Robert Bellarmine

Robert Bellarmine (Roberto Francesco Romolo Cardinale Bellarmino) (4 October 1542, Montepulciano, Siena, Italy – 17 September 1621, Rome) was an Italian Jesuit and a Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church. He is a both a saint and a Doctor of the Church.


Early years

Bellarmine was born at Montepulciano to a noble though impoverished family, son of Vincenzo Bellarmino and wife Cinzia Cervini and a maternal nephew of Pope Marcellus II. His abilities showed themselves early; as a boy he knew Virgil by heart and composed a number of poems in Italian and Latin. One of his hymns, on Mary Magdalene, is included in the breviary.

His father destined him for a political career, hoping that he might restore the fallen glories of the family. His mother however, wished him to enter the Society of Jesus, and her influence prevailed. He entered the Roman novitiate in 1560, remaining in Rome three years. He then went to a Jesuit house at Mondovì, in Piedmont, where he learned Greek.

Bellarmine's systematic study of theology began at the University of Padua in 1567 and 1568, where his teachers were Thomists. But in 1569 he was sent to finish it at Leuven, where he could obtain a fuller acquaintance with the prevailing heresies. There he was ordained, and he quickly obtained a reputation both as a professor and a preacher, in the latter capacity drawing to his pulpit both Catholics and Protestants, even from distant parts.

He was the first Jesuit to teach at the university, where the subject of his course was the Summa of Thomas Aquinas; he also made extensive studies in the Fathers and medieval theologians, which gave him the material for his book "De scriptoribus ecclesiasticis" (Rome, 1613), which was later revised and enlarged by Sirmond, Labbeus, and Casimir Oudin.

In Rome - The Disputationes

Bellarmine's residence in Leuven lasted seven years. His health was undermined by study and asceticism, and in 1576 he made a journey to Italy that it might be restored. Here he was detained by the commission given him by Pope Gregory XIII to lecture on polemical theology in the new Roman College; Bellarmine saw this as an honour and graciously accepted. Bellarmine devoted eleven years to this work, out of whose activities grew his celebrated "Disputationes de controversiis christianae fidei", (also called Disputationes) first published at Ingolstadt in 1581-1593. It occupies in the field of dogmatics the same place as the "Annales" of Baronius in the field of history. This monumental work was the earliest attempt to systematize the various controversies of the time, and made an immense impression throughout Europe, the blow it dealt to Protestantism being so acutely felt in Germany and England that special chairs were founded in order to provide replies to it. Nor has it even yet been superseded as the classical book on its subject-matter, though, as was to be expected, the progress of criticism has impaired the value of some of its historical arguments.

Both were the fruits of the great revival in religion and learning which the Catholic Church had witnessed since 1540. Both bear the stamp of their period; the effort for literary elegance (so-called "maraviglia"), which was considered the principal thing at the beginning of the sixteenth century, had given place to a desire to pile up as much material as possible, to embrace the whole field of human knowledge, and incorporate it into theology.

The first volume treats of the Word of God, of Christ, and of the pope; the second of the authority of ecumenical councils, and of the Church, whether militant, expectant, or triumphant; the third of the sacraments; and the fourth of Divine grace, free will, justification, and good works.

New duties after 1589 - controversial writings

Until 1589, Bellarmine was occupied altogether as professor of theology, but that date marked the beginning rounded the new pope in his life and of new dignities. After the murder of Henry III of France, Pope Sixtus V sent Gaetano as legate to Paris to negotiate with the League, and chose Bellarmine to accompany him as theologian; he was in the city during its siege by Henry of Navarre.

The next pope, Clement VIII, set great store by him. Bellarmine wrote the preface to the new edition of the Vulgate, and was made rector of the Roman College in 1592, examiner of bishops in 1598, and cardinal in 1599. Immediately after his appointment as Cardinal, Pope Clement made him a Cardinal Inquisitor. In this capacity he served as one of the judges at the trial of Giordano Bruno, and concurred in the decision which condemned him to be burnt to death as an obstinate heretic.

In 1602 he was made archbishop of Capua. He had written strongly against pluralism and non-residence, and he set an example himself by leaving within four days for his diocese, where he devoted himself to his episcopal duties, and put into effect the reforming decrees of the Council of Trent.

Under Pope Paul V (reigned 1605-1621), arose the great conflict between Venice and the Papacy. Fra Paolo Sarpi, as spokesman for the Republic of Venice, protested against the papal interdict, and reasserted the principles of the Council of Constance and of the Council of Basel, denying the pope's authority in secular matters. Bellarmine wrote three rejoinders to the Venetian theologians, and at the same time possibly saved Sarpi's life by giving him fair warning of an impending murderous attack.

Robert Bellarmine had occasion to cross swords with a more prominent antagonist, King James I of England, who prided himself on his theological attainments. Bellarmine had written a letter to the English archpriest George Blackwell, reproaching him for having taken the oath of allegiance in apparent disregard of his duty to the pope. James attacked him in 1608 in a Latin treatise, which the scholarly cardinal answered, making fun of the defects of the royal Latinity.

King James replied with a second attack in more careful style, dedicated to the Emperor Rudolph II and all the monarchs of Christendom, in which he posed as the defender of primitive and true Christianity. Bellarmine's answer to this covers more or less the whole controversy.

In 1616, Cardinal Bellarmine notified Galileo Galilei of the decree of the Congregation of the Index against the Copernican doctrine of the mobility of the Earth and the immobility of the Sun. When Galileo complained of rumors to the effect that he had been forced to abjure and do penance, Bellarmine wrote out a certificate denying the rumors, and outlining what had actually taken place—namely, that Galileo had merely been notified of the decree and informed that, as a consequence of it, the Copernican doctrine could not be "defended or held".

In reply to a posthumous treatise of William Barclay, the celebrated Scottish jurist, he wrote another Tractatus de potestate summi pontificis in rebus temporalibus, which reiterated his strong assertions on the subject, and was therefore prohibited in France, where it agreed with the sentiments of neither the king nor the bishops. He was among the theologians consulted on the teaching of Galilei when it first made a stir at Rome.

In his old age he was allowed to return to his old home, Montepulciano, as its bishop for four years, after which he retired to the Jesuit college of St. Andrew in Rome. He received some votes in the conclaves which elected Pope Leo XI, Pope Paul V, and Pope Gregory XV, but only in the second case had he any prospect of election.

During his retirement, he wrote several short books intended to help ordinary people in their spiritual life: The Mind's Ascent to God (1614), The Art of Dying Well (1619), and The Seven Words on the Cross.

Saint Robert Bellarmine died in Rome on 17 September 1621.

Canonization and final resting place

Over the years, the members of his order worked tirelessly to achieve his canonization. Finally he was canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1930; the following year he was declared a Doctor of the Church. His body rests in the Church of Saint Ignatius, the chapel of the Roman College, next to the body of his student, St. Aloysius Gonzaga, as he himself had wished.

Feast day

In the Roman Catholic calendar of saints Saint Robert Bellarmine's feast day is on 17 September, the day of his death; but some continue to use pre-1969 calendars, in which for 37 years his feast day was on 13 May. The rank attributed to his feast has been "double" (1932-1959), "third-class feast" (1960-1968), and since 1969 optional "memorial", all of them equivalent.



Blackwell, Richard J. (1991). Galileo, Bellarmine, and the Bible. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.

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