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The Declaration of Independence was a bold statement of human rights, based on the then radical principle that government derives its power from the consent of the governed, an idea that was even more radical when it was put forth almost two hundred years earlier by St. Robert Bellarmine.
Roberto Bellarmino was born in Montepulciano in 1542 to a poor, but noble family. A child prodigy, he composed poetry in both Italian and Latin, memorized the epic Aeneid, and wrote hymns still in use today. He entered the Jesuit order at age 18, and soon became an expert in the theology and philosophy of St Thomas Aquinas and other prominent scholars. He was made a professor at the University of Leuven, in what is now Belgium, where his knowledge and brilliance attracted people, both Catholic and Protestant, from across Europe to attend his lectures. In the age of religious wars, the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, this was a remarkable achievement.
In 1576 he returned to Italy, became a professor of theology at the Roman College, and spent 11 years writing one of his great works, the Disputationes, a defense of the papacy and the teachings of the Catholic Church, of which causes he was a leading proponent of the time.
By virtue of his scholarship, labor and virtuous character, he continued to rise, was sent on a diplomatic mission to France, then became head of the College, and finally was made a cardinal inquisitor in 1599.
This put him in a difficult position, since he had to judge people then regarded as heretics and threats to the Church, whether he personally agreed with the persecutions or not. Thus in 1600 he was one of the judges who, based on Church law, condemned the scientist, mathematician and philosopher Giordano Bruno to death for holding what were then considered heretical, pantheistic views. In 1616 he had to warn Galileo that his concept of the heliocentric system was contrary to Church teaching, even though he personally felt that more study was necessary to determine if that was, in fact, the case. (The Church eventually accepted it and established the Vatican Observatory, which greatly advanced the science of astronomy.)
Towards the end of his life he returned to Montepulciano, served as its bishop, and finally retired to Rome, where he died in 1621. He was later declared a Doctor of the Church, and canonized in 1930.
As for the Declaration of Independence, throughout his life he was a prolific and famous writer, widely read, discussed, praised or condemned depending on the audience.
In such books as De Laicis, De Romani Pontificis Ecclesiastica Monarchia and De Officio Principis he set forth such ideas as that all people are born free and equal, that governments are created by them to promote the common good, maintain order and provide justice, and that the people have the right to change the government when it fails to carry out its duties, all concepts found in the Declaration. Coincidence? Hardly.
Following the Reformation, monarchs such as Henry VIII set forth the theory of the Divine Right of Kings, meaning that God had chosen them directly and alone to make all laws and rule with absolute power, and that the people were subject to complete, unquestioning obedience. His later successor James I summed it up well, “Kings are a specie of Divinity”.
The English theologian Robert Filmer wrote a book, Patriarcha: The Naturall Power of Kinges Defended Against the Unnatural Liberty of the People, which, as the title suggests, upheld the Divine Right of Kings. A good portion of it was devoted to quotations from and summations of democratic ideas from the works of Robert Bellarmine, all of which he condemned. Ironically, it was this very book that helped lead to the ultimate end of the Divine Right theory and the triumph of the teachings of the saint.
In the Library of Congress may be found Thomas Jefferson’s personal copy of Patriarcha, full of annotations in his handwriting commenting on these democratic principles of Robert Bellarmine. It obviously had a profound influence on him, since much of the Declaration of Independence paraphrases them.
To give just two examples, in De Laicis it states, “It depends upon the consent of the multitude to constitute over itself a king, consul, or other magistrate. This power is . . . vested in a particular ruler by the counsel and election of men”; in the Declaration it reads, “Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Elsewhere in De Laicis, “The people can change the government”; the Declaration puts it, “Whenever any forms of government become destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new government”. Little more needs to be said.
As we celebrate our freedom and the blessings of democracy, let us remember one of the people who helped make it possible, even if virtually unacknowledged. Perhaps as a saint he is watching down over the land of liberty he helped create.