience be respected, that it be beyond the reach of state power. The earthly needs of humanity should be met and regulated within ordered communities. But the governments of those communities have limited authority. They are but one realm within God's dominion.