An oft-reprinted editorial, “Did Bellarmine Whisper to Thomas Jefferson?,” suggests that the American statesman might have been influenced by Robert Bellarmine. While recent scholarship has confirmed that Jefferson came to Bellarmine through the works of the radical Protestant intermediary, Algernon Sydney, is the Declaration of Independence really influenced by Catholic teaching?

In the wake of Pope Leo’s nineteenth-century papacy and especially in the interwar years of the twentieth century, there was a serious revival of Thomastic thought among Catholics. Spear-headed by academics/public intellectuals such as Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson, and Thomas Gilby, scholars became intensely interested not just in St. Thomas Aquinas but in his sixteenth-century Jesuit followers often known as “neo Thomists,” such as the Spaniards Francisco Suarez (1548-1617) and Juan de Mariana (1536-1624) and the Italian, Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621). Could it be possible, for example, that Aquinas’s On Kingship or Contra Summa Gentiles might speak eloquently and profoundly to the post-medieval world? Might Bellarmine, for example, have anticipated Jefferson, and might Aquinas prophetically have offered solutions to the Enlightenment and the Age of Revolution? After all, many thought, Aquinas’s followers had argued for the sustaining of the “divine duty of monarchs”—to give oneself completely to the community—rather than the more Protestant “divine right of kings.”

On May 20, 1937, an oft-reprinted editorial, “Did Bellarmine Whisper to Thomas Jefferson?,” first appeared in the Catholic Courier in Rochester, New York. It saw republication innumerable times over the next nineteen years (its last appearance was in 1956) in parish and diocesan newspapers. As the title not-so-subtly suggests, Jefferson might have been influenced by Robert Bellarmine. While recent scholarship has confirmed that Jefferson came to Bellarmine through the works of the radical Protestant intermediary, Algernon Sydney, [1] this 1937 article, though, implied that Jefferson of 1776 had carefully read Bellarmine of 1576. “Nearly two centuries apart they lived—Robert Bellarmine, Catholic theologian, and Thomas Jefferson, an American patriot,” the article notes. “Yet their pens inked out philosophies so similarly sound and God-like that we wonder, we Catholics, whether at least a whisper from the great theologian did not reach the ear of the great statesman as he pondered and wrote his historic document.”[2] After providing a number of quotes from Jefferson and Bellarmine that made the two seem to be best friends and allies, the article concluded: “Government by consent of the governed” has been Catholic teaching down the ages. The 16th-century doctrine of the ‘Divine Right of Kings’ was, and is, as repellent to the Catholic as it is to the American and when one is both Catholic and American, it is just twice as repellent. So here’s to Cardinal Bellarmine and Statesman Jefferson! May their philosophies ever govern our land and may they conquer those poor lands where ‘kings still can do no wrong’ and where no man dare say them ‘nay’!”[3] With this conclusion, each article then referred the reader to a specific local Catholic authority to discover authentic Catholic teaching on political and philosophical matters.

A similar article—in format and intent—appeared in a Cincinnati Catholic paper in August 1945, just as the Second World War was coming to an end. Reporting on an article issued from the Vatican, the Cincinnati paper asserted:

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’s “Osservatore 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 “Osservatore” article 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.[4]

As with the previous article reprinted from 1937 through 1956, this 1945 article places certain Bellarmine quotes in tandem with certain Jefferson quotes, and the two, not surprisingly, sound very much alike. The 1945 article, though, cautioned the reader against making too direct a connection between the Italian Jesuit and the American statesman.

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.[5]

Yet, the 1945 article concludes, one does not need to provide direct causation. It is enough to know that Bellarmine anticipated the ideas of the Declaration of Independence by over a century and a half. Indeed, the article points out, Bellarmine had made all of his arguments before the Mayflower landed in Plymouth, thus proving that Catholics had reached such philosophy before non-Catholics. Even Bellarmine was not necessarily original. “Nor did Bellarmine’s teachings rise full grown from an arid soil,” the article concludes. “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.”[6] No doubt, there lurks the stench of jingoism and partisanship in these articles.

The argument about the relationship of Catholic teaching to the American founding, though, reached its conclusion with John Courtney Murray’s 1960 book, We Hold These Truths. But sadly, this must be a topic for a different essay.

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[1] See, for example, the excellent work of Donald Lutz.

[2] My quotes are taken from “Did Bellarmine Whisper to Thomas Jefferson?” in The Brookfield (Missouri) Argus (October 17, 1947), page 3.

[3] “Did Bellarmine Whisper to Thomas Jefferson?” in The Brookfield (Missouri) Argus (October 17, 1947), pg 3.

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

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

The featured image is a combination of Robert Bellarmine and Thomas Jefferson. Both have been brightened for clarity and are in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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