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St. Robert Bellarmine's Influence on the Writing of the Declaration of Independence & the Virginia Declaration of Rights

by Karl Maurer


While certain names like Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, and Washington are among the first to come to mind when one thinks of this nation's forefathers, Karl Maurer reminds Catholics that the writings of St. Robert Bellarmine influenced the development of our rights. He also explains how this influence came indirectly through one of the chief defenders of the so-called Divine Right of Kings, and Protestant theologian, Robert Filmer.

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unknown, 2003

As July 4th approaches, and the nation prepares to celebrate the individual liberties our forefathers staked out for us two centuries ago, names like Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, and Washington are rightly praised for their contributions to our freedom. But most Catholics are unaware of how the writings of Saint Robert Bellarmine, SJ, (1542-1621) influenced the development of our rights, and that this influence came indirectly through one of the chief defenders of the so-called Divine Right of Kings, Robert Filmer.

In most American colleges and High Schools, the development of Constitutional law is traced along lines that begin in ancient Greece and Rome lead to the philosophies of Algernon Sydney (who was executed for treason in 1683) and John Locke. It is undeniable that Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, and George Mason, author of Virginia's Declaration of Rights, were intimately familiar with the classical and contemporary scholars from Aristotle onward. And it is not unreasonable to conclude they were familiar with writers who opposed popular sovereignty and defended the absolute power of kings.

One such book found in Jefferson's personal library (now in the Library of Congress) was Patriarcha, by Protestant theologian Robert Filmer, who was the court theologian to King James I. It is a treatise in defense of the Divine Right of Kings, which Jefferson obviously read because the book's margins are full of his notes. (The full title of the book is actually Patriarcha: The Naturall Power of Kinges Defended Against the Unnatural Liberty of the People, By Arguments, Theological, Rational, Historical and Legall. All references are to the 1991 Cambridge Press edition.)

The most interesting aspect of Patriarcha from a Catholic perspective is that the first pages discredit and attack the writings of St. Robert Bellarmine, who was one of the most eloquent and prolific defenders of freedom the Catholic Church has ever produced. It was customary that writers dealing with political and religious controversies begin their books by presenting their nemesis as an anti-thesis, which in Filmer's case was Bellarmine's position that political authority is vested in the people and that kings do not rule by divine right, but through the consent of the governed. This was a radical idea in the early 1600's, though it is widely accepted today.

In Patriarcha, Filmer quotes Bellarmine directly as follows: "Secular or Civil authority (saith he) 'is instituted by men; it is in the people unless they bestow it on a Prince. This Power is immediately in the Multitude, as in the subject of it; for this Power is in the Divine Law, but the Divine Law hath given this power to no particular man. If the Positive Law be taken away, there is left no Reason amongst the Multitude (who are Equal) one rather than another should bear the Rule over the Rest. Power is given to the multitude to one man, or to more, by the same Law of Nature; for the Commonwealth cannot exercise this Power, therefore it is bound to bestow it upon some One man or some Few. It depends upon the Consent of the multitude to ordain over themselves a King or other Magistrates, and if there be a lawful cause, the multitude may change the Kingdom into an Aristocracy or Democracy' (St. Robert Bellarmine, Book 3 De Laicis, Chapter 4). Thus far Bellarmine; in which passages are comprised the strength of all that I have read or heard produced for the Natural Liberty of the Subject." (Patriarcha, page 5.)

Imagine what Jefferson must have been thinking as he read the opening paragraphs of Patriarcha, a direct assault on the Roman Catholic scholarship of Bellarmine:

"Since the time that school divinity (i.e. Catholic Universities) began to flourish, there hath been a common opinion maintained as well by the divines as by the divers of learned men which affirms: 'Mankind is naturally endowed and born with freedom from all subjection, and at liberty to choose what form of government it please, and that the power which any one man hath over others was at the first by human right bestowed according to the discretion of the multitude.' This tenet was first hatched in the (Medieval Roman Catholic Universities), and hath been fostered by all succeeding papists for good divinity. The divines also of the reformed churches have entertained it, and the common people everywhere tenderly embrace it as being most plausible to flesh and blood, for that it prodigally distributes a portion of liberty to the meanest of the multitude, who magnify liberty as if the height of human felicity were only to be found in it — never remembering that the desire of liberty was the cause of the fall of Adam."

There is no doubt that Jefferson, after reading Filmer, must have been struck by Bellarmine's definition of individual freedom and popular sovereignty. It may come as a surprise to some, but a closer analysis of Bellarmine's writing and Catholic Church history demonstrates that since 1200 AD, Catholic Church has defended individual rights and freedoms, which eventually led to the abolition of slavery, serfdom, and the rise of popular sovereignty at the expense of absolutist monarchs and tyrannical nobles.

To the question of whether the prevailing form of government — monarchy — was divinely protected and absolute, Bellarmine contended that the best form of government was actually a "combination" of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy. Though not popular at the time, he defended these principles, which today we consider the foundations of our democratic process.

Bellarmine's voluminous political writings reveal his belief that each of the three forms of government — monarchy, aristocracy and democracy — have their unique advantages and disadvantages, but he insists that whatever "combination" is adopted by a people should be nothing less than the one that is "most useful" to them. Monarchy, or the absolute power vested in a king, is most useful during times of upheaval and instability. In such circumstances, it may be the only way for the people to maintain their rights and privileges, but that doesn't imply that God prefers Kings just because there is chaos on earth. Bellarmine admires aristocracy for its distributive qualities, where the best men are bestowed with the authority to govern based on their merits. This dissipation of power could be a disadvantage also, and could lead to feuding, or oligarchy. Ironically, Bellarmine saw in Democracy a potentially good form of government, but warned that a simple or pure approach to it would lead to mob-ocracy. He frequently quoted Plato, who said, "Who can be happy, living under the arbitrary will of a crowd?"

Good government, regardless of its form, has several distinct characteristics. "The first property of good government is order. The better the coordination, the better the government." Bellarmine found monarchy to be best to ensure order, because there was no disagreement among the one person doing the governing, the king. It is no coincidence that he finds the greatest order in the hierarchical Catholic Church, and the chain of command emanating from the Pope. Bellarmine found order in an aristocracy, but only to the extent that people willingly subjected themselves to the authority of their superiors. The form of government least able to ensure order was democracy, "in which all citizens are of the same condition and authority." Other properties of good government identified in Bellarmine's writings are peace, strength, stability, power and facility of action.

In De Laicis and in De Romanie Pontificus Ecclesiastica Monarchia, Bellarmine suggests a combination of power by the king and the aristocracy is the most sensible path to good government. "With the assistance of the best men of the land the monarch may procure wise counsel. Since it is impossible for one man to superintend all parts of the state to perform all its duties, to have all knowledge, all prudence, all wisdom, all foresight, all counsel, and best judgment, (there should be a) distribution of power."

"These minor heads are not to be regarded as vicars or mere agents of the one supreme head (the king), but in their own territory, they are themselves real and supreme heads. Only in certain general regulations of national import are they to be subject to a higher authority for the sake of unity, order, strength and cooperation. The minor details of their administration they are to work out for themselves according to local conditions and needs. Such a system is calculated to develop greater interest, initiative, originality and self-expression."

Not leaving out Democracy, Bellarmine contends that none of the ruling can happen in the first place unless it is by the consent of those so ruled. In De Laicis we find, "if the supreme head and the minor heads acquire office not by hereditary succession but by consent of the people, then Democracy, too, has found its representation in this mixed form of government." Bellarmine writes that the consent of the people is necessary in the first instance for a legitimate bestowal of political authority upon any particular ruler. He says an appeal or referendum to the people is also possible, especially if they are tyrants.

"Such a mixed and more useful government would therefore: first, embrace one supreme head and possess all the good qualities attributed to monarchy, viz, order, peace, power, stability, efficiency; second, provide such minor heads as governors of provinces, legislators, and judges, who, on the one hand, would be in harmony with the supreme head and assist in distributing the burdens of government, and on the other hand, be independent enough, but as their own, thus making the best qualities of an aristocracy also possible; third, contain such democratic elements as should reasonably insure the Commonwealth against incompetent rulers and secure the highest degree of popular right, liberty, approval, self-expression, participation, and welfare."

Here we have the political foundations of self-government, succinctly expressed by a Roman Catholic Cardinal two centuries prior to the founding of our nation. During an age in which the descendents of Henry VIII and their Protestant apologists were expounding the Divine Right of Kings, Bellarmine was defending a form of government that finds good qualities in monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, and insists it is the right of the people to decide the "combination" under which they are to be ruled.

In Democracy and Bellarmine, Father John Rager observes, "The best type of government is that which best serves the greatest number of men; which distributes the opportunities and goods of this earth as justly and equitably as the varying needs and capacities of men dictate; which stimulates the latent energy and resources of individual personality; which maintains order, peace, happiness and liberty at home, and by its efficiency, strength and endurance inspires respect abroad; a government, finally, which lays no obstacle in the way of man's eternal destiny."

The fundamental premise of Bellarmine's writing on government is that people are autonomous, that all are equal in God's eyes, that they have popular sovereignty. Another way of looking at it is to consider the platform of the Divine Right theorists, who believed that the king derived his power directly from God, and he governed as a father governs a child. Filmer went as far as to say that in the exercise of his kingly duties, "the king can do no wrong." In addition, these rights were hereditary, as was the case in the Bible. The king was accountable to God alone, and all resistance is punishable by such means as the king sees fit. Filmer and other Divine Right apologists cherry picked the biblical references that supported these positions (e.g. "By me kings reign," Proverbs, VIII, and "Honor the kings," Peter II.)

Bellarmine agreed that all power came from God, but saw each nation as a political unit composed of individual souls each by their nature free and equal creations of God. Being free and equal, none had any more or less right to rule than another, but because survival depends on some kind of orderly and good government, the necessity for some kind of civil authority was inherent in the nature of society. As it was divinely inspired that men and women should form communities, and thus need government, it stands to reason that the members of that society should determine who rules them as individuals. Political authority may come from God, but who exercises it is the will of the people.

As we celebrate our freedom this July 4th, Catholics in America should be justly proud of Cardinal Robert Bellarmine and his contributions to our freedom. His voluminous writings reveal a man committed to God and to the notion of popular government 200 years before the founding of our nation, at a time when hostility towards Catholicism and self-government were at fever pitch. He defended and popularized principles of self-government, upheld authority as long as it wasn't tyranny, defended liberty over license, and through the loathing he inspired in the Divine Rightists, communicated those ideas to our founding fathers.

How influential was Bellarmine on the founding fathers and on our rights as free Americans? Compare Bellarmine's writing in the early 1600's — as communicated to the founders through his critics like Filmer — to the Virginia Declaration of Rights (VDR) by George Mason and the Declaration of Independence (DOI) by Thomas Jefferson, as prepared by Father John Rager in Democracy and Bellarmine, and draw your own conclusions.

On the Source of Political Power:

Bellarmine: "Political power emanates from God. Government was introduced by divine law but the divine law has given this power to no particular man." De Laicis, Ch. VI.

VDR: ". . . That power is by GOD and NATURE vested in the people."

DOI: "They (the people) are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights."

On the Origin of Government:

Bellarmine: "Men must be governed by some one, lest they be willing to perish. It is impossible for men to live together without some one to care for the common good. Society must have power to protect and preserve itself." De Laicis, Ch. VI.

VDR: "Government is or ought to be instituted for the common benefit, protection, and security of the people, nation, or community."

DOI: "To secure these rights (Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness) governments are instituted among men."

On the Power of the People:

Bellarmine: "This power is immediately as in its subject, in the whole multitude." De Laicis, Ch. VI. "The people themselves, immediately and directly, hold political power so long as they have not transferred this power to a king or ruler." De Clericis, Ch. VII. "The commonwealth cannot exercise this power itself, therefore, it is helped to transfer it in some way to one man or some few." De Laicis, Ch. VI.

VDR: "All power belongs to the people."

DOI: " Governments are instituted among men, deriving their powers from the consent of the governed."

On All Men Born Free and Equal

Bellarmine: "In the commonwealth, all men are born naturally free and equal." De Clericis, Ch. VII. "There is no reason why amongst equals one should rule rather than another." De Laicis, Ch. VI.

VDR: "All men are born equally free and independent" was originally written, but changed by the convention to read "All men are by nature equally free and independent."

DOI: "All men are created equal."

On the Divine Right to Revolution and Self-Determination

Bellarmine: "For legitimate reason the people can change the government to an aristocracy or a democracy or visa versa." De Laicis, Ch. VI. "It depends upon the consent of men to place over themselves a king, counsel, or magistrate." De Laicis, Ch. VI.

VDR: "When government fails to confer common benefit, a majority of the people have a right to change it."

DOI: "Whenever any forms of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new government . . . Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes."

God bless America. St. Robert Bellarmine, pray for us.


Patriarcha: The Naturall Power of Kinges Defended Against the Unnatural Liberty of the People, By Arguments, Theological, Rational, Historical and Legall. 1991, Cambridge Press edition.

The Virginia Declaration of Rights and Cardinal Bellarmine, Gallaird Hunt, Washington, DC.

The Origin of Sound Democratic Principles in Catholic Tradition, Moorehouse Millar, S.J.

Democracy and Bellarmine, Rev. John Rager, S.T.D., 1926.

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