Agesilaus II, King of Sparta in the fourth-century B.C., compared his kingly role to that of a good father. “The king will best govern his realm who reigneth over his people as a father doth over his children.”

King Boudewijn

"Royalty," he added, "consists not in vain pomp, but in great virtues." This manner of understanding the exercise of kingship in relation to specific virtues was not unusual for the ancients, who regarded the king as the antithesis of the tyrant. Thus, in the writings of St. Isidore in the seventh century, we find these words: "Whence there was this proverb among the ancients: You will be king if you do right, but you will not be if you do not. The royal virtues are principally two: justice and piety."

Royal virtues

This ancient tradition disposed Christians to accept Christ, "King of the Jews," as their king (cf. Mt. 27:11; Mk. 15:2; Lk. 23:3). Christ perfectly integrates the kingly virtues of leadership and service. As Aquinas writes in The Governance of Rulers: "The idea of king implies that he be one man who is chief and that he be a shepherd who seeks the common good of the multitude and not his own advantage."

Properly speaking, only a king can exercise the virtues peculiar to kingship. Christ the King exemplifies the virtues of justice and piety, leadership and service. These are paradoxical pairings, since it often happens that a man of justice is severe, and a leader is egotistic.

Throughout history, kings have often failed miserably in embodying the virtues proper to their office. Yet, the virtue of kingliness is real and, when personified, becomes exceedingly beautiful. King Boudewijn of Belgium is an exemplary example.

Servant leader

Boudewijn was born near Brussels in 1930, the elder son of King Leopold III and Queen Astrid. He became King of Belgium in 1951, the day after his father abdicated, and two months before his 21st birthday. A faithful Catholic noted for his piety (he was a daily communicant), King Boudewijn was appalled when the Belgian Parliament approved the 1990 bill widening the availability of abortion. Rather than sign his name to the bill as expected, he resigned his kingship. He could not, in conscience, ratify a law that consigned any of his people to an unjust and unnecessary death. He saw his kingly role — as leader and servant — extending to everyone in his kingdom, born and unborn.

His abdication made world headlines. But no less worthy of publicity was an unexpected consequence to his action that the media ignored.

When the distinguished philosopher Alice von Hildebrand, a native of Belgium, learned of Boudewijn's selfless and courageous act, she dispatched a letter of praise to him, telling him how his noble gesture made her proud to be a Belgian citizen. In due time, Dr. von Hildebrand received a thank you note from the King's secretary. Discussing the matter with co-patriots, she was surprised and pleased to learn that a great number of Belgians throughout the world had similarly praised their king for his selfless defense of innocent human life. And then she learned, as Paul Harvey is wont to say, "the rest of the story."

Story of the little king

The King's secretary was a young woman who was scheduled to have an abortion. Each day, prior to her date with the abortionist, she would come to work, open and read mail that poured in from all over the world paying tribute to her King and the little child that sleeps within its mother's womb. Each letter she read and each thank you note she dispatched was an affirmation of life and a refutation of abortion. They were also affirmations of her noble king, whose kingliness had touched her and, in touching her, blessed the life she was carrying. As she sat in her office day after day processing mail, she was exquisitely situated between her King and her life within. Only a few inches separated her royal stationary from her unborn child. At last, pro-life Belgians throughout the world finally convinced her that there was no moral distance between her King and her child. She was, as it were, carrying her own little king.

Her role as corresponding secretary was indeed salutary. She changed her mind and cancelled the abortion. Perhaps without realizing it, she was sending another and more effective kind of letter out to the world, her own special tribute to her King in the most perfect way possible, not merely by praising life, but by giving birth to it.


DeMarco, Donald "Kingliness." Lay Witness (January/February 2001).

Reprinted with permission of Lay Witness magazine.

Lay Witness is a publication of Catholic United for the Faith, Inc., an international lay apostolate founded in 1968 to support, defend, and advance the efforts of the teaching Church.


Donald DeMarco is Professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, CT and Professor Emeritus at St. Jerome's University in Waterloo Ontario. He has written hundreds of articles for various scholarly and popular journals, and is the author of twenty books, including The Heart of Virtue, The Many Faces of Virtue, Virtue's Alphabet: From Amiability to Zeal and Architects Of The Culture Of Death. Donald DeMarco is on the Advisory Board of The Catholic Educator's Resource Center.

Copyright © 2001 LayWitness

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