The Catholic Roots of the Declaration of Independence

 

My bride and I each year travel to Indianapolis for the Gen Con gaming convention which this year will be held on the last week in July.  Indianapolis is a lovely city and we have enjoyed our visits there.  Back in 1926 an Indianapolis parish priest, John C. Rager, demonstrated that the core of the Declaration of Independence has its roots in Catholic thought.

It will suffice for our purpose to consult, in detail, but two Catholic churchmen who stand out as leading lights for all time. The one is representative of medieval learning and thought, the other stood on the threshold of the medieval and modern world. They are St. Thomas Aquinas of the thirteenth century and the Blessed Cardinal Robert Bellarmine of the sixteenth century (1542-1621). The following comparisons, clause for clause, of the American Declaration of Independence and of excerpts from the political principles of these noted ecclesiastics, evidence striking similarity and identity of political principle.


Equality of man

Declaration of Independence: All men are created equal; they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.

Bellarmine: All men are equal, not in wisdom or grace, but in the essence and nature of mankind (De Laicis, c.7) There is no reason why among equals one should rule rather than another (ibid.). Let rulers remember that they preside over men who are of the same nature as they themselves. (De Officus Princ. c. 22). Political right is immediately from God and necessarily inherent in the nature of man (De Laicis, c. 6, note 1).

St. Thomas: Nature made all men equal in liberty, though not in their natural perfections (II Sent., d. xliv, q. 1, a. 3. ad 1).


The function of government

Declaration of Independence: To secure these rights governments are instituted among men.

Bellarmine: It is impossible for men to live together without someone to care for the common good. Men must be governed by someone lest they be willing to perish (De Laicis, c. 6).

St. Thomas: To ordain anything for the common good belongs either to the whole people, or to someone who is the viceregent of the whole people (Summa, la llae, q. 90, a. 3).


The source of power

Declaration of Independence: Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

Bellarmine: It depends upon the consent of the multitude to constitute over itself a king, consul, or other magistrate. This power is, indeed, from God, but vested in a particular ruler by the counsel and election of men (De Laicis, c. 6, notes 4 and 5). The people themselves immediately and directly hold the political power (De Clericis, c. 7).

St. Thomas: Therefore the making of a law belongs either to the whole people or to a public personage who has care of the whole people (Summa, la llae, q. 90, a. 3). The ruler has power and eminence from the subjects, and, in the event of his despising them, he sometimes loses both his power and position (De Erudit. Princ. Bk. I, c. 6).


The right to change the government

Declaration of Independence: Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new government…Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient reasons.

Bellarmine: For legitimate reasons the people can change the government to an aristocracy or a democracy or vice versa (De Laicis, c. 6). The people never transfers its powers to a king so completely but that it reserves to itself the right of receiving back this power (Recognitio de Laicis, c. 6).

St Thomas: If any society of people have a right of choosing a king, then the king so established can be deposed by them without injustice, or his power can be curbed, when by tyranny he abuses his regal power (De Rege et Regno, Bk. I, c. 6).

Go here to read the article.  Is there any evidence that Jefferson was familiar with this Catholic thought?  There is.  In his library at Monticello there is a volume entitled Patriarcha written by the court theologian of James I, Robert Filmer.  In this book Filmer defended the divine right of kings and attacked Bellarmine.  Karl Maurer gives us the details:

 

The most interesting aspect of Patriarcha from a Catholic perspective is that the first pages discredit and attack the writings of St. Robert Bellarmine, who was one of the most eloquent and prolific defenders of freedom the Catholic Church has ever produced. It was customary that writers dealing with political and religious controversies begin their books by presenting their nemesis as an anti-thesis, which in Filmer’s case was Bellarmine’s position that political authority is vested in the people and that kings do not rule by divine right, but through the consent of the governed. This was a radical idea in the early 1600’s, though it is widely accepted today.

In Patriarcha, Filmer quotes Bellarmine directly as follows: “Secular or Civil authority (saith he) ‘is instituted by men; it is in the people unless they bestow it on a Prince. This Power is immediately in the Multitude, as in the subject of it; for this Power is in the Divine Law, but the Divine Law hath given this power to no particular man. If the Positive Law be taken away, there is left no Reason amongst the Multitude (who are Equal) one rather than another should bear the Rule over the Rest. Power is given to the multitude to one man, or to more, by the same Law of Nature; for the Commonwealth cannot exercise this Power, therefore it is bound to bestow it upon some One man or some Few. It depends upon the Consent of the multitude to ordain over themselves a King or other Magistrates, and if there be a lawful cause, the multitude may change the Kingdom into an Aristocracy or Democracy’ (St. Robert Bellarmine, Book 3 De Laicis, Chapter 4). Thus far Bellarmine; in which passages are comprised the strength of all that I have read or heard produced for the Natural Liberty of the Subject.” (Patriarcha, page 5.)

Imagine what Jefferson must have been thinking as he read the opening paragraphs of Patriarcha, a direct assault on the Roman Catholic scholarship of Bellarmine:

“Since the time that school divinity (i.e. Catholic Universities) began to flourish, there hath been a common opinion maintained as well by the divines as by the divers of learned men which affirms: ‘Mankind is naturally endowed and born with freedom from all subjection, and at liberty to choose what form of government it please, and that the power which any one man hath over others was at the first by human right bestowed according to the discretion of the multitude.’ This tenet was first hatched in the (Medieval Roman Catholic Universities), and hath been fostered by all succeeding papists for good divinity. The divines also of the reformed churches have entertained it, and the common people everywhere tenderly embrace it as being most plausible to flesh and blood, for that it prodigally distributes a portion of liberty to the meanest of the multitude, who magnify liberty as if the height of human felicity were only to be found in it — never remembering that the desire of liberty was the cause of the fall of Adam.”

There is no doubt that Jefferson, after reading Filmer, must have been struck by Bellarmine’s definition of individual freedom and popular sovereignty. It may come as a surprise to some, but a closer analysis of Bellarmine’s writing and Catholic Church history demonstrates that since 1200 AD, Catholic Church has defended individual rights and freedoms, which eventually led to the abolition of slavery, serfdom, and the rise of popular sovereignty at the expense of absolutist monarchs and tyrannical nobles.

Go here to read the rest.  Each year in my family on the Fourth we read the Declaration.  As I am doing so, I will recall that Mr. Jefferson in the Declaration was presenting arguments that Catholic thinkers had been raising for centuries against those who would transform rulers into tin gods on Earth.

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Published in: on July 3, 2015 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on The Catholic Roots of the Declaration of Independence  
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