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Catholic Government

Is There a Catholic Government?

The Kingship of Christ – Part XI

(Read the previous post in this series: Freedom of Expression)

Part 1: The Types of Government

Throughout this series we have explored a variety of foundational issues that pertain to the Kingship of Christ in society. Catholic teaching certainly provides principles for civil structures, yet we know there are various forms of government. We might ask, ‘Can every government conform to Catholic principles?’ Even more importantly, we might ask ‘Which form of government can best be exercised in accordance with truly Catholic principles?’

It is true that Christ must be the Sovereign King of our societies, but how can this done on a practical scale? Is it possible to have a modern-day society where Christ still reigns over congress or parliament? In order to address these types of questions, we first need to understand how government works.

Historically, the Church, in line with the classical philosophical tradition, has recognized three forms of legitimate government, as well as three forms of illegitimate government. The three classical forms of legitimate government are monarchy, aristocracy and polity. The three illegitimate forms are tyranny, oligarchy and democracy.

Tyranny vs. Monarchy

Tyranny is a fallen form of monarchy, wherein a singular leader abuses his power and exhorts his subjects to unreasonable demands. Society is consequently harmed. Monarchy, on the other hand, is the proper form of government where a single ruler is the head. He often comes to his office by inheritance, though this is not mandatory. A monarch also generally relies on a wise counsel of experienced and prudent advisors, though final decisions are the crown’s responsibility.

So much of American folklore portrays monarchy as synonymous with tyranny. I imagine many can think of caricature versions of kings in popular media that put forth a blood-thirsty or corrupt ruler. He always seems preoccupied with nefarious measures to control the populous. Monarchs of this nature have existed. Yet within Christian civilization, they are the exception and not the norm.[1]

Historically, reigning monarchs were beholden to the Laws of the Church, and therefore were greatly restricted in their moral actions against the people. Also, Catholic kings were expected to rule their people in a paternal manner, concerned therefore with the truest well-being of their subjects. There was also an inherent check and balances between monarchs and other noblemen. In fact, very often a count or baron would have greater financial, military and natural resources than his monarch. Thus, a monarch’s power was quite naturally restrained, and channeled towards the real common good, by his advisors, powerful noblemen and ecclesiastical leaders.[2]

In addition, although it may seem strange to our modern sensibilities that a ruler inherit an office, we must remember that this resulted in a sort of apprenticeship, wherein a king’s children were raised and trained to rule the state with expertise. We expect a great deal of training and experience for everything from the work of a tradesman to neurosurgeon. It really is a peculiar thing that when it comes to leading a nation, we are more likely to support politicians with celebrity status, irrespective of experience, rather than experts raised in the “ancestral family business.”

With the advent of state churches and Protestantism, some kings and queens became the supreme rules of their realms, demonstrating an unrestrained power that was fertile ground for tyrannical dictatorships. In our day, tyranny comes in many forms, but strictly speaking most often comes by way of a dictatorship.

Oligarchy vs. Aristocracy

Oligarchy is a fallen form of aristocracy, where an elite group of individuals abuse their influence, whether monetary or intellectual, as a way of manipulating a society in a direction only desired by a powerful elite minority. The term “aristocracy” comes from the Greek word “aristoi,” which denotes a class of men that would correspond to the English term “nobility.” Our popular discourse has largely confused the term “aristocracy” with something like the “bourgeoisie” – a French term co-opted by the revolutionary forces to foment class hatred – when in reality a true “aristoi” is a proven man of wisdom and commendable status, competent enough to help lead the community.

In well-functioning societies of the past, the aristocracy played a role in bringing the regional needs of their communities to the headship of the government. Furthermore, when aristocracy functions well, it helps to act as a protective measure against the temptation for a king to act as a tyrant against the people under the regional jurisdiction of the aristocrat. When aristocracy devolves into oligarchy, what we unfortunately see is an elite class acting against the wellbeing of the common person, enforcing greater tyranny on behalf of the head of state. Often oligarchy is synonymous with big-business which exhorts undue influence over governmental action, frequently against the moral and spiritual wellbeing of the common person.

Democracy vs. Polity

Finally, democracy is a fallen form of polity, as the individual voter becomes the authority over state affairs by aligning themselves with like-minded groups that decide on societal matters, irrespective of moral principles and custom.

It might come as a surprise to some to see the process of “democracy” as a negative process, as we have been inundated for centuries with messages about the glory of the “democratic process.” It is worth noting that often we use words in ways that are different from their technical meaning. For example, “pride” is technically a sinful disposition, and in a theological context it is a negative term. However, I am sure most would agree that it is normal to say things like “I am proud of my children,” as a way of showing contentment with our children’s accomplishments. Analogously, the word “democracy” is used by most to categorize the participation of the common person in governmental affairs, when in reality it is a negative political reality. When what we call “democracy” works well for the fabric of society, we should technically use the term “polity,” which best describes the correct participation of the common person.

In a well-functioning society, even a monarchy, the people would act as a “polity” in governmental affairs. A simple example of good participation on behalf of the polity would be a town-hall gathering. Since people who live in a community are best suited to understand the needs of that community, it only makes sense that they would have a say in how that community should operate on a local level. Even in good monarchies of the past, the polity was respected and made most local or regional decisions for themselves, only deferring to higher levels of authority for state-wide concerns like famine or national defense.

Modern day democracy, however, has confused the proper involvement of the polity in local affairs with an ability to directly influence national leadership in a way that forces peoples to live and act in ways against conscience and custom.

To Be Continued…

There is surely more to be said on the matter, as we must still discuss whether any of these governmental formulations is best geared towards a Catholic society. This will be the focus of our next article on the subject, which can be read here: The Best Government for Catholics.

[1] Even King George III of U.S. Revolutionary War infamy did not thrust upon the people of an entire empire the type of government overreach that contemporary presidents have done with the stroke of a pen.

[2] When people today think of monarchs, largely on account of the way history has been narrated, they generally think of kings as “absolute monarchs.” It is important to note, though, that the absolute monarch has never been a concept supported by Catholic teaching. For that matter, absolute monarchs would not have been possible in Christendom without the Protestant Revolution. Such monarchs arose in the 17th century, with the development of increased bureaucracy (taxes), standing armies with gunfire, and the lessening of ecclesiastical influence. The philosophical justification for the absolute monarch lay in principles popularized by Protestantism. The “Sun King,” Louis XIV (1643-1715), is perhaps the best- known example of an absolute monarch.

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