La Reyne s’avisera

by Alan Fimister

Britain has of late been united in the celebration of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. Commentators have remarked upon the weakness of republican sentiment in the United Kingdom even among those with an ostensible ideological commitment to such causes. Britain tried republicanism for a very brief period in the seventeenth century and was not happy with the results. The anarchy and tyranny that followed on the abolition of the monarchy in Britain are hardly isolated incidents. Almost everywhere where hereditary monarchy has been deposed misery, oppression and chronic instability have been the result. This seems to be the case quite independently of how cruel and incompetent the fallen regime may have been. Russia dramatically illustrates the point. One reads accounts of pre-revolutionary Russia and foolishly imagines that “anything would be better than this”; and then one reads about post-revolutionary Russia and learns what tyranny really looks like. 

And yet, the vast majority of the multitude who support the monarchy in the United Kingdom would be hard put to mount a theoretical defence. Of course the hereditary element and the monarchical element are not necessarily conjoined. The United States of America is decidedly a monarchy but not de jure a hereditary one (despite the fact that every US president apart from Martin Van Buren has been related). One of the crucial advantages of hereditary monarchy is that, insofar as a country really is a hereditary monarchy, it is impossible to imagine that the legitimate powers of the government are derived from the consent of the governed.

The Church condemns this error because she teaches that God created man as a social and political animal and that consequently the authority of parents and rulers is derived from God and not from human convention. The erroneous supposition that authority is “delegated up” from the people encourages those subject to the civil power to imagine that they have the right to resist measures morally permissible in themselves but with which they disagree. This error initially destabilises the civil order but then, paradoxically, tends to drive it in a totalitarian direction.

Of course, on the very same principle, according to Catholic teaching, if the civil power attempts to legislate against the natural law, such “laws” are null and void; and if the civil power attempts to compel its subjects to violate the natural law, its authority to coerce obedience is transformed into a right (or even an obligation) of the subjects to resist — with force if necessary. 

But the state which claims to have obtained its authority from the consent of the people is, in contrast, unlimited in its claims upon the obedience of its subjects, who have supposedly agreed in advance to everything it does. It is a condition of its very existence that its subjects must have sold their souls to the Leviathan. As Leo XIII observed, “if what they say were really true, there would be no tyranny, no matter how monstrous, which we should not be bound to endure and submit to”. It is not surprising therefore that when hereditary monarchies, which embody the rejection of this error, are overthrown in its name that they are almost invariably succeeded by monstrous tyrannies. 

Another advantage of hereditary monarchy comes from the fact that the destiny for which man has been created in this world is infinitely greater than the mere perfection of his nature, but rather entails participation in God’s own nature. Grace, the supernatural assistance God gives us to attain this end, perfects rather than damages or destroys nature; but due to man’s sin, there is a seismic tension between nature and grace in any fallen individual who receives it. Statesmanship, like philosophy, is one of the quintessentially human activities which perfect us on the natural level. The greatest statesman is therefore among the most naturally virtuous of men, but the true human city is not in fact the United Kingdom, the United States of America or the Republique Française; it is the City of God, the Mystical Body of Christ, and therefore the true statesman is not the politician but the saint. Many of the excellences necessary for proficient statesmanship in this world are consequently merely skills that need not be attended by true virtue. In the City of God, in contrast, the ability to perform mighty deeds and gain the ear of the ruler comes with suffering and love — of which all God’s children are capable. But the case is still worse for the worldly statesman, because the claim that natural and absolute perfection are necessarily one and the same is precisely the claim that the evil one made in his rebellion against God, so those inclined to earthly statesmanship will always be disproportionately of the devil’s party. Until this world comes to an end, those who would approach the altar of the Lord will always have to pray for their cause to be distinguished from the unjust and deceitful man and from the nation that is not holy. Mechanisms such as the jury, universal franchise and hereditary monarchy — which blunt the judicial, legislative and executive discretion of the professional political establishment — thus represent natural lotteries which place a check upon the ambitions and vices of politicians. 

This is not at all to say that there is any objection to entirely elective constitutions, so long as the idea that the people empower rather than designate the rulers is rejected. Indeed, the perils of this form of government arise precisely from its natural perfection (St Thomas Aquinas, Summae Theologiae, Ia IIae, 105, 1) . 

But is the United Kingdom really a hereditary monarchy anyway? Certainly the powers of the monarch are theoretically extensive, but no British monarch has withheld assent from a bill passed by both Houses of Parliament since 1708, during the reign of Queen Anne, and no Prime Minister has effectively been chosen by the Monarch since 1963. 

Here we face a genuine problem. While it is entirely respectable monarchical behaviour to rule through one’s ministers and to choose for one’s ministers persons capable of marshalling the forces necessary to govern effectively, and while there is no objection to legislating on the basis of the grievances of one’s subjects, Her Majesty’s actions are considerably more constrained than that (not least because the contractualist error is so widespread that if she used her theoretical powers it would threaten her throne). 

The Queen is careful not to give away any of her own personal opinions, but there is every sign that she is a sincere, moderately low-church Anglican. One would have thought therefore that she is at the very least uncomfortable with and probably disagrees with many of the legislative and social transformations which have marked — perhaps even defined — her reign; disagrees, not in the manner of a divergent judgement of prudence, but in the manner of principled moral opposition. Even if this is not the case, the hypothesis illustrates the point just as well. Even if the Queen personally disapproved of the legalisation of pornography, easy divorce, abortion and “gay marriage”, her emissary nonetheless stood in the House of Lords and pronounced the words, La Reyne le veult (“the Queen wills it”). Her Majesty bears the final responsibility for her enactments. 

This was the dilemma that led Baudouin, king of the Belgians (1951–1993), to have himself declared “unfit to reign” for one day so that the cabinet could give royal assent to the full legalisation of abortion without him. This act has been much admired but what is the point of possessing these powers if they are to be cast aside at precisely the moment when they are most needed for their first and most essential purpose: the protection of the innocent? Indeed, in this case, they were not merely cast aside; they were handed over to the murderers themselves. This is tantamount to proximate material cooperation in evil.

Obviously, there is a deeper problem of which the 1990 Belgian constitutional crisis was merely an effect. The government which perpetrated this crime was supposedly made up of Christian Democrats. That politicians who are supposedly in office precisely to uphold the truths of the Gospel should descend to such evil would be unthinkable were it not for the crisis which has engulfed the Church since the 1960s. 

Nevertheless, the particular difficulty is that of interest in its own right (and its remote effects in weakening the residual Christian elements in Protestantism), which is of longer standing than the Neo-Modernist Crisis in the Church. Surprisingly, the Holy See has actually spoken on this question. In 749, Pepin the Short, the mayor of the palace in the kingdom of the Franks, who enjoyed all the de facto power in the kingdom under the effectively titular Childeric III, contacted Pope Zachary to ask if this arrangement was, in fact, legitimate:

“Burchard, bishop of Wilrzburg, and Fulrad, priest and chaplain, were sent [by Pipin] to pope Zacharias to ask his advice in regard to the kings who were then ruling in France, who had the title of king but no real royal authority. The pope replied by these ambassadors that it would be better that he who actually had the power should be called king.”

This episode is generally taken to be an entirely cynical manoeuvre in which the popes sponsored the elevation of Pepin to the throne in exchange for the creation of the Papal States by the Franks. But this is of no real consequence theologically. If it was a definitive answer to a moral question (a significant “if” to be sure) then it is authoritative, whatever the inducements involved and, as I have tried to show, it is a real question. Responsibility without power is not a position anyone should seek. God save the Queen.