What Barack Obama Could Learn from St. Robert Bellarmine

Saint Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621), Jesuit, Cardinal, and doctor of the Church, was one of the most influential theologians and political writers in Europe in the years following the Reformation.  He sparred with Protestants, heretics, and other Catholics (including Pope Sixtus V, who tried to get some of Bellarmine’s work placed on the Index, but failed) and was a powerful force in the Congregation of the Inquisition.

Bellarmine was deeply enmeshed in the controversies of his time, and was a forceful proponent of the Catholic position against religious as well as political opponents, such as King James VI and I, who promulgated the Oath of Allegiance in 1606, which raised complicated theological and political questions for Catholics in the United Kingdom.

Bellarmine is perhaps best known as an advocate for what was called the potestas indirecta, the indirect power, of the papacy.  In this he was drawing a fine line between the papal absolutists on the one hand, who thought that the Pope had what was called plenitudo potestatis, or a fullness of power that encompassed temporal affairs, including the right to depose monarchs, and on the other hand Protestant thinkers and others like King James, who believed the Pope had no such power.  His analysis was not immediately accepted by either party, but eventually came to be recognized as a major development in Catholic political thought.

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This may seem like ancient history, and some of the precise controversies that occupied Bellarmine are no longer issues for our time. As Fr. John Courtney Murray, S.J., noted in 1948, when speaking of the right of the Pope to depose a ruler, Bellarmine was operating in a world with few institutional barriers to a corrupt or unjust ruler.  In the medieval and early modern political circumstances, the Church was the only authority that was strong enough to resist or depose such a tyrannical ruler.  But now, Fr. Murray argued, political institutions, such as checks and balances and democratically elected magistrates, were strong enough to make clear that the papal “deposition” power was only one of historical contingency.  The same argument might be made regarding Bellarmine’s rejection of religious freedom and his contention that Catholics and “heretics” could not ever be reconciled

Nevertheless, Bellarmine has lessons to teach us today.  For despite his deep involvement in contemporary controversies, Bellarmine recognized that a more lasting shift in understanding the distinction between spiritual and temporal power was necessary.  Multi-confessional states, with a putatively neutral government, were rising in the form of the nation-state, where papal authority over temporal matters was limited if not eliminated entirely.  More importantly, secular states have assumed some of the monarchical powers once asserted by kings.  President Obama is more powerful than even King James was, and his reach into the interior religious lives of citizens is also greater.

From Bellarmine’s work, modern American government can take a number of lessons.  Here are three.

1.            The temporal power is different from the spiritual power.  In the modern secular state, a religion of non-religion often takes the places of neutrality. In the United States, for example, the language and invocation of “rights” has become a kind of pseudo-religion, meant to displace, for example, traditional notions of conscience and the Anglo-American tradition of religious liberty. If I have a right to something—say, employer-provided contraceptive or abortion services—you have to give it to me, even if doing so violates your conscience.

For Bellarmine, this was nonsense.  The temporal power was not a replacement for the spiritual power.  The HHS would not be able to impose obligations that would force Christians to act contrary to their principles.  The spiritual authority, which for Bellarmine was represented by the papacy, could not be ordered about by the temporal authority.  In a book titled “On the Temporal Power of the Pope:  Against William Barclay,” published in 1610, Bellarmine argued against an English writer that although the Pope has temporal authority, such power exists only insofar as it extends to spiritual matters; this means that the temporal power likewise has no final authority in spiritual matters. As Stefania Tutino translates a passage in her excellent recent Liberty Fund volume, “[a]nd it is certain that the spirit must rule over the flesh, not the other way around, and in the Church of Christ Pontiffs and kings are not like the chief rams in the sheepfold but rather like the shepherds and the sheep, and whether the shepherds should rule over the sheep or the sheep over the shepherds is not something that can be called into doubt.”

2.            The Church therefore has the right of self-government. Embedded within Bellarmine’s theory of the indirect power is that there is a sphere of self-government that the Church possesses outside the realm of the secular authority. In part, this was and remains a political autonomy.  The Pope, as leader of Vatican State, is a political leader. More generally, the Pope and the Church represent a society alongside of the wider, secular society. Within that realm, the state cannot interfere, as it has no authority to do so.

By advocating the indirect power of the Pope, Bellarmine carved out an autonomous region for the Church, even in states with non-Christian magistrates. In many ways, modern secular governments are like the Roman Empire of old; if not explicitly outlawed, Christianity is barely tolerated by the political and cultural elites. Acknowledging that…

3.            Laws affect persons. Bellarmine was adamant in his “On Laymen,” part of a series of works called the Controversiae, published between 1586-89, that “from the fact that political authority is temporal and its end is external peace and that man does not make judgments on internal matters, it is rightly inferred that it can oblige only to perform temporal and external acts but not that it cannot bind in conscience.” This is a crucial point that secularists often overlook, since they have a utilitarian or agnostic view of the law.  For them, regulations like the HHS mandate simply preserve “health care” or “equality,” and affect only external actions.  For them, such laws do not touch religious belief, which is considered only an internal matter and not one concerned with action.

Bellarmine, speaking for a long Catholic tradition, disagrees. Laws do not touch only “externals;” external action and internal belief go together and correspond to one another. Just as a person is an integrated whole, the law is also. Laws governing how religious people can behave do affect their internal beliefs, even if only to force them to choose not to obey the laws because of their conscience. In other words, laws are a part of culture and affect both individual conduct and the culture more generally. This is why Bellarmine and others in his neo-Thomistic natural law tradition are very concerned with the requirements of laws and the obligation to obey the laws, even from a non-Christian magistrate. In our time, those lessons remain valid, because the reach of the secular state, and the areas of conduct it seeks to monitor, control, or modify, is much greater. Bellarmine’s position, though he may not have seen it this way, is also consistent with interpretations of the First Amendment until quite recently, in which religious liberty includes free exercise and not just religious belief, the contrary view having become more fashionable with people like Hilary Clinton and the rest of the Obama Administration.

The Church has seen many forms of government rise and pass away, and has developed arguments to preserve her liberty and, by extension, the liberty of all people who seek to worship God in their own way.  Bellarmine, because he confronted the monarchs of his own day who sought overweening power, and other Catholics who could not distinguish between temporal and spiritual authority as clearly, remains a thinker for our time.


  • Gerald J. Russello

    Gerald J. Russello is a Fellow of the Chesterton Institute at Seton Hall University and editor of The University Bookman. He is also the editor of the 2013 edition of Christopher Dawson’s Religion and Culture from Catholic University of America Press.

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