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

Chapter 6

The fourth argument is taken from the efficient cause. For it is certain that political power is of God, from Whom proceeds nothing that is not good and lawful. St. Augustine proves this. 61 For the Wisdom of God proclaims, “By Me kings reign.” 62 And below, “By Me princes rule.” 63 And, “The God of heaven hath given thee a kingdom, and strength, etc.” 64 And, “Thy dwelling shall be with cattle and with wild beasts, and thou shalt eat grass as an ox, and shalt be wet with the dew of heaven; and seven times shall pass over thee, till thou know that the most High ruleth over the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever He will.” 65

But in this place other matters should be noted. First, political power considered in general, not descending in particular to Monarchy, Aristocracy, or Democracy, comes directly from God alone; for this follows of necessity from the nature of man, since that nature comes from Him Who made it; besides, this power derives from the natural law, since it does not depend upon the consent of men; for, willing or unwilling, they must be ruled over by some one, unless they wish the human race to perish, which is against a primary instinct of nature. But natural law is Divine law, therefore, government was instituted by Divine law, and this seems to be the correct meaning of St. Paul when he says, “He that resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God.” 66

Note, secondly, that this power resides, as in its subject, immediately in the whole state, for this power is by Divine law, but Divine law gives this power to no particular man, therefore Divine law gives this power to the collected body. Furthermore, in the absence of positive law, there is no good reason why, in a multitude of equals, one rather than another should dominate. Therefore, power belongs to the collected body. Finally, human society ought to be a perfect State, therefore, it should have the power to preserve itself, hence, to punish disturbers of the peace, etc.

Note, in the third place, that, by the same natural law, this power is delegated by the multitude to one or several, for the State cannot of itself exercise this power, therefore, it is held to delegate it to some individual, or to several, and this authority of rulers considered thus in general is both by natural law and by Divine law, nor could the entire human race assembled together decree the opposite, that is, that there should be neither rulers nor leaders.

Note, in the fourth place, that individual forms of government in specific instances derive from the law of nations, not from the natural law, for, as is evident, it depends on the consent of the people to decide whether kings, or consuls, or other magistrates are to be established in authority over them; and, if there be legitimate cause, the people can change a kingdom into an aristocracy, or an aristocracy into a democracy, and vice versa, as we read was done in Rome.

Note, in the fifth place, that it follows from what has been said that this power in specific instances comes indeed from God, but through the medium of human wisdom and choice, as do all other things which pertain to the law of nations. For the law of nations is a sort of conclusion drawn from the natural law by human reason; 67 from which are inferred two differences between the political and the Ecclesiastical power, one in view of the subject, for political power resides in the people, and Ecclesiastical power in the individual, as it were immediately in the subject (on whom it devolves); the other difference is in view of the efficient cause, because political power considered in general is by Divine law, but considered in particular it is by the law of nations. Ecclesiastical power, however, considered from every point of view, is by Divine law, and immediately from God.

On the basis of these proofs, in answer to the fourth argument of the Anabaptists, I maintain that by their argument they prove their point only in respect to particular forms of government, not to political power in general; but we wish in this place to establish the principle of political power in general, not any particular form of government.

I add, secondly, that very often governments are both just and unjust, of God, and not of God; for, on the part of those who hold and usurp authority, governments are thievish and unjust, hence not from God; yet, on the part of Divine Providence, which makes use of the evil intent of men and directs it either to the punishment of sin or to some other good end, or to the reward of good deeds, governments are just and lawful. For God, by an admirable decree of His Providence, sometimes deprives some of power and bestows it upon others in such wise that he who falls from power over the kingdom falls justly; and God Himself, in His own time, will inflict most just punishments for that invasion.

For God gave the possession of Palestine to the sons of Israel for a far different reason from that for which He afterwards gave it to Salmanasar or Nabuchodonosor, inasmuch as the sons of Israel, under the leadership of Josue, fought with praiseworthy obedience against the people of Palestine, and when many of these latter had been slain in battle, appropriated their lands, whereas Salmanasar and Nabuchodonosor, by a most wicked sacrilege, led into captivity the people of God; for in this they sought to follow not the Divine command, but their own wicked desire, yet even though they were ignorant of it, God made use of them for that end which, most justly, He willed to be attained.

St. Augustine 68 and Hugh of St. Victor 69 explain this matter accurately, nor is the testimony of the Scriptures wanting. For in Isaias we read as follows: “The Assyrian is the rod and the staff of My anger, and My indignation is in their hands. I will send him to a deceitful nation, and I will give him a charge against the people of My wrath, to take away the spoils, and to lay hold on the prey, and to tread them down like the mire of the streets. But he shall not take it so, and his heart shall not think so.” 70 In this place God speaks of Salmanasar and Sennacherib, who with evil intent seized the lands of Israel, yet God, without their knowledge, made use of their deeds to punish the Israelites.

Thus Isaias, “Thus saith the Lord to my anointed Cyrus, whose right hand I have taken hold of, to subdue nations before his face, and to turn the backs of kings, and to open the doors before him, and the gates shall not be shut. I will go before thee, and will humble the great ones of the earth: I will break in pieces the gates of brass, and will burst the bars of iron. And I will give thee hidden treasures, and the concealed riches of secret places: that thou mayest know that I am the Lord Who call thee by thy name, the God of Israel. For the sake of My servant Jacob, and Israel My elect, I have even called thee by thy name: I have made a likeness of thee, and thou hast not known Me.” 71

From this passage it appears that Cyrus had obtained a kingdom for himself through his desire for domination, and not for the sake of God’s service; and yet God aided him, and gave him the kingdom he was seeking, that He Himself might liberate the people of Israel from the Babylonian Captivity.

Jeremias, “I have given all these lands into the hand of Nabuchodonosor, king of Babylon, My servant; moreover, also the beasts of the field I have given him to serve him. And all nations shall serve him, and his son, and his son’s son: till the time come for his land and himself: and many nations and great kings shall serve him. But the nation and the kingdom that will not serve Nabuchodonosor the king Babylon, and whosoever will not bend his neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon: I will visit upon that nation with the sword, and with famine, and with pestilence, saith the Lord.” 72 And yet who doubts that Nabuchodonosor subdued so many kingdoms with bad intent?

Ezechiel also says, “Nabuchodonosor, king of Babylon, hath made his army to undergo hard service against Tyre. . . . and there hath been no reward given him, or his army for Tyre, for the service that he rendered Me against it.” 73 And below, “I have given him the land of Egypt, because he hath labored for Me, saith the Lord God.” 74

In like manner the Romans sought empire not for the sake of God, but through a desire for worldly glory, as St. Augustine shows at great length in the City of God. 75 Yet God gave them supreme rule, not only that He might reward them for their good works in the moral order, as St. Augustine likewise shows in the City of God, 76 but also that through the union of all the nations under one government the way might be prepared for the preaching of the Gospel, as St. Leo says in his first sermon for the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul.

Add, moreover, that even if at the beginning those who founded kingdoms were usurpers for the most part, yet, by the passing of time, either they or their successors became lawful rulers of these kingdoms, since the people gradually gave their consent. In this way the kingdom of France is now lawful, in the opinion of all, though in the beginning the Franks unjustly occupied Gaul. And the same may be said of the kingdom of Spain, which began with the invasion of the Goths; of the kingdom of England, which began with the unjust occupation of the Anglo-Saxons; and of this very Roman Empire, which was founded by Julius Caesar, the oppressor of his country; which, nevertheless, afterward became lawful to such a degree that Our Lord said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, etc.” 77

61 City of God, Book 4, 5.

62 Prov. VIII.

63 Ibid., 1, 6.

64 Daniel II.

65 Daniel IV.

66 Rom. XIII., 2.

67 St. Thomas, I, IIae, Q. XCV., Art. 4, ad 1: “The law of nations is indeed, in some way, natural to man, in so far as he is a reasonable being, because it is derived from the natural law by way of a conclusion that is not very remote from its premises. Wherefore men easily agreed thereto. Nevertheless it is distinct from the natural law, especially from that natural law which is common to all animals.”

68 De Gratia et Lebero Arbitrio, ch. 20, 21.

69 De Sacramentis, Bk. I., Part I. ch. 29.

70 Isaias X.

71 Isaias XLV.

72 Jeremias XXVII.

73 Ezechiel XXIX.

74 Ibid., 20.

75 Book V., ch. 12.

76 Ibid., ch. 15.

77 Matt., XXII., 21.