Editor’s Note: This year marks the 400th anniversary of the death of St. Robert Bellarmine, one of the Church’s most celebrated and prolific theologians, who was born in 1542 and went to his eternal reward on Sept. 17, 1621. In honor of this anniversary, CFN is pleased to publish the following scholarly treatment of a question that has gained attention in certain Catholic quarters, namely: Was Bellarmine a herald of republics? The author, Ryan Grant (founder/president of Mediatrix Press), has translated several of Bellarmine’s major works into English and in the process has gained expert knowledge of the Saint and his teachings on a multitude of subjects, including political philosophy. We are grateful to Mr. Grant for sharing his expertise in this two-part feature article (see here for Part I).
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.” 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.” 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, 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 written. I 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.”
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.”
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. 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.” So far is Bellarmine from Locke, yet Jefferson is abundantly clear that it was Sidney and Locke who inspired the Declaration of Independence, and whole phrases from Locke are to be found in the document. 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.”
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.” 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.”
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?”
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, 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”.
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.” 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.’” 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.”
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.’” 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.”
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.” 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.”
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 Suarez (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.
 Bellarmine, De Membris Ecclesiae, 3, 6.
 “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.
 Cf. Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV, 20, 31.
 Sidney, Discourses on Government (New York, 1805), vol. 1, pp. 331-332, my emphasis.
 Ibid., p. 428, my emphasis.
 Cf. Locke, Two Treatises on Government, 2,151.
 Bellarmine, Apologia Roberti Cardinalis Bellarmini pro responsione sua ad librum Iacobi Magnae Britanniae, Cologne, 1610, p. 238.
 Jefferson to Henry Lee, 8 May 1825.
 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.
 Bellarmine, On the Roman Pontiff, 1, 3.
 Ryan and Millar, The State and the Church, New York, 1922, p. 118.
 Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I IIæ, q. 105, art. 1.
 Broderick, The Life and Work of Blessed Robert Bellarmine, (Burns, Oates and Washburne, London, 1928), vol. 1 pp. 237-238.
 Bellarmine, De Officio Principis Christianis, Cologne, 1616.
 Rager, The Political Philosophy of St. Robert Bellarmine, p. 4.
 Ibid., p. 5.
 Ibid. p. 15.
 Bellarmine, De Officio Principis Christianis, Cologne, 1619, pp. 179-180. My emphasis.
 Rager, p. 56.
 Sidney, Discourses, vol. 2, pp. 59-60.
 Ibid., pp. 60-61.
 Bellarmine, De Laicis, c. 18.