Papacy: Monarchy or Oligarchy


Last semester, I had a professor describe the Papacy as an oligarchy. This semester, I have a professor who is having us read a book by Euan Cameron for a class on the European Reformations which asserts that the Papacy is a monarchy.

What is your opinion?


Option C- Theocracy


Yeah… What that guy said…


That would be the correct answer. :thumbsup:


Both. The college of bishops in union with its leading bishop, the bishop of Rome, is the supreme and universal authority in Christ’s Church and is similar to an oligarchy. However, the bishop of Rome by himself is also the supreme and universal authority in Christ’s Church and is similar to a monarchy.


I would personally assert that the Papacy is a Theocratic Electoral Absolute Monarchy. The pope, who is Christ’s Vicar, is elected by the Sacred College, and does not have any checks or balances on his power, aside from what he is not allowed by Law.


This is more from a sociological angle and what the rest of the world would see. Of course I’d say theocracy but someone else might think option c is anarchy.


Not exactly a monarchy, for that would imply that only one person has the true government of the Church, but actually, ALL bishops govern the Church in union with the head bishop.

Not exactly a presidency, for that would imply that it is the Church which gives him his authority, but actually, the Pope’s primatial authority is by divine institution.

Not exactly an oligarchy, for that would imply equal authority among all bishops, with no notion of a head bishop, which would be against the ancient Apostolic Canon 34.

Theocracy sounds good, but not exactly a theocracy either in the traditional sense of the word wherein the two religious and secular swords are wielded.

I think the reason that the idea of monarchy became popular among most Latin Catholics during the High Middle ages and a little while after is because the Pope of Rome was the only Patriarch in the Catholic Church during that period. In distinction, the other Apostolic Churches had more than one Patriarch.



Since a Monarch creates law at his will, it cannot even by your definition be a monarchy.

The pope is subject to God and the Sacred Tradition of the church.


The papacy is more akin to a Constitutional Monarchy. The pope is a Monarch, but his authority is limited by the “constitution” (Sacred Tradition) and rules in cooperation with “parliament” (the bishops).


I’d disagree.

A constitutional Monarchy delegates it’s power to the people, but all power starts and ends at the monarch and the constitution is only there because the monarch wills it so.

The Sacred Tradition of the church that the pope submits to is not subject to him or his will. It is in fact authoritative to his will


The Papacy is an Absolute, Non-Hereditary, Ecclesiastical, Elective Monarchy.


What’s the absolute part?

Can the Pope say tomorrow, it is Gods will that we confess Christ did not rise.

An absolute monarch can say such a thing. The pope cannot or he is not pope.


I think it’s important to define terms before we go any farther.

Was your teacher saying the pope was a monarch or an oligarch in his role as Bishop of Rome? This would be incorrect.

Or was your teacher saying the pope was a monarch or an oligarch in his role as Sovereign of the State of the Vatican City? This is something that is more debatable, but if we’re debating this, it’s more of a Canonical matter, and wouldn’t have much to do with Sacred Tradition and the lot.


That’s a very good point.


I would define “Papacy” as a category of its own, for the reasons mentioned above: It doesn’t fit any of the categories of secular government. That’s if we look at the role of the Pope in the Ecclesiastical realm. After all, he is the Vicar of the King, not the King Himself in this position. Yet, he has the authority of the King, he is His delegate.

In relation to the state of Vatican City, I’d say the Pope is an elected Absolute Monarch. In purely secular terms, that is.


“Vatican City Explained”


i liked the video that same user posted - “how to become pope”.


Well, not exactly. That might be the more contemporary interpretation though (silly revisionists).

Classically, absolute monarchs ruled by divine right (called the Divine Right of Kings), which says that the monarch is not subject to any earthly authority. The selection of the monarch and the legitimacy of the monarch come from God, to whom the monarch is subject. In reality, a DRR (Divine Right Ruler) was obliged to follow God’s law, which gave a certain amount of power (mostly via influence) to the local hierarchy of bishops and the Pope.

The absolute part of an absolute monarchy never allowed them to challenge or change anything divine, because it was from God that they derived power. Alfred the Great would have been an absolute monarch, and from what we know he felt it was his duty to spread Christianity to the whole of Great Britain (or at least the part he dreamed to be England).


Politically, I suppose we can categorize the Papacy as an absolute, elected theocratic monarchy, that is, in terms of its governance of the political apparatuses of the Vatican City State and the Holy See.

However, it is difficult to think in these terms in the Pope’s supreme governance of the Church as such. It is not that the Pope doesn’t have absolute authority over the Church in a way analogous to that of a king over his dominion; he does. However, it is a whole different paradigm (cliche, but I think it fits perfectly here). You have to think in totally different terms. The papacy is not inherently and exactly a political institution. It is far more than that and more important than that.

And that is not to say that, depending on the historical circumstances of a given time, the Pope can’t also be an earthly king. He can. Indeed, for most of Church history, Popes have been earthly monarchs. Furthermore, I think that in most cases–although not all–the three hats of Supreme Pontiff, Bishop of Rome, and monarch of the Vatican/Papal States have worked very well together and the latter of these three has, in my opinion, played not at all a negligible role in the propagation of Christianity throughout the world. Temporal authority in the strict governmental sense is not a necessary role for the Pope, and I think you could even argue that it isn’t “proper*” to the Pope, but that doesn’t mean it can’t or shouldn’t be done, nor does it mean it hasn’t produced great fruit for the Church. In fact I argued that it has.

Nevertheless, the three hats, so to speak, are separate. Bishop of Rome and Supreme Pontiff are far more important in an absolute nitty-gritty sense, but monarch of Vatican City State/Papal States is also very important, if only in practical terms.

*Proper as in inherently related. There are plenty of things that aren’t inherently related, but which still are complimentary or work well together for some purpose. This is one of them.

These are my 2 cents.

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