How Catholic Churchmen Supported Popular Sovereignty From the Bible

April 19, 2017

Paradise by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1530.

Like the Protestant Reformers, a number of Catholic counter-reformers directly derived and defended popular sovereignty, or the people’s rule, from the Bible. Two modern Catholic churchmen of the 1500s and 1600s—Italian Jesuit priest Robert Bellarmine and Spanish Jesuit priest Francisco Suarez—notably presented and defended popular sovereignty from scripture. They were influenced by early Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas.

Bellarmine and Suarez supported popular sovereignty based on the idea from the Bible that all humans are created free and equal by God.  For in the Bible, Adam and Eve, the first human beings created by God, are given authority by God to multiply and to take dominion over the earth—according to Genesis 1, 2, and 9.  Genesis 1:26-28 states, “So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.”

Bellarmine observes that during this period of mankind’s creation and reproduction in Genesis, God does not appoint a particular individual, group, or lineage of men to rule over other men.  Rather, all have equal standing before God and equal right to dominion on earth.  Civil power, then, resides with the people who may delegate it to a person or group by consent.  Bellarmine states in his Of the Laity of 1580/1590,

Suarez, considered by many as one of the great Catholic thinkers after Aquinas, similarly argues from Genesis that humans are created free and equal by nature, not slaves to one another.  In his 1612 Tract on Laws, he states, “Political power did not begin until families began to be gathered together into one community.  The community did not begin by the creation of Adam, or by his will alone, but of all of them which did agree in this community.”  Suarez notes that since God did not assign political power, the people, not any particular person or family line, holds political authority in the community.

These views of popular sovereignty were later supported by thinkers such as John Locke and Algernon Sidney who were important to the American Founders and American political thought.

Contributed by AHEF and Angela E. Kamrath.

Source:  Kamrath, Angela E.  The Miracle of America:  The Influence of the Bible on the Founding History and Principles of the United States of America for a People of Every Belief.  Second Edition.  Houston, TX:  American Heritage Education Foundation, 2014, 2015.

Related Blogs/Videos:
1.  The Principle of Popular Sovereignty:  Consent of the Governed
2.  How Protestant Religious Reformers Supported Popular Sovereignty from the Bible
3.  How Reformed Political Thinkers Defended Popular Sovereignty From the Bible
4.  The Context of the Protestant Reformation
5.  The Igniting of the Protestant Reformation – Martin Luther’s 95 Theses
6.  The Key Tenets of the Protestant Reformation
7.  The Key Political Thinkers & Writings of the Reformation Era
8.  The Catholic Counter-Reformation


Activity:  Miracle of America High School Teacher Course Guide, Unit 1, Part 1, Activity 8:  The Roots of Popular Sovereignty, p. 57-58.  HS.

See also Miracle of America text, p. 46, 48.

To download this whole unit, sign up as an AHEF member (no cost) to access the “resources” page on  To order the printed binder format of the course guide with all the units, go to the AHEF bookstore.

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Published by: The Founding

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