Posted by: liturgicalyear | September 17, 2010

Catholicism and the Declaration

Today we celebrate the feast day of St. Robert Bellarmine, Doctor of the Church and patron saint of catechists.  With a name like Bellarmine, I figured he was French.  He was actually born in Italy in 1542, joined the Jesuits in 1560 and was ordained to the priesthood in 1570.

Cardinal Bellarmine strikes me as a man with a huge mind and great courage.  

Born during the Protestant Reformation, the Church was in great turmoil during his lifetime.  He used his God-given talents to fight against the Protestant heresies of the day and wrote extensively against them. 

He was also a teacher. A professor the University of Louvain and at the Roman College, he taught Jesuit students and other children.  He wrote a children’s catechism and a catechism for teachers. 

He preached and wrote prolifically, working to defend the Church in France and Italy.  During that time, he was instrumental in the Church’s defense against anti-clericals in Venice, as well as disputing and refuting the Divine Right Kings promoted by King James I of England.  God called St. Robert Bellarmine during that tumultuous time in history to serve and preserve the Church.

But what I find most interesting about this man of fortitude and courage is his apparent connection with the founding principles of the United States. 

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…”

Anyone who has read the first few lines of the Declaration of Independence  recognizes the Catholic belief in the dignity of the human person – that our value lies in the fact that we are made in the image and likeness of God and that our rights as human beings are natural, that is God-given.  Natural Law is the bedrock upon which the Declaration stands.

I’d like to draw from an article by Rev. John C. Rager, STD entitled “Catholic Sources and the Declaration of Independence” .  I have taken excerpts from his article (below) and encourage you to read it in its entirety.  I’ve also included reference to an additional article at the end of this post.

The reason I believe it is important for us to understand these connections is that our nation was founded by Protestants and we have a history of individualism which reflects that founding.  However, under it all is the Catholic teaching on Natural Law and the dignity of the human person.  Issues of life and marriage in our society have steered away Natural Law and have moved into the realm of political law which rests on human whim and not the immutable laws of nature and nature’s God. 

So this day, I invite you to join me in prayer for our country, for a return to the principles of the dignity of each and every human life from the moment of conception until the time of natural death, for the upholding of the sanctity of marriage, and for an understanding that our rights come from God and not from the state.

St. Robert Bellarmine, pray for us!  Anne

“Catholic Sources and the Declaration of Independence” by   Rev. John C. Rager, STD

Striking parallels

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 vice-regent 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).

 First, the certainty and fact, beyond reasonable denial, that for many centuries prior to the American Declaration, the principles enunciated in it are identically the political thought and theory predominant and traditional among representative Catholic churchmen, and not the political thought and inspiration of the politico-religious revolt of the sixteenth century, nor of the later social-contract or compact theories.

In the second place, this paper would re-assert the existence of sufficient reasons to believe that the framers of the Declaration of Independence drew inspiration, encouragement, and political ideals from Catholic sources, particularly from the political principles of the Blessed Cardinal Bellarmine.


Additional reading:  St. Robert Bellarmine’s Influence on the Writing of the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Declaration of Rights by Karl Maurer


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