4.4.2 Yves Simon on Bellarmine


Reading for Module B, 4.4.2:

Excerpt from Yves Simon, Philosophy of Democratic Government (University of Chicago Press, 1951), chapter III, pp. 166-169, from section headed ‘The Transmission Theory’

About three generations after these writings of Cajetan, another important theological document was produced, on the subject of sovereignty in temporal society, by St. Robert Bellarmine. In his “Discussions on the Members of the Church” (Book III: “On the Laymen”)14 he raises the question whether political power is an ethical thing and can be held by Christians. He has in mind the Anabaptists and Trinitarians of the time, with special reference to a statement made in 1568 by a group of ministers in Transylvania. After having shown (chap. vi) that political power is necessary and that its honesty is sanctioned by Holy Scripture, he makes the following remarks:

Firstly, the political power considered in its universal essence, without going down to the peculiarities of monarchy, aristocracy, or democracy, proceeds immediately from God alone, for it follows necessarily upon the nature of man; consequently it proceeds from the one who made man’s nature. Further, this power is of natural law and does not depend upon the consent of men; for, whether they like it or not, they must be governed by somebody, unless they want the human genus to perish, which is contrary to the inclination of nature. But the law of nature is a divine law; thus government was established by divine right. . . .

Notice, secondly, that this power has for its immediate subject the whole multitude. Indeed, this power is of divine right; but divine right did not give it to any particular man; therefore, it gave it to the multitude. Moreover, apart from positive law, there is no greater reason why, out of many equals, one rather than another should dominate; therefore, power belongs to the whole multitude. Finally, human society must be a perfect republic; therefore, it must have the power of protecting itself, consequently the power of punishing the enemies of peace, etc.

Notice, thirdly, that this power is transferred from the multitude to one or several by the same law of nature. Since the republic cannot exercise this power for herself, it is bound to transfer it to one person, or to a few. Thus the power of the princes, considered in its genus, is also of natural and divine right, and the human genus could not, even if all men were gathered, make a decree to the contrary, viz., decree that there be no princes or governors.

Notice, fourthly, that distinct kinds of government, taken in their peculiarity, concern the law of nations, not the law of nature, for it is up to the consent of the multitude to establish above itself a king or consuls or other magistrates. If there is a just cause, the multitude may change a kingdom into an aristocracy or democracy and conversely, as we read that it happened in Rome.

Notice, fifthly, that it follows, from what precedes, that this power, considered in its particular forms, proceeds from God indeed but through the intermediary of human deliberation and choice; the same holds for all the other things that pertain to the law of nations. For the law of nations is, as it were, a conclusion deduced from natural law by human discourse. From this, two differences between the political and ecclesiastical power can be gathered: (1) one concerns the bearer of power, for political power resides in the multitude, but the ecclesiastical power resides immediately in one man as in its bearer; (2) the other concerns the efficient cause, for, whereas the political power, considered universally, is of divine right but, considered in its particular forms, pertains to the law of nations, the ecclesiastical power is in all ways of divine right and immediately from God.

This page of Bellarmine calls for two comments: (1) Bellarmine uses the expression jus divinum, “divine right,” in a broad sense which can hardly fail to be confusing. Strikingly, the same man holds in the same page what he considers a divine-right theory of political authority and what most modern interpreters would describe as a theory of the sovereignty of the people. This gives an idea of the ambiguity of both these expressions and of the care with which they must be used. (2) Some readers of Bellarmine understood that for him the transmission of power from the whole people to a distinct governing personnel is itself a natural and divinely established obligation. The people, in whom political authority resides primarily, would not, in this interpretation, have the right to retain and to exercise for itself the authority which resides primarily in it. Bellarmine’s theory, in short, would rule out direct democracy. Just as the nature of a society demands that there be political authority, so it would demand that political authority be intrusted to the hands of a distinct governing personnel.

In the first chapter of this book we tried to make it clear that the necessity of government is one question and the necessity of a distinct governing personnel an entirely different one. Our particular concern for clarity was motivated by a custom or tradition which associates the two problems, lumps them together, and treats them as if they were one. This customary view was attributed to Bellarmine, but it does not seem to be borne out by the present text. Plainly, Bellarmine does not have in mind, as he is writing this page, any example of direct democracy; he plainly has in mind the incomparably more frequent situation in which the common good demands that power be placed in a few hands. When the situation is such — and it is such in most cases, in fact, in all the cases of which Bellarmine can think — the duty to pursue the common good, which entails the duty to obey political authority, entails also the duty to put it in the hands of a distinct governing personnel, and the people are bound, under the circumstances, to transmit power, just as they are bound, under all circumstances, to obey civil power. All that Bellarmine demonstrates is that the transmission of political power from the multitude to the distinct governing personnel is not a matter delivered to the free choice of the multitude when, as he puts it “the republic cannot exercise such power for itself.” Whether this situation is universal and whether there is no conceivable case in which the republic can manage political power for itself according to the requirements of the common good is a question that Bellarmine really does not consider. Notice that Jefferson expresses himself, on the subject of distinct governing personnel, in terms very close to those of Bellarmine.15


14  Bellarmine, Controversiarum de membris ecclesiae, lib. III: De laicis sive secularibus, chap. vi. (Opera [Paris: Vivès, 1870], III, 10-12).

15  Thomas Jefferson, Letter to the Abbé Arnond, July 19, 1789 (Works, Ford ed., V, 103-4): “We think in America that it is necessary to introduce the people into every department of government as far as they are capable of exercising it. . . . 1. They are not qualified to exercise themselves the Executive Department; but they are qualified to name the person who shall exercise it. With us therefore they chuse this office every 4 years. 2. They are not qualified to legislate. With us therefore they only chuse the legislators. . . .” Let this quotation not be held to imply any stand with regard to the controversial issue of a possible influence of Bellarmine on Jefferson.

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