The 20th century was not kind to Europe’s kings, emperors and monarchs. World War I occasioned the end of the Kaiser in Germany, the Czar in Russia and the Emperor in Austria-Hungary. During the century, Portugal, Greece, Italy and the Balkan nations lost their royal rulers. The Spanish royal family was happily restored mid-century by the graciousness of Franco.
Belgium, the Netherlands, and the Scandinavian countries can still boast royal families but these have become “bicycle monarchies,” greatly diminished in power if not entirely in prestige. Britain’s Queen Elizabeth is still queen but she is no longer an empress as her mother, grandmother, great-grandmother and great-great grandmother were. Gone are the days when the Stuarts, the Bourbons, the Romanovs and the Hapsburgs could argue that they ruled by divine right. Heard no more are arguments that the anointing of kings is the eighth sacrament. Indeed the mighty have fallen.
The transition from kingdoms and empires to democracies and republics has introduced an entirely new way of thinking about the source of human rights. Americans, of course, take it for granted that rights are invested by God in the individual person. Thomas Jefferson’s happy phrases come readily to mind: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Modern governments, no matter how benign and benevolent, do not confer rights on their citizens. Modern governments simply recognize rights that are already inherent in the person. Modern governments may wisely and graciously protect the rights of the individual but they do not confer them. The individual, even before becoming a citizen, has rights regarding religion, expression, assembly, arms, et cetera. The familiar Bill of Rights added to the American Constitution did not confer 10 celebrated rights, rather this bill restricted government interference with these rights. Rights reside in persons not governments.
Rights inherent in the individual took a long time to be recognized. Before the age of constitutional monarchs and elected rulers, rights were thought to be conferred directly by the reigning monarch. The king was the unique font of justice and honors. Kings did not recognize rights; they bestowed rights. The individual subject had no innate dignity apart from that granted by the king. The royal will was absolute. A man’s fate truly hung in the balance. It is easy to see why kings were not only revered, they were indeed feared. Literally, their word was law.
Jesus Christ, our king, has much more in common with the absolute monarchs of old than he has with the figurehead sovereigns of today. Jesus is certainly not a Tudor king or a Russian czar lobbing off heads or banishing peasants. Nonetheless, Jesus is the sole and exclusive source of all heavenly honors. Unlike human rights which are intrinsic at birth, divine graces are total gifts from God bestowed only at a man’s rebirth in Jesus Christ. Mankind has no innate right to reconciliation, salvation, redemption, and eternal happiness. The happiness of heaven, the forgiveness of sins, the knowledge of Christ and his Gospel message, even membership in the Catholic Church, are entirely God’s free gifts which he may grant in his wisdom. Human rights are natural; divine grace is supernatural. No one has a right to God’s grace. Grace, by definition, is freely awarded. Grace is always a gift.
If pre-modern man stood in awe of royal prerogatives, every man in every era should stand in awe of divine grace. Grace is the difference between heaven and hell. But men should also remember that, unlike earthly kinds, God has no favorites. God’s grace is indeed freely bestowed but it is also widely imparted. God does not ration his gifts of grace; rather God lavishes his gifts upon mankind, as Christ the King’s saving death on the cross for all men amply testifies.