Thomas Jefferson and St. Robert Bellarmine’s Natural Law Teachings

It would seem that Thomas Jefferson, through reading up on English law, ended up being influenced on St. Robert Bellarmine, the great foe of the Divine Right of Kings and the great exponent of the rights of the governed and distribution of power. In this article, the author links quotes from Bellarmine to quotes from the Virginia Declaration of Rights and the Declaration of Independence. There is also a brief bibliography for further study.

Moderns tend to think of Roberto Bellarmino as a conservative guy (and he was: he drew from the medievals and the Fathers). But in the political world of European monarchs trying to centralize their entire country’s life in themselves, he was a dangerous voice who must constantly be refuted. (And he was a Jesuit! Horrors!) This is why we have an English-language name for Bellarmino — because he constantly needed refutation by those supporting the English regime of the king as the law or above the law, as well as by Anglicans and Puritans who didn’t like Bellarmino’s nice new Catechism. It’s almost hilarious, how much a bugaboo he was to them.* He wasn’t liked by everybody in the Church, either, because his calls for justice, fair administration of the law, and distribution of power were not what abusers of authority wanted to hear.

But his brand of natural law survived and was elaborated upon, and branches of it live in US law too.

Bellarmine’s On Temporal and Spiritual Authority is available in a modern English translation. One of the translators, Stefania Tutino, has also written a book about Bellarmine’s influence: Empire of Souls: Robert Bellarmine and the Development of the Christian Commonwealth.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal….”

“In the commonwealth, all men are born naturally free and equal.” De Clericis, Ch. VII.

“There is no reason why amongst equals one should rule rather than another.” De Laicis, Ch. VI.

* Re: his bugaboogosity, a few years later you get a hilarious but heartwarming effect of all this Bellarmine-fighting. The Anglicans start to translate his short spiritual works into English, with many prefaces about how this is okay, really. (Ouranography, a translation of The Eternal Happiness of the Saints, has the most elaborate and tortured explanation, because the author is the most seriously anti-Catholic.) The funniest bit is how most of them picture him putting off robes and pomp for his retirement, whereas it was actually difficult for his friends to get the Cardinal to wear non-ragged robes or to stop giving away any new shirts his friends forced on him.


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