Roman Catholicism's links with political authorities

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As with any officially established religion, the Roman Catholic Church has had constantly evolving relationships with various forms of government, some of them controversial in retrospect. In its history since the Theodosian decrees of 391 it has had to deal with various concepts and systems of governance, from the Roman Empire to the mediæval divine right of kings, from nineteenth and twentieth century concepts of democracy and pluralism to the appearance of left- and right-wing dictatorial regimes.

For some parallel entries, see Separation of church and state, Theocracy, Caesaropapism, Islam_as_a_political_movement


Catholicism and the Roman Emperors

Early Christians were persecuted under the Roman Empire, but over the course of several centuries Christianity became accepted, ultimately taking on the character of a state religion.

The papacy and the Divine Right of Kings

The doctrine of the divine right of kings, came to dominate mediæval concepts of kingship, claiming biblical authority (Epistle to the Romans, chapter 13). Augustine of Hippo in his work The City of God had stated his opinion that while the City of Man and the City of God may stand at cross-purposes, both of them have been instituted by God and served His ultimate will. Even though the City of Man --- the world of secular government --- may seem ungodly and be governed by sinners, it has been placed on earth for the protection of the City of God. Therefore, monarchs have been placed on their thrones for God's purpose, and to question their authority is to question God. This view discouraged Roman Catholics from taking action to overthrow even tyrannical governments.

This belief in the god-given authority of monarchs was central to the Roman Catholic vision of governance in the Middle Ages, Renaissance and Ancien Régime. It believed that only God, and the Roman Catholic Church itself as God's agent, could depose a monarch. In a society based on an alliance of throne and altar, the Church itself became part of the mediæval governing elite. A senior cleric, usually an archbishop or cardinal anointed and crowned a monarch. Emperors were crowned by the Pope. During early medieval times, a near-monopoly of the Church in matters of education made it inevitable that monarchs would take churchmen as their advisors. This tradition continued even as education became more widespread. Prominent examples of senior members of the church hierarchy who advised monarchs were Thomas Cardinal Wolsey in England, and Cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin in France; prominent, devoutly Catholic laymen like such as Sir Thomas More also served as senior advisors to monarchs.

Besides advising monarchs, the Church held direct power in mediaeval society as a landowner, a power-broker, a policy maker, etc. Some of its bishops and archbishops were feudal lords in their own right, equivalent in rank and precedence to counts and dukes. Some were even sovereigns in their own right, and the Pope himself ruled the Papal States. Bishops played a prominent role in Holy Roman Empire as electors. As late as the 18th century, in the era of the Enlightenment, Jacques-Benigne Bossuet, preacher to Louis XIV, defended the doctrine of the divine right of kings in his sermons. The Church was a model of hierarchy in a world of hierarchies, and saw the defence of that system as its own defence, and as a defence of what it believed to be a god-ordained system.

See also: Gallicanism, Guelph, Weiblingen, missi dominici, First Estate

Catholic missionaries at the Chinese court

Matteo Ricci

Popular democracy

The French Revolution

The central principle of the mediaeval, Renaissance and ancien régime periods, monarchical rule 'by God's will', was fundamentally challenged by the French Revolution. The revolution began as a conjunction of a need to fix French national finances and a rising middle class who resented the privileges of the clergy (in their role as the First Estate) and nobility (in their role as the Second Estate). The pent-up frustrations caused by lack of political reform over a period of generations led the revolution to spiral in ways unimaginable only a few years earlier, and indeed unplanned and unanticipated by the initial wave of reformers. Almost from the start, the revolution was a direct threat to clerical and noble privilege: the legislation that abolished the feudal privileges of the Church and nobility dates from August 4, 1789, a mere three weeks after the fall of the Bastille (although it would be several years before this legislation came fully into effect).

At the same time, the revolution also challenged the theological basis of royal authority. The doctrine of popular sovereignty said that state authority came ultimately from the people, not from God. The king was to govern on behalf of the state, and that state was answerable to the people. This was a far cry from Louis XIV's famous declaration, "L'etat c'est moi," ("I am the state") which identified royal interest with state interest. This philosophical difference over the basis of royal and state power was parallelled by the rise of a short-lived democracy, but also ny a change first from absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy and finally to republicanism and regicide.

Under the doctrine of the divine right of kings, only the Church or God could interfere with the right of a monarch to rule. Thus the attack on the French absolute monarchy was seen as an attack on God's anointed king. In addition, the Church's leadership came largely from the classes most threatened by the growing revolution. The upper clergy came from the same families as the upper nobility, and the Church was, in its own right, the largest landowner in France.

The revolution was widely seen, both by its proponents and its opponents, as the fruition of the (profoundly secular) ideas of the Enlightenment. Resolutions such as the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, passed by the National Constituent Assembly, seemed to some in the church to mark the appearance of the antichrist, in that they excluded Christian morality from the new 'natural order'. The fast-moving nature of the revolution far outpaced Roman Catholicism's ability to adapt or come to any terms with them.

In speaking of "the Church and the Revolution" it is important to keep in mind that neither the Church nor the Revolution were monolithic. There were class interests and differences of opinion inside the Church as well as out, with many of the lower clergy -- and a few bishops, such as Talleyrand -- among the key supporters of the early phases of the revolution. The Civil Constitution of the Clergy, which turned Church lands into state property and the clergy into employees of the state, created a bitter division within the church between those "jurors" who took the required oath of allegiance to the state and the "non-jurors" who refused to do so. A majority of parish priests, but only four bishops, took the oath.

As a large-scale landowner tied closely to the doomed ancien regime, led by people from the aristocracy, and philosophically opposed to many of the fundamental principles of the revolution, the Church, like the absolute monarchy and the feudal nobility, was a target of the revolution even in the early phases, when leading revolutionaries such as Lafayette were still well-disposed toward King Louis XVI as an individual. Instead of being able to influence the new political elite and so shape the public agenda, the Church found itself sidelined at best, detested at worst. As the revolution became more radical, the new state and its leaders set up its own rival deities and religion, a cult of reason (and, later, a deistic cult of the Supreme Being, closing many Catholic churches, transforming cathedrals into "temples of reason", disbanding monasteries and often destroying their buildings (as at Cluny), and seizing their lands. In this process many hundreds of Catholic priests were killed, further polarising revolutionaries and the Church. The revolutionary leadership went so far as to devise a metric calendar (see French Revolutionary Calendar) to displace the Christian months and the seven-day week with its sabbath. Catholic reaction, in anti-revolutionary risings such as the revolt in the Vendée were often bloodily suppressed.

France after the Revolution

When Napoleon Bonaparte came to power in 1799, he began the process of coming back to terms with the Catholic Church. While Louis XVI's brother Louis XVIII and some of the old establishment regained power following the Napoleonic era by accepting some of the principles of the revolution, the Church continued to strongly hold the conviction of the error of the revolution and its "attack on God". The Church found itself more at home under the 1824-1830 monarchy of the Louis's youngest brother Charles X. His overthrow in the July Revolution of 1830 marked the end of any hope of a return to the ancien regime certainties of the alliance of throne and altar.

Throughout the nineteenth century, the Church found itself increasingly marginalised. Under the fundamentally bourgeois July Monarchy, Louis Phillippe reigned not as a 'throne-and-altar' King of France but as a popular monarch, the implicitly citizen-oriented King of the French, while the Church remained associated with Henry V, the Legitimist pretender. It was only under Pope Leo XIII (r: 1878-1903) that the Church leadership tried to move away from its right-wing, legitimist, royalist associations, when he ordered the deeply unhappy French Church to accept the Third French Republic (1875-1940). However, his liberalising initiative was undone by Pope Pius X (r: 1903-1914), a conservative traditionalist who had more sympathy with the French royalists than with the bourgeois Third Republic. An already bubbling dispute led by way of Pius's interventions to a full and irrevocable break between the French state and the Church, with those Church properties that had been restored by the regime of Louis XVIII once again seized by the state and religious orders once again banned. Catholicism never regained major power or influence from that point.

Pius IX and the 'errors of the world'

The nineteenth century was dominated by attitudes shaped by the French Revolution and its aftermath. The concept of revolution as a means of achieving dramatic change had grown in popularity, as had the belief that the citizenry had rights. These ideas became of particular importance in the Italian peninsula, which was divided up between a number of states, notably the Kingdom of Piedmont to the north, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies to the south, and in between the Patrimony of St. Peter, more commonly known as the Papal States, a collection of states controlled by the Pope for many centuries.

Growing Italian nationalistic demands for the creation of an all-Italy state came to a head in the 1840s. In 1846 the liberal-leaning Giovanni Maria Cardinal Mastai-Ferretti became Pope Pius IX. Pius's liberal policies, in contrast with the autocracy of his predecessors, led to growing belief that under him the Papal States would not stand in the way of Italian unification. However the 1848 outbreak of revolution in Italy (alongside France, where King Louis Philippe lost his throne, in Austria and even unsuccessfully in tame versions in the United Kingdom and Ireland, shocked Pius, who himself, when unwilling to support Italian nationalism, was forced to flee into exile, producing a shortlived Roman Republic. Pius on his return, abandoned the liberalism that had been his trademark, returned to the more traditional conservativism of his immediate predecessors and spent the rest of his papacy condemning nationalism, populism and democracy, most dramatically his 1864 papal encyclical Quanta Cura and its attached Syllabus of Errors. Under Pius IX, the Church set itself against all the new theories of popular sovereignty and rights of citizens, which, having been fringe ideas on the left at the time of the French Revolution of 1789, had now gained widespread acceptance among moderate opinion. Pius's continuing defence of the Divine Right of Kings and his insistence on condemning policies and perspectives championed by such leaders as Benjamin Disraeli and William E. Gladstone (United Kingdom), Daniel O'Connell and Issac Butt (Ireland), and Abraham Lincoln, earned for him and the Papal States widespread international criticism. Pius's world still looked back on the pre-revolutionary theory of the alliance of throne and altar, as the embodiment of God's design for government, with God's king and God's church together governing as God's will.

Ironically, given that many of the ideas which so appalled Pope Pius IX came from France via the revolutions of 1789 and after, Pius's control of the Papal States rested on France, whose army under Emperor Napoleon III defended the Papal States from attack. But the Franco-Prussian War forced Napoleon III to take back his soldiers in his own ultimately unsuccessful attempt to defend his imperial throne. Without the French Emperor's protection, the Papal States and Rome fell to invading Piedmontese troops. For Pius the final evidence of the sinfulness of the modern world was the seizure by secular troops of the Vicar of Christ's own lands. The First Vatican Council, which had been meeting and which had only just proclaimed the pope infallible in matters of faith and morals, was itself a victim of the invasion and never reassembled. Though infallibility was not a political concept, some of Pius's critics thought its proclamation was meant to bolster his moral authority as the Vicar of Christ, perhaps discouraging Italian nationalists from attacking the Pope's own Rome. In reality it was merely a doctrinal issue, not a political one. Pope Pius, stripped of his temporal power retreated into the Vatican Palace and declared himself the "prisoner in the Vatican", while the King of Piedmont, now proclaimed King of Italy, was installed in the former papal residence, the Quirinal Palace.

Pius, initially a liberal, by the end of his reign saw the world in apocalyptic terms; the attack on the symbols of God (thrones, the papacy, the Church), the triumph of godless ideas (rights of citizens, freedom of those whom he believed were in error to worship and have their "wrong" beliefs accepted), etc. Pius by the end was a believer in the world of throne and altar that had been undermined through the French Revolution. In his view, God's will for government, his anointed kings were being swept away, as power moved to the unanointed masses. In 1878 Pius died, broken by a world he could not understand and which he believed had left god to one side for the world of he 'mob'. It was an analysis increasingly abandoned by most leaders in Europe and the Americas.


Pope Leo XIII, seeing that popular democracy seemed to be on the ascendant, tried a new and somewhat more sophisticated approach to political questions than his predecessor Pius IX.

On May 15, 1891, Leo XIII issued an encyclical on political issues known as Rerum Novarum (Latin: "About New Things"). This addressed politics as it had been transformed by the Industrial Revolution and other changes in society that had occurred during the nineteenth century. The document criticised capitalism, complaining of the exploitation of the masses in industry. However, it also sharply criticized the socialist's concept of class struggle, and their proposed solution to eliminate private property. It called for strong governments to undertake a mission to protect their people from exploitation, and asked Roman Catholics to apply principles of social justice in their own lives.

This document was rightly seen as a profound change in the thinking of the Holy See about political matters. It drew on the economic thought of St Thomas Aquinas, whose "just price" theory taught that prices in a marketplace ought not to be allowed to fluctuate on account of temporary shortages or gluts.

Seeking to find some principle to replace the threatening Marxist doctrine of class struggle, Rerum Novarum urged social solidarity between the upper and lower classes, and endorsed nationalism as a way of preserving traditional morality, customs, and folkways. In doing so, Rerum Novarum proposed a kind of corporatism, the organisation of political societies along industrial lines that resembled mediaeval guilds. Under corporatism, your place in society would be determined by the ethnic, work, and social groups you were born into or joined. A one-person, one-vote democracy was rejected in favour of representation by interest groups. A strong government was required to serve as the arbiter among competing factions. Forty years later, the corporatist tendencies of Rerum Novarum were underscored by Pope Pius XI's May 25, 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo Anno ("In the Fortieth Year"), which restated the hostility of Rerum Novarum to both unbridled competition and class struggle.

Pius X - back to 'Throne and Altar'

Pope Pius X clashed with the anti-clericalism of France's Third Republic which abolished religious orders and introduced a complete separation of church and state.

The Church and the Twentieth Century

Pius XI and the Roman Question

Pius XI - autocratic. Determination to solve the Roman Question. Lateran Treaty


Clerics photographed with leaders of the wartime Croatian Nazi puppet state
Clerics photographed with leaders of the wartime Croatian Nazi puppet state

Some have contended that the Roman Catholic Church tainted itself by an uncritical and even friendly relationship with Fascism and Nazism. Since the end of World War II, these accusations have been hurled at the Roman Church in various degrees of plausibility and quality, by works ranging from Rolf Hochhuth's play The Deputy to John Cornwell's book Hitler's Pope. Pope Pius XII is usually cast as the villain in this revisionist view of history, which less partisan research has done much to discredit.


Association with monarchists, Carlism, Basque nationalism. Opus Dei.


In 1924, Pope Pius XI forbade the Catholic Popular Party to work with the Socialist Party against Mussolini. He later dissolved the party.

Fear of communism, and a certain disdain for liberal democracy, made explicit in such Papal documents as Quanta Cura and the Syllabus of Errors, may have contributed to the perception that the Church supported fascism. By the Lateran Treaties, Mussolini granted Pope Pius XI the crown of Vatican City as a nation to rule, made Roman Catholicism the state church of Italy, and paid the Pope compensation for the loss of the Papal States. This gave rise to the impression that Mussolini had paid off the Pope not to oppose his coup. The relationship to Mussolini's government deteriorated drastically in the following years. As a consequence in 1931 Pius issued the encyclical Non Abbiamo Bisogno [1] ( In 1938 Pope Pius XI spoke with "bitter sadness" of Italy's anti-Semitic laws, the harrying of Italian Catholic Action groups and the reception Mussolini gave Adolf Hitler in the same year.


In 1930 Pope Pius XI persuaded the Catholic Centre Party to reject cooperation with the Social Democratic Party against the Nazis. The Vatican signed a Concordat with Hitler in 1933 and had the Centre Party support the Enabling Act that gave Hitler dictatorial powers.

Hitler said, "The concordat gave Germany an opportunity and created a sense of trust that was particularly significant in the developing struggle against international Jewry," and that it "imposed a moral duty on Catholics to obey the Nazi rulers." After signing the Concordat Cardinal Secretary of State Eugenio Pacelli dismissed in a two page article in L'Osservatore Romano on 26 July and 27 July Hitler's assertion that the concordat in any way represented or implied approval for national socialism, much less moral approval of it. He argued that its true purpose had been "not only the official recognition (by the Reich) of the legislation of the Church (its Code of Canon Law), but the adoption of many provisions of this legislation and the protection of all Church legislation."

In many parts of the country Catholics opposed Hitler, however in largely Catholic Bavaria the Catholic BVP favoured the Nazis. However many clergy opposed the Nazis and were arrested. In 1937 Pius XI condemned in one of his last encyclical - Mit Brennender Sorge [2] ( the Nazi ideology of racism.

Pius XI's posthumous encyclical on nazism

Pius XII - silence, diplomacy. Jewish escape networks. Allegations. Scholars' review of archives.


Action Française (AF), campaigned for the return of the monarchy and for aggressive action against Jews as well as a corporatist system. It was supported by a strong section of the clerical hiearchy, eleven out of seventeen cardinals and bishops.


The Roman Catholic Church was granted "special recognition" in the Constitution of Ireland when it was drawn up in 1937, although other religions were also mentioned. This remained the case until 1972, when the constitution was amended by plebiscite. The considerable influence of the Church over Irish politics since independence in 1922 declined sharply in the 1990's after a series of scandals. In 1950 the Church helped force the resignation of the Minister for Health Noel Browne over his controversial proposals to provide free healthcare to mothers and children. The Government of Northern Ireland gave the Church considerably more responsibility for education than they enjoyed in the Republic and this remains the case today.


During World War II, Jozef Tiso, a Roman Catholic monsigneur, became the Nazi quisling in Slovakia. Tiso was head of state and the security forces, as well as the leader of the paramilitary Hlinka Guard, which wore the Catholic Episcopal cross on its armbands. The Catholic clergy was represented at all levels of the regime and its corporatist were based on papal encyclicals.


Mike Budak, the Minister of Religion of Independent State of Croatia, said on 22 July 1941:

"The Ustashi movement is based on the Catholic Religion. For the minorities, Serbs, Jews and Gypsies, we have three million bullets. A part of these minorities has already been eliminated and many are waiting to be killed. Some will be sent to Serbia and the rest will be forced to change their religion to Catholicism. Our new Croatia will therefore be free of all heretics, becoming purely Catholic for the future years."

Controversy surrounds the depths of the involvement of the Roman Catholic clergy with the Ustaše, a Croatian Fascist movement in the former Yugoslavia. According to Branko Bokun, a Roman Catholic priest made the following remarks on 13 June 1941:

"Brethren, up to now we have worked for the Holy Roman Apostolic Church with the cross and the missal. Now the moment has come to work with a knife in one hand and a gun in the other. The more Serbs and Jews you succeed in eliminating, the more you will be raised in esteem in the heart of the Roman Catholic Church"

The issue of clerical fascism in wartime Croatia is further discussed in the article Involvement of Croatian Catholic clergy with the Ustasa regime.

Elsewhere in Europe

The association of Roman Catholicism, sometimes in the form of the hierarchial church, sometimes in the form of lay catholic organisations acting independently of the hierarchy produced links to dictatorial governments in various states.

  • In Austria, Engelbert Dollfuss turned a Roman Catholic political party into the single party of a one-party state. In rural Austria the Catholic Christian Social Party collaborated with the Heimwehr militia and helped bring Dollfuss to power in 1932. In June 1934, he produced his authoritarian constitution which stated "We shall establish a state on the basis of a Christian weltanschaung". The Pope described Dolfuss as a "Christian, giant-hearted man ... who rules Austria so well, so resolutely and in such a Christian manner. His actions are witness to Catholic visions and convictions. The Austrian people, Our beloved Austria, now has the government it deserves".
  • In Poland, in 1920s Józef Pilsudski founded a military style government (Sanacja) that incorporated Catholic corporatism into its ideology. After the Second World War the Catholic church was a focal point of opposition to the Communist regime. Many Catholic priests were arrested or disappeared for opposing the communist regime of People's Republic of Poland. Pope John Paul II encouraged opposition to the Communist regime in such a way that it would not draw retaliation, becoming (ina quote from CNN) "a resilient enemy of Communism and champion of human rights, a powerful preacher and sophisticated intellectual able to defeat Marxists in their own line of dialogue." After the fall of Soviet Union, Poland became a multiparty democracy and several parties which professed to defend Catholicism were legalised, like Akcja Wyborcza Solidarnosc or Liga Polskich Rodzin.
  • The Belgian Fascist movement Rexism arose out of a conservative Catholic movement and its publications. The full names of the Rexists was Christus Rex or "Christ the King"

See also: clerical fascism

The Second Vatican Council

endorsement of democracy, freedom of assembly, religion, concept of 'people of God', Dignitatis Humanae

Liberation Theology

Association between marxism and catholicism. Allegations of Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II, Cardinal Lorschider. FSLN

The Church and Central and South America

In many cases in South America the Cathloic church has been a centre of resistance to oppresive regimes. See for example Oscar Romero

Jean Bertrand Aristide

The church establishment and regimes

Argentina has a constitutional requirement that the President must be a Roman Catholic.

allegations of official church support for Augusto Pinochet - Church role in coup against Allende.

Argentina. Nuncios' role.

The radical church and regimes

Local church opposition to Marcos, Pinochet, Smith, Mugabe, Apartheid South Africa, the Indonesian occupation of East Timor.

International Law

In 2003, Pope John Paul II also became a prominent critic of the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. He sent his "Peace Minister", Pío Cardinal Laghi, to talk with US President George W. Bush to express opposition to the war. John Paul II said that it was up to the United Nations to solve the international conflict through diplomacy and that a unilateral aggression is a crime against peace and a violation of international law.


The Catholic Church has continually opposed the anti-clerical, atheist, and totalitarian aspects of communism.

Pope John Paul II began his papacy when the Soviets controlled his homeland Poland, as well as the rest of the Eastern Europe. A harsh critic of communism, he offered support to those fighting for change, like the Polish Solidarity movement. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev once said the collapse of the Iron Curtain would have been impossible without John Paul II [3] ( This view is shared by many people of the post-Soviet states, who view him, as one of the main people responsible for bringing an end to the communist system in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. In later years, Pope has also criticised some of the more extreme versions of corporate capitalism.

The Eastern Bloc

The Catholic churches of Communist China

Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association

Text being edited For strategic reasons, it was desirable for the (essentially agnostic) fascist movements of Mussolini in Italy and Hitler in Germany to avoid en masse alienation of Catholics. Some critics have alleged that Pope Pius XII was complicit with the rise of fascism. While such claims are questionable (particularly with regards to Nazism?), the Catholic leadership certainly chose quiet, "neutral" resistance over an explicit ideological struggle with fascism.

Fear of communism, and a certain disdain for liberal democracy, made explicit in such Papal documents as Quanta Cura and the Syllabus of Errors, may have contributed to this perception. By the Lateran Treaties, Mussolini granted Pope Pius XI the crown of Vatican City as a nation to rule, made Roman Catholicism the state church of Italy, and paid the Pope compensation for the loss of the Papal States. This gave rise to the impression that Mussolini had paid off the Pope not to oppose his coup.


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