Is it a crime to be a king? Leo XIII taught that “Catholics, like all other citizens, are free to prefer one form of government to another precisely because no one of these social forms is, in itself, opposed to the principles of sound reason nor to the maxims of Christian doctrine.” It seems to follow that each form must have advantages and disadvantages. What are the pros and cons of hereditary rule, in particular of a true hereditary monarchy?

A. Cons

1. Most obviously, the ruler is not chosen on merit but by the accident of birth. This may be described as letting God choose the ruler, but as Aelianus has remarked on these pages, He does this through secondary causes and has given us no guarantee that in this case secondary causes, undirected by human intelligence and will, will produce a particularly good result.

2. Since the ruler cannot in the normal course of things be deposed, he is liable to grow careless of good government.

3. There is no good remedy to a bad ruler, but only revolution, which is always an evil and very often a grave sin.

4. Since the people cannot choose their ruler they may grow apathetic as to the common good and slack in the practice of civic virtue.

5. It is perilous to the soul of the ruler to be surrounded by admiration and, frequently, flattery, and to know that he will always be so surrounded.

6. The hereditary principle once accepted tends to create an entire class within society that owes its rank to its birth rather than to useful activity; moreover, the souls of all in this class are imperiled for the same cause as the ruler’s.

B. Pros

1. There seems to be a certain humility, pleasing to God and therefore fruitful of blessings, in not presuming to select one’s own ruler.

2. A king need not seek to be popular, since he will not need to seek a mandate from the people;  therefore he may enact difficult but necessary measures.

3. A king will be more likely to think not just of the immediate future of his country, but of the needs of the common good throughout his lifetime and in the lifetimes of his heirs.

4. The hereditary principle by placing a family at the head of the state in some way honours every family and enshrines the truth that the family has in some respects priority over the state.

5. The hereditary ruler more easily impresses on men’s imaginations the authority of God which every lawful ruler exercises, since his rule comes not from men’s choice nor does it last only according to their determination. This will foster humility and obedience in the many and be profitable for the salvation of their souls.

6. The ruler’s identity being generally known in advance, he may be educated with a view to his future office.

7. The hereditary ruler will be more easily free from the vice of ambitious than the elected man.

8. The hereditary ruler bearing the stamp of divine authority more vividly than the elected man (see no. 5), he may without incongruity be consecrated as a monarch and become in this sense a sacral person. But such a consecration seems to bring with it greater graces of state.

9. Hereditary rule, continuing down the centuries, carries with itself a sediment of traditional ceremony, clothing and nomenclature. Now this is picturesque and innocent and gives men pleasure. Since man cannot live without pleasure and many pleasures are noxious, whatever gives innocent pleasure is to be fostered.

Doubtless there are many others, on both sides. To some people, A1 will probably seem to outweigh all the B’s. To me it is striking that the nations of Catholic Christendom organised themselves as hereditary monarchies more often than not, as far as I know. Also, there are many canonised saints among hereditary monarchs, but not yet any among the presidents and prime ministers; perhaps Moreno will be canonised one day.

St Paul’s second epistle to the Thessalonians is a locus classicus:-

And you know what withholds, that he may be revealed in his time. For the mystery of iniquity already works; only he who now holds is to hold until he be taken out of the way. And then that wicked one shall be revealed (2 Thess. 2).

Bellarmine comments:-

Here Paul speaks, not venturing to write openly about the overthrow of the Roman Empire, which nevertheless he had clearly explained when he was with them, and the meaning is: ‘Do you know what hinders the coming of antichrist? I told you, the Roman Empire hinders it, because its sins are not yet completed, and Antichrist, who will take this empire out of the way on account of its sins, will not come until they are completed. And so the one who now holds is to hold, that is, to reign, until he be taken out of the way, that is, abolished, and then that wicked one will be revealed (Tomus II, Liber III, caput V).

As Bellarmine shows in loc., this is a common view among the fathers, even though Augustine acknowledges that other interpretations are possible.  That the Roman imperial power was the historic force preventing Christ’s enemies from coalescing under one visible head was believed, strange as it may seem, even when the emperors were pagans and persecutors. It was still believed, naturally enough, when the emperors became the Church’s patrons   and protectors. It is as if, the birth of our Lord having been heralded by the decree going forth from Caesar Augustus, Caesar Augustus’s power must disappear before the anti-decree will go forth. But has not this been, as Maritain wrote in his study of St Paul, disproved by the facts?

The Eastern Roman Empire continued until Whit Tuesday, 1453. Within a lifetime the Protestant revolt had begun: the greatest undermining of the faith yet known. The Emperors of the West continued to have the Roman name until August 6th, 1806. In the lifetime that followed this, the basis of natural religion, namely belief in a personal God, ceased to be part of the general heritage of mankind. Insofar as the Roman imperial power and tradition continued, it was vested in the Austrian emperors until Hallowe’en 1918. In the lifetime that followed this date, natural law was destroyed. The Fathers, and Bellarmine, do not say that Antichrist would appear the day after the dethroning of the last emperor, but that the imperial power was preventing his arrival. Anti-Christian forces would always be at work, but independently one of another; once the imperial power was removed, they would, somehow, be freed to co-ordinate their efforts in view of a supreme attack. Finally, the last heir apparent to a reigning emperor died last year on Independence Day. It remains to be seen what will happen next.