Regalism versus Real Catholic Monarchy


The Development of Regalism

Regalism was a development of the late Middle Ages and early modern period that sought to centralize all power in the hands of the king. All social and economic institutions, even — or especially — the Church, were brought under royal control. This was the beginning of the modern “nation-state,” in which all loyalties, and all power, were transferred to the state in the person of the king; from there it was but a short step to replace the all-powerful king with an oligarchy or a democracy, or more usually, an oligarchy disguised as a democracy.

Regalism was, we might say, “non-denominational”; it was practiced by both Catholic and Protestant monarchs. Long before the Reformation, the state was expanding its power at the expense of the Church. The taxing of the clergy, the consolidation of ecclesial courts into civil ones, intrusion into the educational system, the replacement of the Church’s charities with the welfare state, and royal control of clerical appointments were some of the signs of the expanding power of the state. The Reformation merely continued this process, since so many of the “reformers” were more than willing to replace the pope with the prince to enforce a confessional conformity. The Reformation depended on lay power, and gave a justification for that power, but the way had been prepared by Catholic monarchs. And while the Catholic kings never succeeded in having themselves declared head of the Church in their realms, they came very close. For example, Pope Julius III could write to the French King Henry II, “You are more than pope in your kingdoms,” and when Richelieu was appointed Cardinal, he sent his letter of thanks not to the pope, but to the king, the real religious power in France.

Nowhere was this royal control more damaging to the Church’s mission than in the case of the missions. The king’s writ extended to distant lands, and the missions became another instrument of state power in which nationalism dominated over salvation. Missionary activity was subordinated to commercial and political objectives, thereby making the work of the Church seem like a mere instrument of what would later be called “colonialism.”  The national control of the missions created tremendous jurisdictional problems, so that the new believers didn’t know which authority to believe, as bishops from the home country vied with vicars from the Vatican. And the nationalist missions impeded the development of native clergy, since this could form a source of opposition to royal control. Tremendous opportunities were lost in Japan and China, losing not only billions of souls for Christ, but changing the course of history; imagine how different things would be today if these oriental powers had become Catholic.

This regalism was a vast departure from the norm of medieval monarchies. Rather than a plenary authority, subjugating all to the royal will, medieval kings tended to have a limited authority as heads of a rich network of social institutions, each with their own domain, authority, and dignity. There was of course the Church, but also the guilds, the towns, barons great and small, universities, and associations of all sorts. The king’s writ might run as law, but there was very little he could actually write in his writ, given the plurality of powers that surrounded him. People were conscious of their rights and privileges, and willing to fight for them, as Richard II of England discovered when he tried to impose a poll tax (essentially, an income tax) on the people, and found that within a few weeks a vast peasant army swept through the kingdom to capture both London and the king. Treachery got Richard out of his difficulties, but he was made very aware of the limitations to his power. In fact, a modern bureaucrat, in the normal course of his day, exercises more power than a medieval king; the bureaucrat can, with a stroke of a pen, take away your business or your children, thereby making tyranny a sort of daily routine; the bureaucrat’s writ does indeed run as law, as long as the proper forms are filled out.

I dwell on the problems of regalism because it is this version of “monarchy” which is most familiar to the general public. Whatever the faults of the American Founders, this was the kind of monarchy that justified the revolution. The same principle that was applied in the last article to democracy also applies to monarchy. That is, a thing without proper limits becomes its own opposite, and benevolence quickly becomes a tyranny which threatens both civil and religious order. But Catholics can look to a wider tradition to meditate on these matters; we need not confine our meditations on monarchy to King George III, or even to King Louis XVI, Catholic as he may have been.

Real Monarchy

Preeminent among our sources is St. Thomas Aquinas. In his letter to the King of Cypress, he identified monarchy as both the best and worst form of government; best when the king acted for the common good, and worst when he did not. But of course, kings and queens are but men and women in regal robes, and greed rages in their hearts no less in than in the hearts of the commons, and a king no less than a commoner is likely to be ruled by unruly passions. So just as a democracy needs a monarchial limit, the monarchy needs aristocratic and democratic limits. As to how this is to be accomplished,  St. Thomas says:

Accordingly, the best form of government is in a state or kingdom, wherein one is given the power to preside over all; while under him are others having governing powers: and yet a government of this kind is shared by all, both because all are eligible to govern, and because the rules are chosen by all. For this is the best form of polity, being partly kingdom, since there is one at the head of all; partly aristocracy, in so far as a number  of persons are set to authority; partly democracy, i.e., government by the people, in so far as the rulers can be chosen from the people and the people have the right to choose their leaders (ST I-11, 105.1).

We can ask, “If the people have the right to choose their leaders, what is the purpose of the monarchy?” St. Thomas defines this as giving a unity to the people in order to direct all to the common good, which is a “unity of peace” and a concern for justice. “Peace” in this context means much more than just the absence of war. Rather, it is an internal harmony in the kingdom that directs all levels to justice, for “Everything is uncertain when there is a departure from justice” (De Regno, 26). Politics tends to be divisive by its very nature; even when people attempt to act for the common good, they also tend to interpret that good according to their own needs and desires. Some principle in government needs to have the possibility of interpreting the common good from the standpoint of the whole society, a good which encompasses all, from the lowest to the highest.

However, the term “common good,” standing by itself, tends to be rather vague and needs some development before it can be useful. The Catholic Church has developed two further principles in guiding rulers to the common good. These principles are not mere abstractions, not the result of isolated philosophers and theologians dictating what they think is good for society. Rather, they are the result of the Church’s reflection on its 2,000 years of experience with governments of all sorts. These principles are subsidiarity and solidarity.

Subsidiarity is a principle which stands the political hierarchy on its head; it states that the higher levels of government exist only to serve the lowest. A higher level of authority can be justified only by the aid (subsidium) it gives to the lower level, and especially to the lowest unit of society, the family. The royal family, the first family of the kingdom, is in a sense the last family, and the the king, who is the greatest of all, must become the servant of all, in the same way that the pope is the servus servorum dei, “the servant of the servants of God.”

Solidarity is the principle which requires that every action of government must be evaluated on the basis of how it affects the poorest citizens, and if it harms this group, it is likely not a just action to begin with. Its signature is a “preferential option for the poor,” and it forms a kind of acid test for the common good.

Note that Thomas does not give specific duties or authorities for each element of government. And that is proper, because the actual distribution of authority is not something derived from the natural law. Rather, it is a prudential judgment that changes from culture to culture, and with time and circumstance. For the character of peoples and nations vary, and the needs of the times change with the times; therefore their particular institutions must evolve from their own experiences and needs. Nevertheless, there are some general principles that we might advance, though they might be modified to fit any particular political tradition.

Concerning the king, he needs to have real authority, an authority that extends to the executive, legislative, and judicial functions. Of course, he should not be the only authority in these areas, nor even necessarily the ordinary authority; but he should, in some sense, be the ultimate authority. The king’s government also needs to have its own revenue stream, one fixed in the constitution and independent of any legislative body. A king who has to beg his bread from the legislature is no king, and whoever holds the power of the purse will soon hold all other powers. The legislature may by its own will supplement the constitutional revenues, perhaps to pay for a war or some other extraordinary expense, and they may control the funds they levy. But for the budgeting of the constitutional revenue, the king should be primary, or even the sole, authority. Other authorities may comment, they may even censure a king, such as when a king neglects the defense of the realm to build himself palaces. But in the practical world, control of the budget is control of everything else. The king should also hold an absolute veto over both the legislature and the judicial functions. And finally, there needs to be a difficult but peaceful means of removing a king; without this, kings themselves become the cause of revolutions.

The more difficult question actually concerns the aristocracy. Both Aristotle and Aquinas thought of aristocracy in terms of virtue and accomplishment rather than in terms of birth and wealth. The latter they considered to be a mere oligarchy. However, men often confuse wealth with worth, and this is especially true of the men with an excess of wealth and an absence of worth. In my opinion, even in cases where there is a requirement of wealth or birth, there should still be a selection process to choose the best of the wealthy or well-born. But whatever the process, the function of the aristocracy is virtue. I interpret this to mean that they should be a source of impartial commentary and judgment on political affairs. In the next installment, I will deal in greater detail with some solutions to the aristocratic problem.

Finally, there is the democratic problem. Democracy works best at the local level, and a national democracy is almost a contradiction in itself, since the staggering costs of national campaigns enforce an oligarchic control. Nor can this problem be solved by some sort of campaign finance reform or even public funding of elections, unless we are willing to forbid all political speech, save that funded by the public purse. But that would be a form of tyranny in itself. The best way to reduce the cost of elections is to make the districts small, which will keep the cost of campaigning cheap, and hence less susceptible to oligarchic control. Small districts imply large legislatures, and this has the advantage of making them slow and unwieldy, able to agree on laws only when they are most necessary. But if one wants a small and more agile legislature, then perhaps it would be wise to chose it by indirect elections, with electors chosen at the neighborhood level, who then meet in an assembly to choose the actual legislators. In any case, deliberative forms of democracy, such as the caucus or the town meeting, should be favored over electoral forms, such as secret ballot. But whatever the size and composition of the legislature, it should have clearly defined and limited powers.

However, all of these reflections, whether right or wrong, good or bad, remain sterile if there is no way to realize them in the existing political order. As interesting as they might be, such speculations are of great value only if they can be led to actions which are effective in the given political order. Even a remnant wants to be effective, to have some actual impact in the world. Political systems arise not solely from mere theorizing, but from actual experience. The task is to examine the current situation, and see what can be done, in this time of crisis, to make the political system more monarchial, which is to say more truly democratic. That will be the burden of my next essay.

(© 2011 John Médaille — adapted from the original)


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  • Kathleen Woodman

    People do confuse wealth with worth; this is well said. That’s why wealthy people are so looked up to. If you’re well-to-do, your opinion is highly sought after. Many ideas destructive to society have been eased in by wealthy lips.