The Catholic Protestant Debate: Robert Bellarmine’s Spirited Polemics

During the tempestuous time of the rise of Protestantism following the Reformation, the Catholic Church needed advocates who would defend the faith against calumnies and distortions, while at the same time militating for needed reform. One of the most formidable Jesuit polemicists for Catholicism was Robert Bellarmine, whose Controversies profoundly influenced Church thinking for more than 200 years. Somehow the faith has managed to raise great apologists during times of crisis—St. Augustine during the fall of Rome, St. Thomas during the Aristotelian revival. Bellarmine helped rescue the faith during the Protestant siege of the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries, by meeting the theological challenge of the reformers and guiding Catholicism to a new vigor and confidence in the future.

In the twentieth century Catholicism faces, in North and South America, a renewed evangelical Protestantism generated by the erosion of morals and the promise of fundamentalist denominations to return to scriptural basics. Bellarmine’s arguments, which have hibernated for some time now, thus arise with an urgency and clarity that contemporary Catholics would do well to understand. Here, after all, is a profound and thorough discussion of “Bible only” Christianity, of papal infallibility, of sacraments such as confession and the Eucharist, of the role of “works” in contributing to salvation. It makes lengthy and often technical reading, but the reader who makes the effort is amply compensated. He emerges with a fortified comprehension of Catholic doctrine.

Robert Bellarmine was born on the feast of Saint Francis of Assisi, October 4, 1542, in the little town of Montepulciano near Tuscany in Italy. His mother, Cynthia, attended a retreat patterned on the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius; as a result, she was determined to send all of her five sons into the Society of Jesus. Robert attended the local grammar school where he studied Latin, ancient Greek, and Roman history, developing a particular affinity for Cicero and Virgil. At the age of 15, he attended the Jesuit academy in Montepulciano, where he developed a passion for Aristotle and reasoning grounded in a common sense understanding of nature.

In 1570, the year of his ordination, Bellarmine was named the first Jesuit professor at Louvain University in Belgium, an old center in the Catholic resistance against Protestantism. He would spend seven years there, cultivating habits of spiritual discipline, intellectual fairness and proficiency, that would propel him to the summit of Catholic apologetics.

Louvain taught Bellarmine that the Protestant challenge, though misguided, was serious and far-reaching; it would not do to dismiss or distort the arguments of Reformers, as many priests were prone to do. Bellarmine followed Thomas Aquinas’s example by stating, as forcibly as possible, the claims of his adversaries, and then systematically answering them with copious references to Scripture, the patristic writings, and the documents of Church tradition. He was so fair to his opponents that some Catholics feared he was helping them out with arguments that hadn’t occurred to them. The Hungarian prelate Stephen Arator complained, “Learned men out in central Europe consider that the Controversies have done more harm than good to the Church. Instead of depriving the heretics of their weapons, they do but supply them with new ones. Calvinists and Lutherans would never have the wit to think out so many and such excellent arguments for their sects as they may now find in Bellarmine. The result is that his volumes are being cited by Protestants more than Catholics.”

This complaint was actually an unintended compliment. Bellarmine rebutted Arator with the same fairness and effectiveness that he demonstrated against the Protestants. Should Catholics argue like that Spanish friar Orantes, “whose work makes all educated Catholics in France and Germany weep, and all the heretics hilarious, because their author, after answering a few petty arguments of Calvin, pretends that the gentleman has nothing better to say for himself”? Should those erudite Catholic bishops who reprinted in their pamphlets both Luther’s claims and their own rebuttals be censured for giving space to the enemy?

“If I had brought forward the arguments of Protestants and Catholics and let the two sets stand without further remark, there would be something to what my censor says,” Bellarmine writes. “But since I have refuted the heretical and strengthened the Catholic position, what room is there for cavil? Had I not produced all the arguments I could discover on their side, the heretics would say that the ones I omitted were unanswerable.” Finally Bellarmine points out that a number of cardinals and popes have specifically requested that he answer “all conceivable difficulties” raised by the reformers. The real vindication of Bellarmine comes from the effect he caused all his life among not just Protestants but also skeptics, who found their positions being deflated and undermined, and the renewed confidence and optimism generated among Catholics across the Continent for generations to come.

True Succession

Bellarmine always distinguished between small causes and large ones. Once he listened to finely woven conundrums and sighed, “Would it not be better to wait for the solution until we get to heaven?” On the other hand larger challenges could not wait. In 1559 Luther’s most enthusiastic and competent disciple, Mathias Francowitz, published the first volume of his Centuries of Magdeburg under the alias Flaccius Illyricus. The study purported to prove that the Catholic Church was not legitimately descended from the Apostles, its family tree was faked, and Protestantism was, in fact, the true successor of early Christianity. Volume after volume of this study appeared between 1559 and 1574, greatly alarming Catholic scholars. Stanislaus Hosius, the papal legate, considered the Centuries to be “the most pernicious work ever written,” and the pope urged Jesuit historians to refute the Centuriators.

Bellarmine was transferred to the chair of controversial theology at the Roman College (now called the Gregorian University), where he prepared to issue his grand answer. “Today, gentlemen, we approach those questions which are at issue between the Church of the living God and heir to rebellious and furtive sons…. Our concern will not be with little things that make no difference however they stand, nor with the subtleties of metaphysics which a man may ignore without being any worse for it, but with God, with Christ, with the Church, with the Sacraments, and with a multitude of other matters which pertain to the very foundations of our faith.” At the relatively young age of 34, this man was mounting a counteroffensive that would shake the foundations of the anti-papist edifice.

The Controversies, which emerged out of lectures Bellarmine delivered at the Roman College, were published in three volumes at Inglostat from 1586 to 1593.

The preface to the Controversies outlines their sweeping format. Bellarmine notes that Lucifer, “the enemy of the human race and the father of confusion,” has from the earliest times attempted to sow dissension and lies within the body of Christ’s chosen people. “He started in the earliest ages with an assault on the Creed, having for his allies such heretics as the Manicheans and Gnostics.” These people tried to “overthrow belief in God the Father.” When that failed, in the third century the devil turned his attention to the second person of the Trinity, Christ. The Arian and Sabellian heretics challenged His divinity. “Next with Photius and his followers came the great attack on the Holy Ghost.” Fortunately, the Catholic Church rebuked all these initiatives, so from the year A.D. 1000 the devil has concentrated on the ninth and tenth articles of the Creed: “I believe in one holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins.” Berengarians, Waldensians, Albigensians, Wycliffites, Lutherans, Zwinglians, Calvinists, and Anabaptists all united against these articles.

Bellarmine proposes to explain how Christ is the “head and ruler” of his Church; how the pope is the “visible head” of that Church “laboring here on earth”; what instruments the earthly Church has devised to help its members reach salvation, among them the sacraments and relics; and, finally, the crucial question of how justification by grace is compatible with free will. All of these questions were contested by Protestants with vehemence.

Bellarmine does not confine his criticism to the Centuries of Magdeburg; he deals with a wide spectrum of complaints and commentaries. He finds, for instance, in the Lutheran Book of Concord “six grave blunders and 67 lies,” which are all documented. Even silly accusations, such as one claiming that the pope is the Antichrist, Bellarmine takes seriously, devoting 30,000 words to an argument that makes anyone holding that view feel very sheepish at the end.

Pope Joan

Bellarmine also refutes a preposterous legend of “Pope Joan” that made its way into the press. This Joan was supposed to be a woman who was in the habit of dressing like a man. She arrived in Rome, impressed everyone with her refinement and learning, and was promptly named to the sacred College of Cardinals, soon to become pope. In one particularly elaborate version of the tale she is forced to resign when she gives birth to a child. With a sense of bemused but patient scholarship, Bellarmine dismantles the nonsense of this legend and lays the matter to rest. Rumors that Bellarmine does not deign to refute include: that several Roman pontiffs used famous “Italian sauce” to poison their predecessors; that a certain convent of nuns was found to contain the heads of 6,000 immolated children; that the Society of Jesus hires professional thieves and murderers to do its dirty business.

The first volume of the Controversies appeared in 1586, with endorsements from Pope Sixtus V, Emperor Rudolph II, and the Republic of Venice. The second volume, published in 1588, was even more lavishly endowed with endorsements; it cited more than 300 ecclesiastical writers and historians as it plunged into the heart of Protestant claims and criticism. It took five more years for Bellarmine’s final volume, treating grace and free will, to appear at a time when the justification controversy was dividing not just reformers but also Catholics.

Here is a sample of Bellarmine’s argument on the question of whether Christ is truly present in the sacrament of the Eucharist. Bellarmine considers what Jesus says: “This is my body. This is my blood…. Do this in memory of me.” He comments, “Surely laws and decrees ought to be promulgated in clear, precise, simple terms and not obscurely or ambiguously. Otherwise any man might plead ignorance and say: let the legislator speak plainly if he wants his law to be kept. Now what Christian ever doubted that our Lord in instituting this Sacrament gave orders and framed a law that it was to be renewed perpetually in his Church? That is the literal meaning of: Do this in memory of me. Since, then, these words of Christ are the expression of a law or command, to read figures or metaphors into them is to make Almighty God the most imprudent and incompetent of legislators.

“A man’s last will and testament should surely be drawn up in the straightforward speech of everyday life. No one but a madman, or one who desired to make trouble after his death, would imply metonymy in such a document. When a testator says, ‘I leave my house to my son John,’ does anyone understand his words to mean, ‘I leave to my son John, not my house itself standing four-square, but a nice painted picture of it’? In the next place, suppose a prince promised you a hundred gold pieces, and in fulfillment of his word sent a beautiful sketch of the coins, I wonder what you would think of his liberality? And suppose that, when you complained, the donor said, ‘Sir, your astonishment is out of place, as the painted crowns you received may very properly be considered true crowns by the figure of speech called metonymy.’ Would not everybody feel that he was making fun of you and your picture?

Now our Lord promised to give us his flesh and blood. The bread which I shall give you, he said, is my flesh for the life of the world. If you argue that the bread may be looked upon as a figure of his flesh, you are arguing like the prince, making a mockery of God’s promises. A wonderful gift indeed that would be, in which Eternal Wisdom, Truth, Justice and Goodness deceived us, its helpless pensioners, and turned our dearest hopes to derision.

“That I may show you how just the righteous is the position we hold, let us suppose that the last day has come and our doctrine of the Eucharist turns out to be false and absurd. If our Lord asks us reproachfully, ‘Why did ye believe thus of my Sacrament? Why did ye adore the host?’ May we not safely answer Him, ‘Lord, if we were wrong in this, it was you who deceived us. We heard your word, this is my body. Was it a crime for us to believe you? We were confirmed in our mistake by a multitude of signs and wonders which could only have had you for their author. Your Church with one voice cried out to us that we were right, and in believing as we did but followed in the footsteps of all your saints and holy ones.’ ”

In two annuals of Christian doctrine, a brief catechism for children and a larger handbook for teachers, Bellarmine simplifies many of the propositions in his Controversies. Here is an abbreviated discussion of sacraments and relics:

Pupil: Would you explain to me how it is that the honor which we give to saints and their relics and images is not contrary to the first commandment, for we appear to adore them and pray to them as we do to God?

Teacher: Holy Church is the bride of God and has the Spirit of God for her guide. Consequently, there is no danger of her being deceived or doing or permitting anything contrary to God’s commandments. To answer the question, we honor and invoke the saints because they are friends of God, and can help us by their merits and prayers to him. But we do not account them gods, nor do our genuflections signify any such thing. A genuflection is not a mark of reverence peculiar to the service of God, for knees are bent also to persons of great dignity, such as kings, and in many places religious men kneel before their superiors. It is not strange, then, that we should show such reverence to the saints reigning with Christ in heaven since we show it to mortal men like ourselves, here on earth.

Pupil: Is it possible to say the same about images? Teacher: Yes, because images of our Lord, our Lady, and the saints are not regarded by us as gods, but as mere representations which recall to our minds thoughts of those they represent. The honor which we pay them is not given because they are figures of wood, paper, stone or metal, or because they are beautifully colored and molded, but because they represent Christ, his Mother, or the saints. Knowing as we do that the images are dead, undiscerning things, we do not ask anything of them and pray before them only because they picture to our minds the heavenly beings whom we are really addressing.

Pupil: Why do we represent in pictures God the Father as an old man or the Holy Ghost as a dove when we know that these are spirits who have no bodies that can be painted as artists paint men?

Teacher: When God the Father is represented as an old man, the Holy Ghost as a dove, and angels as winged youths, this is not done because they are really like that. They are bodiless spirits, we all know. But we give them human and earthly forms because it was under such that they revealed themselves to men. God the Father appeared as an old man in a vision to the prophet Daniel. The Holy Ghost is shown as a dove because it was in that form that he appeared at the baptism of our Lord. The pictures and statues we make are not intended to show us things in themselves but rather the quality of things, or the effects they produce. For instance, the Holy Spirit is represented as a dove to signify the gifts of innocence, purity and holiness which he endows in our souls. Similarly, angels are given wings because we know that their heavenly strength and beauty never decline, and they are always on tiptoe to do God’s bidding. Sometimes we even see them in white robes and sacred stoles, signifying their sinlessness and service of the divine majesty.

While Bellarmine is rigorous in his explanation and justification of doctrine, he understands that it is the animation of Christ’s love and spirit that should underline all Catholic belief and practice. Writing of the virtue of charity in Controversies he observes, “Who is there in our illustrious home of learning who does not think daily as he goes to the schools of law, medicine, philosophy or theology, how best he may progress in this particular subject, and win at last his doctor’s degree? The school of Christ is the school of charity. On the last day, when the great general examination takes place, there will be no questions at all on the text of Aristotle, the aphorisms of Hippocrates, or the paragraphs of Justinian. Charity will be the whole syllabus.”

Further, Catholic truths are meant not just to be understood, accepted, and defended but most importantly must be internalized in our own lives. “We must not suffer it to be said that the most holy and living sacrament of Eucharist was instituted for us in vain,” Bellarmine writes. “The wheaten bread which is the food of our bodies was not grown in the fields, reaped, ground and baked merely to be looked at, but to be eaten to sustain our life and strength. So too the bread of angels was not given to us solely for our veneration, but for our nourishment as well, that by partaking of it we may refresh and fortify our souls.”

Bellarmine’s treatment of the Catholic Church’s practice of the sale of indulgences is too complicated to expound fully. Suffice it to say that he treated the subject fully and fairly, reluctant but unfailing in his criticism of the human failures of the institutional Church where warranted. “I shall say something first about the names indulgence and jubilee, and give a list of those who have written in defense of indulgence or against them,” Bellarmine begins. “The next step will be an inquiry whether indulgences exist, and here two matters have to be discussed, namely the spiritual treasure of the Church, and the power of distributing what is contained in the treasury. Thirdly we shall investigate the precise nature of an indulgence, and here also two points have to be explored, to wit, whether an indulgence be simply the payment of a debt or rather a judicial absolution, and if so from what bond the release or acquittal is given. Fourthly we shall treat of the many forms and varieties of indulgences, and fifthly, of their utility and fruit. In the sixth place we shall inquire who can grant them, and for what reasons. Then, seventhly, we shall see by whom and under what conditions they may be gained, and finally, whether and how they can be applied for the benefit of the dead. That will end the first section. In the second, I shall expound, discuss and refute the contrary arguments of Luther, Calvin, and Chemnitz, who are our chief opponents in this matter, and also lay bare their lies, frauds and impostures.”

Problem with Indulgences

Nevertheless it should not be assumed that Bellarmine was simply using his reservoir of knowledge to rationalize unjustifiable deeds. He condemns the routinization of indulgences because, he says, they undermine Church discipline if people think that they can easily have penance commuted by a gift or donation to the Church. “Consider, I pray you.” Bellarmine argues, “whether there is any proportion between these two things: attendance at a single Mass and deliverance from a hundred years of the most rigorous chastisement which the justice of God can inflict.”

Bellarmine points out that the practice of indulgences is relatively recent, being unknown in the early Church. He is pleased that the current pope grants them “only under many restrictions and for a limited time.” If it were up to Bellarmine, he concludes, “none would be granted except little ones.” The reason? “Indulgences cost our Lord his precious blood so they ought to be begged for with reluctance and pressing need.”

But Bellarmine does not deny that, in principle, the Church has the power through Christ to forgive sins. We become a bit more sympathetic, not just in principle but also in practice, when we discover that priests were handing out penances that included wearing sackcloth for months or abstaining from sexual relations with a spouse for several years. Indulgences, in these circumstances, amounted to little more than an expression of Christian compassion to reduce the burden on the afflicted.

In his Controversies Bellarmine propounded a fascinating argument restricting the earthly power of the Catholic pope. The pontiff has supreme spiritual authority, but the temporal ruler, who is also appointed by God, has control of the earthly domain, the realm of Caesar. The pope’s earthly jurisdiction is restricted to those lands that he himself owns. He is only justified in intervening in secular powers when they directly injure the spiritual interests of the faithful; in such limited cases, Bellarmine concedes to Holy See the power even to depose kings and exonerate their subjects from an obligation to obey them. Pope Sixtus V was very displeased by Bellarmine’s caveats about his temporal authority, even going to the extreme of listing the first volume of Controversies on the Index of Forbidden Books. He died, however, before the Index was published and his successor prudently removed Bellarmine’s name from the unfortunate catalog of dissenters and infidels.

Bellarmine’s argument has assumed contemporary interest in these days of separation of Church and State. His critics maintained that Christ, being God, naturally possessed both spiritual and temporal jurisdiction on earth—who would deny this? The pope is the vicar and lieutenant of Christ on earth; therefore, he possesses earthly jurisdiction as well. Bellarmine distinguished between possession of temporal jurisdiction, which of course Christ had, and exercise of that jurisdiction, which he maintained Christ steadfastly refused: “Mine is not the kingdom of this earth.” Twentieth-century popes as well as theologians (such as John Courtney Murray) have adopted Bellarmine’s reasoning to establish a scriptural line of demarcation between the realm of man and that of God. Bellarmine’s position has not only been vindicated, but it has been adopted and institutionalized.

Among Protestants

Nevertheless Bellarmine’s Controversies was greeted with shrill and hysterical tracts such as “Against Bellarmine and Kennel of Monks and Mendicants” and “Against Robert Bellarmine and the Universal Cohort of Jebusites and Canaanites.” Bellarmine was called, among other things, a harpy of Rome, a filthy harlot, the whore of Babylon, Romish vermin, a foul-mouthed hog, and an abominable hypocrite. Fellow Catholics fought back passionately, William Bishop terming one Bellarmine critic “by birth a mean tanner’s son, who at his first coming to Oxford was glad to sweep and dress up chambers and play the drudge for a slender pittance.” But Bellarmine stayed aloof from the name-calling and class condescension.

The frenzied response to Bellarmine’s Controversies, even from learned Protestant divines, is inexcusable when you consider the scrupulousness and even charity of Bellarmine’s reasoning. He did not fail to defend Protestants when he found them misrepresented in Catholic apologetics: “As for Calvin, his language is certainly faulty and so open to the interpretations put upon by Catholic writers…. But even though this be the case, after diligent and very careful examination of his text I am not at all willing to say that he believed or taught the heresy in question, and I shall now briefly explain my reason for putting a favorable construction on his words.”

He knew, as did the polemicists on both sides, that the ferocity of the response could be directly attributed to the success of Controversies. Not only did they convert many Protestants and woo back defecting Catholics, but they also made inroads in very high places: for example, Cardinal du Perron, who converted from Calvinism and went on to become one of the most distinguished Catholic apologists in France, told Bellarmine, “No book published in defense of the Church during the past thousand years equals, in my judgment, your Controversies.” Equipped with the Bible and Controversies, Francis de Sales went into the wild, mountainous Huguenot country of Savoy, braving death and converting thousands of the most hostile Protestants to the Roman Catholic faith. In 1579 a contingent of British exiles embraced Catholicism and vowed to return to their country to labor for its conversion; a number of them ended up martyrs. Dr. John Reynolds of Oxford delivered no less than 250 lectures against Bellarmine but still could not stop the erosion of the Protestant base at his university.

Despite Bellarmine’s enormous fame, he remained, in life, simple and unassuming. Visitors were struck by the way he went about his normal life; one Belgian priest observed in 1580, “When I was engaged with him in the service of the kitchen, and in washing and drying dishes, he did all this lowly work as energetically, carefully and exactly as if it were the big business of theology that occupied him, and never a word did he speak nor once did he look around.”

Bellarmine took very seriously his Jesuit vows of obedience and poverty: even when he was (against his will) made cardinal in 1599, he refused the usual entourage of servants and horses, and gave away most of his annual revenues. To relatives who importuned him for gifts, he cited passages from the Council of Trent noting that family members were to be helped only if they were poor, and in a manner no different from strangers in the same condition. No wonder that Bellarmine was trusted by a string of successive popes and Church authorities and named to virtually every office and commission of his time.

Bellarmine died an old man in the year 1621, not even a year after he published his last book, ironically titled The Art of Dying Well. It took more than two centuries for him to be canonized because many Franciscans, Jansenists, and Gallicans continued to oppose his positions on divine grace and the temporal authority of the pope. But the procrastinators eventually failed, and on May 13, 1923, Pope Pius XI beatified him. He was canonized in 1930 and declared a Doctor of the Church in 1931.


  • Dinesh D'Souza

    Dinesh D'Souza is an American conservative political commentator, author, and former college president.

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