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On the 400th anniversary of the holy life of Saint Robert Bellarmine

He was one of the most brilliant men of his age, but he was a humble man and an exemplary priest who lived a virtuous and austere life.

On September 17, 1621, exactly 400 years ago, the Cardinal-priest Robert Bellarmine died in Rome. Why did Pope Pius XI declare him a saint in 1930? And why did the same pope declare him a Doctor of the Church in 1931?

Bellarmine was born into a noble but relatively poor family in Montepulciano, Italy. When he was only twelve years old, his uncle was elected pope and became Pope Marcellus II. But that reform-minded pope didn’t have time to further encourage his nephew to become a priest. Marcellus died after only twenty-two days in office.

Bellarmine learned from his pious mother the importance of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. His father, on the other hand, wanted him to be a politician. But Bellarmine was a good student at the Jesuit schools to which his father sent him, and he decided to become a Jesuit priest himself – over his father’s objections – when he was about eighteen years old.

Bellarmine spent the next ten years being educated at some of the best universities in Europe, mostly Jesuit centers, before he was ordained a priest in Belgium. He served as a theology professor for a time, but it didn’t take long for everyone – including another pope – to recognize that Bellarmine was one of the most brilliant men alive. Pope Sixtus V and his successors quickly put him to work for the Church.

It’s not hard to see, in retrospect, why the Church eventually declared Bellarmine a Doctor of the Church. Bellarmine had a photographic memory as well as intelligence and self-discipline, and he was willing to tackle the most contentious problems of the day. His important work, Disputationes de Controversiis Christianae Fidei (typically referred to as The Disputations or The Controversies in English) was such an excellent defense of the Catholic faith against Protestantism that it was illegal to own a copy of it in anti-Catholic Elizabethan England.

Bellarmine also wrote two catechisms to help Catholics learn about their faith, and those books became the standard catechetical texts from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century in many countries.

Bellarmine also had famous friends. He was a mentor to a Jesuit novice who was particularly devout and who became fatally ill after caring for plague victims; that friend was Saint Aloysius Gonzaga. When the bishop of Geneva needed help to obtain approval from the Church for a new order of religious sisters that he had founded, Saint Robert assisted him. The bishop was Saint Francis de Sales.

When an Italian scientist began publishing astronomical theories that scandalized some Christians, Bellarmine befriended the man, corresponded with him to understand his theories, and even defended him within the Church. When the friend’s pride led him into a direct confrontation with the Church, Bellarmine was given the unpleasant task of delivering the Church’s order to his friend, Galileo Galilei, which condemned him for continuing to teach his theories about heliocentrism. Bellarmine prayed for Galileo throughout the whole controversy.

What do you do if you’re the pope and have such a highly qualified cardinal in your curia? Bellarmine was the one selected to find a delicate, diplomatic resolution when political tensions between the pope and King James I of England heated up. A pope also appointed Bellarmine prefect of not one, but two Vatican congregations. He was such an obvious and excellent candidate for the papacy that on two occasions he narrowly escaped being named pope himself.

But the above arguments explain why Robert Bellarmine was highly respected in his time and influential through his writings even after his death. They do not explain why he is now called Saint Robert Bellarmine.

Despite what must have been endless temptations to pride, greed, and every other deadly sin due to his constant contact with men of great power and questionable morality, Robert was a humble man and an exemplary priest. He lived a virtuous and austere life. He prayed, fasted, and gave alms, just as he encouraged the Catholic faithful to pray, fast, and give alms in his homilies. Though he worked with kings and princes, his care for the poor was practical and personal.

For example, when food was scarce in the city in which he was living, he ordered the expensive tapestries on the walls of his residence to be sold and the proceeds to be given to the poor. “The walls won’t catch cold,” he told his annoyed servants. And he accomplished his many great works for the Church despite the fact that he quietly suffered from health problems all his life.

On the 400th anniversary of his death, perhaps we should ask the Lord to send us more holy clergymen like Saint Robert Bellarmine.


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About Dawn Beutner 22 Articles
Dawn Beutner is the author of Saints: Becoming an Image of Christ Every Day of the Year from Ignatius Press and blogs at dawnbeutner.com.

7 Comments

  1. Pius XI may have beatified, canonized and named Bellarmine a Doctor of the Church in part because of his opposition to the so-called “Divine Right of Kings,” stated in its most extreme form by Sir Robert Filmer, chief theologian to James I/VI of England/Scotland. Based on Aquinas, Bellarmine’s political theory as detailed in De Laicis, his treatise on civil government, was that sovereignty resides in the human person, supported by the natural rights God built into human nature. He erred in thinking that God grants certain social rights (such as the right to tax and wage war) directly to the collective, an abstraction created by human beings, not by God.

    John Locke and Algernon Sidney based their theories on those of Bellarmine (with a few errors of their own, such as the state of nature being outside society). Sidney acknowledged his debt to Bellarmine, but Locke could not. Locke’s patron was Lord Shaftsbury, the prime mover behind the Titus Oates conspiracy, and it would have been fatal for Locke to do anything other than ridicule and distort Bellarmine’s theories.

    George Mason of Gunston Hall, the “forgotten founding father,” appears to have been familiar with Bellarmine’s theories and may have read him directly instead of being filtered through Locke and Sidney (that was the theory of Fr. John Clement Rager of Evansville, Indiana). Mason’s theory was that God grants ALL sovereignty to actual human beings who in turn delegate them to the State via a revocable grant, and this ended up being the constitutional theory of the United States (nullified in Scott v. Sandford, the Slaughterhouse Cases, and Roe v. Wade).

    In his social doctrine, Pius XI developed Aquinas’s concept of “legal justice” to specify that social rights are vested in individual human beings as individuals, but they can only be exercised by individuals as members of organized groups. He then “renamed” particular legal justice “social justice”, and left the term “legal justice” as the general virtue. Social justice does not deal with individual good, but with the common good, viz., correcting institutions so that individual virtues can function.

    Pius XI’s development of doctrine corrected Bellarmine’s error of inserting the collective between God and man, and is the basis for what Pius XI termed “the Reign of Christ the King” in opposition to the socialist and modernist “Kingdom of God on Earth.” He then beatified Bellarmine, canonized him, and a year later named him a Doctor of the Church.

    Pius XI’s social doctrine is outlined in a 1948 pamphlet by Fr. William J. Ferree, “Introduction to Social Justice,” which is available as a free download:

    https://www.cesj.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/introtosocialjustice.pdf

  2. Thank you for this very fine article about St. Robert Bellarmine. I think, though, it’s the 400th anniversary of his death in 1621 not the 500th anniversary. May this brilliant defender of the faith pray for us all.

  3. We read, “Bellarmine was given the unpleasant task of delivering the Church’s order to his friend, Galileo Galilei, which condemned him for continuing to teach his theories about heliocentrism.”

    Prior to the unjust decree against Galileo, Cardinal Bellarmine had written in 1615 that “if the orbiting of the Earth around the sun were ever to be demonstrated to be certain, then theologians . . .would have to review biblical passages apparently opposed to Copernican theories so as to avoid asserting the error of opinions proven to be true” (Letter of response to the Provincial of the Carmelite Order (April 12, 1615) in Giorgio de Santillana, “The Crime of Galileo,” University of Chicago Press, 1955, 98-100.)

    The concluding paragraph of the letter remains committed to the still visual experience that the earth is motionless. Bellarmine erred in his superficial attention to the writings of the earlier Copernicus. He read only the Introduction of 1543 which describes the heliocentric view as “purely a mathematical supposition . . . with no bearing on the reality of the heavens.” This Introduction was written by “Osiander, a Lutheran pastor who was trying in this way to make it [Copernicus] acceptable to fundamentalist prejudice” (101).

    Regarding Galileo, which involved two trials thirteen years apart, a case is made that the specific and damning instruction not to teach was slipped into the file after the first trial and, therefore, that Galileo knew nothing about it and was victimized by clerical intrigue, likely from the competing schools of astronomy based on the earlier cosmology…

    Clerical intrigue!…back to the biblical after all!! “…there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9).

    Incidentally, the Lutheran astronomer Keppler was excommunicated, while the Catholic Galileo was not.

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