Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

Leviathan: III.XLII.89–109

Saint Robert Cardinal Bellarmine


Continuing his response to Bellarmine’s view of the authority of the pope, in today’s passage Hobbes refutes the idea that the pope is “the supreme judge in questions of faith and manners” (XLII.89). Specifically, Hobbes refutes the claims that:

1) the judgments of the pope are infallible;
2) the pope can make laws and punish lawbreakers;
3) that Christ gave “all jurisdiction ecclesiastical” to the pope (XLII.89).

We’ll deal with the first two today and pick up the third tomorrow.

Bellarmine is simply wrong to claim that the pope is infallible. It does not matter whether we are referring to the pope’s theological judgments or his claims about “manners” (i.e., customs and practices of the church). In terms of judgments, Hobbes argues as we have already seen—if there is a Christian sovereign, then that sovereign is the authority regardless of the judgments of the pope. If there is no Christian sovereign, then the authority immediately laid down by Christ is diffused to the magisterial officials of the church, as we saw earlier. (For what it’s worth, I think both Hobbes and Bellarmine are playing fast and loose with the various texts of scripture they cite—though that may be unfair, since I haven’t read Bellarmine apart from his critics.)

In terms of being infallible with reference to the practice of the church—to manners—Hobbes argues that this is in some sense irrelevant. If by manners we mean “essential doctrines of the faith,” then we’ve really argued nothing at all. (Hobbes will outline those core doctrines in the next chapter.) Every Christian must hold these doctrines whether he is the pope or not. And if we mean that the pope has special supernatural protection that keeps him from ever teaching anything false,

yet doth not this entitle him to any jurisdiction in the dominions of another prince, unless we shall also say: a man is obliged in his conscience to set on work upon all occasions the best workman, even then also when he hath formerly promised his work to another. (XLII.94)

It may be that the pope never teaches anything false even in nonessentials, but that doesn’t negate our responsibility to obey our legitimate sovereigns in those nonessentials.

These, however, are academic arguments in any case. This is because

it hath not been declared by the Church, nor by the Pope himself, that he is the civil sovereign of all the Christians in the world; and therefore, all Christians are not bound to acknowledge his jurisdiction in point of manners. (XLII.96)

Even if the pope were to try to legislate nonessential practices, Christians are already bound to obey their existing sovereigns. The pope would in this case be encouraging Christians to pursue injustice, it already having been established that sovereigns are “makers of the justice and injustice of actions, there being nothing in men’s manners that makes them righteous or unrighteous but their conformity with the law of the sovereign” (XLII.96).

In any case, the pope lacks the power to legislate, whatever his supporters may claim to the contrary. Bellarmine confuses the charge to give counsel to believers everywhere (which is fine for the pope to do) with the charge to legislate (which is for the sovereign alone, at least until the return of Christ). Again, we don’t need to go through Hobbes’s scriptural exposition to see where he is going to end up: only the sovereign can make laws, all the church authorities can do—unless they happen to also be the sovereign—is give advice.

Hobbes’s evidence for this is that the key “power” given to the church in scripture is that of excommunication. But, as we’ve already seen, that’s not so much a punishment as it is a public embarrassment:

St Paul does not bid kill him that disobeys, nor beat, nor imprison, nor amerce him (which legislators may all do), but avoid his company, that he may be ashamed. Whereby it is evident it was not the empire of an apostle, but his reputation amongst the faithful, which the Christians stood in awe of. (XLII.108)

Even the biblical injunction to obey our pastors and to obey our governing authorities should be read in such a way, according to Hobbes, that we listen to the former as wise advisors and the latter as parents. This isn’t to say that a Christian should believe heresy, just that he ought to obey the commands of his sovereign:

…a Christian king, as a pastor and teacher of his subjects, makes not thereby his doctrines laws. He cannot oblige men to believe, though as a civil sovereign he may make laws suitable to his doctrine, which may oblige men to certain actions, and sometimes to such as they would not otherwise do and which he ought not to command. And yet, when they are commanded, they are laws; and the external actions done in obedience to them, without the inward approbation, are the actions of the sovereign, and not of the subject, which is in that case but as an instrument, without any motion of his own at all, because God hath commanded to obey them. (XLII.106)

God certainly would not, Hobbes claims, tell us to obey our earthly sovereigns and then proceed to split that sovereignty, which would lead to the end of “all peace and justice… which is contrary to all laws, both divine and human” (XLII.109).

So at the end of the day, is there anything the pope does have sovereignty over? We’ll take up that question in our next (and last) post on this long, long chapter.


Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri.

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