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The Catholic Scholastic Roots of the Struggle for Independence

Robert Reilly’s new book America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding (Ignatius 2020) reveals a reversal of what many understood about the American Revolution. We know the chant against taxation without representation. Less known, says Reilly, is its ancient roots in Greek philosophy and Catholic scholasticism “Quod omnes tangit ab omnibus tracatri.” What touches all must be approved by all.

Reilly, who spent twenty-five years in government service including in the office of the Secretary of Defense under George W. Bush and in the Reagan White House, also served as head of Voice of America. He is now the director of the Westminster Institute.

I had the chance to speak to Mr. Reilly about his new book and what it reveals for us today.

The American revolution we know was a fight against the principle of the divine right of kings. Contrary to popular belief that right did not go back millennia, but only as far as the protestant reformation and the enlightenment.

Reilly explains:

“To read what Robert Bellarmine and Francisco Suarez say is a shocker to most people because they are under the illusion that the divine right of kings was a Catholic teaching or that it grew out of the Catholic Church. Of course, the case is that it is simply the opposite of that. It grew out of the Reformation and the abdication of the church to the prince or the king who then became the head of the national church. So, he was both priest and ruler whereas that was resisted by the Catholic Church even though it was affected by this as you know,” He explains.

The divine right of kings is that the monarch is the ultimate authority who cares for his people. He himself gets his authority from God and it is total. The sovereign rules as he or she sees fit and, therefore, becomes the law but is not subject to it. This is in order to keep peace in his kingdom.

The American Revolution fought for the consent of the governed. There is no king and the people rule now through elections and elected representatives. No one has the ultimate authority or is above the law.

Reilly explains that this was not a new theory in the world but has its roots in ancient Greek understandings of reason. It later developed in the Catholic Church in her religious orders during the middle ages and through the work of St. Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century.

Going back to pre-Socratic philosophy and Greece with Heraclitus and Anaximander, they noticed there was an order in nature that was rational and that man could apprehend it through this reason and they wondered it how could this be so. Heraclitus speculated that there must be behind it a divine intelligence that he names logos, the Greek word for reason or word. This divine intelligence put forth the rational order of the universe. As well as providing man with his reason to understand it.

“Now this was a tremendously significant achievement of Greek philosophy of which we are the beneficiaries. Of course, when Christianity arrived we know from the beginning of the gospel of St. John that God is introduced as logos. In the beginning was the logos the word and the logos was with God and the logos was god and all things are made through him as logos and now we know we have a rational order in creation because god himself is reason because the logos enters his own creation,” says Reilly

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