Monarchy. The Political Solution?

In Defense of Monarchy
By: Brian M. McCall
For The Remnant

Apparently my recent article concerning the plight of His Royal Highness, the Grand Duke of Luxembourg, has provoked some unintended consequences. Some areas of the blogsphere have questioned any favorable comments about a monarch as “un-American.” Although I had not intended the article to be a prompting for a debate on Catholic political theory, the observed reactions have prompted me to do just that.

To begin we have to define some terms. Often this discussion is short circuited by people using the term “monarchy” to mean different things. As I use the term it merely means a form of government where some or all of the governing authority is vested in a single person (monarch) who rules the kingdom for the remainder of their natural life or abdication (i.e. are not subject to constant elections). Often the term is conflated with a hereditary right of succession or the principle of inheritance known as primogenitor. These aspects of transmission of authority may be coupled with a monarchy in particular periods of history but are not essential to the definition. The Holy Father is a monarch but his position is not inherited but obtained by election through the College of Cardinals. The Holy Roman Emperor was elected by a collection of German Princes (although for many centuries it became customary for the electors to make their choice from one particular family, the Hapsburgs. Abbots and Abbesses are monarchs elected by their communities. Some monarchies have been hereditary (for example the kings of France and England, etc.). What is important to note is that some people’s purported objection to monarchy is actually an objection to hereditary succession, which is really a separate and distinct issue.

Now that we have established that a monarchy need not involve inheritance, we can turn directly to Catholic political philosophy. Catholic thought in this area does not judge a particular governing system merely on the form of government employed. Rather, the touchstone of Catholic political philosophy is the “common good.” The essential test of any system is whether or not the governing authorities govern the civil society in accordance with the common good or only a private good. The concept of the “common good” is a rich philosophical topic which could occupy an entire article. For our purposes, I merely wish to note that both elements of the term are essential to its definition. First, the government must in its legislative, executive and judicial acts really be pursuing something that constitutes a “good.” St. Thomas defines the “good” as “that which all thing desire.” A “good” is a perfection of something’s nature, an end that it seeks. Thus, knowledge of God, knowledge of Truth, procreation and rearing of children, preservation of life and beauty are all examples of “good.”

Secondly the good must be common to the members of the community as opposed to merely oriented towards the personal good of the ruler. A ruler who pursues the increase of knowledge among the people of his kingdom pursues the common good. A ruler who pursues public policies which increase merely his own personal wealth pursues a personal good. The common good can thus be seen as being in opposition to both a mere personal good and an evil.

With this framework we can see how Catholic philosophers such as St. Thomas categorized different forms of government not only by the method of governing but also by the type of end pursued by the ruler. Thus, when a community is ruled by one person that pursues the common good of the community it is called a monarchy. When the one ruler pursues his own personal good or an evil it is called a tyranny. A community ruled by a small group of virtuous men pursuing the common good is called an aristocracy. A community ruled by a small group of powerful men pursuing their own personal good (personal wealth or power) or ends constituting evil (such as unjust conquests) rather than the common good is called an oligarchy. A community ruled by many of the members of the community who govern the community in the interest of the common good is called a polity whereas a government run by the many which pursues evil ends (such as debauchery or depravity or economic injustice) is called democracy. Obviously as with many categorizations, actual communities can exhibit aspects of several of the above descriptions. Just as with personality types, a person may have a dominant character but still have some elements of the other characters (in their good or bad aspects).

To help make the discussion more concrete I will give some examples of communities that have exhibited primarily one of these forms. A monarchy would be France under the reign of St. Louis as he pursued the common good and primarily ruled France by his own authority. A tyranny would be Henry VIII for he pursued not only private goods (mostly of sensuality) but also pursued evil, heresy and schism. Although the English parliament existed, it played little role other than rubber stamping the will of Henry (likely out of fear of the scaffold). An aristocracy could be seen in some periods of ancient Israel when it was ruled by a council of elders. Staying with Israel, at the time of Our Lord it was essentially an oligarchy (in Judah at least where Herod had no power) ruled by the powerful Sanhedrin which worked against the common good of salvation brought by the Messiah, our Lord, as well as pursuing their own personal good of maintaining wealth and power. An example close to a polity would be some periods of the Roman Republic where the city was governed by representatives of the patricians in the Senate and the plebians through plebicites and tribunes and when their policies pursued the common good of the Roman city. An example of a perversion of polity, democracy, would be contemporary America. We are ruled by vast numbers of people (look at the size of the federal government alone. Our government promotes common vice not virtue (I think I need not rattle off the list of these) and a staggeringly large proportion of those in power govern for their own personal good – wealth and power (again I think it unnecessary to name names).

Now since any of the three forms of organization (one, few and many) possess the potentiality to be (and throughout different points in history, have in actuality been) oriented to either the common good or its perversion, none of the three can be declared per se the only or best form. In this sense, the Church has never said that a community is obligated to establish a monarchy or aristocracy or a polity in the same sense that she has required every community to acknowledge Christ the King. Catholic perfection of a civil community is possible, in theory, under any of them. However, the Church throughout history has certainly shown a tendency to favor monarchy. This can be seen both in the realm of ideas and in the realm of praxis. First, thinkers like Aquinas argue that although virtue is possible in any of the three forms, if a choice is possible, monarchy is preferable. Several reasons can be given. First, it has the potential to be more effective in promoting the common good because a monarchy by its nature is more capable of unified and coherent action. With one ruler the will of the ruling authority possesses a greater degree of unity (although not perfect as the human will suffers from the effects of original sin, one of which is inconstancy). A monarch who governs oriented to the common good has greater potential to do so more effectively than a group of people requiring co-ordination. Yet, as St. Thomas points out this very effectiveness can lead to the perversion of monarchy, tyranny. A tyranny is more effective in pursuing an antithesis of the common good. Thus, monarchy is capable of being the best but also one of the most dangerous forms of government.

Beyond effectiveness in pursuing the common good, monarchy as a government of unity tends to accord more to the supernatural order established by God. One God rules the visible and invisible worlds and thus a monarchy more perfectly reflects this order. Now, one might object that this one God contains three Divine Persons which is more akin to aristocracy; yet if we consider the matter, the Trinity is more like a human monarchy. The Trinity, despite being comprised of really distinct persons, possess a complete unity of attributes, perfections, desire, will and purpose. Such unity on the human level is not possible and more similar to a single person.

On the level of praxis, a vast plentitude of prayers of the Church (before the Bugnini Reckovation of the Liturgy) echo images and vocabulary of monarchy. Again in the interests of time I will not prove this assertion with detailed examples. Anyone following a Traditional Mass Missal for any period of time should see this as obvious. I will just note that before the Americanist leaning Archbishop Carrol penned his novel prayer for the generic term “government” in the early 19th century, it was for centuries customary after a High Mass to chant a “Prayer for the King [or Queen], the Domine Salvam Fac.

Such considerations have led many Catholic thinkers (including in one place St. Thomas) to consider that although monarchy represents in theory the best choice that it may be prudent to temper this form with elements of the other as a safeguard against a potential tyranny. With some role in governing for the virtuous few and the common citizens, the ability of a future tyrant may be restrained. This precaution comes with a price. A true monarch may be less effective in realizing the common good than he otherwise would have been.

Now, some contemporary thinkers have latched on to this idea of a tempered form of government (or what St. Thomas calls in one place a mixed form) as justification for (or even explanation of) the American constitutional system. Such a comparison is inaccurate on many levels. Most importantly the idea of a monarchy in a government is much more than a central executive figure such as a president. One of the benefits of a monarch is that his governing power is more obviously seen as proceeding from God. He is not beholden to an electoral cycle or constant change of office. As I argued in my recent article on the Grand Duke of Luxembourg, one of the main roles a monarch can play in a mixed form of government is to be a conscience standing outside the realm of electoral politics who can act as a guardian of the divine and natural law when the few or the many may attempt to pervert the common good into a violations of it. The presidency of the United States (and yes even the Imperial Presidency of modern history) is not and has never been a monarchy thus understood. America may at some point in its history been close to an aristocracy or a polity (although personally I think it has mostly been an oligarchy or a democracy) but it has never been a monarchy in any way. That does not mean that the United States has a unique place in history among governments opposed to the common good. History is littered with many tyrannies, oligarchies and democracies. Yet, the United States constitutional system is also not the utopian and mystical perfect form of government that many Americans, including some traditional Catholics, pretend it to be.

Recognizing that the United States is not a real mixed form of government (as there is no element of monarchy present), a reaction that anything in praise of monarchy is un-American may not be an inaccurate statement. Yet, a visceral reaction against monarchy is certainly un-Catholic. First, as we have seen the Church has held all three forms (monarchy, aristocracy and polity) to be acceptable forms of government. Secondly, for almost all of its history, the Church has exhibited in thought and words a preference for monarchy, although particular circumstances have not always made it possible or even prudentially advisable. I did not set out in this article to unveil a plan for reformulating the U.S. governmental system along Catholic lines. I do believe it needs serious reforming as we have long toiled under a government not oriented to the common good. My more modest objective was to argue first that a government oriented to the common good is the most important priority in any such reconstitution and secondly to argue that monarchy should not be jettisoned from the table as unacceptable per se. What is certainly clear is that the standard of the common good (which I hope to elucidate in future articles) needs to be the prominent litmus test of any government, whether a monarchy or not. On this litmus test, the United States has for a long time not measured up to that standard. For this reason we need to implore Christus Rex, misere et salva nos!


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