“Every Nation on Earth”

For the Tuesday after Epiphany, the Mass acclamation to the responsorial psalm reads: “Adorabunt te, Domine, omnes gentes terrae — Lord, every nation on earth will adore you.”

The responsory for Morning Prayer in the breviary for the same day exults: “All the kings of the earth will bow down in worship…. Men of every nation will serve him.”

These themes are inspired by the Magi, by the Church’s mission to “all the nations.” But do we see nations on earth “adoring” God? Do we observe kings bowing down?

Nations, as such, are not “beings” that can “adore” anything. They are at best relationships of laws and power exercised by men to establish an order in which actual human beings act for their proper (or improper) ends. The reality of civil states is not apart from the being of the men and women composing them. These latter alone can worship and be saved. Kings, as kings, are indeed human beings, subject to salvation or damnation because of their acts.

Two millennia after the Wise Men from the east appeared, we still wonder what it means to say that “Every nation on earth will adore you.” Many theologians today are perplexed with such passages. Politics itself has become messianic. The “adoring” state, moreover, presents as many problems in political philosophy as the secularized state that allows nothing but itself.

The public mission and presence of the Church in the world comes up in many ways. The Holy Father met with the ambassadors to the Holy See assembled at Palazzo Borromeo, the residence of the Italian delegation, on December 13. Benedict recalled that “render to Caesar and render to God” governs the Church’s understanding of its purpose in world affairs, of the legitimacy and limits of the civil institutions. Politics are important, but not everything, not the most important thing.

The Church declares “what is in accord with the nature of every human being.” The universal claim made here often puts the Church at loggerheads with many civil societies, including our own, as the FOCA bill will soon make clearer than it already is.

”Recalling the value — not only for private but also and especially for public life — of certain fundamental ethical principles, the Church contributes de facto to guaranteeing and promoting the dignity of the person and the common good of society.”

Do “all nations” agree with this? Does it become untrue if they do not? The Church is not simply a “private” organization. Nor should we think, granting that only individual persons can be saved, that personal salvation is simply a “private” issue. The state can make salvation most difficult.

Previously, on December 10, the pope heard a concert of the Brandenburgisches Staatsorchestra from Frankfurt. The occasion was the sixtieth anniversary of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The pope states what I will call an “Epiphany message” to the nations: “The Church has always reasserted that fundamental rights —over and above the different ways in which they are formulated and the different degrees of importance they may have in various cultural contexts — are a universal fact because they are inherent in human nature itself.”

Notice how delicately the pope makes the essential distinction. The “formulation” of such duties and rights does not determine their essence. They are not simply civil laws, positive laws that are relativistic to different nations, culture, religions, and times. Without this transcendent foundation that comes ultimately through our reason and freedom, civil laws are “fragile,” with no “solid foundation.”

The pope is also a realist. He knows that reason has enemies. “Neither the equality of all nor the dignity of each person is always respected, while new barriers are raised for reasons linked to race, religion, political opinion or other convictions.” These latter sources, perhaps worthy in themselves, often become enemies of human dignity.

“Lord, every nation on earth will adore you.” Some individual persons in every nation do adore God. Whether the manner of this adoration is indifferent, whether it can be just anything, is pertinent here.

The great desire of God and even of mankind is that the Lord be worshipped in the manner that He, the Lord, not man, has established. This right, non-idolatrous worship still confronts “the nations.”

God respects His own laws. The “intelligence and freedom” with which everyone is “endowed” remain the private and public principles according to which the “adoration” of God must be carried out. Ultimately, this is why salvation is not an inner-worldly political act. Rather it is a free personal act, the first freedom, that takes place within the nations, all nations, but not because of them.

Adorabunt te, Domine, omnes gentes terrae.

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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