Saint Robert Bellarmine: A Moderate in a Disputatious Age

I first came across Robert Bellarmine in the late 1930s, when I was an undergraduate at Harvard, studying the history and literature of the Italian Renaissance. I remember him particularly because of the respectful presentation of his work in Charles H. McIlwain’s course on the history of political thought in the West. About the time that I became a Catholic, in my first semester of Harvard Law School, I devoured James Brodrick’s two-volume life of Bellarmine and came to admire the saint’s many-sided personality and his manifold accomplishments.

Several months later, in the spring of 1941, when I received the sacrament of confirmation at the hands of Bishop Richard J. Cushing (who later became cardinal-archbishop of Boston), I was asked to choose a confirmation name, and I selected without hesitation “Robert.” On that occasion the bishop presented me with a fine illustrated volume on Francis of Assisi, one of the saints that Bellarmine most admired. Born on the feast of Saint Francis, October 4, 1542, Bellarmine had been given “Francis” as his second name. He died on September 17, 1622, the feast of the stigmatization of Saint Francis, a feast that he had helped to insert into the calendar. When that feast was suppressed in the reform of the liturgical calendar after Vatican II, the feast of Saint Robert Bellarmine was transferred from May 13 to September 17, where it now stands.

When I entered the Society of Jesus in 1946, after a stint with the Navy in World War II, I was delighted to find that Bellarmine was one of the two Jesuit doctors of the Church and was the patron of all Jesuit theologians. I made him in a special way the patron of my own studies. When I went to Rome to get my doctorate at the Gregorian University, my associations with Bellarmine increased. I said Mass daily in the Church of Sant’ Ignazio, where Bellarmine lies buried, as he requested, at the feet of his former penitent, Aloysius Gonzaga, whose marble tomb is a masterpiece of Baroque sculpture.

Since 1973 I have taught three times as a visiting professor at the Gregorian University. The last time, in the fall of 1993, coincided with the fourth centenary of Bellarmine’s rectorship of the university, known in his day as the Roman College (15921594). It was here that Bellarmine had studied philosophy (1560-1563), taught theology (1576-1588), and served as spiritual director (1590-1592). The college received its present name in honor of its “second founder,” Pope Gregory XIII (1572-1585), who built the new Roman College, with its imposing classical facade, during Bellarmine’s tenure.


There is every reason, then, why I should look back to Bellarmine as representing the finest traditions and perhaps the most glorious period of my own Jesuit theological heritage. He was a major actor in one of the most dramatic periods of Church history — the reorganization of the Catholic Church in response to the challenges of the modern age. The sixteenth century had witnessed, in many respects, the birth of modernity. Capitalism was edging out the medieval agrarian economy. Europe was becoming divided into rival principalities or nation-states, often governed by Machiavellian rulers who claimed absolute powers over their subjects. The Holy Roman Empire survived in theory, but it ceased to be a true empire (not to mention its failure to be either holy or Roman, as Voltaire once quipped).

This period also witnessed intellectual and cultural revolutions. Medieval manuscript communication rapidly yielded to the new print culture. Pamphlets and books, including the Bible, were widely circulated in affordable editions, frequently in the vernacular. Under the impetus of classical humanism, scholars were producing new and critical editions of ancient texts, both classical and religious, and were questioning many venerable legends about Christian origins. Critical reason was beginning to assume the upper hand over traditional faith. Dramatic scientific discoveries were being made, including the Copernican theory, which situated the sun rather than the earth at the center of the universe. It was also the great age of discovery, when Europe suddenly became conscious that it was only a fraction of a much larger world, in many part of which Christianity was still unknown. Thus the medieval world picture, so glowingly immortalized in Dante’s Divine Comedy, was in many respects superseded.

It was into this volatile situation that Luther, in 1517, issued his urgent call for ecclesiastical reform. His appeal hit upon receptive ears, because everyone recognized that corruptions and abuses were rampant in the Church. Luther’s personal doctrines, however, were another question. Pope Leo X wrote him off as simply another German heretic, but he proved to be much more. With the support of several German princes, and the backing of German national feeling, he obtained a large constituency, so that his excommunication by Rome resulted in a major schism. Soon afterward, several other parts of Europe followed suit in seceding from the Catholic allegiance.

By the time Bellarmine reached adulthood, Europe was a checkerboard of different denominations — Lutheran, Calvinist, Zwinglian, Anglican, Anabaptist, and even Unitarian (Socinian). In many cases the religious affiliation of the people depended on that of their sovereigns. Catholics and Protestants therefore vied with one another in seeking to win the patronage of secular princes. Not infrequently the patronage became so vigorous that members of other denominations were tortured and executed. The principle of religious toleration was practically unknown.

The Jesuit order, founded by Saint Ignatius of Loyola in 1540, was immediately caught up in this religious ferment. While Ignatius governed his new Society from his headquarters in Rome, his companions fanned out to all parts of the world. They labored, often at the price of martyrdom, in India, China, Japan, Africa, and the Americas, seeking to spread Catholic Christianity all over the globe. In Western Europe they were involved in the inner reform of the Church, in the education of the clergy, and in turning back the advancing tide of heresy. At the Council of Trent the pope chose several of Ignatius’ most brilliant companions to be his personal theologians. That council issued what still stands as the authoritative statement of Catholic doctrine in response to the Reformers. It set the agenda for Bellarmine’s generation in much the same way as Vatican II has set the agenda for the late twentieth century.

Bellarmine, like other Jesuit theologians of his day, was first of all a servant of the Church, a defender of orthodoxy in an age when the foundations of Catholicism were being assailed. He taught, preached, and wrote in the Jesuit style, according to the rules laid down by Saint Ignatius. The early Jesuits were Christian humanists, well educated in classical languages and literature, with a high esteem for human nature, reason, and freedom. They kept abreast of the latest developments in scholarship and the sciences. Without being a scientist himself, Bellarmine kept himself informed through friends such as his colleague the great Clavius (Christoph Klau, S.J.), with whom Galileo often exchanged ideas. Clavius is best known as the principal author of the Gregorian Calendar and is also remembered by the “sea” on the moon that bears his name.

Although Bellarmine was by temperament a peaceful and friendly person, his career took him into a series of battles. In 1570, as a young professor at Louvain (in modern Belgium), he began his six-year struggle against Baius (Michel de Bay), whose pessimistic views concerning man’s fallen condition resembled those of Calvin. Bellarmine, as a champion of human freedom and dignity, threw himself into the combat with alacrity.


When recalled by superiors to teach at the Roman College, Bellarmine produced his magnum opus, the Disputationes de Controversiis Fidei Catholicae adversus huius temporis haereticos, published in three large folios in 1586, 1588, and 1593. Although never translated as a whole into vernacular languages, this work remained for centuries the standard Catholic response to the Reformation. It also established the main lines of Catholic ecclesiology until the middle of our own century. Many of the Latin apologetics manuals and textbooks published in the intervening years were little more than simplified versions of Bellarmine’s masterpiece. While writing overtly as a controversialist, Bellarmine was exceptionally fair and moderate toward his adversaries, at least by the standards of his day. In order to meet the real difficulties, he took pains to state the opponents’ arguments at their strongest. On occasion he even defended Protestants against unfair charges, such as Calvin’s alleged deviations from the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. Some Catholics distrusted Bellarmine on the ground that Protestants were using his account of them to find ammunition in their own defense.

Bellarmine’s ecclesiology differed in several respects from that of his medieval predecessors. He portrayed the Church not primarily as a mystical communion but rather as a visible society, no less visible, he said, than the Republic of Venice. This society was, moreover, monarchical in structure, governed by a pope who could on occasion speak with infallibility. When the First Vatican Council was preparing to define the doctrine of papal infallibility in 1869 and 1870, many speakers referred to Bellarmine as an authority.

Bellarmine taught that membership in the Church was absolutely necessary for salvation, but he made an important distinction between belonging to the “body” of the Church and to its “soul.” Non-Catholics and non-Christians, if they erred in good faith, could belong to the “soul” of the Church. This distinction was widely accepted among Catholics until the middle of the present century, when different terminology came into use. Vatican II, for example, distinguishes between Catholics, who are “fully incorporated” in the Church, and others who, when separated from the Catholic communion without personal fault, may be secretly “conjoined” or “ordered” to the Church in various ways.

Bellarmine’s work is still a valuable resource for ascertaining and criticizing the positions of Reformation thinkers. I experienced this a decade ago, when engaged in a dialogue with Lutheran theologians about the role of the saints in the Christian life. The Catholics and Lutherans managed to achieve a large measure of agreement on several issues: that the saints are to be honored for what God’s grace had wrought in them, that their lives inspire us with gratitude and confidence toward God, and that they provide examples for us to imitate. With some hesitation the Lutherans conceded that the saints probably intercede for the Church on earth. But at one point our ways parted. Was it proper for Christians to invoke the saints in prayer? The Lutherans contended that there was no biblical example or precept for so doing, that we have no way of knowing whether the saints in glory can hear us (even supposing them to be in glory), that consequently the invocation of saints introduces an element of doubt and uncertainty into Christian prayer, and, finally, that prayer to the saints derogates from the trust that should be placed in Christ as the sole and sufficient mediator of all grace.

Hard-pressed by these formidable objections, I made an expedition to the subterranean stacks of Fordham University, located the appropriate passage in Bellarmine’s Controversies, and found to my delight that he had given an exceptionally lucid exposition of the Catholic doctrine of honoring the saints, in the course of which he dealt with ten objections culled from the Reformers, including all the objections I have listed. A central point in his argument was that, whether we pray to God directly or invoke the intercession of saints, nothing is asked or granted that does not come from God through the mediation of Christ. In the last analysis every prayer is directed to God, the giver of all perfect gifts. From this perspective it may be said that we do not so much pray to the saints as seek their solidarity with us as we pray to God. Prayer to the saints can never be played off in competition with prayer to God, nor can the intercession of the saints be regarded as detracting from the redemptive mediator-ship of Christ alone.

From this example, which I have chosen in view of the theme of the present collection, it should be evident that Bellarmine’s old volumes can still be uncommonly useful for theologians today. They should not be allowed to accumulate dust in deserted library stacks.

The Bible, of course, was a major point of contention between Protestants and Catholics, both of whom wanted to prove that their doctrines were consonant with the written word of God. Jesuits such as Bellarmine became expert in the biblical languages. As a young professor he wrote a very popular Hebrew grammar. In 1579, during his Roman professorate, he was called upon to assist Alonso Salmeron, an elderly survivor from Ignatius’s original band of companions, in editing his 16 folio volumes of commentaries on the New Testament. Later Bellarmine composed a large commentary on the Psalms (1611), a piece that is devotional rather than scholarly in character.

More significant for posterity is Bellarmine’s role in the revision of the Latin Vulgate. Carrying out a decree of the Council of Trent, Pope Gregory XIII appointed a commission, with Bellarmine as a member, to produce a reliable edition of the ancient Vulgate translation. The commission did its work with great care, and in 1588 presented the results to the temperamental Sixtus V. To general astonishment, he rejected the commission’s work and took the revision into his own hands. In 1590, just as his very faulty edition was emerging from the press, the pope suddenly died. Bellarmine was again called in to assist in correcting the errors. A new text was published in 1592 under the name of Pope Sixtus V, although Clement VIII was then reigning. In a preface Bellarmine tried to protect the reputation of the earlier pope by dwelling on the printer’s errors in the edition that had begun to be published. The Sixto-Clementine Vulgate (as it is usually called) remained the standard Catholic Bible until the mid-twentieth century, when fresh translations from the original biblical languages were encouraged.

Another debt that the Church of later centuries owes to Bellarmine is for his contribution to the reform of the Breviary. Because of his mastery of ecclesiastical history, he was asked by Clement VIII to serve on a commission for this purpose. He argued for excluding various improbable legends concerning James the Greater, Denis the Areopagite, and Catherine of Alexandria, but his opinions did not always prevail. He composed a beautiful Latin hymn to Mary Magdalene that was included in the office for July 21, at the vespers of her feast.

In the 1590s, under Clement VIII, Bellarmine became heavily involved in a truly epochal struggle within Catholic theology — the controversy between the Dominicans and the Jesuits on the relations between efficacious grace and free will. Bellarmine, as a Jesuit, was inclined to favor the “Molinist” position (devised by Luis de Molina, S.J.) to the effect that God’s salvific decree depends upon his eternal knowledge of the use that human beings make of their freedom in response to God’s grace. While did not fully accept Molina’s theory, he resisted the opinion of Domingo Bañez, O.P., that God determines human acts be giving an infallible “physical premotion” (præmotio physica) to the will. Clement himself was inclined to support the Dominican view and, perhaps for that reason, removed Bellarmine from Rome in 1602, appointing him archbishop of Capua. But after Clement’s death, Bellarmine was recalled to Rome, where he labored as a cardinal of the Roman curia. Following Bellarmine’s recommendation, Paul V decreed in 1607 that both opinions were to be tolerated. Neither party was to impugn the positions of the other as heretical or temerarious. This decree illustrates the way in which the hierarchical magisterium can on occasion serve to protect the freedom of theologians and their immunity from unjust accusations.

In an age when popes were much given to deposing temporal sovereigns (as Pius V deposed Queen Elizabeth), Bellarmine was required to speak to the question of the pope’s temporal power. Some theologians still held to the extreme position that Christ had given Peter “two swords,” the spiritual and the temporal, thereby bestowing on the popes universal sovereignty in both spheres. Bellarmine held for the autonomy of the temporal power in secular matters, but he made provision in his theory for the pope to intervene in secular politics where the good of souls was at stake. Bellarmine’s moderate doctrine of the “indirect power” of the Holy See did not satisfy the impetuous Sixtus V, who took steps to place the Controversies on the Index of Prohibited Books. But here again the death of the pope intervened, preventing him from promulgating this edition of the Index.

The most vehement objections to the theory of the indirect power came not from popes but from secularists who attributed absolute powers to kings. They rejected Bellarmine’s contention that the temporal sovereign should be bound by international law to abide by moral principles and respect the human rights of all subjects including the aborigines in the colonies.


Bellarmine’s bad reputation in the English-speaking world is largely due to his polemical exchanges with King James I, undertaken at the direction of Paul V (1605-1621). Against the King of England, Bellarmine defended his doctrine of the pope’s “indirect power,” and attacked the idea that kings rule with absolute power by divine right. Bellarmine held that civil power comes to the ruler not directly from God but through the people, who may set up any kind of regime that serves the common good. Regalists such as William Barclay and Robert Filmer, responding to Bellarmine, characterized him as the ablest defender of the doctrine they were opposing. John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison seem to have been acquainted with Bellarmine, especially through the writings of his adversaries. It has been plausibly argued that in this way Bellarmine exercised an indirect influence upon the American system of government. In any case he belonged to the general movement of thought that favored popular sovereignty.

Yet another of the controversies in which Bellarmine was engaged is the trial of Galileo. As a member of the Holy Office he was asked in 1616 to be a judge when charges were made against the orthodoxy of the new astronomy. Like the other judges, he concluded, after consulting leading experts in the field, that Galileo had not proved his case, and that his theory stood in contradiction to the apparent meaning of several passages in Scripture. He advised Galileo to propose his theory simply as a hypothesis, which would seem to have been a reasonable solution. When Galileo refused, Bellarmine was party to a declaration that the Copernican theory, as received by Galileo, ought not to be held. But at that trial no condemnation was issued, no punishment imposed, nor was Galileo ordered to make any retraction. For the results of the second trial of Galileo, which occurred in 1633, Bellarmine cannot be held responsible, for by that time he had been dead for 11 years.

The Galileo case long continued to be a point of friction between the Church and the scientific community. In 1981, Pope John Paul II set up a papal commission to study the case anew. The commission, in its report of October 31, 1992, gave high praise to Bellarmine for having declared that if it were really demonstrated that the earth revolves about the sun, it would be necessary to reinterpret the biblical passages which seem to say the contrary. The commission also faulted Galileo’s judges, who in the trial of 1633 judged that the Copernican theory, not yet definitively proven, was contrary to the teaching of Scripture and Catholic tradition. Pope John Paul II, addressing the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on the same occasion, repeated the commission’s praise for Bellarmine. He agreed with its findings that the sentence of 1633 was “not irreformable” and was based on a misconception of the relations between biblical revelation and physical science.

Central though controversies were to the life of Bellarmine, as a theologian in a disputatious age, they do not make up his total achievement. A more positive element of his legacy may be found in the two catechisms he composed in Italian, the first for children (1597), the other for adults (1598). These catechisms, modeled on the Roman Catechism of 1566, remained popular for several centuries. Translated into various languages, they inspired other manuals, such as the famous Baltimore Catechism, widely used in this country until Vatican II. But unlike the Baltimore Catechism, Bellarmine’s did not begin by having the child ask the metaphysical questions “Who made us?” and “Who is God?” The first question is, rather, “Are you a Christian?” to which the child replies, “By the grace of God, I am.” Then the catechism goes on to inquire into the principal mysteries of the Christian faith, the Trinity, and the Incarnation.

At the First Vatican Council, in 1869, Pius IX announced his intention, with the fathers’ approval, to have a new catechism drawn up on the pattern of Bellarmine’s. Because the council was disrupted by war, it never arrived at a vote on this proposal. The Church had to wait another century before it would have a new universal catechism. The new Catechism of the Catholic Church, like Bellarmine’s, is based on the Roman Catechism and uses as its four “pillars” the Apostles’ Creed, the Our Father, the Ten Commandments, and the Seven Sacraments. Like Bellarmine’s, again, it treats the Trinity and the Incarnation as the central mysteries of faith.

I have focused here on Bellarmine’s theological writings rather than on his personality and his qualities as a pastor, spiritual director, and saint. His biographers tell us that he was serene, joyful, and optimistic. He had a playful sense of humor and was much addicted to puns. In spite of his exceptional talents he was always content to be given the smallest rooms, to wear the oldest clothes, and eat the poorest fare. As an archbishop and a cardinal he put his revenues at the disposal of needy families and drew multitudes of beggars to his doorstep.

One of my favorite stories about Bellarmine captures at once his self-mortification and his theological wit. In the Roman summers he was pestered, like others, by flies. His companions asked him why he did not brush these nuisances away. He explained with a smile that it would not be fair to trouble the little creatures, since his nose was their Paradise.

In the entire corpus of Bellarmine’s writings the spiritual works of his final years are the most accessible in vernacular translations. Although the style of these works reflects the mentality of an earlier age, they vividly illustrate how the piety of the saint can permeate the reflections of the theologian.

The most popular of these spiritual works, The Mind’s Ascent to God (1614), is comparable in content and structure to Saint Bonaventure’s Journey of the Mind to God, but in place of Bonaventure’s flights of mysticism, Bellarmine pursues a more logical and moralistic course. Yet his prose is not devoid of eloquence. In examining, in the first pages, how we are created in the image of God, he delights in explaining that the mind, as a principle of reason and freedom, distinguishes us from the animals and makes us similar to God. The final chapters celebrate the mercy and justice of God.

The series of small spiritual classics ends with Bellarmine’s last work, appropriately named The Art of Dying Well (1620). He maintains that “death, as the offspring of sin, is evil, but that by the grace of Christ, who deigned to undergo death for us, it has been rendered for us in many ways useful and salutary, lovable and desirable.”

Bellarmine was not remarkable for his originality or speculative genius. He was a practical man, concerned with serving the universal Church as it responded to the crises of the age. By his own intention he stood in firm continuity with the past, confident that the tradition of the Church was sound and valid. Yet, almost in spite of himself, he absorbed the spirit of the new age. As compared with Saint Thomas Aquinas and the medieval Scholastics, he was far more careful in scrutinizing the written sources and ascertaining the history of the questions he treated. Faithful to the precepts of Saint Ignatius, he brought positive and speculative theology into partnership. Breathing the spirit of Renaissance humanism, he adamantly opposed the assaults of neo-Augustinian pessimism.

The stature of Bellarmine is indicated by the enduring influence of his writings. They continued to be a major, even a dominant, source for Catholic doctrine during the next three centuries. Ours, however, is an age with different questions, different assumptions, and a radically changed context. We have passed from a print-dominated culture to one that is electronic. We have passed from a Eurocentric consciousness to one that is global and is verging on the galactic. Catholics are no longer arrayed in battle against Reformation Protestantism. They are seeking ecumenical rapprochement, and are in dialogue with other world religions. In short, theologians are called to do again, in a vastly changed context, something analogous to what Bellarmine did, with remarkable success, for early modern times.

What endures in Bellarmine is his example of loyal service to the Church in a time of confusion and crisis. He is a model of moderation and rationality, open to new developments but deeply attached to the Catholic heritage. He undertook almost nothing on his own initiative, and was content to labor at uncongenial tasks where duty seemed to require. He never raised a finger for the sake of his personal advancement, and perhaps for that reason was generally trusted by his religious and ecclesiastical superiors. Among his many virtues I would single out loyalty as perhaps the greatest. He did what was asked of him; he spoke frankly when consulted, but he never urged his own opinions to the detriment of the Church itself. He was loyal to his religious order, loyal to the Holy See, loyal to the Church, and loyal especially to God, in whom he placed all his trust and confidence.


  • Avery Dulles, S.J.

    Avery Robert Dulles S.J. (1918 – 2008) was a Jesuit priest, theologian, cardinal of the Catholic Church and served as the Laurence J. McGinley Professor of Religion and Society at Fordham University from 1988 to 2008. He was an internationally known author and lecturer.

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