A collection of personal reflections. Copyright © 2005-2011 K. Gurries

Friday, November 20, 2009

Thanksgiving and Christ the King

During this time of year it seems fitting to reflect on the meaning of the American Thanksgiving Holiday.  What should Catholics think of Thanksgiving and is it compatible with the doctrine on the social Kingship of Christ?  Can we recognize Christ's reign in a country that deliberately has no established state Church?  Does the “secular” character of our nation imply irreligion and state atheism?  Is legislation in America supposed to proceed by way of positivistic convention without any objective criterion or reference to the laws of God?  Pope Pius XI affirmed that if the "rulers of nations wish to preserve their authority, to promote and increase the prosperity of their countries, they will not neglect the public duty of reverence and obedience to the rule of Christ."1  Indeed, during his recent visit to the United States, Pope Benedict XVI gives answer to these questions by recalling an important aspect of our national heritage:     

From the dawn of the Republic, America’s quest for freedom has been guided by the conviction that the principles governing political and social life are intimately linked to a moral order based on the dominion of God the Creator. (Pope Benedict XVI, Address at the White House, Washington, D.C., April 16, 2008)

Thanksgiving Proclamation
To get a better sense of this it seems helpful to turn to the first Thanksgiving Proclamation decreed by George Washington during his first year as President.  The formal institution of the national Thanksgiving holiday was intended as a means for America to fulfill the "duty of all nations" towards the "Lord and Ruler of Nations"2 in a public manner that  promotes the "knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue".  This Proclamation was given by Washington "in the year of our Lord", 1789.3  

WHEREAS it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favour; and Whereas both Houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested me "to recommend to the people of the United States a DAY OF PUBLICK THANSGIVING and PRAYER, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness:"

NOW THEREFORE, I do recommend4 and assign THURSDAY, the TWENTY-SIXTH DAY of NOVEMBER next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation; for the signal and manifold mercies and the favorable interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed;-- for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enable to establish Constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted;-- for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge;-- and, in general, for all the great and various favours which He has been pleased to confer upon us.

And also, that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions;-- to enable us all, whether in publick or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually; to render our National Government a blessing to all the people by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed; to protect and guide all sovereigns and nations (especially such as have shewn kindness unto us); and to bless them with good governments, peace, and concord; to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue,5 and the increase of science among them and us; and, generally to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.

GIVEN under my hand, at the city of New-York, the third day of October, in the year of our Lord, one thousand seven hundred and eighty-nine.

(signed) G. Washington

President Lincoln renewed this same spirit by his Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1863 wherein he decreed: "It is the duty of nations as well as of men to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God; to confess their sins and transgressions in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon; and to recognize the sublime truth, announced in the Holy Scriptures and proven by all history, that those nations are blessed whose God is the LORD6…It has seemed to me fit and proper that God should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged, as with one heart and one voice, by the whole American people".
The season of Thanksgiving provides a very good opportunity for all Americans of good will to participate in rendering worship to God in a public and civic context.7  Americans who participate in Thanksgiving according to the spirit indicated by Washington and Lincoln (in truth, solemnly, reverently, and with grateful hearts) can help to fulfill the social and civic duty towards Christ the King as the Lord and Ruler of Nations.8  Finally, the Thanksgiving holiday serves as a good reminder for all Americans to answer the "universal call to love" in order that "love may reign supreme".9         

Almighty God, who hast given us this good land for our heritage; We humbly beseech Thee that we may always prove ourselves a people mindful of Thy favor and glad to do Thy will. Bless our land with honourable industry, sound learning, and pure manners. Save us from violence, discord, and confusion; from pride and arrogancy, and from every evil way. Defend our liberties, and fashion into one united people the multitudes brought hither out of many kindreds and tongues. Endue with the spirit of wisdom those to whom in Thy Name we entrust the authority of government, that there may be justice and peace at home, and that, through obedience to Thy law, we may show forth Thy praise among the nations of the earth. In the time of prosperity, fill our hearts with thankfulness, and in the day of trouble, suffer not our trust in Thee to fail; Amen. (Prayer taken from the Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1940 decreed by Franklin D. Roosevelt)     


1 Quas Primas, 18

2 Christians explicitly recognize Christ as the Lord and Ruler of Nations.  At the same time, others who by grace of faith implicitly recognize Christ as Lord and Ruler of Nations can also contribute towards the building up of the reign of God's love: "The coming-together of such men to co-operate for the good of human society is not based on equivocation. It is based upon "analogical" likeness as between the practical principles, motions, and progressions implied in their common acceptance of the law of love and corresponding to the primary inclinations of human nature. And why should I, a Christian, according to whose faith a single Name has been given to men through whom they can be saved, even in the temporal order, why should I disguise the fact that this community of analogy itself supposes a primum analogatum purely and simply true; and that implicitly and ultimately everything which is authentic love, working in the world for the reconciliation of men and the common good of their life here below, tends, under forms more or less perfect, more or less pure, toward Christ, who is known to some, un- known to others?" (Cf. Maritain, The Journal of Religion, University of Chicago Press, Vol. 21, No. 4, October, 1941)

3 The custom to close official documents explicitly "in the year of our Lord" is another reference to Christ as the "Lord and Ruler of Nations". 

4 The national holiday is given in such a manner that promotes and supports true religion and objective morality.  The political authority, however, does not go beyond his competence by using means of coercion in religious matters.  Rather, the citizens are expected to fulfill the civic duties of religion to the "Lord and Ruler of Nations" in the spirit of their faith and according to its particular prescriptions.  Such particular prescriptions of religion are subject to the authority of the spiritual power and beyond the scope and competence of the temporal power, as such.  This distinction of office and competence is sometimes indicated by the phrase of the "separation of Church and State" where the proper scope (and limits) of each power was often emphasised by American colonialists who sought to escape absolutist rulers operating under the guise of the so-called "divine right of kings" with its principle of "cuis regio, eius religio".

5 Note that the "secular" form of state does not imply the errors of "secularism".  Even without an established state religion there was no concept of "separation of Church and State" in the sense of religious indifferentism.  On the contrary, we find in the Thanksgiving Proclamations a positive support for (true) religion and objective norms of morality.  Such a care for truth in religion and objective morality is far removed from relativistic and positivistic conceptions.  The so-called "separation" of Church and state in the United States can only be understood in the sense that would seek to safeguard citizens from absolutism and unjust coercion by the state in religious matters. 

6 Lincoln states that the "duty of nations" involves recognizing the truth of God's reign given by divine revelation and proven by historical facts.

7 Pope Pius XII had given the following encouragement to American Catholics for their participation in the national holiday: "This year you have chosen, and chosen well, to amass your resources during a week characterized in your country by the dominant note of thanksgiving to God.  The highest authority of the State has summoned you – and what an ennobling and refreshing summons it is to hear in the world today – to pause in the midst of your varied occupations and to render thanks to Almighty God…" (Pope Pius XII, broadcast to the children of America, November 23, 1947) 

8 President Andrew Johnson includes the following quotation in his Thanskgiving Proclamation of 1866: "In offering these national thanksgivings, praises, and supplications we have the divine assurance that 'the Lord remaineth a king forever; them that are meek shall He guide in judgment and such as are gentle shall He learn His way; the Lord shall give strength to His people, and the Lord shall give to His people the blessing of peace.'

9 Cf. President George W. Bush, Thanksgiving Proclamations, 2005 and 2007.  The Christian themes of charity, brotherly love and the "universal call to love" have often appeared in the Thanksgiving Proclamations.  For example, see President William McKinley, 1897: "On this day of rejoicing and domestic reunion, let our prayers ascend to the Giver of every good and perfect gift, for the continuance of His love and favor to us, that our hearts may be filled with charity and good will, and that we may be ever worthy of His beneficent concern."  Also see Theodore Roosevelt, 1904: "We are thankful for all that has been done for us in the past, and we pray that in the future we may be strengthened in the unending struggle to do our duty fearlessly and honestly, with charity and good will, with respect for ourselves and with love toward our fellow-men."  Also see Lyndon Johnson, 1965: "On that day, let us gather in our homes and in our places of worship to thank God for His generosity. Let us make ourselves worthy of that generosity by pledging to Him our everlasting devotion. And let us pray to Him that the forces of violence, indifference and intolerance may soon vanish from the face of the earth so that peace and understanding and love may reign supreme."


Blogger K Gurries said...

Readers may be interested to see Predident Obama's 2009 Thanksgiving Proclamation here:


It is noteworthy that Obama recalls the words of George Washington given in the first official Thanksgiving Proclamation:

"Today, we recall President George Washington, who proclaimed our first national day of public thanksgiving to be observed 'by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God...'"

Also noteworthy is the ongoing tradition to end to proclamation by giving the date/year "in the year of our Lord..."

November 25, 2009 7:59 PM  
Blogger Cardinal Pole said...

"Also noteworthy is the ongoing tradition to end to proclamation by giving the date/year "in the year of our Lord...""

I wouldn't read too much into that; the same form was to be found on Mr. Obama's official Proclamation of June 2009 as "Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride Month":


A month in a "year of our Lord" devoted to Pride (the head and root of all sins) in the Sins of Sodom (which cry out to Heaven for vengeance). Talk about fellowship between Christ and Belial. How depraved.

November 26, 2009 12:34 PM  

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