Four Catholic Political Postures: Lessons from Leo XIII and Ralliement

by Felix de St. Vincent

The Catholic Church has no magisterial teaching about the “best regime.” On the contrary, the Church teaches that she does not favor one form of government or political system over another, and expects Catholics in different times and places to have different opinions on the matter.[1] The peaks of Catholic political philosophy scarcely go further. St. Augustine argues for a constitution in a well-ordered society that is at least somewhat democratic: if citizens value the common good above their own, then they ought to create their own governing officials.[2] St. Thomas Aquinas offers a kind of Aristotelian praise for Moses’ mixed regime, a monarchy with democratic and aristocratic aspects.[3] But that’s about it. These venerable Doctors of the Church largely leave the question of the best regime aside, focusing instead upon how Christians might prudentially serve the common good in a variety of regimes.

Though the Magisterium contains little abstract theorizing about the best regime, the Church clearly instructs Catholics about the proper end of politics (the common good), the proper basis of all legitimate authority (God),[4] and the rights of the Church. On the lattermost topic, when the Church envisions those Church-State relations that properly respect her rights as a perfect society, she establishes certain parameters for acceptable political regimes.[5] Dignitatis Humanae is a famously extensive example, since it extrapolates from the civil liberty of baptized Christians to worship freely, and claims that the Church supports only those regimes that allow freedom of conscience to all. Whereas the Church once licensed Christian states to assist in wielding its coercive authority over the baptized, Dignitatis Humanae signals a general policy change that Church will no longer delegate its coercive power.[6] The rights of the Church to punish the baptized are consistent with longstanding magisterial teachings about the divine origins of Church and State authority.[7] Since Pope Gelasius I in the fifth century, the Church has taught that God has ordained a dyarchy with power and authority over human affairs: the Church’s sacred authority and temporal rulers’ royal power.[8] Immortale Dei (1885), the most important political encyclical of Leo XIII’s great clarification of Catholic social teaching, reaffirms that, “The Almighty… has given the charge of the human race to two powers, the ecclesiastical and the civil, the one being set over divine, and the other over human, things.” This arrangement, Leo XIII writes, “is the Christian organization of civil society; not rashly of fancifully shaped out, but educed from the highest and truest principles, confirmed by natural reason itself.”[9] Should the two come into conflict, Leo XIII teaches that, regarding whatever belongs to the “salvation of souls” and the “worship of God,” the Church holds sway. Ideally, however, Church-State relations will be characterized by greater concord and official coöperation.

Immortale Dei offers not a description of the best regime, but a doctrine of the Church’s rights, on the one hand, and the rights of governments on the other. As Pius XI forcefully reminds in Quas Primas (1925), which inaugurated the Feast of Christ the King, the Church retains authority and a suspended power over “civil affairs,” since the salvation of souls is not merely private and individual, but also has public and social. Because Christ did not deign to exercise his kingly authority in a direct sense, it is proper for the Church to respect the powers of the State.[10] However, political regimes of all kinds ought to acknowledge God as the source of their authority as a minimum, or else they forfeit “very basis of that authority.”[11] However, neither Immortale Dei nor Quas Primas make the legitimacy of the State contingent upon its acknowledgement of God as the source of all legitimate power. Christians are directly commanded in Scripture to obey their rulers.[12] Immortale Dei simply points out the absurdity, from the Church’s view, that some governments explicitly deny this true source of their authority.

Church teaching about acceptable political regimes is most specific when the Church pronounces upon proper Church-State relations. For example, the Church has no definitive teaching regarding monarchy, empire, or republic as the best institutional framework to pursue the common good.[13] Leo XIII does rank better and worse situations for the Church vis-à-vis the State. But these specific teachings on Church-State regimes must not be taken out of context. Leo XIII also taught Catholics that they had good prudential reasons to support political regimes with inferior Church-State regimes. This is one legacy of ralliement, Leo XIII’s attempt throughout the 1890s to get French Catholics to support and participate in the political institution of the Third Republic.

Four discrete kinds of Church-State situations appear in the Leonine encyclicals. Of the first rank are those states where Christian virtue is diffused through laws, institutions, and mores, and governs the relations of civil society.[14] Here, both Church and State come to an explicit and mutually beneficial arrangement to govern society by Christian principles. The State submits to Church teaching about the end of politics, and the Church may license some of its coercive authority over the baptized to the State. Immortale Dei suggests that this optimal arrangement was generally in force before the sixteenth century, that is, before the age of the “Reformation.”[15] Diuturnum Iliud (1881) offers the “wonderful manner” in which the Holy Roman Empire was consecreated as an example.[16] In the twentieth century, those who argued for a return to this optimal arrangement, in which the State explicitly acknowledges the social kingship of Christ within its sphere, became known as “integralists.”[17]

Aside from integral coöperation, three suboptimal forms of Church-State relations exist, which Leo XIII describes in a letter to the French bishops and laity, Au milieu des sollicitudes (1893). First, a State might neglect to explicitly acknowledge the dignity of the Church, without formally separating Church and State. This was the situation of the Third Republic until 1905. In this situation, Leo XIII urged the Catholic people of France make laws democratically to serve the common good, in accordance with the teachings of the Church.  Abandoning integralism puts the Church, Leo XIII thinks, in a “precarious position.”[18] However, he reasons, the justness or unjustness of laws will be determined not by Church-State relations, but by the principles in the minds of legislators.[19] Therefore, even a secular State that explicitly separates Church and State might still produce good laws. The secular State commits at least one of two errors: it either denies that God is the source of its authority, or denies that the Church has the authority to make pronouncements about God and the scope of its authority. The tragic “absurdity” of secularism violates Church teaching about the origin of authority, and comes when “the State, by missing in this connection the principal object of its institution, finally becomes false to itself by denying that which is the reason of its own existence.”[20] But this does not mean that Catholics must reject secularism at all costs. To the contrary, Leo XIII writes, even in secular states, if by a “fortunate inconsistency, the legislator is inspired by Christian principles,” the advantages “render worthy of toleration a situation which, practically, might be worse.”[21] The United States is likely in background of the pope’s thinking about avowedly secular states in which the Church has not come to ruin. Longinqua (1895) mentions the “great Washington,” and his “well-known friendship” with Bishop John Carroll as a kind of shaky substitute for religion as a support for a State’s moral legitimacy.[22] As he was trying to rally French Catholics behind the Third Republic, Leo XIII also acknowledged that the Church was beginning to flourish in secular America.

A fourth kind of situation, unfortunately most familiar to the Church in all ages, is persecution. Even as he reassures American Catholics that their regime has yielded some salutary results, Leo XIII argued that those who argue for the separation of Church and State in France seek to destroy the Church and return France to paganism.[23] And even as he advocates ralliement, encouraging French Catholics to participate in democratic politics, Leo XIII forbade Italians to do the same. In 1882 and 1886, the papacy reaffirmed that the non expedit of Pius IX was still in force: so long as the Kingdom of Italy militarily occupied the Papal States, Italian Catholics must not vote in parliamentary elections and stand for office. If Leo XIII were interested in the best regime, these case-by-case policies would seem wildly inconsistent. However, Au milieu des sollicitudes makes clear that what is salient are the Church’s teachings about its relations to the State. Legal separation would constitute persecution in a Catholic country like France (and, indeed, soon would under the Comes Law of 1905), but not in the United States. The Italian parliament represented an illegitimate persecution in a way that the French parliament, in the eyes of the pope, did not.

Already in the nineteenth century, ultramontane Catholics in the French Third Republic regarded integralist monarchy as a “best regime,” and became obsessed with the goal of restoring the Count of Chambord (or failing him, Philippe d’Orléans, the soldier and historian of the American Civil War) to the throne of France. At the time the Third Republic was bitterly divided between the republicans and a largely rural, Catholic royalist opposition. Republicans gained the upper hand after the constitutional crisis of 1877, and the 1879 resignation of Patrice de MacMahon from the presidency would allow the republicans to pursue anti-clerical policies. In 1882, the Third Republic had secularized public education, and Jules Ferry replaced the parochial school with “l’école républicaine” (later regretting his hardline stance). Politically defeated in a rapidly transforming country, many French Catholics placed their hope in legitimism and the restoration of the French monarchy, and refused to participate in the Third Republic.

Though Leo XIII may have agreed with the Catholic legitimists in the abstract, he warned against putting these abstractions about the best regime above the end of politics: “By giving one’s self up to abstractions, one could at length conclude which is the best of these forms [empire, republic, and monarchy], 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 and such a nation.”[24] From this vantage, it is worth considering that the tears shed by the Holy Father for the Louis XVI a century earlier is far from the language of abstract preference.[25] As Tocqueville had already concluded about Louis Veuillot during the Second Republic, French Catholics were drawn to extreme legitimism and ultramontanism based on abstract political principles.[26] Leo XIII does not condemn these principles per se, but teaches that questions of regime must be subordinated to serving the common good.

Integralism The state explicitly accepts its role and limits according to Church teaching, and protects the rights and dignities of the Church. (Immortale Dei §21)
Ralliement Although the state accepts no official constitutional role vis-à-vis the Church, a Catholic people accepts their role to make laws democratically that serve the common good, in accordance with Church teaching. (Au milieu des sollicitudes §22)
Secularism with ‘principled legislators’ Although the state explicitly denies its role and limits according to Church teaching, legislators “by fortunate inconsistency” are inspired by Christian principles and thus tolerated by the Church and her people. (Au milieu des sollicitudes §28)
Persecution The state explicitly persecutes the Church, and the Church offers its priests “practical instructions” of a political nature to weather this persecution. (Vehementer Nos §15)

As Roberto de Mattei points out, the Third Republic would indeed strip the Church of all public recognition in 1905, and establish the principle of state secularism—laïcité.[27] Akin to the Mexican Constitution of 1857 and the Spanish Constitution of 1931, the Comes Law represents a high-water mark of anti-clerical policy in France. In Vehementer Nos (1906), Pius X described the law as a calamity and a disaster. Church buildings and property were confiscated by the state. Priests and religious would even be conscripted by the state during wartime. Ralliement had failed, and Pius X changed course.

Even so, reading Au milieu des sollicitudes is interesting, since Leo XIII shows how the Church thinks about political matters through the lens of the Church’s rights, the proper origins of state authority, and the ends of politics rather than ‘the best regime.’ In the context of Immortale Dei and Longinqua, we see the Church counsel different political postures in different times and places. Prudence regulates which postures Catholics should adopt, as Edmund Waldstein, O.Cist., has noted in his recent treatment of ralliement.[28] However, what must be clarified is that these political postures correspond to Church-State situations rather than regimes. Ralliement is only incidentally “republican,” just as integralism is not synonymous with “monarchy” or any other regime. Where integralism—defined as a Church-State situation, not as a regime type—is too remote a goal, ralliement or even devoting one’s political activities to a secular order may be prudent. In other times, particularly times of persecution, in which aiding a regime is likely to cause scandal among Christians, noncooperation is appropriate. We also see that there is a danger of inflexibility vis-à-vis this or that political regime.

American Catholics may take a series of relevant lessons from ralliement. As Patrick Deneen notes, accomodationists in the tradition of John Courtney Murray and their “radical Catholic” critics are increasingly debating the status of Catholics vis-à-vis the American liberal democratic regime.[29] (Both sides of the debate, in my view, are too quick to equate the American regime with liberal democracy.)[30] In any case, radical Catholics in the United States should not hypostatize impracticable “more Catholic” best regime, whether monarchy or socialist utopia, and reject mainstream politics in its name. Strategic withdrawal along the lines of the so-called Benedict Option is appropriate only if the prospect of those “fortunate inconsistencies”—successful legislators with Christian principles—is now not only unreliable, but even implausible.

There are also lessons for accomodationists. First, they ought to accept that Church-State relations in the United States are not now, and have never been, optimal. They should act less surprised and indignant that the State affords no special recognition for the Church (for example) to run hospitals faithful to the Church’s teaching about healthy and dignified human personhood (versus that of the American Medical Association). Much less should they make fatuous appeals to neutral standards of “religious liberty.” Second, accomodationists should remember that times change and forms of civil power are mutable, less important than considerations about the common good.[31] Just because our constitutional order provided a framework for a Christian people to serve the common good in the past (sometimes) does not mean that it will continue to do so in the future. Many accomodationists will go further than Leo XIII, and argue with Tocqueville that the secular state was a positive boon for Catholicism during the nineteenth- and twentieth-centuries.[32] It would be hard to make those arguments today, however. In the long run the liberal state has devoured the exogenous religious foundations that once supported and moderated its excesses, and replaced them with its own “self-radicalizing” principles.[33] Accomodationists can no longer keep their head in the sand and regard Tocqueville’s conformist despotism and excessive democratic individualism as a danger somewhere in the distant future. It is already well upon us, in ways Tocqueville and even Paul VI could hardly fathom, and yet more exorbitances are imminent.

Of course, some will think that Dignitatis Humanae represents a doctrinal change that allows us to treat some paragraphs of Leo XIII as dead letter. (This is a serious error, but one too complex to set straight.) Since the ideal integral coöperation of Church and State are breezily called “peculiar circumstances” in Dignitatis Humanae, some have even read the declaration as an endorsement of separation of Church and State.[34] Even if the Church no longer licenses her coercive authority to states as a matter of general policy, however, there is no need to read Dignitatis Humanae as a rejection of the Church’s ancient teaching about proper Church-State relations, the divine source of legitimate authority, and the proper end of politics. Neither popes nor councils are infallible when they give their prudential judgments about what will come to pass in the nations’ political futures. If the Second Vatican Council changed the Church’s policy about the most prudent posture to take vis-à-vis the secular liberal republic, to a general disaster, then the lessons of Leo XIII and ralliement offer some consolation—she has bet on the wrong horse before.


[1] e.g., Gaudium et Spes [1965] §42; Immortale Dei [1885] §48; Diuturnum Iliud [1881] §7.

[2] De Libero Arbitrio I.6.14.

[3] ST I-II q. 105, a1.

[4] On the Church’s political-theological basis of civil authority and its difference from modern political-philosophical arguments, see Felix de St. Vincent, “Dubium: When Is Any Government Legitimate?” The Josias (2015). No. 7.

[5] See Immortale Dei [1885] §35; Quanta Cura [1864] “Syllabus” XIX.

[6] Thomas Pink, “Conscience and Coercion,” First Things (2012): 45-51.

[7] See Diuturnum Iliud [1881] §§4-8.

[8] See Edmund Waldstein, O.Cist, “Integralism and Gelasian Dyarchy,” The Josias (2016).

[9] Immortale Dei [1885] §§13-16.

[10] Quas Primas [1925] §17.

[11] Quas Primas [1925] §§17-19; cf. Quod Apostolici Muneris [1878] §2.

[12] Quas Primas [1925] §19; Immortale Dei [1885] §5.

[13] Au milieu des sollicitudes [1892] §14.

[14] Immortale Dei [1885] §21.

[15] Immortale Dei [1885] §23.

[16] Diuturnum Iliud [1881] §21.

[17] Gabriel Sanchez, “Catholic Integralism and the Social Kingship of Christ,” The Josias (2015).

[18] Au milieu des sollicitudes [1892] §29.

[19] Au milieu des sollicitudes [1892] §22.

[20] Immortale Dei [1885] §28.

[21] Au milieu des sollicitudes [1892] §28.

[22] Longinqua Oceani [1895], §4.

[23] Au milieu des sollicitudes [1892] §29.

[24] Au milieu des sollicitudes [1892] §14.

[25] Quare Lacrymae [1793], trans. Coëmgenus, The Josias (2015).

[26] Alexis de Tocqueville to Edouard de Tocqueville, 6 Dec 1843, Oeuvres Complètes, XIV: 237.

[27] Roberto de Mattei, “The Ralliement of Leo XIII: A Pastoral Experience That Moved Away from Doctrine,” Rorate Caeli (2015).

[28] Edmund Waldstein, O.Cist., “Catholic Action and Ralliement,” The Josias (2017). See also P.J. Smith, “Ralliement and the Common Good,” Semiduplex (2017). Smith poignantly investigates Leo XIII’s follow-up apostolic letter to Au milieu des sollicitudes, Notre consolation. In my view he exaggerates, however, when he seems by naming all Church-State situations that depart from integralism become, ipso facto, tyrannical regimes.

[29] Patrick Deneen, “A Catholic Showdown Worth Watching,” The American Conservative (2014).

[30] Felix de St. Vincent, “In Dread of Modernity: Republican Liberty and the Common Good in the American Tradition,” The Josias (2015).

[31] Immortale Dei [1885] §17.

[32] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 2 vols., trans. James T. Schleifer, ed. Eduardo Nolla (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2012), I:480.

[33] Petrus Hispanus, “The Primary Political Question: A Response to Milco on Liberalism,” The Josias (2016).

[34] Dignitatis Humanae [1965] §6.

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