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

Chapter 8

The thesis that we have proposed in the second place, namely, that government can exist among the wicked, can easily be proved. But first there comes up for discussion the error of Amarcanus, who teaches 92 that the chief title of the ruler to his authority is the grace of God, or justice and charity; moreover, all other titles are based upon this, and he who lacks the virtue of justice and the grace of God has no true dominion. At the very same time, John Wyclif taught the same error, which Thomas Waldensius ably refutes, 93 and a little later John Huss brought up the same error, as is clear from Session 15 of the Council of Constance.

The arguments of these men were three in number. First, from the Scriptures, “They have reigned, but not by Me: they have been princes, and I knew not: of their silver and their gold they have made idols to themselves, that they might perish.” 94 Here God condemns the rule of wicked princes and says that He did not grant it to them, and He gives as the reason that they made idols for themselves.

Their second argument is from the text, “A kingdom is translated from one people to another, because of injustices.” 95

Their third argument is from reason, since, as they say, there is no authority to rule, except from God, but God would by no means confer this authority on wicked men, not only because they are His enemies, but also because He would thus seem to approve abuse of power; for all wicked men abuse power.

This error is easily refuted. First, from the Scriptures, “Power is given you by the Lord . . . . and being ministers of His kingdom, you have not judged rightly, etc.” 96 “Thus saith the Lord to my anointed Cyrus, etc.” 97 God says, “I have given all those lands into the hand of Nabuchodonosor, king of Babylon, etc.” 98 And “Thou art a king of kings: and the God of heaven hath given thee a kingdom and strength, and power, and glory, etc.” 99 And, the Apostles Peter 100 and Paul 101 teach that the authority of rulers is from God and they must be obeyed, and this even though at that time there were none but infidel kings.

Secondly, from the Council of Constance, 102 where this error is condemned by the Church.

Thirdly,, from St. Augustine, who says, “Since this is the case, let us not attribute the giving of a kingdom and the power to rule except to the true God, who gives happiness in the kingdom of heaven only to the good, but the kingdom of earth both to the good and bad, as is pleasing to Him to Whom nothing unjust is pleasing.” 103 And below, “He Who gave dominion to Marius, gave it also to Caesar, He Who gave it to Augustus, gave it also to Nero, He Who gave it to Vespasian, father or son, most benign emperors, gave it also to the most cruel Domitian; and that it may not be necessary to recount every instance, He Who gave it to Constantine the Christian gave it also to Julian the Apostate.”

In the fourth place, we may refute this argument from reason. For the foundation of secular power is not grace, but nature; for man, since he is made in the image of God, and hence endowed with intellect and the use of reason, dominates, therefore, over the lower orders of creation, as may be concluded from Gen. I. But human nature remains in infidels, though grace is wanting, and therefore they may possess true temporal power.

In regard to this, since grace and justice are most secret, and no one is certain, in regard to himself or to another, whether he be truly in the state of grace or not, then, if grace were the only title to power, it would follow that no claim to such power would be certain. From this would arise incredible confusion and disturbance among men. And, in fact, none of their arguments lead to anything.

In explanation of the first text I say that by these words wicked kings were not condemned by God, but what is condemned is the fact that the Jews wished to have a king, when their king was God. For, as St. Jerome states, Osee explains 104 the reasons why the people of Israel were given into captivity, and he says that one reason is that they wished to have a king, another, that they made idols for themselves.

Moreover, the fact that they sinned gravely in wishing to have a king is evident from 1 Kings, 105 where, after Saul had been raised to the throne, Samuel speaks to the people: “Now then stand, and see this great thing which the Lord will do in your sight. Is it not wheat harvest today? I will call upon the Lord and He will send thunder and rain: and you shall know and shall see that you yourselves have done a great evil in the sight of the Lord, in desiring a king over you.”

In explanation of the second text, I say that political power is transferred from nation to nation on account of injustice, because God, on account of the sins of kings, often gives the victory to their enemies, but the right to rule is not lost by the mere fact of their having sinned.

In explanation of the third text, I say that it befits the mercy of God to do good even to his enemies, as we read in the Gospel, “Who maketh His sun to rise upon the good, and bad, and raineth upon the just and the unjust.” 106 And He does not therefore approve the abuse. For He does not bestow kingdoms upon wicked men that they may abuse power, but either in order that, attracted by His goodness, they may be converted from their sins, as St. Jerome interprets Isaias, “Thus saith the Lord to my anointed Cyrus, . . . . 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, etc.,” 107 or in order that He may reward some of their good deeds, as St. Augustine teaches, 108 or, finally, because now and then the sins of the people deserved it, as the same St. Augustine teaches, 109 interpreting Job, “Who maketh a man that is a hypocrite to reign for the sins of the people.” 110 But the same St. Augustine says 111 that among infidels there can be no justice, nor laws, nor a true nation, or State, etc., but he calls that true justice and true law which leads to eternal life. 112

92 Quaest. Armenicarum, Book X., ch. 4.

93 Doctrinalis Fidei, Book II., ch. 81, et seq.

94 Osee VIII., 4.

95 Eccl. X., 8.

96 Wisdom VI., 4, 5.

97 Isaias XLV., 1.

98 Jeremias XXVII., 6.

99 Daniel II., 37.

100 1 Peter II.

101 Rom. XIII.

102 Sess. XVIII. and XV.

103 City of God, Book V., ch. 21.

104 ch. VIII.

105 ch. XII., 16, 17.

106 Matt. V., 45.

107 Isaias XLV., 1-3.

108 City of God, Book V., ch. 15.

109 Ibid., Book IV., ch. 19.

110 ch. XXXIV., 30.

111 Ibid., Book XIX., ch. 21.

112 In Julian., Book V., ch. 3.