The Scottish Covenanters and Catholic Political Thought

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By Contributing Writer Karie Schultz.

On 28 February 1638, opponents of King Charles I gathered at Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh to sign the National Covenant, thereby voicing their opposition to the king’s “popish” ecclesiastical reforms and oversight of the church. These Scots, known as the Covenanters, were led by a group of noblemen, ministers, and lawyers who defended the legitimacy of political resistance on behalf of the true religion (Reformed Protestantism) against criticism from Scottish royalists. The Covenanters’ arguments resembled those advanced by other Reformed authors throughout continental Europe in response to the persecution they faced during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Although the distinctiveness of a “Calvinist theory of resistance” has been challenged by Quentin Skinner, most Reformed resistance theorists shared the belief that inferior magistrates might legitimately resist and depose their superiors to protect the true religion. This reasoning permeated Scottish defenses of resistance, but Covenanter leaders also incorporated a more surprising source: the post-Reformation Catholic scholastics.

The Signing of the National Covenant in Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh’ (c.1838) by William Allan.

There has been a tendency amongst church historians—from the seventeenth century to the modern day­­––to consider Catholicism and Calvinism as distinct intellectual traditions that diverged after the Reformation. Historians of religion have generally focused on developments within Protestant confessions or within Catholicism alone rather than on a comparative context. The persistent fear of Catholic worship practices, the equation of the Pope with the Anti-Christ, and the proliferation of vehemently anti-papal rhetoric amongst early modern Protestants also reinforced this tendency for scholars of anti-Catholicism in early modern Britain looking to those phenomena as evidence.

Although Catholics were indeed the enemies of the staunchly Reformed Covenanters, the latter favorably employed Catholic ideas about the natural law and the origins of government in their own resistance theories. The reception of Catholic scholasticism in Reformed political thought resulted, in part, from a problem that the Covenanters faced regarding the proper structure of the church (ecclesiology). The majority of the Covenanting leadership believed that Scripture mandated Presbyterianism, a democratic form of church government constructed upon a system of elders and synods rather than bishops. They needed to defend themselves against criticism from royalists who believed that Presbyterianism was not divinely ordained and that it assumed too much power for the church by reducing royal oversight.

For the majority of Scottish royalists, Presbyterianism was incompatible with absolute monarchy because it limited the king’s power to appoint bishops and maintain control over the church. King James VI and I advanced such ideas in The True Law of Free Monarchies (1598) to challenge George Buchanan’s theory of a social contract between the ruler and his or her people. James’s divine right theory of kingship formed the basis for royalist discourse and was echoed in the most thorough exposition of Scottish royalism in the period: Sacro-sancta regum majestas (1644). Scottish bishop John Maxwell (d. 1647) wrote this tract to defend the king’s absolute sovereignty over both the church and the civil kingdom, drawing on The six books of the commonwealth (1576) by the nominal French Catholic Jean Bodin (c. 1529-1596) to ground his theory. Within this context, the Covenanters needed to prove that the form of civil government was voluntary. If government was based on a contract, subjects could impose limitations on the king’s power over the church. Reformed Presbyterianism could thus flourish when freed from the king’s imposition of bishops and popish ecclesiastical reforms.

To advance this argument, the Covenanters resorted to contemporary Catholic scholastics who had written extensively on the voluntary, contractual nature of civil government. For example, the primary political theorist for the Covenanters, Samuel Rutherford (1600-1661), engaged extensively with Catholic scholastic authors to build his case for the voluntary origins of government. In Lex, Rex; or, the law and the prince (1644), Rutherford drew upon Catholic authors, such as Fernando Vázquez de Menchaca (1512-1569) and Francisco Suárez (1548-1617), to create a theory of the political state that was safe for Presbyterianism. Vázquez was a Spanish jurist in the School of Salamanca whose ideas about the ius gentium (the law of nations) informed Hugo Grotius’s exposition on international law and freedom of the seas. Rutherford, who frequently ascribed the accolade of ‘the learned senator’ to Vázquez, drew upon the jurist’s ideas about the law of nations to prove that subjects willingly choose the form of civil government (monarchy, aristocracy, or democracy) since no human being is born in a position of natural superiority or inferiority (Lex, Rex (London, 1644), p. 92). Absolute monarchy was thus not prescribed by God as the only legitimate form of civil government (as the royalists argued). Vázquez’s treatment of natural human equality and the voluntary nature of political government allowed Rutherford to argue that protecting Presbyterianism was of the utmost importance because it was mandated in Scripture. The form of civil government was not. Subjects could thus limit the king’s royal prerogative since they had voluntarily consented to live under his authority and could resist him when he threatened the church. By drawing on Catholic scholastic analyses of legal categories, such as the natural law and law of nations, Rutherford was able to defend a civil state structure accommodating for Presbyterianism. 

On the one hand, Reformed engagement with Catholic political thought was not surprising or unusual. As the Reformed attempted to forge their own orthodoxy after the Reformation, they frequently deferred to medieval authors, such as John Duns Scotus or Thomas Aquinas, as representatives of Western Christendom. On the other hand, it was unusual that Reformed authors drew favorably on the work of post-Reformation Catholic authors, such as Vázquez, Suárez, Luis de Molina (1535-1600), or Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621). These Catholic scholastics often engaged in bitter disputes with Protestant scholars throughout continental Europe and the British Isles. That a staunchly Reformed Covenanter such as Rutherford resorted to their theories about the natural law and the law of nations to develop his own ideas about the political state suggests the presence of something distinctive in Catholic scholastic political thought that was not as readily available in the Reformed intellectual tradition.

I would argue that this distinctiveness resulted from the differing priorities of Catholics and Protestants who developed political theories in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Catholic authors in powerful European empires such as Spain, where the School of Salamanca was also located, were preoccupied with defending imperial expansion and often did so by developing categories of natural law and the law of nations (such as Vázquez and Suárez). By contrast, many Protestant authors throughout Europe expounded upon the legitimacy of resistance by self-defense in light of the persecution they faced. There was more focus on ideas about lesser magistrates and self-defense in early modern Reformed political discourse, whereas extensive development on legal categories took precedence in Catholic scholastic thought. The emphases in the two traditions effectively combined to form a language of political legitimacy in civil-war Scotland. Rutherford merged Catholic ideas about the law of nations and voluntary government with a Reformed legitimization of resistance by inferior magistrates to defend resistance to Charles and promote a Presbyterian settlement. The differing priorities of Catholic and Protestant authors in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries thus allowed political dialogue to transcend traditional confessional boundaries. The Covenanters favorably incorporated elements of Catholic scholastic thought into Reformed resistance theory to create the language of political legitimacy underlying the British revolutions of the mid seventeenth century. Ultimately, this argument about inter-confessional elements to early modern political thought is not entirely new. Skinner, for example, noted the reception of Catholic scholastic ideas (such as conciliarism) in Calvinist and Lutheran arguments for resistance in his Foundations of modern political thought (Cambridge, 1978). Yet an analysis of Catholic scholasticism and Scottish political thought makes an important historiographical intervention. Skinner and other scholars of the ‘Cambridge School,’ including Annabel Brett and Richard Tuck, have postulated that the ideas underlying modern liberalism (such as individual rights and popular sovereignty) emerged as the church became distanced from the state. John Coffey and Alister Chapman have rightly observed that this approach tends to detach political ideas from their religious context. Yet (as seen in the case of Covenanted Scotland), the importance of ecclesiology to debates about the structure of the civil state challenges the idea that modern liberalism emerged only when the church was progressively marginalized. Instead, an ecclesiological crisis of the church within Protestantism played a significant role in the development of the political thought underlying the modern liberal state, including ideas about constitutional monarchy, consent of the governed, and the right of resistance. In Scotland, this ecclesiological problem resulted in the incorporation of Catholic scholastic legal categories into Protestant ideas about resistance by inferior magistrates in self-defense. Royalists and Covenanters alike adapted political ideas from Catholic scholastic political theory to create a state that was safe for different forms of church polity. Ecclesiology and defense of the church was essential to Covenanter political thought. The people had a God-given duty to defend and protect the true religion, including the form of church government mandated by Scripture (Presbyterianism). The church was thus fundamental, not marginal, in shaping the political ideas underlying modern liberalism, urging us to reconsider the position of both Calvinism and Catholicism in the development of the modern secular state.

Karie Schultz is a final-year Ph.D .candidate at Queen’s University Belfast. She is completing a dissertation on ecclesiology and political thought in the Scottish Revolution (1638-1651) as part of a European Research Council-funded project: ‘War and the supernatural in early modern Europe.’ Her broader research interests pertain to the political, religious, and intellectual history of seventeenth-century Britain and continental Europe.

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