Bellarmine and Jefferson, Part II

[Original source: “Bellarmine and Jefferson,” Cincinnati (OH) Catholic Telegraph Register (August 31, 1945), pg. 3.]

The similarity of the ideas of government expressed in the Declaration of Independence and those found in the writings of St. Robert Bellarmine forms the subject of a long article in a recent issue of the Vatican’sOsservatore Romano. This resemblance has often been pointed out, some Catholics even going to far as to declare that the saint, an Italian Cardinal who died more than 150 years before the Declaration of Independence, was Jefferson’s chief inspiration when he wrote the historic document. While the Osservatorearticle is more restrained in its claims, it nevertheless points out several interesting parallels, not only in thought but also in expression, between the Cardinal’s writings and the Declaration of Independence.

Bellarmine wrote that ‘In a free state all men are born free and equal by nature.’ The Declaration of Independence proclaims that ‘All men are created equal.’

Bellarmine wrote, ‘It depends on the consent of the people to decide whether kings, consuls, or other magistrates shall exercise authority over them.’ Jefferson wrote, ‘Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.’

Bellarmine wrote, ‘The people can change a kingdom into an aristocracy, an aristocracy into a democracy.’ The Declaration of Independence says, ‘whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government.’

Although the similarity between the ideas of the Cardinal and those of Jefferson is evident, the degree of the influence of the former on the latter is not clear. The American intelligentsia of the period of the War of Independence had some knowledge of the Cardinal’s teachings, but for the most part only indirectly, through the writings of non-Catholic philosophers, some of whom quoted Bellarmine only to reject his theories. Jefferson himself possessed such a book that summarized Bellarmine’s theory of government. He was also familiar with the writings of philosophers who may have been influenced by the Cardinal, and he was acquainted with the Carrolls of Maryland, a Catholic family whose sons were educated in European Catholic schools and who were probably conversant with Bellarmine’s works. But whether the American statesman read and discussed the Catholic philosopher’s ideas to any great extent before he wrote the Declaration of Independence cannot be proved, especially since Jefferson was only 33 in 1776. 

But there is no need to establish a direct connection between Jefferson and Cardinal Bellarmine to prove that fundamental American democracy is supported by Catholic teaching. Whether the founding fathers were influenced by Bellarmine or not, it is certain that the Cardinal, who died the year the Mayflower landed in New England, taught the ideas embodied in the Declaration of Independence a century and a half later. Nor did Bellarmine’s teachings rise full grown from an arid soil. The doctrine he taught, perhaps with more specific details than anyone before him, was a logical conclusion of the philosophical system of the medieval schoolmen, which in turn was the philosophical expression of the teachings of the Catholic Church.