How Calvinists and Jesuits Challenged State Power Over the Church

By John Zmirak Published on May 19, 2022

In the last piece in this series, I showed how the Reformation and Counter-Reformation unintentionally eroded the independence of churches. Instead of a unified Church counterbalancing the claims and powers of kings, the newly fragmented and mutually hostile churches looked to the State for protection from each other. Instead of the Church offering or withholding its moral support from monarchs who sought its sanction, each church was now engaged in seeking the backing of kings, and their help suppressing competitors.

This vastly increased royal leverage over the function of each church. Dependent on the state for sponsorship, churchmen were demoted to the position of courtiers, seeking favor. In England and Scandinavia, the kings simply took charge of governing the church and appointing bishops.

But in Catholic countries, where the pope in theory retained such power, in fact he was forced to cede it. Whereas medieval popes had bitterly resisted kings appointing clergy, taxing churches, or interfering with church governance, those in the Counter-Reformation surrendered on every front. So the French or Spanish king had de facto the same power over the local church as Henry had seized in England.

Dissident Christians Challenged Kings

In theory, one could imagine this power-shift resulting in a Byzantine situation, such as obtained in Eastern Roman empire and later in Russia — where the church itself was treated as a mere department of state. However, the presence of religious dissenters in each nation undermined such an outcome. There were figures with strong religious arguments against the dominion of king over clergy: members of disfavored, minority religions inside the country. And it was from the pens of such dissenters that we find the first arguments that ordinary citizens might rebel against the government to demand their religious freedom.

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Few Lutherans lived outside territories controlled by friendly princes, and Luther’s theology after the Peasant’s Revolt did not venture into justifications for social revolution. But Calvinists living under persecution in Catholic France, and English Catholic Jesuits (in exile or underground) did precisely that. As David Kopel recounts, these thinkers were the ones to develop Thomas Aquinas’ medieval argument that kings who descended into tyranny ought to lose their thrones or lives. Kopel traces the growth of this argument in great scholarly detail and at length. Let me just offer highlights:

Fear of violence from Catholic extremists made the French Protestants begin posting armed guards during church meetings and organizing church-based militias. Some of these groups vandalized or took over Catholic churches. The typical pattern of Protestant reformers was to suppress Catholic worship wherever the Protestants attained sufficient local power.

Religious Civil War

Where Protestants were weaker, they were periodically subject to organized massacres by radical Catholic nobles and mobs. The worst of these was the infamous St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, in which the French crown colluded in the gangland-style killings of thousands of Calvinists in Paris, and all across France. The country collapsed into episodic religious civil conflict.

Despite some initial successes, the Calvinists (who were called Huguenots) lost the ensuing civil war, settling for a peace that allowed Calvinist worship only in the religion’s historic regions. More Catholic vs. Calvinist civil wars (the Wars of Religion) took place in France in 1567, 1568, 1572, 1574, 1577, and 1580, all of which the Huguenots lost.

French Calvinists went into exile and started writing. In 1573, legal scholar François Hotman published Francogallia, which “argued that France’s ancient constitutional law recognized the separation of powers and the right of the people to overthrow a bad dynasty.” John Calvin had already written that it was the duty of “lesser magistrates” (public officials) to protect the people’s liberties from a wicked, tyrannical king.

Calvin’s successor as leader of the Reformed church, Theodore Beza, expanded on this theory. Citing the Book of Samuel, where the king was the choice of the people, “Beza said that the people and king were bound to each other by covenant. Therefore, surmised Beza, the people (acting through … intermediate magistrates) have the right to remove the crown they had awarded if the king did not obey his part of the covenant.”

The Natural Right of Self-Defense

Advancing the argument still further was a Huguenot writer using the pen name Marcus Junius Brutus (Caesar’s assassin). His 1579 book Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos confirmed previous Calvinist arguments, and expanded them. He agreed that the people’s magistrates could overthrow a king for violating his covenant (and their freedom to practice the true religion). Crucially, as Kopel notes, Brutus went beyond biblical and historical arguments to ground this right of the people. As Brutus wrote:

[N]atural law teaches us to preserve and protect our life and liberty — without which life is scarcely life at all — against all force and injustice. Nature implants this in dogs against wolves … the more so in man against himself, if he has become a wolf to himself.

Brutus’ book would be translated into English and widely popular in England, where the regime practiced persecution both against Catholics and dissenting (Calvinist) Protestants.

Jesuits: A Threat to Monarchs Everywhere

The plight of English Catholics after Elizabeth I took the throne avowing Catholicism, then returned to her mother’s Protestant faith, provoked similar reflections. The militant Society of Jesus provided most of the exiled missionaries willing to enter England and risk a slow death by disembowelment for “treason.” (That was the crime for which Elizabeth executed Catholics, rather than heresy.)

The Jesuits were an international order directly under the control of the pope, not local bishops. Their missions extended from Japan and China to the new French settlements in North America, and Spanish conquests in the south. Thus Jesuits were more prone than other clergy to question the actions of royal officials and the prerogatives of kings. Especially where these interfered with the freedom of the Church. (Indeed, this tendency toward internationalism and loyalty to the Church would lead Enlightenment monarchs to strong arm the Vatican into suppressing the Jesuits by the late 18th century.)

As Kopel observes:

Catholic and Calvinist scholars were engaged in an extremely harsh intellectual war. But they agreed on the right of resistance. … The Jesuit Cardinal Robert Bellarmine was one of the most influential Catholic theologians of the late 16th and early 17th centuries. In De Summo Pontifice, Bellarmine argued that subjects have no obligation to obey a ruler who is a heretic. At the pope’s discretion, such a ruler could be deposed. Bellarmine urged Catholics to ignore King James I’s requirement that they swear an oath of allegiance.

The Prophet of Tyrannicide

Following in Bellarmine’s tradition, Jesuits in Spain advanced the argument. In the 1599 De Rege et Regis Institutione, Juan de Mariana emphasized “the people’s authority over the king. If a tyrant prevented intermediate bodies, such as the French Estates or the Spanish cortes [parliament] from assembling, a private individual would have the right to kill the tyrant. Mariana … was called the ‘prophet of tyrannicide. The Jesuits were accordingly considered subversive of existing governments.”

No doubt. In a bitter irony, the suppression of the Jesuits in France and other countries happened just two decades before the French Revolution. That’s when a generation that had arisen without Jesuit education looked at the monarchy and the Church alike with angry, intolerant eyes. The revolution that would ensue would yield a tyranny worse than anyone had ever known in Europe, the rule of alleged “Reason” that brooked no dissent whatsoever.


John Zmirak is a senior editor at The Stream and author or co-author of ten books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Immigration and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Catholicism. He is co-author with Jason Jones of “God, Guns, & the Government.”

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