De Laicis (75 Books – XLI)

The best Catholic writers tend to be the ones who divide the world into Catholics, schismatics, heretics, Jews, and pagans, with no “separated brethren” nonsense. St. Robert Bellarmine takes just this approach in De Laicis, in which he discusses the nature and scope of political power and its relationship to the Church. His answers tend to be orthodox by the standard of the time and the book isn’t very long, but it’s an excellent and uncompromising primer to a traditional Catholic understanding of the state.

Now, most of the book was written in answer to objections to Christians holding political power raised by various Protestant groups at the time, but much of it reads like a response to the modern Christian Libertarian crowd. For example, some Anabaptists apparently believed that while kings were given to the Jews, Christians should not have secular rulers. Bellarmine responds, in part:

But the contrary is true, for in the beginning the Prophets predicted that all the kings of the earth would serve Christ and the Church, which could not come to pass unless there were kings in the Church. “And now, O ye kings, understand; receive instruction, you that judge the earth; embrace discipline,” according to the Hebrew Naschechubar, “embrace ye the Son”, whom in the same Psalm the Scriptures call the Messias… And, “Kings shall be Thy nursing fathers and queens Thy nurses: they shall worship Thee with their faces towards the earth and they shall kick up the dust of Thy feet.” We have certainly seen this fulfilled in the cases of Constantine, Theodosius, Charlemagne, and others who venerated the tombs of the Apostles and Martyrs, and endowed and protected churches.

Many of the arguments draw from Scripture or the Church Fathers, as one would expect of a book primarily addressing a conflict between Christians. While writing about Dante’s Monarchia, I mentioned that many of the poet’s arguments draw as much from Aristotle or simple reason as Scripture. Bellarmine, however, caters his argument entirely towards fellow Christians, and uses Scripture and the Church Fathers as his primary authorities. Non-Christian readers may still agree with some of his conclusions, but not how he arrives at them. For example, he addresses an early version of the “social contract” theory, which drew from Cicero and stated that at one time men “wandered about in the manner of beasts,” but were later persuaded to live together in society. Bellarmine then says, “But that state of affairs never existed, nor could it have existed at any time. For Adam was a very wise man, and without doubt did not allow men to wander about like beasts, and Cain, his son, even built a material city; before Cain and Adam, man did not exist.” Non-Christian Rightists would certainly agree that this proto-social contract theory is nonsense, but certainly not for this reason!

A few of Bellarmine’s positions are not as reactionary as one might expect. While discussing sovereignty, for example, he states, “Divine law gives this power to no particular man, therefore Divine law gives this power to the collected body. Furthermore, in the absence of positive law, there is no good reason why, in a multitude of equals, one rather than another should dominate.” So, while he certainly does not object to monarchy, he does not consider it inherently better than an aristocracy or republic. Sir Robert Filmer would directly address some of Bellarmine’s arguments in his work (and John Locke, in turn, would respond directly to Filmer), though it may be worth pointing out that Bellarmine here follows Aristotle, who supported a mixed form of government, more closely than some of the philosopher’s Medieval, monarchist students, like St. Thomas Aquinas and Dante, who did argue that monarchy is best in tune with natural law.

Not that Bellarmine is, by any means, a soft-hearted man. After introducing the idea that a nation ought to allow freedom of belief, he writes:

But this error is most harmful, and without doubt Christian rulers are in duty bound not to allow freedom of belief to their subjects, but to afford opportunity that that faith may be preserved which the Catholic Church, and especially the supreme Pontiff, says should be held. It is proved first from Scripture, “the king, that sitteth on the throne of judgment, scattereth away all evil with his look.” And likewise, “A wise king scattereth the wicked.” Indeed, it cannot be denied that heretics are impious. And the same is said, “And now, O ye kings, understand, receive instruction, you that judge the earth. Serve ye the Lord with fear.”

He spends more time on this question than any other, understandably so since this was such a major issue at the time. What he believes should be done in a state that already has a large number of heretics, though, he doesn’t say. Interestingly, he doesn’t object to tolerating Jews, because their scriptures contain the prophecies that the New Testament fulfills, because they’re clearly not Christians (as opposed to heretics, who are wolves in sheeps’ clothing), and because they do not proseletyze anyway.

In any case, while one may disagree with some of Bellarmine’s conclusions (for example, in today’s world it seems wise to work with Protestants where possible), De Laicis makes for good reading if only as a reminder of a time when the Church’s bishops appeared absolutely confident in what the Church teaches, and were unafraid of speaking boldly against error. It also serves as an excellent introduction to understanding the nature and scope of political power from a pre-Liberal writer, which also addresses common Liberal and Libertarian arguments, and is one of the best books I’ve read this year.

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