Catholic Political Thought & John Locke: Part I
by Joe Hargrave
It is becoming fashionable in the now and unfortunately familiar leftist-traditionalist alliance to gang up on the political ideas of John Locke as the source and origin of all that is anti-Catholic in Anglo-American politics. Articles in the Distributist Review, books by certain prolific authors, and blog posts appearing on certain sites, all have produced the equivalent of a picture of Locke with devil horns and perhaps a long, thin moustache to twirl while he’s tying hapless girls to the railroad tracks. There’s certainly no denying that Locke was himself opposed to what he thought Catholicism was. But sometimes, even the enemies of the Church are sharing her premises in spite of themselves.
Catholics, for instance, tend to forget that it was the great mind of St. Robert Bellarmine that opposed the would-be autocracy of the Stuart monarchy in Britain in the person of James I (as I understand it, St. Robert put the king to shame). This is the same dynasty whose deposition at the end of the same century would be justified by Locke in his famous Second Treatise of Civil Government (ST). It seems rather natural and unsurprising, then, that Locke’s arguments against divine kingship and for the social contract would borrow from and in some cases replicate the thought of St. Robert. For instance, the latter, in De Laicis, ch.6, writes:
Divine law gives this power [to rule] to no particular man, therefore Divine law gives this power to the collected body. Furthermore, in the absence of positive law, there is no good reason why, in a multitude of equals, one rather than another should dominate. Therefore, power belongs to the collected body…
[I]ndividual forms of government in specific instances derive from the law of nations, not from the natural law, for, as is evident, it depends on the consent of the people to decide whether kings, or consuls, or other magistrates are to be established in authority over them; and, if there be legitimate cause, the people can change a kingdom into an aristocracy, or an aristocracy into a democracy, and vice versa… (emphasis added)
And this is Locke, from the ST, Sec. 95:
Men being, as has been said, by nature, all free, equal, and independent, no one can be put out of this estate, and subjected to the political power of another, without his own consent… when any number of men have so consented to make one community or government, they are thereby presently incorporated, and make one body politic, wherein the majority have a right to act and conclude the rest.
Thus we have a clear example of a Catholic author, one of the greatest in history, arguing for government by consent long before Locke had written anything on the topic. Other examples, such as Francesco Suarez of the Salamanca school, could also be brought forward, but this ought to suffice for now. In my next post I will examine Locke’s views in much greater depth; for the remainder of this post, however, I want to focus on few other theorists to set the stage.
Beginning with Machiavelli, and reaching a fevered pitch in the works of Thomas Hobbes and Jean Jacques-Rousseau, opposition to the Church from the early-modern political philosophers derived almost entirely from the obstacle that the Church posed to the consolidation of national power, as well as the loyalty of citizens to the state. In book 1, Chapter 12 of his Discourses on Livy, Machiavelli blames the Church exclusively for Italy’s relative weakness:
This is that the Church has kept and still keeps this province (country) of ours divided: and Truly any country never was united or happy, except when it gave its obedience entirely to one Republic or one Prince, as has happened to France and Spain. And the reason that Italy is not in the same condition, and is not also governed by one Republic or one Prince, is solely the Church…
This more specific and local concern of Machiavelli’s, however, is dwarfed by the invective that Thomas Hobbes displayed for the Catholic Church. In the final chapter of Leviathan, after having mocked the Church by comparing it to a fictional kingdom of faeries, he writes:
To this and such like resemblances between the papacy and the kingdom of fairies may be added this, that as the fairies have no existence but in the fancies of ignorant people, rising from the traditions of old wives or old poets: so the spiritual power of the Pope (without the bounds of his own civil dominion) consisteth only in the fear that seduced people stand in of their excommunications, upon hearing of false miracles, false traditions, and false interpretations of the Scripture.
It was not therefore a very difficult matter for Henry the Eighth by his exorcism; nor for Queen Elizabeth by hers, to cast them out.
Of course, readers must know that the aim of Hobbes was to justify an absolute monarchy; throughout Leviathan, this explicit contempt for the Church is on display as the chief obstacle to uniformity and consensus under the great monarch – whether from the clergy itself, or from the universities, which Hobbes charged with perverting the “pure” Gospel with the vain philosophy of Aristotle. The Church demands loyalty to Christ before the king; in the Hobbesian view, it is the king and not the pope who must decide what loyalty to Christ consists of.
Rousseau is even more clear in his view of the Church as an obstacle to civil unity, and the source of all division and dissention in society. First I will note that in book 4, chapter 8 of The Social Contract, Rousseau pays direct homage to Hobbes as the foundation of his treatment of civil religion:
There is a third sort of religion of a more singular kind, which gives men two codes of legislation, two rulers, and two countries, renders them subject to contradictory duties, and makes it impossible for them to be faithful both to religion and to citizenship. Such are the religions of the Lamas and of the Japanese, and such is Roman Christianity, which may be called the religion of the priest. It leads to a sort of mixed and anti-social code which has no name…
Of all Christian writers, the philosopher Hobbes alone has seen the evil and how to remedy it, and has dared to propose the reunion of the two heads of the eagle [church and state], and the restoration throughout of political unity, without which no State or government will ever be rightly constituted.
Rousseau, like Hobbes, believed in a sort of “original” Gospel that was later corrupted by the Catholic Church, undoubtedly as a justification for their “exorcism” of the Church from the state. But his real motivation is obvious; speaking directly of the Catholic Church, of this “third sort of religion” contra the “pure” Gospels and a pure civil religion a la ancient Rome:
All that destroys social unity is worthless; all institutions that set man in contradiction to himself are worthless.
Rousseau surmises his view of the place of the Church within society on the following note – a note which, I am sorry to say, is shared by almost everyone on the left today, even among many Catholics:
But whoever dares to say: Outside the Church is no salvation, ought to be driven from the State, unless the State is the Church, and the prince the pontiff.
Insidiously, today the left argues for the banishment of the Church from politics on the grounds that we have a “separation of Church and State”, when in reality it was the very presence of the Church that for so long guaranteed, if not a true “separation”, a clear recognition of the differences between the temporal and spiritual authority, with the latter keeping the former in check. It was the Papacy that dared to correct kings and restrain their limitless ambitions throughout the Middle Ages, and for this it became intolerable to those who dreamed of total authority and absolute government.
As we see in the writings of St. Robert, moreover, and as we would find in other Catholic writers of the era, the power of the king is not unlimited. This is not merely because the Church has rights which must be respected by all human authority, but also because the Church, especially after the synthesis with Aristotelian thought, acknowledged the social contract, the notion that men are equal with respect to their natural rights, and that while authority ultimately flows from God, particular governments exist legitimately only through the consent of the governed.
It ought to be clear by now that John Locke, in opposing absolute government, the “divine right of kings”, and other authoritarian pretensions, shares very little in common with Hobbes or Rousseau on these points. It ought also to be clear that he shares a great deal more in common with St. Robert than many are typically willing to acknowledge. In my next post, I will show how the political thought of Pope Leo XIII, which is based on this tradition, overlaps with the political thought of Locke in the ST in several crucial areas. Stay tuned!