4.2.4 Monarchy, democracy and the Catholic Church

Back to 4.2.3

Unit 4 Contents


In this part of Unit 4, we are looking at democracy in historical context, as preparation for studying what CST says about it.  In 4.2.1, we noted three historical ‘waves’ in which countries have become democratic.  In 4.2.2 and 4.2.3 we have seen how democracy fits in relation to the various forms of government distinguished and debated in the history of political thought – the different answers to the question, ‘How should government be constituted?’  On this screen, we shall draw on these previous discussions as we turn to how the Catholic Church actually reacted to the rise of democracy in the modern period.

What came before democracy?  The answer differs in different places.  For brevity, we shall look here at two countries to which we have already given attention, the USA and France, focusing especially on the latter.

When the American states declared independence from Britain in 1776, Britain was basically an aristocracy.  Supreme power lay, not with the king or queen, but with Parliament, that is with a group of a few hundred men.  Some of these were elected, but by an electorate comprising only a very small percentage of the population.

In Britain there was also a monarch, but events in 1688-89, known as the Glorious Revolution (which was much less traumatic and violent than the French Revolution 100 years later), had transferred real power from the king or queen to Parliament.  This arrangement is often referred to as ‘constitutional monarchy’, because the monarch’s powers became tightly limited by constitutional law.  Hence, in practice, British government was aristocratic – it was rule by a small elite.

In the case of the United States, then, democracy followed aristocracy.1

In France, by contrast, what came before democracy was monarchy.  At least, this is basically true, even though it oversimplifies.  The French Revolution, seen in one way, was the overturning of an ‘absolute monarchy’ by radicals who were committed to democracy.  The term ‘absolute’ is used of a monarchy when the king or queen has unchecked executive power.  Hence ‘absolute monarchy’ contrasts with ‘constitutional monarchy’ of the kind that had existed in England since 1688-89 (and still does).  What was at stake in France during the century after 1789 was a fundamental contest between absolute monarchy and democracy.2

You will recall from the outline in Unit 2 of ‘The Historical Context of Modern CST’ (2.4) that the French Revolution was not only anti-monarchical but also quite anti-clerical – that is, opposed to the Catholic hierarchy and priesthood.  This was because in general the revolutionaries saw the Catholic Church as an inherent part of the unjust ancien regime.  While some in the Church were at first sympathetic to, indeed supportive of the Revolution, attempts by the revolutionaries to bring the Church fully under its own control, and then to replace it with a new ‘religion of reason’, sharpened the conflict.3. Most representatives of the Church, both clergy and laity, came to side with the monarchy and against democracy.

That this happened was due, not only to events during the years immediately after 1789, but also to two really important factors in the historical background.  It will assist us for the rest of this unit if we look at these.

The ‘alliance of the throne and altar’

The first factor was that in Catholic countries, both in Europe and beyond, the Church had allied itself to absolute monarchies during the 300 years that preceded the French Revolution.  Moreover the Catholic Church had made agreements with several monarchies in which the Church entrusted the power to appoint bishops and other Church leaders to kings and queens, in exchange for promises of loyalty to the Church. Influential instances of this included the pope of the day giving such powers to the Spanish monarchy in 1486 and to the French king in 1516.4

Such arrangements are referred to by the term ‘the alliance of throne and altar’.  By 1789, this alliance was so long-established that it can seem unsurprising that, when Catholics were faced with a huge challenge from anti-clerical revolutionaries and democrats, they would side with monarchy. In fact responses among Catholics were more varied and nuanced than this implies.  As noted above, some clergy were initially supportive of the Revolution before being driven away by excesses.  Moreover the Church’s long-held stance of relative indifference, in principle, among constitutional forms meant that there was no good reason for rejecting ‘government by many’ as long as this was directed to the good of the whole society. In other words, Catholic faith gave no good reasons for rejecting a ‘civic democracy’.  Indeed that policy of relative indifference did lead some church leaders to refuse to endorse moves seeking simply restore monarchy for monarchy’s sake.  In 1797, Louis XVIII, the successor to the deposed French king, was seeking to regain the throne and he wrote to two bishops in particular asking the Church,

to build up monarchical spirit as well as religious spirit among my subjects; to inspire them with a sense of the intimate links between throne and altar; … and to teach them that the Catholic Church, with its discipline and hierarchy, … is compatible only with monarchy, and cannot long survive without it.5

However the reply from one of them spelt out the Church’s position:

It is not possible to teach the people that the Catholic religion is compatible only with monarchy and cannot long survive without it, for the truth is that the Catholic religion is compatible with any form of legitimate government.6

In retrospect, however, it is the closeness of the alliance with kings and queens, and so the Church’s identification with immense privilege and worldly power, which does seem surprising.  We may want to ask: had church leaders not reckoned with the scepticism about monarchy we find in the Bible itself (2.2.9)?  Did it need to take more than 150 years, until the Second Vatican Council, for the Church to realize that the language of ‘the rights of man’ could be employed to articulate something of what a Christian conception of human dignity entails?

In fact, while the Church was reacting against the Revolutionaries’ programme in the decades after 1789, something else extremely interesting for the future of the Church was taking place.  Some main advocates of restoration of the alliance of throne and altar, such as a very prominent French writer, Joseph de Maistre, became highly critical of the way in which, over hundreds of years, the Church had handed over to kings and queens the power to select its own leaders.  They said: the Church should free itself from state control, even that of sympathetic kings and queens, and should appoint its own bishops.



From what we have looked at in previous units, what does this call in post-revolutionary France for the Church to exercise freedom to appoint bishops itself remind you of?


One reason why this point is still relevant today is that it is now taken for granted in almost all countries of the world that the papacy appoints Catholic bishops and state authorities do not.  Governmental control of such appointments is now seen as a severe restriction of religious freedom, one that compromises the Church’s identity and mission.  Where governments still do interfere in such matters, notably in China, the Church sees it as a problem needing to be overcome.

What that call by de Maistre and others might have reminded you of is the so-called ‘investiture controversy’, back in the medieval period, which was about exactly the same issue.  This was mentioned both in Unit 2 (2.3.3) and Unit 3 (3.3.1).  You might remember that Pope Gregory VII (c.1020-1085) insisted that it was for the Church to appoint its own bishops, not for kings or emperors to do this – and that this was required by the fundamental principle of the ‘freedom of the church’, in Latin libertas ecclesiae.

[For de Maistre,] Pope Gregory VII, who declared the freedom of the church, was “the genius”, the man without whom “all was lost, humanly speaking”…  Almost every major Catholic thinker of the era [the first half of the nineteenth century] wrote… on the recovery of the Gregorian reform.7

This shows that part and parcel of the Church’s reaction against the French Revolution became a reassertion of its own freedom.  As you know, that reaction became expressed most strongly in the notorious Syllabus of Errors of 1864 (2.4.2).  As well as rejecting “progress, liberalism and modern civilization” (#80, quoted in 2.4.2), this document insisted repeatedly on the principle of the freedom of the church.8

Most of the great thinkers who contributed to CST’s development in the twentieth century, such as Jacques Maritain, whom we shall look at shortly, and John Courtney Murray (introduced in Unit 3: 3.3.6), were profoundly influenced by this nineteenth century reassertion of libertas ecclesia.  The critique that de Maistre and others made of the way this had become compromised during the centuries-long ‘alliance of throne and altar’ was a basic building block for subsequent CST.  In a book with the title, The Things That Are Not Caesar’s (1927), Maritain put the point vividly: “It was 500 years ago that we began to die”.9

Despite that recovery of the principle of libertas ecclesia, however, it is the alliance with monarchy that is the first major factor which helps to explain why the Church reacted against democracy after 1789.  The legacy of this continued into the twentieth century.  We can see it in Catholic support for authoritarian rulers, even when these were not traditional kings or queens – for example, in the extent of Church backing for the regimes of Salazar in Portugal and Franco in Spain between the 1930s and the 1970s.

The meaning of ‘democracy’

We come now to the second factor in why the Church reacted against democracy so strongly after the French Revolution.  This is to do with what ‘democracy’ had meant up until that time.



As you know from 4.2.1 (‘How recent is democracy?’), there were, quite simply, no well-established democracies at the time of the French Revolution or for some decades after that.

Do a quick thought experiment.  Imagine that today there are no democracies, and that the people who actually govern are either hereditary monarchs, brought up to rule, or small elites, most of whose members come from families which have been involved in government for generations.  Faced with the prospect of transferring power to the mass of the people, would you see it as a sensible plan?


You might well give a clear ‘yes’ to the question in that Reflection – because we now know that democracy can, more or less, work.  But the way the question is posed aims to put across how risky the notion of democracy must have seemed.  It would place real power in the hands of people who had no experience of it and no education in how to use it.

As the last two screens outlined, from ancient Greece all the way up until the eighteenth century, the good version of rule ‘by the many’ was called ‘republican’ and the perversion of it ‘democracy’.  In a republic, there is no king or queen, and citizens govern for the good of the city, taking turns to participate in exercising power in accordance with the constitution.  In contrast, the general view was that in a ‘democracy’ there would be rule by the mass of people who were incapable of governing well.  ‘Democracy’ referred to something equivalent to ‘tyranny’ and ‘oligarchy’ – a kind of rule that, by definition, is in the interests only of part of society, not for the common good.

For this reason, many in the Church, along with many among others, feared democracy.  In retrospect, this meaning of ‘democracy’ can seem almost quaint and is certainly hard to accept.  One strong argument for democracy is that a political system in which all have some involvement is more likely to benefit everyone, than government by a highly privileged monarchy or a wealthy aristocracy.

But it is important to appreciate this aspect of the historical context of the emergence of modern democracy.  For very many in France after 1789, as elsewhere, democracy was inherently contradictory to good government.

The aim of the last four screens has been to place our understanding of democracy in some historical context.  We have done this by looking first at how recent democracy is (4.2.1). We then located what democracy means against the background of the way western political thought has distinguished forms of government, especially their ‘good’ and ‘bad’ versions (4.2.2 and 4.2.3).  On this page, we have given some attention to what came before democracy, focusing on France because this enables us to have some understanding of Catholic support for monarchy and opposition to democracy following the extremely traumatic events of the French Revolution.

On the next page we shall take one more step in setting democracy in context, before we turn to the texts of CST.


End of 4.2.4

Go to 4.2.5 Three kinds of argument for democracy

Module B outline

Copyright © Newman University. If you wish to quote from this page, see Citation Information. N.B. If you are a student and make use of material on this page in an assignment, you are obliged to reference the source in line with the citation information.

  1. Indeed, in the early decades of US history, before even a limited form of democracy became well established, it too can be described as an aristocracy. 

  2. This is so even though there were several major shifts in the form of government during this period, including constitutional monarchy for a time (1830-1848). 

  3. “At the start of the Revolution, a substantial party among the clergy looked favourably on the new ideas and took an enthusiastic part in the revolutionary movement.  The church’s counter-revolutionary turn was thus by no means inevitable.” Emile Perreau-Saussine, Catholicism and Democracy: An Essay in the History of Political Thought (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012), 11.  Perreau-Saussine argues convincingly that it was the Revolutionaries’ ‘Civil Constitution of the Clergy’ of 1790, which basically sought to place the church directly under secular state control, that did lead to that ‘counter-revolutionary turn’. 

  4. See R. Hittinger, ‘Introduction to Modern Catholicism’, in John Witte Jr and Frank S. Alexander (eds), The Teachings of Modern Roman Catholicism on Law, Politics and Human Nature (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2007), p. 5. 

  5. Quoted in Perreau-Saussine, Catholicism and Democracy, p. 57 

  6. Quoted in Perreau-Saussine, Catholicism and Democracy, p. 57 

  7. Hittinger, ‘Introduction to Modern Catholicism’, pp. 7-8 

  8. Within the Syllabus of Errors, as many as 13 out of the 80 propositions assert the Church’s freedom to order its own life, in various ways (##28-30, 41, and 45-53).  See Hittinger, ‘Introduction to Modern Catholicism’, p. 9. 

  9. Quoted in Hittinger, ‘Introduction to Modern Catholicism’, p. 4