Thomas Paine, John Calvin, St. Robert Bellarmine and Forms of Government–Part 1

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Common Sense is Thomas Paine’s great work in which he argued for the America Colonies’ rejection of the rule of England’s monarchy and the rule of King George III. Paine famously argues by a commentary used for political means that 1 Samuel 8 is a rejection of Monarchy writing:

“As the exalting one man so greatly above the rest cannot be justified on the equal rights of nature, so neither can it be defended on the authority of scripture; for the will of the Almighty, as declared by Gideon and the prophet Samuel, expressly disapproves of government by kings. All anti-monarchial parts of scripture have been very smoothly glossed over in monarchial governments, but they undoubtedly merit the attention of countries which have their governments yet to form.”[1]

In reality, Thomas Paine’s statement just isn’t true by fact. Paine’s opinion is a similar opinion expressed by John Calvin in the Institutes. It is also addressed in a rebuttal of Calvin’s position by St. Robert Cardinal Bellarmine S.J. in De Controversiis. In fact, Thomas Paine’s position isn’t an original position by any means. It was expressed by Calvin. Bellarmine writes:

“Now, John Calvin, in order to altogether block every way in which one usually arrives by disputation to constitute ecclesiastical monarchy, places aristocracy and democracy before all other forms (forms of government).”[2]

There are two aspects to understand to give context to what Bellarmine is explaining in chapter 1 of Book 1 in the De Controversiis. The first is that Calvin is arguing against the authority of the papacy. So, Calvin decided the best course to argue against the papacy is to argue against the legitimacy of Monarchy altogether. The second aspect is to understand is that Bellarmine lumps both republics and pure democracies into the label of democracy. In fact, when Bellarmine speaks about the Roman Republic; he refers to this as a democracy.

Bellarmine explains that Calvin wished for Monarchy to be the worst form of government quoting him from the Institutes:

“Should it be as they would have it, that it is good and also useful that the whole world be compromised by one monarchy, which is still very absurd, but should it be so, still I will never concede that it should flourish in the governance of the Church.”[3] Calvin goes on, “It was always sanctioned by experience itself, not only  because the Lord confirmed it by his authority but even more, in that aristocracy is nearer in the form of government he established among the Israelites.”[4]

Bellarmine finishes the first chapter of Book 1 explaining that St. Thomas Aquinas and other Catholic Theologians thoroughly reject this conclusion made by Calvin—and in some respect Thomas Paine’s position found in Common Sense. Bellarmine, a Doctor of the Catholic Church, argues, “among the simple forms the most excellent is Monarchy. Secondly, blended government including all three forms (monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy), on the account of the corruption of human nature is more useful than simple monarchy. Thirdly, after we have excluded all other circumstances, simple monarchy simply and absolutely excels.

Bellarmine’s examination indicates that Paine’s thesis was a position that was one that was debated in scholarly fashion between two scholars of great caliber in the 16th century. In part three of this series, I will examine how Bellarmine takes on the ‘anti-monarchical’ scriptural passages head-on, and, in fact, argue that they are not ‘anti-monarchical’ but are in support of Monarchy and have been taken out of context by Thomas Paine in Common Sense.

[1] https://www.constitution.org/tp/comsense.htm

[2] Robert Bellarmine, trans. Ryan Grant, De Controversiis: On The Roman Pontiff Vol. 1  Post Falls: Mediatrix Press, 2017), 13.

[3] Ibid, 14.

[4] Ibid.

12 thoughts on “Thomas Paine, John Calvin, St. Robert Bellarmine and Forms of Government–Part 1

  1. The answer, from Christ, was that the structure (if we are to mimic God’s own structure for the Church) is a theocracy with a monarchical head and assisted by a group of others that are in union with this physical monarch . . . who is only the ambassador or vicar being informed by God the Father through the Holy Spirit. Therefore, if a he is a true Pope then he is the voice of God to the Church due to his having received mediate authority given him by Christ Himself.

    After all:
    The structure of the Church that Christ founded has a structure that Christ imposed on Her. Just before He gave Peter the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven that bind and loose on heaven and earth, Christ asked the disciples who the people said He was. The reply was this. And they said: “Some [say] John the Baptist; some, Elijah; and others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.” Then Jesus said to them: “But whom do you say that I am?” And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answering, said to him: “Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jona: because flesh and blood hath not revealed it to thee, but my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 16:14-17). In this way Christ dismisses the notion that the Church is a democracy that is ruled by the people’s vote or opinion. It is also, not a Church ruled by committee alone. It is ruled by God, through Peter acting alone and by the other apostles acting together with their head Peter. We can infer this rather easily by seeing Christ hand over the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven to Peter alone immediately after this scene and to this day we say that any Pope, occupies the chair of Peter and has use of His gift to bind and to loose. This indicates that this Theocracy will have a human face, a vicar or ambassador of Christ, to lead and guide the Church on earth.

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    1. I remember in my early years of college that when I attempted to argue for any type of morality being legislated then the pejorative of ‘theocracy’ would be thrown out. In many respects, I would just use the ‘natural law’ language at the time from the Deists of the Enlightenment and the founding fathers; however, I would surmise that it doesn’t even work on college campuses anymore. It’s such a weird blend of those who claim that science is the supreme knowledge from rationalism, but then deny its very existence by an appeal to the relativism of romantic emotionalism. It’s chaos.

      One thing that needs to be stressed is Classical philosophy. It is imperative to teach that we do not give meaning to existence, but rather we respond to things and they give us knowledge by our senses. If you cannot legislate any particular moral issue because of religion or ‘theocracy’ then it’s illogical to legislate anything even taxes and infrastructure because those are a moral issue as well. Pure secularism is Nietzche’s state of nature.

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      1. True, Phillip. If there is no moral binding truths then we are free from taxes, governments or anything that others want us to believe or bind ourselves to. There are only two philosophies for governance in my mind; anarchy or chaos, and theocracy and order.

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      2. Yes. And Bellarmine makes this point! He argues that the best and first property of good government is order–and democracy often degrades into anarchy because all citizens are as the same. Of course, it has to be reinterated in our climate that when Bellarmine argues for a hiearchical government; he is not denying human dignity, but rather empowering it by giving it purprose with human duty with human rights.

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      3. Indeed so. It is part of truth those who are leaders are champions of truth and have the responsibility for the people and the family; it is as they say in colloquial language public service. It is how the people exert power to the ruling class and the ruling class has their backs. The idea of the sense of fidelity (census fidelity) helps guide the programs of the rulers. Everyone has a part to play but all of it is aimed squarely at adhering to moral truths that are a benefit of all; the common good. Without a common good there is only subjectivism and truth is not even something that makes any sense. You will perpetually scoff at the notion as Pilate did when he questioned that there is an objective truth. What is truth is something we all have to grapple with if we are to come to grips with and orderly civilization.

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      4. I remember watching a YouTube video of Apologia Studios—Reformed Calvinists—and the pastor was debating the president of the Atheist student group of an Ivy League School and when the Pastor would ask questions about morality with the lack of any god, the President’s response was always “that’s an interesting question…” He was deflecting, of course, of not wanting to be brought to the conclusion that without any god then all morality, law, and government would be pure violence. Pure violence that would be neither good or evil—it would just be.

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      5. No binding laws on our behavior is a recipe for chaos and total lawlessness. It is a return to primitivism with perhaps, if we are lucky, tribalistic ties that would serve as a type of glue that only adheres if there is love for family. Short of that then we are each islands of our own making.

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      6. I once came across one time that the word individual and individualism was utilized by communist to break down tribe, ethic, and family ties, so that the the state could then come in and declare authority over each person.

        Looking at the dictionary, the word originate from Latin which means to divide. The word in its Latin context means to divide—that is rather telling to politics of our own age.

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      7. It really is. And we see this has become prevalent in our new and modern brave world. More to come, I suspect. The anti-Christ will offer a rallying point but it won’t be based on love or truth but in protection of each person and a crackdown on those who don’t fall in step with the state’s laws based on the agrandizement of a visual representation (aping) of the state as a savior and harbinger of a false peace.

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      8. A side bar note: It’s interesting that the Vatican approved the Fatima Apparitions. I think gives them even more validity. I say that because the more I read about what occured in Portugal and see the aftermath of how the Church has acted after them is that all of what the Lord’s mother told the children to do by means of penance and consecration of Russia has not occurred. The JP II camp, which I would have said I was one at one time, has said it occured–but look at the state of the world and what the Blessed Mother said would be the results if or if it didn’t occur.

        The world and faith continues to deterioate. The Blessed Mother said that God was deeply offended–the Church doesn’t even talk about offending God anymore. If God was offended in 1916, what about 100 years later when Pachamamas are being put in Churches. And we’re told by the Church it’s okay and if you don’t think so then you’re a damaged reactionary.

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      9. We’ve been acting like cowards since VII. We refused to condemn Communism (Mindzenty was a scandal) though the preliminary documents had one that condemned Communism. They didn’t want to offend Russia by naming her . . . and so it continued with JPII or those who advised him. So we have, as you say, not fulfilled the wishes of Heaven as Mary revealed at Fatima. So now we have false deities being introduced into our Churches and a never ending drone that seems to push forward the idea of indifferentism.

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  2. Pingback: Considering St. Robert Bellarmine’s De Controversiis Part 2 – On the Pilgrim Road

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