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

Chapter 2

One of the chief heretical tenets of the Anabaptists and of the Trinitarians of the present day is, that it is not lawful for Christians to exercise magisterial power, nor should body-guards, tribunals, judgments, the right of capital punishment, etc., be maintained among Christians. Ministers in Transylvania who denied the doctrines of the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the baptism of infants, proclaimed in 1568 at Alba Julia the differences between the true Christ and the false Christ, the seventh of which states that the false Christ has in his church kings, princes, magistrates, and military force, and that the true Christ can suffer no such things in His Church.

The arguments of these heretics are, or certainly can be, set forth as follows: First, those from the Scriptures, “The kings of the earth, of whom do they receive tribute or custom? Of their own children or of strangers? And he said, ‘Of strangers.’ Jesus said to him: ‘Then the children are free.'” 1 And “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; it will not be so among you.” 2 “Owe no man anything, but to love one another.” 3 “You are bought with a price; be not made the bondslaves of men.” 4 “One Lord.” 5 “One Lord, one Faith, one baptism, one God.” 6

Secondly, those drawn from examples: For many of the princes abused their power and not only did not benefit, but even harmed, the State, as is evidenced at the very creation of the world, in the case of Cain, 7 and in the case of the sons of the Princes, 8 who, taking to themselves alien wives, were corrupted by all sorts of evil-doing, and afterward the flood came because of them. The same abuse of power is shown in the case of Nimrod, of Pharaoh, of Nabuchodonosor, and of Saul, of Roboam, of Jeroboam, and of others; for after the division of the kingdom not one of the kings of Israel was a just man.

Thirdly, from considerations of the end; for magisterial power was permitted in the case of the Jews because of the imperfection of the times, for the Jews were children, and therefore had to be ruled by someone, as is clear from St. Paul, 9 but we are perfect men and by the infusion of sanctifying grace at baptism we are taught all things.

Fourthly, from the point of view of efficiency, for this power is not given by God, but tyrannically usurped by men. For who made Nimrod king? Who, Nabuchodonosor? Who, Ninus? Who, Alexander? Who, Julius Caesar? Who, others? Hence that pirate is praised who replied to Alexander, “I, since I go about in a small boat, am called a pirate. You, since you despoil the whole earth with a mighty fleet, are called an emperor.” 10

Fifthly, drawn from considerations of its source; for God created men free, and bondage was introduced by sin; therefore, since we are freed from sin by Christ, we should also be freed from bondage. The foregoing is clear, for in Gen. I. it is not written, “You shall rule over men,” but: “You shall rule over the fishes of the sea, etc.” Moreover, woman is not now subject to man, except by political subjection, nevertheless, this subjection was brought about by sin, as is evident from Gen. III., “Thou shalt be under the power of thy husband.” In addition, the first man to found a city and start a political kingdom before the Flood was Cain, as Augustine shows from Gen. IV., 11 the first to do this after the Flood was Nimrod.

Lastly, the Fathers clearly teach this: “God, having made man a rational being in His own Image, was unwilling that he should dominate except over irrational beings, not man over man, but man over beasts; hence those who in the beginning were just were placed over flocks rather than made kings of men, so that God might make clear this also, namely, what the natural order of creatures would require on the one hand, and what the deserts of sinners would demand on the other.” 12

“All men are born equal by nature, but of a varying degree of merit. Some, by a secret dispensation, God esteems less than others; and this very diversity which is brought about by sin is rightly ordained by the Divine Wisdom, so that, since all men do not journey through life equally, one should be ruled by another,” 13 and he makes similar statements in his pastoral letters. 14

Not only all Catholics, and especially Blessed Thomas, 15 and all the Philosophers, abominate this heresy, but even Philip Melanchthon, in divers places in the chapter concerning the secular power, and John Calvin, 16 most bitterly and forcefully oppose it, and even Luther himself in his Visitation of Saxony, although the Anabaptists took advantage of his own words in his Babylonian Captivity. 17

We refute this heresy by means of five arguments, for that is the number of our adversaries’ fundamental principles. Firstly, from the Scriptures. Secondly, from the examples of the saints. Thirdly, from purpose or necessity. Fourthly, from considerations of the efficient cause. Fifthly, from considerations of the source of secular power.

1Matt. XVII., 24, 25.

2 Luke XXII., 25, 26.

3 Rom. XIII., 8.

4 1 Cor. VII., 23.

5 1 Cor. VIII., 6.

6 Ephes. IV., 5, 6.

7 Gen. IV.

8 Gen. VI.

9 Gal. IV.

10 Augustine, City of God, Bk. IV., from Cicero, Republic, Bk. III.

11 Augustine, City of God, Bk. IV., ch. 1.

12 Ibid., Bk. XIX., ch. 15.

13 Gregory, Moral., Bk. XXI., ch. 2.

14 Part II., ch. 6

15 Opus. 20.

16 Institutes, Bk. IV., ch.20.

17 Ch. on baptism.