A collection of personal reflections. Copyright © 2005-2011 K. Gurries

Sunday, June 28, 2009

On Governmental Forms

Before proceeding to discuss the matter, perhaps it would be well to consider some clarifications given by Pope Leo XIII who distinguishes between two senses of the "ideal" when evaluating various governmental forms.  On one hand there is an “ideal” considered purely in the abstract order of speculative ideas.  On the other hand there is the “relative view” or the “best” or optimal form considered relative to the contingent order of facts:


“In descending from the domain of abstractions to that of facts, we must beware of denying the principles just established: they remain fixed. However, becoming incarnated in facts, they are clothed with a contingent character, determined by the center in which their application is produced. Otherwise said, if every political form is good by itself and may be applied to the government of nations, the fact still remains that political power is not found in all nations under the same form; each has its own. This form springs from a combination of historical or national, though always human, circumstances which, in a nation, give rise to its traditional and even fundamental laws, and by these is determined the particular form of government, the basis of transmission of supreme power.” (Cf. Pope Leo XIII, AU MILIEU DES SOLLICITUDES, 1892)


Therefore, it would not be appropriate to elevate any particular governmental form to the level of “absolute ideal” in the contingent order. In other words, ideals in the order of “abstractions” must find a proper application in the order of “facts” by giving due consideration of concrete circumstances and the just requirements relative to hic et nunc.  In this sense, all governmental forms are good insofar as they lead to their natural end in view of the common good of civil society.  Furthermore, some governmental forms may be considered "best" from a relative point of view to the extent that they are better adapted to the particular needs of a people. 


“By giving one's self up to abstractions, one could at length conclude which is the best of these forms, considered in themselves; and in all truth it may be affirmed that each of them is good, provided it lead straight to its end -- that is to say, to the common good for which social authority is constituted; and finally, it may be added that, from a relative point of view, such and such a form of government may be preferable because of being better adapted to the character and customs of such or such a nation.” (Pope Leo XIII, op. cit.)


St. Thomas, therefore, has considered the question regarding the ideal form of civil government according to each sense.  On one hand, considered according to a purely abstract view, St. Thomas presents “monarchy” as superior to other governmental forms (Cf. De Regimine Principium).  On the other hand, considered from the relative point of view, St. Thomas asserts that the best form of government in view of the common good of civil society (hic et nunc) is the mixed regime or regimen commixtum generally patterned after the temporal regime established by God in the Old Testament (ST. i-ii. 105. 1; “Talis enim est optima politia, bene commixta”).  The mixed regime or regimen comixtum, according to St. Thomas, has three essential aspects or characteristics: monarchy, aristocracy and democracy.

The ideal is part "monarchy" insofar as there is a hierarchy (ST. i-i. 108. 2) with "one [man] head of all.1  Such a ruler need not possess the totality of power in order to be considered as "king" as St. Thomas states: "Hence from the very first the Lord did not set up the kingly authority with full power, but gave them judges and governors to rule them" (ST. i-ii 105. 1).  Again, considered purely in the abstract order of speculative ideas, this aspect of the regimen commixtum is considered by St. Thomas to hold first place among the other basic governmental forms insofar as rule of one, per se, is patterned after the perfection of the divine government as well as the constitution that Christ established for His Church.


The ideal is part "aristocracy" insofar as hierarchical power is shared by able rulers and distributed according to the diversity of orders or offices (ST. i-i. 108. 2). Here one can foresee a certain separation of offices in order to provide an effective check against tyranny (Cf. De Regimine Principium) and preserving above all the “rule of law" (ST. i-ii. 90. 1).2 What is implicit in the thought of St. Thomas has found explicit formulation in the Catechism (CCC #1904): “It is preferable that each power be balanced by other powers and by other spheres of responsibility which keep it within proper bounds. This is the principle of the rule of law, in which the law is sovereign and not the arbitrary will of men.”


The ideal is part "democracy" insofar as all rightly take some share in the government either directly or by representation (i.e., vicariously insofar as civil rulers are the "vicar of the multitude" -- vicem gerens multitudinis; ST. i-ii. 90. 3).  This right is exercised by the people, for example, when they choose their rulers investing them with temporal authority or when they legitimately replace a tyrannical regime (ST. ii-ii. 42. 2).  In this sense, any legitimate governmental form is also intrinsically “democratic” insofar as the “original subject of civil power derived from God is the people” (Pius XII) possessing the inherent right to self-government by virtue of the natural law.  According to the abstract order of speculative ideas, however, St. Thomas considers that "democracy" has less perfection, per se, than the other two basic governmental forms.



The pagan state-absolutism that had eventually given way to the Christian concept of freedom that prevailed during the medieval era slowly began to reemerge during the Renaissance only to be fueled by Protestantism and given support by the Catholic House of Bourbon: “We can see how rapidly this pagan absolutism progressed when we recognize how suddenly the principle, ‘cuius regio, eius religio,’ gained widespread acceptance. This meant that subjects had to take on the same religion as their prince. Christianity had toppled pagan absolutism through the force of conscience. The martyrs had appeared before the Roman emperors and told them: ‘We cannot do what you command because our consciences, which are attuned to God’s will, do not permit it.’ With that kind of action, began the restoration of human dignity. The neo-pagan absolutism attacked this conscience, which had once been its downfall and declared, in effect, that subjects are not entitled to a conscience. They must believe what their prince believes. It happened, therefore, that the subjects in certain Protestant principalities were forced to change their religion several times in short order…Even the ancient Roman emperors, who insisted that the wish of the emperor was the law of the empire, did not attempt to dominate the consciences of their subjects in so crass a manner…As a Catholic, Louis XIV could not accept the “cuius regio, eius religio” principle of the Protestant princes. Instead, he said, “L’Etat c’est moi.” (I am the state.) And he applied the principle with such thoroughness that even in France no trace of the ancient Frankish-Germanic liberty remained. The absolutism of Louis XIV became the pattern for all who exercised state authority from that time on. The absolutism of state authority became incarnate throughout Europe – with England excepted, albeit only partially – and it thoroughly poisoned the entire political system.” (Cf. Ketteler, Freedom, Authority and the Church)


The response to this new absolutism has been a steady movement to promote and re-introduce those legitimate aspects of democracy especially to curb “authoritarianism [that] excludes the citizens from all effective participation in, or influence upon the formation of the will of the society.  Consequently, it [absolutism] splits the nation into two categories, the rulers and the ruled, and the mutual relationship between the two either becomes purely mechanical, being governed by force, or has no more than a biological basis…On the other hand, if we keep in mind the favourite thesis of democracy3 – which has been expounded in all ages by outstanding Christian thinkers – namely, that the original subject of civil power derived from God is the people (not the “masses”), then the distinction between the Church and even the democratic State becomes increasingly clear…The ecclesiastical power is, indeed essentially different from the civil power, and hence its judicial power is also different from the State.  The origin of the Church, unlike the origin of the State, is not to be found in the Natural Law…In one point, however, the fundamental difference between the two is particularly manifest.  The establishment of the Church as a society was not effected from below, as was the case in the origin of the State, but from above…” (Cf. Pope Pius XII, AAS, 1945, p. 256)



Therefore, the regimen commixtum contains aspects of each of the three basic governmental forms – and taken together these help to ensure an effective and just civil government.  While each government may exhibit these characteristics to a greater or lesser degree, each plays a role in preserving a just social order – according to the circumstances of a given people.  In modern times, the aspects of democracy have moved to the forefront particularly in response to the abuses of state absolutism.


1 In modern terminology this one head of all essentially equivalent to a king, president or prime minister.  It corresponds to the office of a chief executive.

2 Examples may include the roles of legislative and judicial branches of government.

3 The definition and usage of the term "democracy" has changed since ancient times.  In modern times the term "democracy" has taken on the equivalent meaning of the regimen comixtum.  In this sense, Pope Pius XII notes that the "favourite thesis of democracy...has been expounded in all ages by outstanding Christian thinkers..."



Blogger Cardinal Pole said...

Mr. Gurries, could you please give me more information on those Pius XII sources? Are they from allocutions, or documents which might be available on-line? The quotations from Pius XII remind me of the doctrine of St. Robert Bellarmine, expressed in Chapter VI of his Treatise on Civil Government:

"Note, secondly, that this power resides, as in its subject, immediately in the whole state, for this power is by Divine law, but Divine law gives this power to no particular man, therefore Divine law gives this power to the collected body. Furthermore, in the absence of positive law, there is no good reason why, in a multitude of equals, one rather than another should dominate. Therefore, power belongs to the collected body. ..."

Pius XII also taught the doctrine of St. Robert Bellarmine in Mediator Dei, if I recall correctly.

June 29, 2009 1:06 PM  
Blogger K Gurries said...

Hello Pole. In response to your question, the quote from Pius XII is taken from his Allocution to the Roman Rota, October 2, 1945.

June 29, 2009 3:30 PM  

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