The Catechism of the Church says little specifically about the forms of government and speaks more broadly in the following terms:
“Every institution is inspired, at least implicitly, by a vision of man and his destiny, from which it derives the point of reference for its judgment, its hierarchy of values, its line of conduct. Most societies have formed their institutions in the recognition of a certain preeminence of man over things. Only the divinely revealed religion has clearly recognized man’s origin and destiny in God, the Creator and Redeemer. The Church invites political authorities to measure their judgments and decisions against this inspired truth about God and man.… The Church respects and encourages the political freedom and responsibility of the citizen.
“It is a part of the Church’s mission ‘to pass moral judgments even in matters related to politics, whenever the fundamental rights of man or the salvation of souls requires it. The means, the only means, she may use are those which are in accord with the Gospel and the welfare of all men according to the diversity of times and circumstances’” (Nos. 2244-46).
Thus we have general observations and limits ascribed to forms of government, but nothing so specific as the number and types of legislatures, deliberative bodies, leadership structures or constitutional contents.
Since the modern democratic republics common today were largely unknown in biblical times, and due to the hierarchical structure of the Church and the biblical teaching on families, some today favor monarchy (or a modified version of it) as the “best fit” for Catholic teaching, especially if the monarch is of the Faith. But this is probably going too far and is more specific than Catholic teaching prefers. While some systems are better than others, all of them have shortcomings that require the voice of the Church, and of faith and natural law, to set limits and occasionally voice opposition. Atheistic forms of government that seek to silence the voice of faith are excluded since they deny a natural right of man. Secular or nonsectarian forms of government are permissible as long as they do not deny the influence of faith altogether or limit the religious liberty of citizens.
Other principles of Catholic social teaching are operative in assessing forms of government. In particular, solidarity and subsidiarity are significant. Hence governments have obligations to promote and enhance solidarity among citizens so that all are included and cared for equitably and that legitimate needs are met. Subsidiarity is the principle that government should be carried on at the lowest and most local level possible. Thus things should not be handled federally that can be handled locally or at the level of the state government. Federal or national government is at times necessary for larger things such as national defense, national standards and the like.
Beyond these norms reasonable people will differ, as well as nations and cultures, as to the exact form of government that is best and to the particulars within those forms.
Rev. Msgr. Charles E. Pope is a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C.