In his 1888 Encyclical Libertas Leo XIII proposes the Italian civic republics of the Middle Ages as models of the Church’s zeal for civil liberty.
Neither does the Church condemn those who, if it can be done without violation of justice, wish to make their country independent of any foreign or despotic power. Nor does she blame those who wish to assign to the State the power of self-government, and to its citizens the greatest possible measure of prosperity. The Church has always most faithfully fostered civil liberty, and this was seen especially in Italy, in the municipal prosperity, and wealth, and glory which were obtained at a time when the salutary power of the Church has spread, without opposition, to all parts of the State.
Not only did these glorious republics arise in the benign conditions fostered by the Church, they were also the direct product of the Church’s own divinely established character. Even so hostile a witness as Edward Gibbon was forced to concede that when the Roman Republic’s ideals and legal infrastructure lay in ruins they lived on in the Church their youth renewed like the eagle’s.
The freedom of elections subsisted long after the legal establishment of Christianity, and the subjects of Rome enjoyed in the church the privilege which they had lost in the republic, of choosing the magistrates whom they were bound to obey. As soon as a bishop had closed his eyes, the metropolitan issued a commission to one of his suffragans to administer the vacant see, and prepare, within a limited time, the future election. The right of voting was vested in the inferior clergy, who were best qualified to judge of the merit of the candidates; in the senators or nobles of the city, all those who were distinguished by their rank or property; and finally in the whole body of the people, who on the appointed day flocked in multitudes from the most remote parts of the diocese … it was everywhere admitted, as a fundamental maxim of religious policy, that no bishop could be imposed on an orthodox church without the consent of its members. The emperors, as the guardians of the public peace, and as the first citizens of Rome and Constantinople, might effectually declare their wishes in the choice of a primate; but those absolute monarchs respected the freedom of ecclesiastical elections, and, while they distributed and resumed the honours of the state and army, they allowed eighteen hundred perpetual magistrates to receive their important offices from the free suffrages of the people.
The Fathers did not accept that a bishop could be legitimately imposed upon a diocese without the consent of the faithful. “He who rules over all must be chosen by all” as St Leo the Great declared. Lactantius, the tutor of Constantine, protested at the end of his Divine Institutes that he who cooperated in the assumption of royal airs by the Emperors was a traitor to Christ. “For whosoever shall cast away the conduct becoming a man, and, following present things, shall prostrate himself upon the ground, will be punished as a deserter from his Lord, his commander, and his Father”. St Gregory the Great (vainly) reminded a later Emperor in Byzantium that “the kings of the nations are the masters of slaves but the Emperor of the Republic is the lord of free men”. In De Libero Arbitrio St Augustine confirmed that a virtuous people should elect their own rulers from among their own number.
When all the institutions of the Roman state had fallen into ruin and the rule of law scarcely existed in the West, the Bishop alone remained of the ancient offices of a free people. The markets which preserved the existence of the Italian towns were also the piazze where the people gathered to elect their shepherd. There the citizens of the Italian towns would gather to make other determinations concerning their common life and defence, until eventually they created permanent institutions: a council and consuls and other officers of the republic. In the clarity afforded by the Gregorian reform movement the frontiers of temporal and spiritual jurisdiction were slowly delineated by the bishop and his people. The republics fought to forge a new dominion over the territory of their diocese. Eventually, piece by piece, this development of public law was confirmed by the western emperors seeking safe passage to Rome for their coronation by the Pope or the Imperial rights were bartered away in vain attempt to set one commune against another and reassert imperial authority over Italy. The baptistry established in a place of honour in the centre of the piazza, symbol of the equality of the faithful in Christ, became the shrine of the republic and its banners were lodged within.
Pope Benedict taught that every Catholic insofar as he is a Catholic is a Roman citizen. Not just the spiritual power but the temporal also is within the the Church and within her power. Surely the Roman people have the right to be ruled according to their own laws and liberties. The name of king is hateful to the Roman people. As the admiring ambassadors of Judas Maccabaeus reported, “none of all these wore a crown, or was clothed in purple, to be magnified thereby … they made themselves a senate house, and consulted daily three hundred and twenty men, that sat in council always for the people, that they might do the things that were right.” In the beginning it was for natural reasons that they put not their trust in princes in mortal men in whom there is no hope. When the people of Israel sought from their judge Samuel a king like the other nations, God told Samuel,
Hearken to the voice of the people in all that they say to thee. For they have not rejected thee, but me, that I should not reign over them. According to all their works, they have done from the day that I brought them out of Egypt until this day: as they have forsaken me, and served strange gods, so do they also unto thee.
Now we have a perfect King, the Son of God and son of David, Who reigns over us from heaven. As of old, so also today, there is a certain idolatry in seeking an earthly king. As St Thomas teaches,
Since society must have the same end as the individual man, it is not the ultimate end of an assembled multitude to live virtuously, but through virtuous living to attain to the possession of God. If this end could be attained by the power of human nature, then the duty of a king would have to include the direction of men to it. We are supposing, of course, that he is called king to whom the supreme power of governing in human affairs is entrusted. Now the higher the end to which a government is ordained, the loftier that government is. Indeed, we always find that the one to whom it pertains to achieve the final end commands those who execute the things that are ordained to that end. For example, the captain, whose business it is to regulate navigation, tells the shipbuilder what kind of ship he must construct to be suitable for navigation; and the ruler of a city, who makes use of arms, tells the blacksmith what kind of arms to make. But because a man does not attain his end, which is the possession of God, by human power but by divine according to the words of the Apostle (Rom 6:23): “By the grace of God life everlasting”—therefore the task of leading him to that last end does not pertain to human but to divine government. Consequently, government of this kind pertains to that king who is not only a man, but also God, namely, our Lord Jesus Christ, Who by making men sons of God brought them to the glory of Heaven.
As, after Christ, it is the monk and the presbyter (rather than the abbot or the bishop) who are most naturally called prophet and priest, so it is the pater familias not the temporal ruler who after Christ is most properly called king. “On that day the LORD will protect the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that the feeblest among them on that day shall be like David, and the house of David shall be like God, like the angel of the LORD, going before them.” As it was the religious orders (Cluny, Cîteaux and the Order of Preachers) who devised the mechanisms by which the freedoms of the ancient world might be transposed onto vaster geographical expanses bearing fruit at last in the Engish Parliament, it is fitting that every day at Lauds the monk should sing:
The high praise of God shall be in their mouth: and two-edged swords in their hands:
To execute vengeance upon the nations, chastisements among the people:
To bind their kings with fetters, and their nobles with manacles of iron.
To execute upon them the judgment that is written: this glory is to all his saints. Alleluia.