In the immediate aftermath of the French Revolution and the execution of King Louis XVI, the attitude of the papacy to the advent of republican government in France was one of horror and denunciation. On 17 July 1793, shortly before the onset of the Reign of Terror, Pope Pius VI wrote in Pourquoi notre voix:
After abolishing the monarchy, the best form of government, [the National Assembly] had transferred the civil power in its entirety to the people, which acts neither by reason nor by good counsel, which does not conform itself in any way to just ideas, which evaluates few matters in accordance with truth and a great number in accordance with opinion; which is always inconsistent, can easily be deceived and drawn to every excess, and is ungrateful, arrogant and cruel; which rejoices in slaughter and in the shedding of human blood, and draws pleasure from watching the sufferings which precede the last breath, just as men in former times used to go to watch gladiators die in the ancient amphitheatres.This attitude persisted for the best part of a century. The following is what Pope Pius IX had to say to a group of visiting French pilgrims in 1874. Pius' own earlier liberalising reforms had come to a sticky end: he had been forced to flee Rome in 1848 when his people rose up against him, and a revolutionary Roman Republic had briefly been proclaimed the following year.
I bless all those who are working together for the resurrection of France. I bless them with the objective (let me tell you it) of seeing them undertake a very difficult but very necessary work. This consists of making disappear, or diminishing, a horrible plague which is afflicting modern society, and which is called universal suffrage. To attribute the power of making decisions on the most serious questions to the masses, who are necessarily unintelligent and impassioned - is this not to yield ourselves to danger and to rush willingly into ruin? Yes, universal suffrage would better deserve the name of universal madness - and when the secret societies take hold of it, which too often happens, the name of universal deceit.As noted, the thaw came in the pontificate of Pope Leo XIII. He scandalised French royalists by pursuing a policy of rapprochement with the French Republic in his encyclicals Nobilissima Gallorum gens (1884) and Au milieu des sollicitudes (1892) and the famous toast d'Alger of 1890. More generally, he was markedly less hostile to modern ideas than his predecessors. Here is what he had to say in his 1888 encyclical Libertas:
Again, it is not of itself wrong to prefer a democratic form of government, if only the Catholic doctrine be maintained as to the origin and exercise of power. Of the various forms of government, the Church does not reject any that are fitted to procure the welfare of the subject; she wishes only - and this nature itself requires - that they should be constituted without involving wrong to any one, and especially without violating the rights of the Church.The same policy underlay Pope Pius XI's words in Dilectissima nobis (1933). This encyclical was occasioned by the anticlerical policies of the Spanish Second Republic.
Universally known is the fact that the Catholic Church is never bound to one form of government more than to another, provided the Divine rights of God and of Christian consciences are safe. She does not find any difficulty in adapting herself to various civil institutions, be they monarchic or republican, aristocratic or democratic. Speaking only of recent facts, evident proof of this lies in the numerous Concordats and agreements concluded in later years, and in the diplomatic relations the Holy See has established with different States in which, following the Great War, monarchic governments were succeeded by republican forms. Nor have these new republics ever had to suffer in their institutions and just aspirations toward national grandeur and welfare through their friendly relations with the Holy See, or through their disposition, in a spirit of reciprocal confidence, to conclude conventions on subjects relating to Church and State, in conformity with changed conditions and times.