The Roman Catholic Church has had constantly evolving relationships with various forms of government, some of them controversial in retrospect. In its history 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.
In discussing this era, the term "Roman Catholicism" is, perhaps, an anachronism, but this was the era in which Roman Catholicism became an identifiable stream within Christianity and in which Christianity first began to transform from an outlawed religion to one with links to political authorities.
The famed atheist and historian Edward Gibbon has suggested in his famous work The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire that Christianity weakened the Roman's resolve and ultimately led to the end of the empire in 476.
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. Although it is worth mentioning that Augustine also said "a law that is not just, seems to be no law at all" and Thomas Aquinas indicated laws "opposed to the Divine good" must not be observed. However it was discouraged for Roman Catholics to take 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. Although this was most true of what would later be termed the ultramontaine party and the Catholic Church has recognized, on an exceptional basis, Republics as early as 1291 in the case of San Marino. 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, starting with Charlemagne and continuing through-out the Holy Roman Empire.
During early medieval times, a near-monopoly of the Church in matters of education and of literary skills accounts for the presence of 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 and absolute monarchy 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.
At the same time, the revolution also challenged the theological basis of royal authority. The doctrine of popular sovereignty directly challenged the former divine right of kings. The king was to govern on behalf of the people, and not under the orders of God. This philosophical difference over the basis of royal and state power was paralleled by the rise of a short-lived democracy, but also by a change first from absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy and finally to republicanism.
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. The 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, voted 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 (the abbé Grégoire or Pierre Daunou) 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 also devised a 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.
However, Napoleon III's regime did support the Pope, helping to restore Pope Pius IX as ruler of the Papal States in 1849 after there had been a revolt there in 1848. Despite this official move, the process of secularism continued through-out the 20th century, culminating with the Jules Ferry laws in the 1880s and then with the 1905 law on separation of the Church and the state, which definitely established state secularism (known as laïcité).
The Church itself remained associated with the Comte de Chambord, the Legitimist pretender to the throne. It was only under Pope Leo XIII (r: 1878-1903) that the Church leadership tried to move away from its anti-Republican associations, when he ordered the deeply unhappy French Church to accept the Third French Republic (1875–1940) (Inter innumeras sollicitudines encyclical of 1892). However, his liberalising initiative was undone by Pope Pius X (r: 1903-1914), a traditionalist who had more sympathy with the French monarchists than with the Third Republic.
However, towards the end of the eighteenth century a rapprochement began to develop between London and the Vatican. Britain's activities abroad and relations with Catholic countries were hampered by the tension that existed between it and the Church, and it was eager to persuade the Church to end its moral support for Irish separatism. Likewise, the Church was keen to send missionaries to the newly-conquered colonies of the British Empire, especially Africa and India, and to ease the restrictions on its British and Irish adherents. Britain began to phase out the penal laws, and in 1795 it financed the building of St. Patrick's College, Maynooth, a seminary for the training of Catholic priests, in County Kildare. In return, the Church agreed to actively oppose Irish separatism, which it duly did in the Irish Rebellion of 1798. It has continued this policy right up to the present day, condemning each successive attempt by Irish republicanism to achieve independence from Britain through violence. Catholic missions to Africa began early in the 1800s.
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 conservatism 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 the "mob". It was an analysis increasingly abandoned by most leaders in Europe and the Americas.
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.
These attacks were frequent in the first months of the civil war, and radicalised a large number of Catholics, including clergy, who had previously tended to support the reformist right wing CEDA party. A number of Catholics decided that the liberal state could not (or would not) protect them or their Church and switched to supporting Franco's rebel Nationalists.
Association with monarchists was particularly clear in the case of Carlism, while Basque nationalism saw the majority of Basque priests break ranks with the Church to support the Republican government. This led to them being branded traitors and Communists by Franco.
Franco received the privileges of proposing trios of candidates from which the Pope would select a bishop in Spain, inheriting it from Spanish monarchs, and of being covered by a palio in processions.
During the 1960s and the 1970s, the movement of worker priests expressed the view of young priests unhappy with the hierarchy and the government. They organized parishes as social bettering centers. The contacts with Marxism led many to join leftist groups or to secularize. An agreement of Church and State turned one seminary into a special jail for prisoners who were priests.
Modern researchers are divided the degree of the Church's connection to fascism. Most historians of the period reject most claims of active complicity or active resistance, painting a picture of a Catholic leadership who chose neutrality or mild resistance over an explicit ideological struggle with fascism.
The closest ties of Roman Catholicism to fascism may have come in the clerical fascism in wartime Croatia; see Involvement of Croatian Catholic clergy with the Ustasa regime.
Fear of communism, and a certain disdain for the liberal democracy that had revoked the long-standing privileges enjoyed by the Catholic Church, were made explicit in such Papal documents as Quanta Cura and the Syllabus of Errors. These documents have been interpreted by some as showing Church support for Fascism, or at least with leanings toward 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 indicates at de facto recognition by the Pope of Mussolini's coup. The relationship to Mussolini's government deteriorated drastically in later years.
When political persecutions and religious controls of the Nazi system increased, Pope Pius XI pointed to the gravity of the situation in the insistent Papal encyclical Mit brennender Sorge (title not in Latin, but in German) on March 14, 1937 (English version). Although forbidden in the Reich, the encyclical, published by many priests and believers, was the first religious protest reaction against the regime. Some German bishops, such as Clemens August Graf von Galen, continued protesting and even preaching until the end of the upcoming war.
Both in the course of and subsequent to the Second World War, many notable Jews, including Albert Einstein, Golda Meir, Moshe Sharett, Rabbi Isaac Herzog, and many more, expressed their thanks to Pope Pius XII. Diplomat Pinchas Lapide (Israeli consul in Milan who interviewed Italian Holocaust survivors), in his book Three Popes and the Jews, the stated that Pius XII "was instrumental in saving at least 700,000, but probably as many as 860,000 Jews from certain death at Nazi hands."
Contrary to the canard that the Church benfited from Nazism, thousands of clerics were killed by the Nazis. At the end of the war, even after those that had been killed, there were more clerics in Dachau than in any monastery, convent or seminary in Europe.
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 Ustaša regime.
See also: clerical fascism
Since the late 1960s, the Catholic Church has been politically active in the U.S. around the "life issues" of abortion, assisted suicide and euthanasia, with some bishops and priests refusing communion to Catholic politicians who publicly advocate for legal abortion. The church has also played significant roles in the fights over capital punishment, gay marriage, welfare, various "peace and justice" issues, among many others. Its role varies from area to area depending upon the size of the Catholic Church in a particular region.
Robert Drinan, a Catholic priest, served five terms in Congress as a Democrat from Massachusetts before the Holy See forced him to choose between giving up his seat in Congress or being laicized. The Church forbids Catholic priests from holding political office anywhere in the world (Code of Canon Law 285 §3; 287 §2).
Catholics currently active in American politics are members of both major parties, and currently hold many important offices. The most prominent include Chief Justice John Roberts, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, and Governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger. Additionally, Democratic governor Bill Richardson and Republican former mayor Rudy Giuliani, both Catholics, sought the nomination for their respective parties in the 2008 presidental election. Four associate justices, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia, and Anthony Kennedy, are members of the Supreme Court, resulting in a Catholic majority on the court.
Secularism became enforced in Argentina in 1884 when President Julio Argentino Roca passed Law 1420 on secular education. In 1955, the Catholics nationalists overthrewed General Peron in the "Revolución Libertadora," and a concordat was signed in 1966. Catholic nationalists continued to play an important role in the politics of Argentina, while the Church itself was accused of having set up rat-lines to organize the evasion of former Nazis after WWII. Furthermore, several important Catholic figures have been accused of having openly supported the "Dirty War" in the 1970s, including the current Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Bergoglio. Antonio Caggiano, Archbishop of Buenos Aires from 1959 to 1975, was close to the fundamentalist Cité catholique organisation, and introduced Jean Ousset (former personal secretary of Charles Maurras, the leader of the Action française)'s theories on counter-revolutionary warfare and "subversion" in Argentina .
Prominent Archbishop Daniel Mannix was perhaps the most politically vocal Catholic figure, including in his opposition to conscription. This conscription debate was often framed in terms of a divide between Protestants and Catholics.
Links between the Catholic Church and Australian politics strengthened when the Australian Labor Party split and the Democratic Labor Party was founded, chiefly under the influence of Bob Santamaria. In one state, the Catholic Church threw its institutional support behind this party and the movements upon which it relied. However, after the Archbishop died, the party and the Industrial groups upon which it was based no longer had any Church support.
Prominent Catholics in the Liberal-National coalition, the main centre-right political force in Australia, include Tony Abbott, formerly federal Minister for Health, and since the Liberal Party's election loss in November 07 Shadow Minister for Community Services and Indigenous Affairs.
Prominent Catholics in the Labor Party, the main centre-left party, include former Prime Minister Paul Keating.
In later years, Popes have also criticised some of the more extreme versions of corporate capitalism.