September 14-20, 2003
Time After Pentecost
vol 14, no. 36

Saint Robert Bellarmine


Theologian of the Roman Pontiffs

    The twenty-eighth Doctor in this chronological series on the Doctors of the Church was an Italian born on the feast of the founder of the Franciscans, but trained as a Jesuit who upheld the ideals of the Society as its founders had established. He was an extremely sharp polemist who was not afraid to take on the most vitrolic Protestant theologians and, because this master apologist never wavered from Catholic truth, he always won out in perpetuating the Counter Reformation of Trent. His fame, humility and sense of the Sensus Catholicus won back countless souls who had wavered during the Reformation. But his wisdom was not employed only on the sheep, but the shepherds as well - the chief shepherds - for he was Theologian and Spiritual Counselor to no less than five Popes. He was the noted Saint Robert Bellarmine.

    He was born while the Protestant Reformation revolution was raging throughout Europe. He was born on October 4, 1542 at Montepulciano, Italy, the third of ten children into a noble family. Though he had been born on the feast of the founder of the Order of Friars Minor St. Francis of Assisi, he never became a Franciscan for his earlier formation was conducted by the Jesuits. Thus he joined the Society of Jesus in 1560 at age 18, enrolling in the seminary at Padua and as a young man taught Greek, Hebrew and theology. Ordained in 1570 at Ghent, he was reassigned as a professor at Louvain University where he became famous as a controversialist, and one Protestants did not want to deal with. From that point on he never ceased to defend Catholic doctrine against its adversaries. He remained there until 1577.

    Because of poor health, which became his cross througout his life, he transfered to the Pontifical Gregorian University where he taught theology for another eleven years. During this time he not only wrote four volumes of his work Controversies which came under heavy attack from Protestant sympathizers who had infiltrated the Vatican. Because of this assault on his writings they were almost placed on the Index of Forbidden Books but Pope Sixtus V intervened because of his loyalty to Robert and the saint's close association and invaluable assistance to the Vatican.

    In 1588 Robert was chosen spiritual director for the University which was then called the Roman College. One of his charges who he guided was a young seminarian named Saint Aloysius Gonzaga who died during his deaconate in 1591 shortly before being ordained. Three years later Robert became head of the University and subsequently provincial for the Jesuits' in Naples.

    In 1599 Pope Clement VIII elevated him to Cardinal, much to his objections for this learned Jesuit did not feel worthy, but Clement knew he would make a great cardinal and enlisted him to help solve the dispute between the Jesuits and Dominicans regarding predestination. Three years later Clement appointed Cardinal Bellarmine Archbishop of Capua.

    Three years later Pope Paul V recalled him to Rome where he was appointed the Official Theologian for the Holy See and became a constant companion to the Pontiff, being positioned as a member of almost every Congregation of the Holy Office. Ironically it was Cardinal Bellarmine who was called on to silence Galileo in 1616. Few realize that Galileo and Robert were close friends and it was because of this the saint was selected to persuade his friend to advance his findings as theories - hypotheses - rather than as fully proved theories. Contrary to erroneous reports, Galileo was not excommunicated or condemned but merely censured.

    Cardinal Bellarmine served as Theologian and Counselor to five Popes: Sixtus V, Innocent IX, Clement VIII, Paul V, and Gregory XV. It was this Jesuit red-hat who wrote his extensive De Romano Pontifice on the Roman Pontiffs, and his words from the second book, Chapter 29 take on much more significance in these post Vatican II times for he wrote, with the approval and encouragement of all the Popes he served: "Just as it is lawful to resist the Pope that attacks the body, it is also lawful to resist the one who attacks souls or who disturbs civil order, or above all, who attempts to destroy the Church. I say that it is lawful to resist by not doing what he orders and preventing his will from being executed."

    He forever enriched the Church with a large number of learned and valuable writings, among which are his Course of Controversy, his famous Commentary on the Psalms, a treatise on The Seven Last Words of Jesus Christ., and his Art of Dying Well which would be a wise choice for any and all Catholics today for few of us are truly prepared to meet our Maker.

    Despite his run-in with one Pope, St. Robert Bellarmine was the great champion of the Seat of Peter. Often he was called on to defend the Papacy, most notably with the interdict placed on Venice against Fra Paoli Sarpi. The Cardinal was not afraid to confront anyone, including kings such as King James I of England who had writeen two books defending his theory of supremacy in the controversy that had developd when Archpriest Blackwell took an Oath of Allegiance to James and which denied Papal jurisdiction in temporal matters. Bellarmine, falling back on Unam Sanctam and other decrees, wrote his De potestate papae which clearly denied the divine right of earthly kings. It was publicly burned by the Paris Parliament as the seeds of the French Revolution, beginning with the Hugenots was already starting to sprout.

    It wasn't only temporal rulers who Cardinal Bellarmine confronted. Pope Sixtus V took offense when the saint declared that Popes had only indirect jurisdiction over secular rulers for Robert was first and foremost concerned with the spiritual jurisdiction of souls and didn't hesitate to point this out to even Sovereign Pontiffs. Sixtus even went to such measures as to place Bellarmine's first volume of his Disputationes de controversiis on the Index, but God had knew better and Sixtus passed on before he could take such a drastic, and wrong measure.

    In 1621 at age 79 Robert retired to St. Andrew's Novitiate, the Jesuit house near the Quirinale where he was visited and blessed by Pope Gregory XV just before Robert breathed his last breath reciting the Creed on September 17, 1621.

    In 1930 he was canonized by Pope Pius XI and declared a Doctor of the Church a year later. Throughout his life he was a staunch defender of the truths in refuting Protestant heresy and reconverting thousands who had fallen prey to the Protestant Reformation. His tomb is in the Jesuit Church, the Gesù, in Rome.


    Note: [editor's bold, brackets and italicized for emphasis] Some of the sources taken from: Dictionary of Saints, John J. Delaney (Doubleday); Little Pictorial Lives of the Saints, a compilation based on Butler’s Lives of the Saints and other sources by John Gilmary Shea (Benziger Brothers: New York, 1894; Saints of the Roman Calendar, Enzo Lodi).

For the chronological list of the Doctors of the Church to date, see www.DailyCatholic.org/2003doc.htm Archives.


      Doctors of the Church Series