St. Robert Bellarmine and the American Revolution?

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Editor’s note: due to the importance of the Fourth of July for our current crisis post-Vatican II, we will publish a number of Catholic perspectives on America and Americanism (see the first article “The United States of Freemasonry” by D. L. Gray). The article below, originally published by Catholic Family News, addresses the Catholic claim that the American Revolution is based in Catholic ideas from St. Robert Bellarmine. Please support Mr. Grant’s Bellarmine translation project and buy his fine books at Mediatrix Press.

The beatification of St. Robert Bellarmine in 1923 was the penultimate step in a battle which had begun on the very day St. Robert was laid to rest in the Gesu just over 300 years earlier. Although he was one of the very greatest and most celebrated theologians of his own time, Bellarmine also had detractors who opposed his beatification for one reason or another. His beatification brought celebration not only to the Jesuit order, but to a great many who celebrated his place in the history of the Church. It also brought a theory which was attractive to some men, that Bellarmine was really the main influence for modern democracy, or modern republicanism, or again, a veritable ghost writer of the United States Constitution.

Yet, while this is certainly attractive to Catholics looking to vindicate Catholicism’s place in the history of the U.S., it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. The truth is that St. Robert Bellarmine, trained in the tradition of his time, was through and through a monarchist, though he was quite willing to accept other forms of government which had prevailed in various countries with the tacit consent of the people to be legitimate. Additionally, he was opposed to the very novel doctrine which had arisen in his time of the “Divine Right of Kings,” or what is often termed “absolute monarchy”, where the king is believed to rule exclusively by divine right, without any question of the Church or the people. But was he a herald of American Federalism?

Born in 1542, he entered the Jesuits at age 18, and after being trained in Aristotle at the Roman College he became a famous preacher. After some time in Genoa and Padua, he was sent to Louvain to preach, where he also founded a separate college for the Jesuits and mastered the Fathers of the Church, the great theologians of his day, and the teachings of the Protestants. This prepared him for the work for which he was best known, the Controversies. After being sent back to Rome in 1575, St. Robert was asked to develop courses in “Controversial Theology,” the forerunner to today’s “Apologetics”.

Though accomplished theologians before him had failed to develop the course, St. Robert succeeded brilliantly, aided by his photographic memory, because he could lay out issues topically, show what the Protestants had actually taught, and then provide the appropriate response from Scripture, the Fathers, and ancient Councils. In short order he was commanded to write it all down, and this became the Disputations on the Controversies of the Christian Faith, Against the Heretics of this Time. They run topically on Scripture, Christ, the Pope, the Church, the Sacraments, and the Economy of Salvation, in four volumes totaling over 2 million words in Latin. It is primarily there, in responding to Calvin — the first to champion the superiority of Aristocracy over monarchy since antiquity[1] — that Bellarmine engages in political matters. He does so again in his treatise on the Specific Members of the Church, on the Laity, which follows his treatises on clergy and monks. In that work, he answers the Anabaptists who denied that any political authority should exist, and treats generally on the proper relationship between Church and State. In later works, subsequent to the Controversies, such as his war in letters with King James, or in his work in the Holy Office, he also draws his pen again to deal with the issues of politics, as well as Church and State. In all of these matters, his chief interest is in the origin of political authority, not necessarily in the contemporary exercise of it or in the history of how it developed. Really, political theory was not a subject in which he was particularly interested, except inasmuch as it was necessary to defend the Faith.

The Jefferson-Bellarmine Legend

If all this is so, how is it that many modern Catholics have labored so much to declare Bellarmine a herald of democracy, a system he derided as often as he could? We will look at the arguments and examine their historical validity in light of Bellarmine’s own writings.

The origin of the legend really begins with Gaillard Hunt, in his essay Cardinal Bellarmine and the Virginia Bill of Rights.[2] Hunt was also the head of the manuscript division at the Congressional Library at Washington, D.C., which lent a certain authority to the argument. Since the writings of all other authors follow this path, such as Fr. Morehouse Millar and Fr. John Clement Rager, we will begin with a narration Hunt’s paper.

According to Hunt, the story is this: Jefferson read in his library a book titled Patriarcha, or the Natural Power of Kings by one Robert Filmer, published posthumously in 1680. In it, Filmer makes a plea in favor of the Divine Right of Kings against the notion of “popular sovereignty,” which in those times referred to the notion that authority is voluntarily transferred from the people to the ruler, rather than descending upon the ruler immediately from God. Filmer considered Bellarmine as his chief opponent and quoted the Cardinal’s writings frequently. From this, Hunt argued, Thomas Jefferson, as well as George Mason and later James Madison, became acquainted with Bellarmine. Hunt asserts (from where we don’t know), “There were copies of some of his [Bellarmine’s] books in Virginia. Old Protestant ministers remember that when they studied divinity at the Episcopal High School near Alexandria, they heard Bellarmine quoted.”[3] So obviously, Hunt argues, they heard his name and must have been acquainted with his ideas.

Furthermore, the sources which Jefferson and Madison cite often enough, Algernon Sidney and John Locke, do not lay out a theory of government as advanced as Jefferson and Madison; therefore, they must have gotten it from somewhere else, namely, from St. Robert Bellarmine’s writings. In closing out his 14-page article, Hunt adds:

Were Mason and Jefferson conscious of their debt to Bellarmine, or did they use Filmer’s presentation of his doctrine without knowing that they were doing so? Did the Americans realize that they were staking their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor in support of a theory of government which had come down to them as announced by a Catholic priest? We cannot answer these questions, but it should be a satisfaction to Catholics to know that the fundamental pronouncements upon which was built the greatest of modern revolutions, found their best support in the writings of a prince of the Church.”[4]

Thus, we have the basis of the legend, in a nutshell. Fr. Morehouse Millar, as a contributor with Fr. Kenneth Ryan, S.J. in the book The Church and the State, attempts to give more concrete evidence by examining Bellarmine’s writings and attempting to show their place in the development of ideas coming down to Jefferson and Madison. Fr. John Clement Rager, S.T.D., in his doctoral paper, The Political Philosophy of St. Robert Bellarmine, attempts to show Bellarmine’s ideas as the blueprint of the U.S. Constitution and American Federalism.

The Historical Record

In terms of historical evidence, the legend rests upon the most tenuous of assertions. For example, the copy of Patriarcha in Jefferson’s library has been examined and it has scarcely been touched, showing no signs of frequent reading. As anyone who has known a bibliophile can attest, not every book on their shelf has been read. More than the mere possession of a book containing quotes from Bellarmine would have to be posited to make this claim serious, namely, references to Bellarmine in the writings of Jefferson, Mason, Madison, or others. And for the period leading up to the Virginia Declaration of Rights, or the Declaration of Independence, we find not one mention in letters, diaries, or even obiter dicta. Hunt’s claim that “Old Protestant ministers remember … that they heard Bellarmine quoted” is given without citation. William and Mary College, the oldest educational institution in Virginia, has no record of ever possessing a copy of Bellarmine’s Opera Omnia, nor an excerpt. The same can be said of the University of Virginia, and the library of the Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. If Hunt’s argument is to rest on presumptions, then it can equally be presumed on the other side that at least one copy would have wound up in an institution of the period if Protestant clergy had copies and quoted from them, even if only to denigrate them. Books in those times were expensive, and bringing them over from Europe no less so; generally, their estates would donate such books to universities after their deaths. It is difficult to imagine a Protestant minister bringing over large and expensive volumes of Bellarmine to a new country, rather than works of English divines or the ministers of Geneva.

In regard to various delegates of the committee which drew up the Virginia Declaration of Rights, Hunt makes the astounding (and no less specious) claim, “Several members of the committee had been educated in England…. It would have been difficult for them to escape some acquaintance with Bellarmine while they were studying in England. Eleven of the twenty-three members of the committee had gone to William and Mary College, where religious controversy raged. They, too, must have heard of the Italian controversialist from the answers which had been made to him. In 1722, there had been published in London a free translation by Thomas Foxton of Bellarmine’s Joys of the Blessed: Being a Practical Discourse Concerning the Eternal Happiness of the Saints in Heaven. Bellarmine was not unpopular in England, even among those who were most inimical to his faith.”[5] Really, however, this is even more specious than the first claim. A man could be educated in England without ever hearing the name of a Catholic, unless it were St. Augustine. The reality is that the days of Anglicans buying up Bellarmine to see what the latest papist arguments were ended in the 17th century. Furthermore, a perusal of Foxton’s work compared with Bellarmine’s Latin shows plainly that this was a translation along the line of the English tradition of “repurposing papist works,” that is, removing Catholic elements to make it more appealing to the Protestant mind. This had been done with the venerable Dominican Louis of Granada, Jeremias Drexelius (author of Heliotropium), St. Albert the Great, and St. Bonaventure, all of which were popular enough. Yet, nobody maintains that they based their theory of government on Louis of Granada!

The fact that a spiritual work had been repurposed does not mean these men ran out and found copies of Bellarmine—in Latin—in order to discover his teaching. The reality is that his commentary on political philosophy is not all in one place but found in treatises hundreds of pages apart, and not necessarily intelligible to one not trained in Catholic theology. Moreover, what religious controversy raged? From what source? If any question raged at all, it would have been disputes within the Church of England, seeing that every professor had to swear to the 39 Articles and the Westminster Confession, and recusant Protestants were hesitant to swear the former.

The real question is, how likely is it that George Mason, Thomas Jefferson, or James Madison would have read Bellarmine cited by Robert Filmer, a name far better known amongst the American colonists than Bellarmine (whose name does not appear in any document of any political writer of this time)? On the one hand, it would have been unlikely that Jefferson or Madison or others had not heard of him at least through the works of theorists they did cite, namely, Algernon Sidney and John Locke. But at the same time, this does not prove they ever undertook to read Filmer. In the mid-18th century, the Divine Right of Kings doctrine was not a burning question amongst Englishman; it was a trope to attack the King and parliament. That issue had been settled by the Glorious Revolution of 1689, which saw James II, the last Catholic king, flee the throne to be replaced by William of Orange, who ruled by parliamentary consent. Kings gave up privileges ever more to fight wars on the continent, and King George III never at any point had the power granted to the U.S. President by the Federal Constitution. Nobody was debating absolute monarchy, and a book like Filmer’s would have been of as much interest to American colonists in the 18th century as a work in favor of secession from the 19th century would have on lawyers and politicians today.

As for the claim that Madison read as much as he could, and that the catalogue of Princeton shows that they held a copy of Bellarmine’s Controversies,[6] it must be remembered that school boys in the colonies learned but the rudiments of Latin and would have begun university having read Caesar’s Gallic War commentaries and some of Cicero’s speeches. He would not yet have been proficient enough in Latin to read Bellarmine, especially given the adjustment in vocabulary and grammar necessary to make the jump from ancient authors to 16th-century writers. It is highly doubtful that Madison could have read Bellarmine at this time, and if he did, he left no testimony of the fact. We have, rather, the testimony of Gaillard Hunt himself in his Life of Madison, from 1902, where the name of Bellarmine is not even mentioned, let alone the latter’s supposed influence on the Declaration of Independence. What evidence, then, did Gaillard Hunt discover between 1902 and 1917? Whatever it might have been, he never mentions anything more than the just-so story of a copy of Bellarmine at Princeton.

We do know, however, what tradition and notion of English liberties that the American founders drew upon, because they tell us so. Jefferson went to the College of William and Mary and his closest companion was Professor William Small, as Jefferson attests in his Autobiography. Small was a Scotchman and heavily influenced by the republican notions of John Knox, James Buchanan, Milton, Sidney, and Locke. There is no evidence of Small quoting or citing Bellarmine in any of his correspondence. Madison was educated at Princeton, as we already mentioned, and his primary influence was Dr. John Witherspoon, a Scotch Presbyterian who drew upon Knox and Buchanan, figures who wrote of their republican views while Bellarmine was a mere professed Jesuit, not yet ordained and had not yet put pen to paper. While Filmer’s quotations of Bellarmine are noted by their absence in colonial thought, Milton, Sidney and Locke are ubiquitous. In 1790, in a letter to a law student, Jefferson suggests that he read “Locke’s little book on government, as perfect as far as it goes.” This is a far cry from Hunt’s assertion that Locke was not much read in the colonies.[7]

Besides Jefferson and Madison, we have such figures as Edwin Sandys, Patrick Henry, Henry Lee, as well as sermons of the clergy in New England and Virginia, all of whom speak about popular government in a long tradition that goes back to the very founding of American colonies, whose influences were not Bellarmine but Calvin and Beza.

Thomas Hooker, the founder of Hartford, Connecticut, declared in 1638, “The foundation of authority is laid firstly in the full consent of the people,” and further expounds that it is the people who elect magistrates, and the right to set bounds and limitations of the power and place to which it calls them. Filmer’s Patriarcha was not yet published, but I suppose one could invent some fairy tale of Hooker having a conversation with him, and hearing the name of Bellarmine, and there you have it, Catholic principles. Were anyone to invent such a nonsense tale, it could at least be said to rest on the same evidence which Hunt, Millar, and Rager lay down for the Jefferson legend. But this was not one isolated statement. The Rev. John Wise (d. 1725) declared that “the first human subject and original of civil power is the people, … all are naturally free and equal, going about voluntarily to erect themselves into a new commonwealth.” Sir Edwin Sandys, one of the leading figures in the early history of Virginia, declared that “if our God from heaven did constitute and direct a form of government, it was that of Geneva.” Both Hunt and Rager argue that Algernon Sidney and John Locke did not have a sufficiently advanced view of government to influence the American founders, so it must have come from somewhere else, and voilà — Bellarmine! As we shall see, this claim from both authors is utterly false and refuted by a mere comparison of Bellarmine’s writings with those of the American founders, as well as the writings of Sidney and Locke. But for the present, it is sufficient enough to show that it is the American and English tradition, not an historically unsubstantiated perusal of a critic citing Bellarmine, that formed the Declaration of Independence.

English Civil War and Glorious Revolution:
Roots of American Independence

The tradition which influenced the political thinkers amongst the American colonies was one that went back to the Mayflower Compact, where “covenants” were made between the pilgrims to form a unified political body. The idea of independence on American soil took encouragement in the New England Union of 1643, which provided for assemblies to which four of the colonies were to send representatives. The timing of this Union aligns with the events in England at the time which formed the very matrix of English political theory, the English Civil War (1642-1651).

This war broke out after the long period of Charles I’s personal rule. Charles had imbibed the doctrine of Divine Right of Kings defended in print by his father, James I (VI of Scotland). Charles had extended ancient taxes to cover the whole country, and the first time the phrase “No taxation without representation” appears is in 1628 when parliament issued the “Petition of Right,” protesting the leveling of taxes without the consent of the House of Commons. Nevertheless, broke after the Bishops Wars and the Ulster Rebellion, Charles had no choice but to call a parliament. They were at loggerheads over the king’s control of the army, and taxes, and began using bills of attainder to arrest those closest to Charles. Thus, he fled to Nottingham, set up his standard, and declared the parliament in rebellion. There was nothing left but to fight for it. The country divided along “Royalist” and “Parliamentarian” lines. The war dragged on for seven years of determined fighting, resulting in the creation of the first permanent paid standing army in the British Isles since the Romans, with all classes of society taking up arms. The French had a civil war around the same time, the war of the Fronde (1648-1653), but this was limited largely to the aristocracy. The English Civil War involved all men, and now free men who had risen to command positions under their commander, Oliver Cromwell, began to get politically minded. Why should nobles receive preference to them? Shouldn’t all folk be able to vote? Why not abolish the aristocracy altogether? This led to the rise of a group known as the “Levellers,” led by John Lilburne. On the other side, Cromwell and his son-in-law, Henry Ireton, argued for aristocracy which would represent the body of the citizens justly and rightly.[8] It must also be remembered that Catholics in England generally sided with the king, not parliament.

Whatever the disputes on these points in the army, after the second phase of the Civil War they all agreed that the king needed to go, and on January 29, 1649, one-hundred and fifty years before the guillotines of the French Revolution fell, the English beheaded their own king, ushering in a republic. It would not last, Cromwell’s death (1658) caused the republic to fall apart, as his son Richard could not reconcile the disparate factions. Thus Charles II, the son of the dead king who had been crowned in Scotland but defeated by Cromwell, set sail from Breda in the Netherlands. He gave an edict of religious toleration, and monarchy began again as though the war had never happened. The Anglicans, who suffered and died for the established religion, would not allow religious toleration, and Charles had to renege on the Declaration of Breda or risk alienating the bedrock of his support. Crisis came in the form of his brother James’ conversion to Catholicism, sparking the Seclusion Crisis. James, as a Roman Catholic, could not possibly be king, Whigs like Algernon Sidney and John Locke argued, because he could not be head of a Church of which he was not a member. Additionally for these men, and their fellow Whigs, Catholicism meant arbitrary government, a denial of English liberties, and the loss of representation [!]. Algernon Sidney was abroad as an ambassador for the republic when Charles II was restored, but he decided that since parliament had acknowledged the restoration of the monarchy, it would be valid. In other words, the general consent and fact of Charles II sitting on the throne, which would have been sufficient for Robert Bellarmine, was not sufficient for Algernon Sidney. Instead, a direct and active involvement in the process was necessary. Sidney incorporated this in his Discourses on Government, which unlike Bellarmine, was widely read in the American colonies. Sidney would later be executed by Charles II for his republican views, and for his alleged involvement in the Rye House Plot. Locke would go into exile in the Netherlands with a great many Whigs, as James II, a Catholic, assumed the throne upon his brother’s death.[9] James was not as crafty as his brother, and though a competent administrator he was no great leader. He alienated his support and soon found himself facing the invasion of William of Orange in 1688/89, brought on by the Whig elite. James fled, and the monarchy became temporarily elective. William and his wife, Mary (James’ daughter), had promised to abide by parliamentary legislation, and parliament declared itself supreme. John Locke would write the Act of Settlement, forbidding a Catholic to ever again sit on the English throne, and help draft the English Bill of Rights, along with his Two Treatises on Government. Both were household names in the colonies and considered heroes for their resistance to royal tyranny. Sidney became the most popular name in the colonies for a time, as they identified Sydney’s opposition to monarchy and Catholicism with their own.

American colonists were well versed in this history. The revolution of 1688 was the enshrinement of popular government, the rights of Englishmen, and the notion of constitutional law. It was this general notion of the rights of Englishmen and the special place which the colonies held that led to the formation of the Albany Congress of 1754, where Benjamin Franklin played a prominent role. This convention suggested the colonies govern themselves, save for the royal veto, under a president appointed by the king, and elected legislatures who would propose laws and taxes for the colonies. In fact, legislatures already existed in the colonies with the power to enact legislation since 1619.[10]

We can add to this John Adams. The legend does not claim Adams was reading Bellarmine between the sheets; nevertheless, Adams’ views are useful in tracing this informing English tradition. Adams was raised in the reform tradition, although later in life he became a Unitarian privately, and he shows a particular dependence on a French Huguenot named Philippe du Plessis Mornay, who wrote under the pseudonym Stephanus Junius Brutus, in his Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos. Written in 1579, twelve years before Bellarmine’s De Laicis appeared, Mornay argues for Biblical controls of government, along the lines of Calvin, but with some advancement. There is a covenant between God, king and people, and a second between people and king. If a king rules tyrannically, unjustly, the people could resist or overthrow the government, thereby proclaiming their autonomy and the Biblical values of government. These ideas and principles were eminently influential upon the Mayflower Compact, and also upon Thomas Hooker, as witnessed in his election sermon. Adams frequently cited the Vindiciae, and again declared, “I love and revere the memories of Huss, Wickliff [sic], Luther, Calvin, Zwinglius, Melancton [sic], and all the other reformers, how muchsoever I may differ from them all in many theological metaphysical and philosophical points. As you justly observe, without their great exertions and severe sufferings, the USA had never existed.”[11] Adams was certainly influential in the developments of 1775-1783, and a witness to a tradition of Calvinist influence through English history and struggles, which was already present in America for some time. It is true enough that many key founders such as Jefferson, Washington, Paine, et al, were Enlightenment Deists, but many others were of the Calvinist tradition. Consequently, the critical development (separate from Bellarmine)—the development of the English tradition which informed Sidney and Locke—was the notion of direct autonomy and participation, as well as the equality of all citizens of the nation and limited government as essential English liberties.

Thus, when the desire for independence was kindled by English taxation, there was already a long tradition of popular sovereignty from which to draw. In 1776, Richard Henry Lee offered his resolution that “these United Colonies are and of right ought to be free and independent states.” Lee was tutored at his family home in Stratford Virginia—one wonders why it never occurred to Hunt, Rager, or Millar to suggest that a tutor had once heard Bellarmine mentioned and discovered his whole political philosophy! Furthermore, these were merely the ideas of the day, stretching back through the English tradition, even to Magna Charta, through to the Petition of Right, the Acts of Parliament during the English Civil War, and the doctrines of the Glorious Revolution which were expounded upon by John Locke. Later in life, Jefferson said, “The authority of the Declaration rests on the harmonizing sentiments of the day whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc.” In a letter to Madison, he adds, “[I] turned to neither book nor pamphlet, while writing it, and that I did not consider it as any part of my charge to invent new ideas altogether and to offer no sentiment which had never been expressed before.”

Lastly, Jefferson had abandoned religion in youth and had become a Unitarian by profession. He publicly espoused Deism and was an active member of Freemasonic lodges, not only in the U.S. but also in the Lodge of the Grand Orient in Paris. In general, although he abhorred the Catholic Church as a body, his attitude toward religious persons was ambivalent. It would have been a trifling manner to point to a Jesuit and declare that he had found his principles useful, as Jefferson also cites the Bible (which he didn’t believe in), and Magna Charta, written by a Catholic bishop. We can illustrate this most clearly from a letter of Jefferson to his son-in-law about the best books to study on various topics. “In political oeconomy I think Smith’s wealth of nations the best book extant. In the science of government Montesquieu’s spirit of laws is generally recommended. It contains indeed a great number of political truths; but almost an equal number of political heresies: so that the reader must be constantly on his guard. There has been lately published a letter of Helvetius who was the intimate friend of Montesquieu and whom he consulted before the publication of his book. Helvetius advised him not to publish it: and in this letter to a friend he gives us a solution for the mixture of truth and error found in this book. He sais [sic] Montesquieu was a man of immense reading, that he had commonplaced all his reading, and that his object was to throw the whole contents of his commonplace book into systematical order, and to shew his ingenuity by reconciling the contradictory facts it presented. Locke’s little book on government is perfect as far as it goes.”[12] Two things must be observed here. Jefferson had no trouble at all in recommending what he found good and correct in Montesquieu, but warning against what he found wrong or problematic. If he had in fact taken the time to read Bellarmine, and found this influential, it would have been easy for him to do the same. Secondly, he tells us what book he actually did find influential, namely, that of Locke. Thus, it should be clear enough from the historical analysis, that the premise underpinning the whole legend, that Jefferson possessed an obscure book on an issue which nobody debated, that happened to quote Bellarmine, proves nothing more than that the owned a book. The preponderance of actual evidence, however, shows that a vast current of ideas in the English tradition produced a notion of equality and representative government embodied in the Virginia Declaration as well as the Declaration of Independence which were well trodden, in common circulation, attributed by those authors, and at the same time entirely foreign to the writings of St. Robert Bellarmine, whom they give no evidence of knowing or having read. This doesn’t automatically make American governmental principles a bad thing, or show they can never be reconciled in any way to the Catholic faith, but they do show their genesis had nothing to do with Catholicism, let alone a 16th-century Italian Cardinal.

The English Tradition Compared with Bellarmine

Since we have already seen the historical genesis of American thought, it is necessary to compare the influences established by verifiable and documentable history — namely, the English tradition, Sidney, and Locke — with the teachings of St. Robert Bellarmine. This will demonstrate conclusively that the association is but a mere legend.

The term which most frequently appears in a treatment of St. Robert’s doctrine by Hunt, Rager, and Millar is that of “popular sovereignty.” This is, they argue, the doctrine that inspired Jefferson and Madison to establish popular government. The problem comes in when we explore what it is precisely that Bellarmine taught, and then it will become apparent that the two have nothing in common.

Popular Sovereignty and Bellarmine’s Teaching

In defending political authority against the Anabaptists in De Laicis, Bellarmine argues that all authority comes immediately from God, but mediately through the body of the people. This does not refer to elections, or representative government, but the origin of the authority of the State. Consequently, the popular sovereignty is fully active in any legitimate government, be it a monarchy, a republic, or a democracy. Moreover, the word “consent” which Bellarmine uses is not defined in the same way as the influences upon the American colonists. For Bellarmine, this consent was only explicit at one time, after which the people no longer have a say and the consent becomes tacit. He makes this plain enough: “Even though the men who established kingdoms in the beginning were generally invaders, nevertheless, in the course of time they gradually give their consent. For this reason, the King of France is now admitted by everyone to be a legitimate sovereign, though his kingdom arose through the unjust dispossession of the Gauls by the Franks, and the same may be said of the Roman Empire itself, which was established by Julius Caesar, an oppressor of his country.”[13] Time, and the establishment of the monarch, were sufficient enough for Bellarmine’s concept of “consent.” In his treatise on clergy, he gives the same statement again as if a fact. While treating on why the Pope and Bishops are not elected by the people, after comparing Church and State, he says: “In the earthly commonwealth, men are born naturally free, and hence the people itself immediately has political power, until it will have transferred it over to some king.”[14] After that, they no longer have that power.

While it is indeed true that the medieval schoolmen, whose ideas Bellarmine synthesizes, lay down that power descends to the ruler immediately from God, but mediately through the people, nevertheless, as we have seen, this ends once they have chosen a ruler. After that, Bellarmine argues, the people have no more say. This is uniquely concerning the origins, and applicable whether a government is a monarchy, a mixed monarchy, a republic, or any other form, provided the people have a tacit consent. Tacit consent is not an election, or popular representation; it is merely the acknowledgment of the system. If Americans accept the authority of their government given in the Constitution, that is tacit consent. If they vote, that is a more direct participation which is far beyond anything Bellarmine considered. He was well aware that most governments had not been formed by plebiscite.

Algernon Sidney, John Locke, and the English tradition lay particular emphasis on formal participation uniquely in one system, that is, not the origin of authority per se but the vehicle of a specific form of government. This is beyond anything Bellarmine wrote and dependent upon various steps, as we have already described, culminating in the environment in the colonies where direct representation and self-rule were prized before Jefferson was even born.

It is true enough that Sir Robert Filmer defended the view propounded by King James, that the king receives his authority from God alone—the people are merely his subjects—and he took especial umbrage at Bellarmine for writing that authority descended from God to the ruler mediately through the people. Algernon Sidney made a special point of refuting Filmer in his Discourses on Government, and so did indeed find Bellarmine there declared by Filmer to “comprehend the strength of all he ever read on the subject.” But Filmer hadn’t read very widely, or he would have seen this was just Aristotle, not an evil plan hatched by the scholastics and seized upon by the Jesuits to undermine Protestant monarchs, which a few Reformers had entertained. Really, Calvin, Beza, and other Protestants, who inherited the same tradition, labored upon it and added new ideas and principles which played their part in the English tradition, as we saw above. There is a clear evidentiary path to the influence of these ideas, while there is absolutely none for Bellarmine. As we have seen in Bellarmine’s notion, drawn from the schools, the authority of the people ends when it designates a ruler. But in the Calvinist tradition, it continues, quite actively. Calvin develops the notion of the Ephors in Sparta from Aristotle’s discussion,[15] who kept a watch upon the kings and made certain that traditional rights were maintained, something Bellarmine never even touches upon. This notion, diffused through Beza into the English tradition, becomes the basis for the active role of the community in government.

Sidney himself tells us his theories are quite apart from Bellarmine, in his Discourse on Government:

I do not find any great matters in the passages taken out of Bellarmine, which our author [Filmer] says ‘comprehend the strength of all that he had ever heard, read, or seen produced for the natural liberty of the subject.’ As he has not told us where they are to be found, I do not think myself obliged to examine all his works to see whether they are rightly cited or not. However, there is certainly nothing new in them. We see the same as to the substance in those who wrote many ages before him, as well as in many that have lived since his time, who neither minded him nor what he had writtenI dare not take upon me to give an account of his works having read few of them, but as he seems to have laid the foundation of his discourse in such common notions as were assented to by all mankind, those who follow the same method have no more regard to Jesuitism and Popery, though he was a Jesuit and a Cardinal, than they who agree with Faber and the other Jesuits in the principles of Geometry, which no sober man ever denied.[16]

In other words, Sidney did not feel any necessity to read Bellarmine or examine his works, or pay him much mind, since this was pretty common stuff and not really of much importance to him. In fact, Sidney doubles down later in the treatise:

In this chapter our author fights valiantly against Bellarmine and Suarez, seeming to think himself victorious, if he can shew that either of them hath contradicted the other, or himself; but being no way concerned in them, I shall leave their followers to defend their quarrel: my work is to seek after truth; and though they may have said some things, in matters not concerning their beloved cause of Popery, that are agreeable to reason, law, or scripture, I have little hope of finding it among those who apply themselves chiefly to school-sophistry, as the best means to support idolatry. That which I maintain, is the cause of mankind; which ought not to suffer, though champions of corrupt principles have weakly defended, or maliciously betrayed it: and therefore, not at all relying on their authority, I intend to reject whatsoever they say that agrees not with reason, scripture, or the approved examples of the best polished nations.[17]

Thus, it is clear that he takes no mind of St. Robert, and this should put to rest also the counter-argument to the foregoing—that Bellarmine had influenced Sidney, who in turn influenced Jefferson. Had Algernon Sidney never happened upon Filmer’s book, his theories would have come out just the same, as he has made plain. And when Jefferson and Madison would have read these lines, why would they have bothered to look any further?

For Locke, it is the express consent that makes one a formal citizen of a commonwealth, and this is best done with representation. If society was constituted in such a way that authority was vested in one (i.e., monarchy), then he argues the people are only obedient to him as an executor of law, not as the supreme legislator of a state. Then, if the monarch disobeys the law, the people no longer owe him any obedience.[18] Now, contrast this with St. Robert Bellarmine: “Once the magistrate, whether temporary or perpetual, has been set in power, the people have no further authority over him. It is he, rather, especially if he be a king, who has authority over them, and they may not, without the most serious sin, withdraw their allegiance from their legitimate prince, nor stir up sedition or rebellion against him.”[19] So far is Bellarmine from Locke, yet Jefferson is abundantly clear that it was Sidney and Locke who inspired the Declaration of Independence,[20] and whole phrases from Locke are to be found in the document.[21] Likewise, Gaillard Hunt failed to note how much at variance this position is with the Virginia Bill of Rights when it states that when a government is inadequate, “a majority of the community has an indubitable, inalienable and indefeasible right to perform, alter, and abolish it in such manner as shall be judged most conducive to the public weal.”

Divided Sovereignty and American Federalism

The notion of division of powers needs to be addressed. For the American founders, and more generally in Sidney and Locke, there needs to be a separation of powers, which found their way into executive, legislative, and judicial branches. There is no interior evidence that Jefferson read Montesquieu at this time, but that author derives his thought in the Spirit of the Laws from Locke, so the principle is there.

Bellarmine never ventures to suggest what government should look like in this or that state, or any notion of such divisions. This is what he does say:

The proposition is such: government tempered from all three forms on account of the corruption of human nature is more advantageous than simple monarchy. Such a government rightly requires that there should be some supreme prince in the state, who commands all, and is subject to none. Nevertheless, there should be guardians of provinces or cities who are not vicars of the king or annual judges, but true princes, who also obey the command of the supreme prince and meanwhile govern their province, or city, not as someone else’s property, but as their own. Thus, there should be a place in the commonwealth both for a certain royal monarchy and also an aristocracy of the best princes. What if we were to add to this that neither the supreme king nor the lesser princes would acquire those dignities in hereditary succession, rather the aristocrats would be carried to those dignities from the whole people; then Democracy would have its attributed place in the state.[22]

Now, Fr. Morehouse Millar is convinced that Bellarmine founded a principle of “divided sovereignty” which forms the basis of the American system of government. “Now it is this principle [medieval popular sovereignty], as embodied in our own constitution together with the principle of divided sovereignty, first stated by Bellarmine, that distinguishes our peculiar form of government from that of any other known to history.”[23] This raises a great many questions, though Fr. Millar treats it as a fact of history. Firstly, what precisely is divided sovereignty? Does Bellarmine’s definition of it (if he ever defined it) mean the same as that of the American framers?

In the first place, Fr. Millar is mistaken when he attempts to credit Bellarmine as being the first to come up with this “divided sovereignty,” whatever that is supposed to be. St. Thomas Aquinas annunciated the very same thing two centuries before Bellarmine was born:

Two points are to be observed concerning the right ordering of rulers in a state or nation. One is that all should take some share in the government. The other point is in respect of the kinds of government, or the different ways in which the constitutions are established. The best form of government is in a State or Kingdom, wherein one is given the power to preside over all, while under him are others having governing powers: and yet a government of this sort is shared by all, both because all are eligible to govern, and because the rulers are chosen by all. For this is the best form of polity, being partly a kingdom, since there is one at the head of all; partly aristocracy, in so far as a number of persons are set in authority; partly democracy, i.e., government by the people, in so far as the rulers can be chosen from the people, and the people have the right to choose the rulers.[24]

As we have already seen, Bellarmine merely hands on what he received from the tradition.

Secondly, this “divided sovereignty” does not necessarily translate to American Federalism. Bellarmine speaks of a king subject to none. Under the U.S. Constitution, the President of the United States is in fact subject to the other branches. Besides, there are numerous other ways that such a government could be put in place that do not appear like the separation of powers in the US Constitution. As Fr. James Broderick, St. Robert’s first English biographer, notes,

Between [Bellarmine’s] suggestions and the American form of government there are obvious resemblances, but whether the resemblances are more than superficial may be questioned. Bellarmine himself has supplied us with a test. One proof which he gives of the excellence of his polity is the fact that God had provided His Church with just such a form of government (ejusmodi regimen) as the one he was advocating. Now no theologian would admit that the constitution of the Catholic Church was based on a theory of divided sovereignty, even though bishops are real rulers in their dioceses and not the mere vicars or viceregents of the Pope. On the other hand, it may well be doubted whether any jurist or historian would allow that the constitution of the United States is a fairly exact model of the constitution of the Catholic Church. In view of these complementary negations and doubts, must we not frankly abandon any attempt to turn the Cardinal into a sort of prophet of American Federalism?[25]

Furthermore, the context for Bellarmine’s discussion on the best form of government is in the preceding chapters, where Bellarmine is attempting to prove the divine constitution of the Church against Calvin. Calvin had argued that the ideal form of government was not monarchy, not even in a mixed form with aristocracy and democracy, but rather aristocracy properly, as a foundation for his ecclesiology. Calvin’s notion of the Church was based on a magisterium of presbyters’ councils, those trained in the word of God who would expound it to the people and bind them to their interpretation. To defend such an ecclesiology, Calvin sought to fortify his doctrine with a political argument: aristocracy, not monarchy, is the best form of government. To combat this, in defense of the divine constitution of the Church, Bellarmine shows two things: (1) Monarchy is the best form of government; and (2) in the conditions of this world, monarchy mixed with aristocracy and democracy was the most ideal form. Therefore, the way was cleared for St. Robert to demonstrate the Papal monarchy. There is nothing in his ideal form about a division of powers, and the vague notions of divided rule in Bellarmine do not equate to the divisions of the U.S. Constitution.

Bellarmine the Monarchist

Bellarmine, by his own admission, was a monarchist. In On the Roman Pontiff, 1, 2, St. Robert opens the argument by proving that simple monarchy excels all forms of government. He provides several arguments that it is the natural state of affairs in the world: because God is one; the animals and insects naturally follow the rule of one; the testimony of classical authors; the testimony of the Church Fathers; that God made man and then woman from the man; that the patriarchs of the Old Testament had royal power; the duration of monarchies and the short life of republics and democracies; etc. Moreover, St. Robert wrote a book entitled, On the Duty of a Christian Prince,[26] where he extols the virtues of monarchy, reminds a king what it is to rule justly, and gives the lives of holy men who wielded royal power in the Old Testament, and the lives of twelve sainted monarchs. Bellarmine never ventures a word in praise of republics or democracies, only that they are acceptable forms of government. This makes Fr. Clement Rager’s statement all the more puzzling, when he argues that the system of government Bellarmine advocates is essentially, “democracy.”[27]

Just as we saw with Fr. Millar’s treatise, however, this is nothing more than an extrapolation from a mere resemblance and nothing more. “Though termed a democracy, our own United States bears out the Cardinal’s contention. Our federal government with a president as unifying head, our Sovereign states with governors, our monarchic elements that insure [sic] order, peace and stability.”[28] This, however, could be said of numerous states in Europe today, or even of the British monarchy at the very time the colonists declared independence. It is far too vague to be either a model for a government, let alone the U.S. Constitution, especially given Bellarmine’s test above. Furthermore, Fr. Rager makes another claim: “In his admonition to kings he makes the statement that ‘in an election, reason, age, knowledge, prudence, and the best moral qualifications are considered in the choice. Kings often succeed their fathers, and it is not rare that unworthy sons follow worthy fathers; a foolish son, a prudent father.’”[29] The citation he gives for the quote is in the aforementioned The Duty of a Christian Prince (c. 22), but on inspection he has mistranslated Bellarmine’s statement. The actual text runs thus:

The third consideration is it can be very useful to princes if they would consider often and in earnest that they rule over men of the same species as they are, and it can often happen that not a few of his subjects may be more prudent and holy, and more worthy of power than they are, especially since a greater part of rulers are not chosen to rule from many, in the way that Bishops are chosen, in whose election age, knowledge, prudence, and a life of the best morals and holiness is considered, as well as of other offices which they have held. Most princes succeed their parents, and often a wicked son succeeds a good father, and a foolish son succeeds a wise parent, and a youth or a child succeeds a parent of mature age. … Therefore, the prince, considering all of these things, should be humble in his own eyes, and not scorn or trod his subjects under foot through pride, seeing that maybe some of them are worthier of rule than he is.[30]

The principal error of Fr. Rager is in plucking this out of context and omitting key words so as to repurpose it for his own narrative. Bellarmine isn’t talking about elections, and he doesn’t even use the word, let alone the fact that bishops are not elected from the masses. The point is rather to demonstrate to a monarch why he should be humble, since there are subjects wiser than he, and continues a theme from earlier in the chapter, comparing the few sainted rulers with the number of holy bishops in the martyrology.

Fr. Rager reads his thesis into another citation of Bellarmine in regard to equality. “In the seventh chapter of De Laicis the Cardinal writes: ‘Men are born equal, not in wisdom or grace or qualification, but they are equal in their fundamental nature and as human beings. From this equality we correctly conclude that no man has a right to dominate or tyrannize his fellow men.’”[31] This is not properly quoted, as Bellarmine is actually quoting St. Gregory and dealing with a different problem. Here is the section in full:

In explanation of the fifth quotation I say that St. Gregory is not speaking of political power as such, but of secular power accompanied by fear, and sadness, and anxiety, etc., which were brought on by sin. And when he says, ‘All men are equal by nature, but are made unequal by sin, and therefore one should be ruled over by another,’ he does not mean that men by nature are equal in wisdom or in grace, but equal in essence and in human form, from which equality he rightly infers that one should not be dominated over by another, as man dominates over the beasts, but only that one should be ruled over politically by another. Hence, in the same place he adds: ‘For it is against nature to act proudly or to wish to be feared by one’s equals; for, truly, by sin sinners are made like to beasts; and they fall from that integrity of nature in which they were created,’ therefore St. Gregory says in the same place that after the first sin one man rightly began to dominate over another with threats and punishments inspiring terror, which would not have been the case in the state of original justice.

The entirety of the chapter is dealing with why there would still be authority and political subjection had Adam not sinned. Thus, despotic rule began on account of sin. But what is subjectively considered despotic by, say, the American colonists, such as station and birth that empowers one in a state more than another, these do not change the fundamental reality that the people were born free. Thus, none of this accords exclusively with American government, but with any government that does not rule despotically.

Algernon Sidney, by contrast, rejected many key teachings of Bellarmine on monarchy. First, he utterly denies that monarchy is natural, let alone the best government: “I see no reason to believe, that God did approve the government of one over many, because he created but one; but to the contrary, inasmuch as he did endow him, and those that came from him, as well the youngest as the eldest line, with understanding to provide for themselves, and by the invention of arts and sciences, to be beneficial to each other; he shewed, that they ought to make use of that understanding in forming governments according to their own convenience and such occasions as should arise.”[32]

As we have already seen, Bellarmine relates the texts of the ancients in regard to bees, animals, etc., who all demonstrate the rule of one is naturally the best. Sidney mocks these, just as Calvin did. “In the second place, I deny that there is any such general propensity in man or beast; or that monarchy would thereby be justified, though it were found in them. It cannot be in beasts; for they know not what government is; and being incapable of it, cannot distinguish the several sorts, nor consequently incline to one more than another. Salmasius’ story of bees is only fit for old women to prate of in chimney corners; and they who represent lions and eagles as kings of birds and beasts, do it only to shew that their power is nothing but brutish violence, exercised in the destruction of all that are not able to oppose it, and that hath nothing of goodness or justice in it.”[33] Rather, just a few pages later Sidney follows the very position of Calvin, which Bellarmine assaults in his treatise on the Papacy. John Locke follows the same line of argument in the Second Treatise, and it is no bold statement to say the American founders were not thrilled with monarchy.

Bellarmine on Religious Liberty

Finally, there is the question of religious liberty. If, as the legend states, Jefferson had read Bellarmine’s writings in De Laicis, he would not have been able to avoid the final chapter: “The defense of religion pertains to political authority.” Bellarmine opens,

The second error is that of those who, going to the other extreme, teach that rulers should care for the State and the public peace, but they should not be concerned about religion, but should allow everyone to think as he pleases and to live as he pleases, provided he does not disturb the public peace. This error was formerly held by the pagans, who permitted all religions, and allowed the sects of all the philosophers, as St. Augustine says.[34]

St. Robert reviews the testimonies of Scripture and the Fathers, as well as reason, to demonstrate that it is not for the State to grant freedom of religion, but rather it should be zealous in upholding the authority of the Pope, the rights of the Church, and burning heretical books. He closes this way:

Fourthly, liberty of belief is dangerous to those very men to whom it is granted; for liberty of belief is nothing less than liberty of error, and of error in regard to the most dangerous of all matters; for faith is not true if it is not one, ‘One Faith,’ therefore liberty of falling away from this one faith is liberty of plunging headlong into the abyss of errors. Therefore, just as liberty of wandering through the mountains is not permitted to sheep, and for its own safety a ship is not freed from the rudder, nor allowed to be driven by any wind at all, so also for their own safety freedom of belief is not given to the people, after they have given their adherence to the one true faith.

It goes without saying that this is utterly at variance with the thought of the founders. George Mason’s draft for the Virginia Bill of Rights spoke of “religious toleration,” but it was Madison who modified it at the convention to pronounce full equality of every man before the law to follow his own religious belief.


In light of all we have reviewed, can we still speak of a “Catholic Republic”? We may, in fact, in the persons of those Catholics who labored to glorify Christ and His Church in this country, from saints like Elizabeth Anne Seton and Mother Cabrini, to zealous bishops such as “Dagger” John Hughes and thinkers like Orestes Brownson.

Nevertheless, it should be clear enough from the foregoing that St. Robert Bellarmine, far from being a champion of representative government of any sort, was merely concerned with the origins of political authority, that it descends immediately from God, but mediately through the people, whether that takes place in a monarchy, aristocratic government, or in our modern system of popular representation. We have also seen the critical steps in developing the theory of direct representation, a theory wholly foreign to Bellarmine as well as Suárez (a far more able expositor of political theory).

Still, some may wish to say that this is a veiled attack on the United States from yet another traditionalist monarchist misanthrope. The fact is that apart from this author’s own views — which no monarchist or republican could ever countenance, let alone Bellarmine himself — historical claims have to be backed by historical evidence. In truth, the attempt to make Bellarmine a progenitor of the Declaration of Independence, or American Federalism, is born of the same idea as the Washington conversion myth, to find a place at the table for Catholics a little better than the scraps given to the dogs, as it were, in so much of Catholic history in this country. Future generations will judge whether that is a laudable goal or not, but it will not be accomplished based on a fallacious understanding of the sainted Cardinal’s writings, which no historian in this country ever happened upon, not even Gaillard Hunt (the author of the legend) in his biography of Madison.

Just the same, if one had a mind to make Bellarmine a patron of the United States, our country could hardly do better than to have a patron who labored so tirelessly to convert Protestants from error, who opposed religious liberty, who shuddered at despotic authoritarianism, who was concerned about the common people being oppressed in the law courts, and was so solicitous for the poor that he became the poorest Cardinal in Rome so as to provide for any man or woman he heard was in need — so much so that he was dubbed il nuovo poverello, the new St. Francis.

Moreover, the U.S. episcopate could hardly do better than to have a patron in St. Robert, who, as a bishop, preached with zeal in as many churches of his diocese as he could, provided for the religious education of the poorest, provided for widows and orphans, was a father to his priests, and expended the funds at his disposal to fit their churches with the necessary adornment worthy of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Again, every prelate in the US — nay more, the universal Church — could benefit from the example of the holy Cardinal, who not only served the Pope but warned him of the danger to his soul if he did not discharge his duty as visible head of the Church. A Cardinal that became horrified when he heard the conclave of 1603 might elect him Pope (and thus prayed for deliverance), seeing that he never wished even to be a Cardinal. Above all, a Cardinal who attained transforming union in his prayer life, and labored always for the salvation of souls. In a word, all could benefit from a man who put himself at the service of truth, for the greater glory of God.


This article first appeared at Catholic Family News in two parts (here and here) and is reprinted here with permission. 

[1] Calvin retracted himself in a later edition of his works, but it is the earlier view which St. Robert critiques in the controversies.

[2] Catholic Historical Review (October 1917), 276-289. I have used a reprint made by the library of congress in pamphlet form numbered pages 1-14, and accessed via the Haithi Trust.

[3] Ibid., 11.

[4] Ibid., 14.

[5] Ibid., 11.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 8. The influence of Locke is an interesting point of debate, but beyond the scope of this paper. As some of Locke’s works were much read, others not as much. On the one hand, secular historians make too much of a “secular Lockean view” in order to divorce America from its historic Protestant roots, and the progenitors of the Jefferson-Bellarmine legend attempt to minimize Locke’s influence to peddle the legend in its place.

[8] These debates largely broke out in the New Model Army, as units began putting out papers on the reform of government and condemning parliament for not redressing issues. A summary of these debates may be found in Purkiss, The English Civil War: Papists, Gentlewomen, Soldiers, and Witchfinders in the Birth of Modern Britain, (2006), 487-493.

[9] Charles II had always been partial to Catholicism, partly on account of his mother, partly on account of being hidden from Cromwell’s forces in a priest-hole with a Jesuit, who convinced Charles to do what he could to lighten the burden of Catholics in England. He converted to the faith on his deathbed.

[10] Peverille Squire, The Evolution of American Legislatures: 1619-2009, University of Michigan Press.

[11] John Adams to F.C. Schaeffer, November 25 1821, cited in James H. Hutson, The Founders on religion: A book of Quotations (Princeton, 2005), 15-16.

[12] Letter to Thomas Mann Randolph Jr., 30 May 1790. My emphasis.

[13] Bellarmine, De Membris Ecclesiae, 3, 6.

[14]Nam in terrena Republica, nascuntur omnes homines naturaliter liberi, et proinde potestatem politicam immediate ipse populus habet, donec eam in regem aliquem non transtulerit.” De Controversiis t. 2, De Membris Ecclesiae, 1,7.

[15] Cf. Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV, 20, 31.

[16] Sidney, Discourses on Government (New York, 1805), vol. 1, 331-332, my emphasis.

[17] Ibid., 428, my emphasis.

[18] Cf. Locke, Two Treatises on Government, 2,151.

[19] Bellarmine, Apologia Roberti Cardinalis Bellarmini pro responsione sua ad librum Iacobi Magnae Britanniae (Cologne, 1610), 238.

[20] Jefferson to Henry Lee, 8 May 1825.

[21] Phrases such as, “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” or “Life, liberty, or estate,” “more disposed to suffer than right themselves,” are all found in Locke’s Second Treatise.

[22] Bellarmine, On the Roman Pontiff, 1, 3.

[23] Ryan and Millar, The State and the Church (New York, 1922), 118.

[24] Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I IIæ, q. 105, art. 1.

[25] Broderick, The Life and Work of Blessed Robert Bellarmine (Burns, Oates and Washburne, London, 1928), vol. 1, 237-238.

[26] Bellarmine, De Officio Principis Christianis (Cologne, 1616).

[27] Rager, The Political Philosophy of St. Robert Bellarmine, 4.

[28] Ibid., 5.

[29] Ibid., 15.

[30] Bellarmine, De Officio Principis Christianis (Cologne, 1619), 179-180. My emphasis.

[31] Rager, 56.

[32] Sidney, Discourses, vol. 2, 59-60.

[33] Ibid., 60-61.

[34] Bellarmine, De Laicis, c. 18.

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