By Donald DeMarco

Agesilaus II, the 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.” “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, we find in the writings of St. Isidore in the seventh century, 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.”

This ancient tradition disposed Christians to accept Christ, “King of the Jews,” as their king (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 egoistic.

Throughout history, kings have often failed miserably in living up to the virtues proper to their office. Yet, the virtue of kingliness is real, and when personified, becomes exceedingly beautiful. King Boudewijn of Belgium is a case in point.

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 twenty-first birthday.

A faithful Catholic and noted for his piety (he was a daily communicant), King Boudewijn was appalled when in 1990 the Belgian Parliament approved a bill widening the availability of abortion. Rather than sign his name to the bill, which was expected of him, he resigned his kingship. He could not, in conscience, ratify a law that consigned any of his subjects 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 there was an unexpected consequence to his action, no less worthy of publicity, 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 compatriots, Dr. Von Hildebrand 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.”

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 in 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. As she sat in her office, day after day, processing mail, she was exquisitely situated between her King and the life within her. 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.

Dr. DeMarco is a professor of philosophy at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ont.