4.4.2 Political consent in Catholic thought: the ‘transmission theory’

Back to 4.4.1

Unit 4 Contents



The ‘reflection’ at the end of the last screen asked whether you are aware of aspects of CST that do comment on the ‘liberal, consent-based’ way of arguing for democracy, either directly or indirectly.

A reading in Unit 3 was the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 (3.3.2). One drafter of this was Jacques Maritain (as mentioned earlier, 4.3.1) and the Catholic Church has been strongly supportive of it.  Pope John Paul II called the Universal Declaration “a true milestone on the path of humanity’s moral progress” and “one of the highest expressions of the human conscience of our time”.1

This support for the Universal Declaration is open to interpretation as indirect endorsement of the consent-based way of arguing for democracy. The Declaration includes a statement of the principal element of this – see, in the following, the reference to ‘the will of the people’.

Article 21.

(1) Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.

(2) Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country.

(3) The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.

Even though nowhere in CST documents themselves is there an engagement with the consent-based line of argument, that statement in the UN Declaration perhaps should be read as expressing a position that CST supports.

This does raise the question of whether the Church has its own reasons, i.e. distinctly Christian theological reasons, for affirming a consent-based argument for democracy. Even though Maritain’s Christianity and Democracy argued that democracy can be seen as a fruit of the Christian gospel itself, he did not spell out such an argument.  However one of Maritain’s own students, Yves Simon, did so in a book published in 1951, Philosophy of Democratic Government. It will be helpful to look at this here.

To understand Yves Simon’s argument, we need to place it in some historical context. In outlining the liberal, consent-based way of arguing for democracy earlier in this unit (4.2.5), I noted that a number of political writers in the 1600s and 1700s, notably Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, saw political society as a ‘social contract’.  The basic idea here is that we should understand government, the state, as having authority only because the people have made a contract together to establish that government and to give it authority.

It is easy to see that such social contract theory assumes that political authority originally lies in the hands of all the people.  The state has authority only because people have freely agreed to grant to it what first lies in their hands.  It follows from this that, once the initial transfer of authority has taken place, the state’s authority rests on the ongoing consent of the people.  In principle, the people could freely decide at any time to take back their authority from those who govern.  Although neither Hobbes nor Locke was what we would now call a democrat, such social contract theory was one of the main inspirations for later democratic thinking. Rousseau was one of the first to argue directly for democracy on the basis of a social contract theory.

But this kind of theory raises the question: what is the basis for the belief that political authority initially lies in the hands of the people as a whole?  Why should political authority not be seen as lying with those who are best equipped to govern well, i.e. with an aristocracy, or indeed with a monarch? After all, it’s common sense that not everyone will be as good at governing as everyone else.  On what basis, then, do we assume that all people hold political authority in the first instance, and that state power depends on their continuing consent?

Such a social contract theory, especially as articulated by Rousseau, was one prominent influence in the French Revolution in 1789.  This provoked the Catholic Church to become strongly opposed to social contract theory: this kind of thinking seemed to represent a declaration of independence by the people from both existing rulers and the Church – an assertion that the people as such can exercise their collective will in any way they choose.  Seen in this way, the French Revolution was a blasphemous attempt by human beings to take the place of God.  This helps to explain the Church’s reaction against the French Revolution and all it stood for, including democracy, during the century after 1789.

But there is one deep reason for seeing this reaction as surprising. From as early as around 1500, more than a century before Hobbes or Locke developed their social contract theories, there had been articulated in Catholic thought a different way of understanding the claim that political authority lies first with all the people, prior to being held by particular rulers.  This is known as the ‘translation theory’ or, in the label used by Yves Simon, the ‘transmission theory’.

Simon summarizes the fundamental assertion of the ‘transmission theory’ in this way:

[The transmission theory] holds that the first bearer of civil authority is not the king or any governor but the people as a whole, the civil multitude.  Whenever there is a distinct governing personnel [i.e. distinct from the people as a whole, such as there always is in representative democracy], men have done two things…: they have designated the ruling person [or group of people], and they have transmitted to him [or them] the power given by God to the people.2

Yves Simon expounds briefly three major Catholic writers of the early modern period who all held the transmission theory: Thomas Cajetan (1469-1534), Cardinal Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621) and Francisco Suarez (1548-1617). 

The next reading is two passages from Simon’s book.  As you will see, Simon emphasises, in line with the views of Cajetan, Bellarmine and Suarez, that in principle the transmission theory is consistent with acceptance of any constitutional form – monarchy, aristocracy or democracy.  From our vantage point after a century of experience of electoral democracy this insistence can seem implausible, but his point is that it is perfectly possible for a king, for example, to govern with a real consciousness that his authority lay originally with the people as a whole, on whose behalf he rules, and that he does depend on their continuing consent.

Having emphasized this, nevertheless, Simon goes on, in the last couple of pages of the reading, to argue that the transmission theory finds clearest expression in a democratic political system. Electoral democracy both gives expression to the people’s transmission of power to government, and enables a government to be rejected peacefully if the people wish to withdraw authority from one set of governing personnel and transmit it to another.


Reading (4pp)

Y. Simon, Philosophy of Democratic Government, from chapter III:

Within section headed ‘The Transmission Theory’: extract on Bellarmine (3pp) (pp. 166-169)

Within section headed ‘Authority in democracy’: extract on consent in relation to different forms of government (2pp) (pp. 178-181)


The whole book accessible at the website of the Jacques Maritain Centre at the University of Notre Dame, here.


As noted earlier, what we find in CST documents is largely a participation-based argument for democracy.  In contrast, the ‘transmission theory’ that we find in Yves Simon is one version of a consent-based argument for democracy.

However, while Simon’s argument is certainly coherent, one vital element remains missing. Simon does not, surprisingly, give any Christian theological reason for believing that political authority originally lies with all the people.



Whether from your study of CST so far or from any wider study of Christianity, can you think of a reason why Christians should affirm that all people, not just a few, hold authority in God’s world?


In Unit 1 of this module, we gave attention to the main principles of CST.  I noted that the Church affirms the principle of human dignity in light of the first chapter of the Book of Genesis, which presents God as making men and women “in the image of God”.  What this biblical phrase means is, in a sentence, that “men and women together are authorized by God to act on God’s behalf in the good creation” (quoting 1.3.4, italics added).  Genesis 1 refers directly to this authority; the Hebrew word is usually translated ‘dominion’ (see e.g. NAB and NRSV; you have the opportunity to study fully the meaning of humans as made “in the image of God” in Module A, Unit 3.)

But does this authority given to human beings together include political authority?  In other words, is it, in part, authority to participate in making decisions for a society as a whole about what justice and the common good require?

If we were able to say, yes, the authority which humans have as those made in God’s image includes political authority, we would have all the elements needed to justify a distinctly Christian theological affirmation of the ‘transmission theory’, and so of a consent-based argument for democracy.

There is some reason to believe that Catholic teaching should make that step.  We saw in Unit 3 that the Catholic Church has long taught that political authority is a good thing in itself.  It is not merely necessitated by human sin, but, rather, enables a society to make real its common good. Moreover, as St Thomas Aquinas definitively articulated this aspect of Catholic teaching, it is not just some people who exercise such ‘natural political rule’ over others, but rather there is an original equality among humans in this respect.  (On these points see 3.3.3.)

Hence CST comes very close to affirming explicitly that part of the authority that God grants to all human beings, as those made in his image, is political authority.

We have here three elements:

*  the ‘transmission theory’

*  the affirmation that humans are made “in the image of God”

*  Aquinas’s conception of political authority as a good thing in itself.

Together these give a basis for filling the gap in CST we identified on the last screen, namely a serious engagement with the consent-based way of arguing for democracy.  More than this, such an engagement might lead to development in teaching, a distinctly Christian articulation of a consent-based argument for democracy.

Although Yves Simon drew on sources deep in the Catholic tradition, the line of argument he made has not yet been incorporated into the Church’s teaching.  There is surely potential here for a significant development in CST.



End of 4.4.2

Go to 4.4.3 Democracy in the Catholic Church’s structures?

Module B outline

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  1. Pope John Paul II, quoted in Compendium, #152.  The first quotation is from his address to the 34th General Assembly of the United Nations in 1979. The second is from his address to the 50th General Assembly in 1995. 

  2. Yves Simon, Philosophy of Democratic Government (University of Chicago Press, 1951), p. 158, italics added.  According to Russell Hittinger, Simon’s was the “most elegant” among several articulations of the translation or transmission theory by Catholic writers in the early and mid-twentieth century. See Hittinger, ‘Introduction to Modern Catholicism’, referenced at 4.2.4 n. 4., p. 19.