De Laicis — Saint Robert Bellarmine’s Treatise on Civil Government

Chapter 17

The fifth question follows, namely, the scope of political magistracy in the sphere of religion. The errors in regard to this are three in number. The first is that of those who attribute too much authority to magistrates, as does Brentius in his prolegomena and Philip in a commonplace book, in the chapter on the magistracy; it is the error also of those who desire kings to be not only the guardians and defenders of religion, but also its judges and teachers. For they say in regard to them that it pertains to special members of the Church to judge disputes concerning the faith, to preside over general councils, to appoint ministers and pastors, and the like.

Concerning this error we have argued much in the controversy on the judge of disputes, 260 where we have shown that kings hold first place among Christians, inasmuch as Christians are men, that is, as citizens of an earthly state, not as citizens of the heavenly kingdom and servants of God, and as members of the Church. For in this respect Bishops hold first place, and especially the supreme Pontiff; second, priests; third, deacons, and other ministers of the Church; last, laics, among whom kings and princes are numbered.

Hence St. Chrysostom, addressing the deacons, says: “If any leader, if the consul himself, if the one who wears the royal crown, acts unworthily, restrain and punish him, for you have more authority than he.” 261 And Gelasius in his epistle to the Emperor Athanasius says: “O my most gentle son, although you rule with earthly pomp over the human race, yet, as a devout man, you yield submission to those who have authority in Divine things, and at their hands you await the means of your salvation, and in receiving the heavenly Sacraments from those whose duty it is to dispense them, you acknowledge that you should submit to the ordained authority in religion rather than command. Know, therefore, that in these matters you are dependent upon their judgment, and that they cannot be made to conform to your will.”

Finally, Christ committed the task of governing His Church to Peter and the Bishops, not to Tiberius and his prefects, and for three hundred years without there being any Christian rulers, except a very few, who either ruled for a very short time, as Philip Caesar, or ruled only in another province, as Lucius, King of the Britons, the Church was governed most successfully by bishops and priests alone. For further points, see the passages cited.

260 Bk. III. on the Word of God, ch. 6, 7 and 8, and Bk. I. on the Supreme Pontiff, ch. 7, and Bk. I. on the Counsels, ch. 2.

261 Sermon 83 on St. Matthew.