This post is also available in: Spanish
[It should be pointed out that the term Divine Right of Kings used in this article is based on the modern usage and understanding of the term. Namely the notion of the Divine Right of Kings used in this article is based on the modern usage which is meant to convey the policy of Absolutism which was never taught by the Catholic Church. For this reason it should be noted that the terminology and the concept of the Divine Right of Kings most likely has a different meaning in a classical sense]
Refuting the Belief that the Catholic Church ever supported the notion of the Divine Right of Kings
In this article I will help to refute the false belief that the Catholic Church ever supported the so called “Divine Right” of kings. I will show that the concept of “Divine Right” is actually not a Catholic and for most part a medieval concept, but rather a concept which derived from the Late medieval ages, and which found its way into complete acceptance in the Protestant Reformation. Similarly I will show that to much extent the Catholic Church actually helped develop much of democratic though, such as is found in Medieval thought.
Before I get into the whole concept of “divine right” of kings or even the Church’s contribution to a medieval concept of government including democracy, I will give a simple background on what the Church teaches regarding society, the state, and authority.
Society and civil authority
The Church does teach that civil authority comes from God. This belief comes from several aspects including Divine Revelation which includes various biblical verses. Some of these verses include (John 19:11) in which Jesus tells Pontius Pilate “You would have no power over me had it not been given you from above”. Another evident biblical verse regarding the origins of civil authority comes from (Rom 13) in which Saint Paul states “There is no power but from God and those that are, are ordained of God. Therefore he who resisteth the power resisteth the ordinance of God” Similarly the Church teaches that civil authority comes from God similarly on the basis that “God is the author of Nature, and Nature imperatively requires civil authority to be set up and obeyed.”1
The Church teaches that society just as marriage is a natural institution. In following Aristotle the Church states that man is a social creature, and this can easily be seen. Aquinas states “It is natural for man more than for any other animal to be a social and political animal, to live in a group”. It is specifically this reality why John Donne wrote his poem No Man Is an Island
No man is an island entire of itself; every man
Is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
Is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
Well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
Own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
The bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
For this reason authority then in the abstract is something that everyone loves, for it is in his nature to live in society and authority is what keeps society together.
Limitation of civil authority and Medieval political thought
It is specifically in this section in which I will help refute the idea that the “divine right” of kings originated with the Catholic Church, or that it was ever practiced during the majority of the Middle Ages. I should however quickly point out the fact that various ancient civilizations prior to Christianity did in fact believe in a “divine right” of kings. The predominant reason for this is that there was no distinction between religion and the state. “All religions were localized to a particular nation, tribe or city, and the cult of the gods was bound up with the cult of the state- this was true in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Rome, everywhere. It was Christ who first introduced a distinction between the sacerdotium and regnum (Church and State) when He said, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and God what is God’s” (Mark 12:17)”2
For this reason it is that the “Divine Rights” of kings is incompatible with Catholic thought. According to the ‘divine rights’ “in a State once monarchical, monarchy is forever the only lawful government, and all authority is vested in the monarch, to be communicated by him , to such as he may select for the time being to share power. This ‘divine rights of kings’ (very different from the doctrine that all authority, whether of king or of republic, is from God), has never been sanctioned by the Catholic Church”3
In the High Middle Ages, the king did not have absolute power. Furthermore his creeds were not absolute, nor his commands. It could be stated that the deciding factor of each major decision rested upon the Grand Council. This council was a political entity made up of the king, as well as heads of the various noble families of that region, clergymen, commanding knights, and the sort. Furthermore they would vote on the particular issue at hand, putting a check on the power of the king. In the middle ages there was a strong belief that government is based on the consent of the governed.
Catholic sources of democratic thought and the Declaration of Independence
Something that many people might not realize is precisely the fact that much of democratic thought and furthermore the Declaration of Independence was influenced by Catholic theologians such as Saint Robert Bellarmine and Saint Thomas Aquinas. Although it is true that for most of the medieval ages the normal form of government was a monarchy, the reality is that the Catholic Church has always allowed various forms of governmental systems, so long as people recognize that the source of authority always comes from God. Michael Davis states:
The Church is not committed to any particular form of government, and despite the tendency of Popes to refer to ‘princes’ in their encyclicals, they were in no way opposed to democracy, if all that is meant by this term is that those who govern are chosen by a vote (based on either limited or universal suffrage). What the Popes maintain, logically and uncompromisingly, is that the source of authority is precisely the same in 18th century France, as in a country where the government is chosen in a democratic election in which every citizen has the right to vote, such as the United States today. In either situation papal teaching on the source of authority is clear and has already been stated: ‘All authority comes from God4
Similarly Saint Robert Bellarmine a Catholic cardinal and theologian often spoke about the negative side effects of an absolute monarchy in the hands of man, and stated that a mixed government with some democracy in it was the most balanced:
Monarchy theoretically and in the abstract, monarchy in the hands of God who combines in Himself all the qualifications of an ideal ruler, is indeed a perfect system of government; in the hands of imperfect man, however, it is exposed to many defects and abuses. A government tempered, therefore, by all three basic forms (i.e., monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy), a mixed government, is, on account of the corruption of human nature more useful than simple monarchy5
The Declaration of Independence
This then leads us to the Declaration of Independence itself. Many people don’t realize that this important document has a lot of root in the thought of both Saint Thomas Aquinas and more specifically Saint Robert Bellarmine. It is true that some enlightenment thought made up the declaration of Independence but not as much as people think. The fact is that in terms of the Declaration of Independence for most part “the principles enunciated in it are identically the political thought and theory predominant and traditional among representative Catholic churchmen, and not the political thought and inspiration of the politico-religious revolt of the sixteenth century, nor of the later social-contract or compact theories”6
There is a good article written by Rev. John C Rager, titled Catholic Sources and the Declaration of Independence in which he convincingly argues that there is good evidence that Thomas Jefferson and several other prominent colonialists were familiar with the writings of Saint Robert Bellarmine
If you study the documents regarding the Declaration of Independence side by side with the statements of people such as Saint Thomas Aquinas and Saint Robert Bellarmine you will see a lot of similarities. Some of the most common examples are:
Equality of man
Declaration of Independence: “All men are created equal; they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”
Robert Bellarmine: “All men are equal, not in wisdom or grace, but in the essence and nature of mankind” (“De Laicis,” c.7) “There is no reason why among equals one should rule rather than another” (ibid.). “Let rulers remember that they preside over men who are of the same nature as they themselves.” (“De Officus Princ.” c. 22). “Political right is immediately from God and necessarily inherent in the nature of man” (“De Laicis,” c. 6, note 1).
Thomas Aquinas: “Nature made all men equal in liberty, though not in their natural perfections” (II Sent., d. xliv, q. 1, a. 3. ad 1).
The function of government
Declaration of Independence: “To secure these rights governments are instituted among men.”
Robert Bellarmine: “It is impossible for men to live together without someone to care for the common good. Men must be governed by someone lest they be willing to perish” (“De Laicis,” c. 6).
Thomas Aquinas: “To ordain anything for the common good belongs either to the whole people, or to someone who is the vicegerent of the whole people” (Summa, la llae, q. 90, a. 3).
The source of power
Declaration of Independence: “Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
Bellarmine: “It depends upon the consent of the multitude to constitute over itself a king, consul, or other magistrate. This power is, indeed, from God, but vested in a particular ruler by the counsel and election of men” (“De Laicis, c. 6, notes 4 and 5). “The people themselves immediately and directly hold the political power” (“De Clericis,” c. 7).
Thomas Aquinas: “Therefore the making of a law belongs either to the whole people or to a public personage who has care of the whole people” (Summa, la llae, q. 90, a. 3). “The ruler has power and eminence from the subjects, and, in the event of his despising them, he sometimes loses both his power and position” (“De Erudit. Princ.” Bk. I, c. 6).
The right to change the government
Declaration of Independence: “Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new government…Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient reasons.”
Bellarmine: “For legitimate reasons the people can change the government to an aristocracy or a democracy or vice versa” (“De Laicis,” c. 6). “The people never transfers its powers to a king so completely but that it reserves to itself the right of receiving back this power” (Recognitio de Laicis, c. 6).
Thomas Aquinas: “If any society of people have a right of choosing a king, then the king so established can be deposed by them without injustice, or his power can be curbed, when by tyranny he abuses his regal power” (“De Rege et Regno,” Bk. I, c. 6).
The Protestant Reformation and the “Divine Rights” of kings
I have already pointed out the fact that ever since ancient times various civilizations already believe in some way or another in the “divine right” of kings. This is true regarding the Mesopotamian, Egyptian, and most other pagan civilizations. I also pointed out that Catholic thought rejected this axiom. However this is not to say that no one in the middle ages abused their power, or that there were not individual monarchs who actually believed this. During the late Middle Ages this is specifically what was going on. Many monarchs did in fact start abusing their power because of their lust for power and greed. However as Hilaire Belloc points out, it was not until the Protestant Reformation that the notion of the “divine rights of kings” came back into society. Hilaire Belloc states:
A Claim to absolute monarchy is one of the commonest and most enduring of historical things. Countless centuries of the old Empires of the East were passed under such a claim, the Roman Empire was based upon it, the old Russian State was made by it, French society luxuriated in it for one magnificent century, from the accession of Louis XIV till Fontenoy. It is the easiest and (when it works) the most prompt of all instruments. But the sense of an absolute civil government at the moment of the Reformation was something very different. It was a demand, and appetite, proceeding from the whole community, a worship of civil authority. It was deification of the State and of law, it was the adoration of the Executive7
Furthermore one should not look any further for a clearer example of the practice of the “divine right” of kings during the Reformation than the cases of Martin Luther and the reign of King Henry the VIII. Starting off with Martin Luther, “Luther denied any limitation of political power either by Pope or people, nor can it be said that he showed any sympathy for representative institutions; he upheld the inalienable and Divine authority of kings in order to hew down the Upas tree of Rome”8 Lord Acton in page 42 of his book History of Freedom stated that “Lutheran writers constantly condemn the democratic literature that arose in the second age of the Reformation… and Calvin judged that people were unfit to govern themselves, and declared the popular assembly an abuse.
The reign of King Henry the VIII used the axiom of the “divine right” of kings as much as the other reformers mentioned used it. We could actually say that during the reign of King Henry VIII this notion was used even more. The University of Dallas’ Gerald Wegemer argues very convincingly that the “divine right” of kings is a Protestant construct and not a Catholic one in the modern world. Gerald Wegemer states:
In 1528 Anne Boleyn (King Henry VIII’s illegitimate wife) exacerbated Henry’s lust for imperial power by giving him a book that justified everything he would ever want to do. That book was William Tyndale’s The Obedience of a Christian Man. More called this book “a book of disobedience” and diplomatically cautioned Henry about its content. Henry was already highly cautious about the author; he had, in fact banned Tyndale from England for advocating Luther’s revolutionary ideas. Nonetheless, he was soon educed by the claims of Tyndale’s book. This book is famous in the history of political thought because it gives the first jurisdiction in the English language for the divine right of kings.”9
The last well known example of the notion of the “divine right” of kings comes from Robert Filmer who was the private theologian of James I of England. In his theory regarding the divine rights, he proclaimed that “the king can do no wrong”. All these notions presented above regarding the divine rights of king were not a Catholic concept. Rather it was a concept which for most part existed in the ancient world, and which the Protestant Reformation helped bring back. Now this does not mean that no monarchs in the Middle Ages and prior to the reformation did not abuse their power, but it simply shows that the notion and principal itself of the “Divine Right” of kings was never accepted in Catholic thought.
- Joseph Rickaby “Civil Authority” (The Catholic Encyclopedia 1907)
- Boniface “Political Authority’s Divine Origin”
- Joseph Rickaby “Civil Authority” op. cit
- Michael Davis “The Reign of Christ the King” (TAN Publishers, 1992) pg.12
- REV. John C. Rager “Catholic Sources and the Declaration of Independence”
- Hilaire Belloc “Europe and the Faith” (TAN Publishers, 1920) pg.162
- John C. Rager “Catholic Sources” op. cit
- Gerard Wegemer, Thomas More: Portrait of Courage (Scepter, 1998), 131.)