Online Library of Liberty

A collection of scholarly works about individual liberty and free markets. A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.

Advanced Search

The Jesuit priest and political philosopher Edward Bellarmine grapples with the problem of a subject’s obedience to kings or popes (1610)

The Jesuit priest and political philosopher Edward Bellarmine constructs a dialogue between “the people” and “the Pope” in which the Pope thinks of Christ as the Lord who owns the flock of sheep, himself as the shepherd, the people as the “little sheep” at the very bottom, and the Kings who rule over the people are the “rams” who might at any time turn into “wolves”:

People: Why do you prohibit what God commands us to do?

Pope: No, I do not prohibit, but rather I command you not to do what God prohibits you to do. I am the shepherd, established by Christ who is the Lord of the flock. You people are the little sheep; your kings are the rams. And therefore, as long as your kings continue to be rams, I allow them to rule and direct you, but if they become wolves, will it be right that I allow the sheep of my Lord to be directed by wolves? Therefore, rightfully I prohibit your following them, as the Lord prohibits this also, since with too great danger are the sheep ruled by the wolves.

People: Holy Father, you are by no means superior to our king in temporal matters, and therefore you cannot stand in the way of the temporal deference that we offer him.

Pope: When your eternal salvation is jeopardized because of the temporal deference you offer the king, then I am absolutely superior to your king even in temporal matters, for I have to direct both you and him to eternal life and I have to remove all the obstacles that stand in the way of that journey.

People: Why do you prohibit what God commands us to do?

Pope: No, I do not prohibit, but rather I command you not to do what God prohibits you to do. I am the shepherd, established by Christ who is the Lord of the flock. You people are the little sheep; your kings are the rams. And therefore, as long as your kings continue to be rams, I allow them to rule and direct you, but if they become wolves, will it be right that I allow the sheep of my Lord to be directed by wolves? Therefore, rightfully I prohibit your following them, as the Lord prohibits this also, since with too great danger are the sheep ruled by the wolves.

People: Maybe because it is your prerogative to interpret the will of God contained in the divine law and in the Scriptures?

Pope: You said it.

People: But nevertheless, an interpretation which would completely annul the law and destroy the command must not be offered.

Pope: Which law of God did either my predecessors or I ever destroy and annul with our interpretation? People: If there is anything doubtful or obscure in divine law, we recur to the See of Peter, that is, to the See that you occupy, to obtain the true interpretation, but what is clear in itself and obvious does not need to be enlightened by any interpretation.

Pope: So? People: Since our Lord and Savior orders us to give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s, and then, through the apostle, to be subject to and to obey the princes and the authorities, then you have to declare to us what is Caesar’s, that is, what it is that we owe to our king and what is God’s, so that we can give to each his own, and if you make this distinction we listen willingly to your voice. But when you say: “Give nothing to Caesar or your prince, you contradict Christ and therefore we do not listen to your voice.”

About this Quotation:

In the early 17th century the issue of just rulership by both Kings and the leaders of the Church (whether Catholic or Protestant) occupied theorists like Bellarmine who tied himself up in knots trying to define the lines which separated “secular” matters from “spiritual” matters, and where the power of a King stopped and the power of a Pope began. In his controversial pamphlet “On the Temporal Power of the Pope. Against William Barclay” (1610) Bellarmine inserts an interesting dialog between a representative of “The People” who has the audacity to argue about matters of political and moral theory with the Pope (Paul V was Pope from 1605 to 1621). This ordinary person wants to know why he should or should not obey his King if the Church commands him otherwise. The Pope’s answer reveals something very interesting about early modern political thinking (i.e. before the English Revolution inroduced notions of individual rights and political representation), namely that the people were at the bottom (the little sheep) and that control of them was being fought over by Lords, shepherds, rams, and wolves. It would take a revolution like that of the English (1647) and the American (1776) to get people thinking about not having any “Lords, shepherds, rams, and wolves” ruling them at all.

More Quotations