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Bellarmine, Robert

Bellarmine, Robert

(b. Montepulciano, Italy, 4 October 1542; d. Rome, Italy, 17 September 1621).

theology, philosophy.

Third of the twelve children of Vincenzo Bellarmino and Cynthia Cervini, half-sister of Pope Marcellus II, Robert joined the newly founded Jesuit order in 1560 and took a master’s degree in philosophy at the Spanish-staffed Roman College in 1563. Natural philosophy formed an important part of his studies there, but it appears to have been wholly and routinely Aristotelian in character. Ordained priest in 1570, he completed his theological studies in Louvain.

The struggle between the Catholic and Protestant wings of Christendom had by then attained an extraordinary ferocity all over Europe. One of the major theoretical issues separating the two groups concerned the norms for the proper interpretation of Scripture. Because of his profound scriptural scholarship and his thorough grasp of the major Protestant writers (both of these achievements very rare in the Catholic church of the day), Bellarmine soon became the leading theologian on the Catholic side of the debate. His three-volume Disputationes de controversiis was by far the most effective piece of Catholic polemic scholarship of the century. After its appearance in 1588. he was recognized as the leading defender of the papacy; successive popes forced on a man whose natural temperament was at once gentle and gay the uncongenial role of controversialist and apologist. Made rector of the Roman College in 1592, cardinal in 1599, and archbishop of Capua in 1602, Bellarmine was never far from Rome, and in his last years lived at the Vatican as the pope’s major theological adviser.

Bellarmine’s relevance to the history of science comes only from his role in the Galileo story. In 1611 he was among the Roman dignitaries whom Galileo invited to see the new-found wonders in the sky. The old man was disturbed at the implications of what he saw, and asked the astronomers of his old college (among them Clavius) to test the accuracy of Galileo’s claims. This they soon did. Galileo sent him a copy of his important and effectively anti-Aristotelian work on hydrostatics (1612), to which Bellarmine replied that “the affection you have thus shown me is fully reciprocated on my part; you will see that this is so, if ever I get an opportunity of doing you a service.” The opportunity was not long in coming.

The Aristotelian cosmology was crumbling in the face of the new astronomical evidence, notably that of the phases of Venus and the sunspots. The Aristotelians o the universities fell back on the authority of Scripture as a last desperate expedient to save their case. Galileo answered them in his brilliant Letter to the Grand Duchess Cristina of Lorraine (1615). Two rather different, and ultimately incompatible, positions were argued by him. On the one hand, he argued with great cogency that the language in which the scriptural writers described physical phenomena could not possibly have been intended to carry any probative weight in questions of natural science. On the other hand, he also appeared to concede the traditional; Augustinian maxim: So great is the weight of authority behind the words of revelation that the literal sense ought to be taken as the correct one in every case, except where such an interpretation could be strictly shown, on commonsense or philosophical grounds, to lead to falsity.

In a letter written at this time to Foscarini, a Carmelite who had defended similar views on the nonrelevance of scriptural phrases to problems of physical science, Bellarmine accepted the Augustinian maxim, but went on to emphasize that since the heliocentric theory of Copernicus could in no way be “strictly demonstrated,” the troublesome scriptural phrases about the motion of the sun could not be regarded as metaphorical. If, of course, a “strict proof” of heliocentrism were to be found (a contingency he regarded as in the highest degree unlikely but, significantly, did not wholly exclude), the scriptural texts would have to be reexamined. To argue that the celestial appearances are “saved” by supposing the earth to go around the sun does not constitute a strict proof that this is what really happens. When a vessel recedes from the shore, the illusion that the shore is moving is corrected by seeing the ship to be in motion. Likewise, the experience of the wise man “tells him plainly that the earth is standing still.”

This is the sort of unshakable trust in the ultimacy of observation that had made Aristotle (who had once seemed so dangerous an intellectual threat to Christian beliefs) a congenial cosmologist for those who regarded the Hebrew turn of phrase about sun or stars as somehow carrying a special authority. In Bellarmine’s view, Solomon’s phrase about the sun “returning to its place” carried far more weight than did the Copernican theory. The latter was no more than a “hypothesis,” whereas Solomon had his wisdom from God.

A year later, a specially appointed tribunal of eleven theologians went much further than Bellarmine had, and advised the Congregation of the Holy Office that the heliostatic view was formally heretical, because it called into question the inspiration of Scripture. No account of the tribunal’s deliberations survives, but presumably its arguments were the standard ones summarized in Bellarmine’s letter.

The consequences, both for science and for the church, of the ensuing decree (1616) suspending the work of Copernicus “until it be corrected” can scarcely be overestimated. Once this decree was put into effect, the die was cast; and although later incidents (notably Galileo’s trial) would come to have a greater symbolic and dramatic significance, it was with the decree of 1616 that the parting of the ways really came. The disastrous potentialities for conflict that were latent in Augustine’s theory of scriptural interpretation were now for the first time realized. If the literal sense of Scripture is to be retained unless and until its untenability be strictly demonstrated, an impossible burden is laid on theologian and scientist alike. Each will be called on to evaluate the arguments of the other. And the argument of the scientist will not be allowed any weight until it is conclusive, when all of a sudden it will be conceded. The notions of evidence and probability underlying this approach (which originally derived from Augustine’s theory of divine illumination as a basis for all human knowledge) are ultimately inconsistent.

In his criticisms of this approach, Galileo showed himself a better theologian than Bellarmine and the consultors. He had a far keener appreciation of what language is, and what the conditions for communication are. That his opponents did not accept his arguments, cogent as they seem to us today, was due mainly to the fact that the norms for the proper interpretation of Scripture were one of the two main issues then dividing Protestants and Catholics. Any liberalizing suggestion in this quarter was hardly likely to meet with favor on either side. It was a far cry from the calmer days of Oresme and Cusa, two centuries before, when similar suggestions about the interpretation of Scripture scarcely caused a ripple.

In his Système du monde, Duhem suggests that in one respect, at least, Bellarmine had shown himself a better scientist than Galileo by disallowing the possibility of a “strict proof” of the earth’ motion, on the grounds that an astronomical theory merely “saves the appearances” without necessarily revealing what “really happens.” This claim has often been repeated, most recently by Karl Popper, who makes Bellarmine seem a pioneer of the nineteenth-century positivist theory of science. In point of fact, nothing could be further from the case. Bellarmine by no means denied that strict demonstrations of what is “really” the case could be given in astronomical matters. In his view, however, such demonstrations had to rest on “physical” considerations of the type used by Aristotle, not on the mathematical models of positional astronomy.

This distinction between two epistemologically different types of astronomy was a time-honored one, taking its origin in the medieval debates over the relative merits of the Aristotelian and Ptolemaic astronomies. The former clearly gave a good causal account of why the planets moved, but was quite unable to provide any practical aids for the compiling of calendars and the like. On the other hand, it appeared impossible to account for the complex and eccentric epicyclic motions of Ptolemaic astronomy in causal terms, even though they did provide a good descriptive and predictive account of apparent planetary positions. The orthodox Aristotelian reading of this situation, such as one will find in writers like Aquinas, was that real motion could be asserted only on the basis of demonstrations of a properly “physical” sort; the models of the mathematical astronomer did not lend themselves to dynamic explanation because their purpose was merely that of computation.

Although the phrase “saving the appearances” was often used in reference to mathematical astronomy, it is important in this context to distinguish between the Aristotelian and Platonic views of what physics in general could accomplish. Aristotle argued that a strict science of physics can be achieved, one that tells us how the world really is. Plato, on the other hand, held that physical inquiry could at best only “save the appearances.” Admittedly, such a “saving” provided some sort of insight into the physical world because of the relation of image between it and the domain of Form, but the insight is a limited and defective one because the imaging is such a flickering and uncertain affair.

Bellarmine’s comments in his letter to Foscarini cannot be construed as a protopositivist declaration. He was, indeed, just as much of an “essentialist” in his theory of science (to use Popper’s term) as either Aristotle or Galileo. Even if he had been a Platonist, and extended the notion of “saving the appearances” to all of physics and not just to mathematical astronomy, it still would not be correct to take this in the positivist sense favored by Duhem.

To refute the Aristotelian separation between the two types of astronomy, it would be necessary to construct a dynamical substructure for Copernican kinematics, something Galileo could not do. It was not until Newton that the new mathematical astronomy was given an adequate causal interpretation in terms of central forces. In his Dialogo, Galileo attempted to meet Bellarmine’s challenge to provide a dynamical proof of the earth’s motion, but the tidal arguments he used carried little conviction. Galileo’s opponents could, therefore, claim that the Copernican theory was still no more than a “hypothesis,” in the traditional sense of a fictional account, because it lacked the “physics” (i.e., the dynamics) that, in their view, it would need to transform it into a claim about the nature of the real.

When the decree outlawing Copernicanism was promulgated in 1616, Galileo was in Rome. He was not mentioned in the decree, probably because of the respect in which he was held and the support of his many friends in Rome. But since he was the main protagonist both of Copernicanism and of the views on the interpretation of Scripture that were disapproved, he obviously was the person most affected by it. Wishing to make sure that Galileo appreciated the gravity of the matter, the pope asked Bellarmine to call him in and notify him officially of the contents of the decree before it was made public. If he showed himself unwilling to accept it, he was to be enjoined personally not to support or even discuss Copernicanism in any fashion.

What happened at this famous interview has been the subject of endless controversy in the past century, since the documents of the “Galileo case” have been made public. According to a document introduced in evidence at Galileo’s trial nearly twenty years later, the personal injunction apparently was given to him, and the prosecution made much of the fact that its existence had not been made known to the censors in charge of licensing the Dialogo. Galileo protested that he could recall no such formal injunction, although he remembered the interview with Bellarmine well enough. In addition. he produced an attestation drawn up by Bellarmine before Galileo left Rome in 1616, in which the aged cardinal affirmed that Galileo had not been forced to abjure Copernicanism, as rumor had claimed. Bellarmine’s note, whose existence obviously had not been suspected by the prosecution, forced an alteration in the strategy of the trial; in its later stages, the personal injunction was not mentioned.

Had it actually been delivered? The record in the Holy Office file is not signed in the usual from, and Bellarmine’s attestation strongly suggests that it could not be valid. Some have claimed that it was forged by enemies of Galileo, either in 1616 or in 1633, with a view to trapping him. Others have suggested that it was delivered in 1616, but that there were no legal grounds for doing so. Still others argue that a genuine injunction was given, and that Bellarmine’s attestation was the action of a friend protecting Galileo’s reputation. We shall never know for sure. And in any event, it makes little difference, since the trial verdict would very likely have been the same whether or not a special injunction had been given to Galileo in 1616. Once the decree of 1616 implied that the heliocentric view is formally heretical, the writing of a book like the Dialogo automatically gave grounds for the suspicion of heresy, if the pope or the Holy Office cared to press the charge. This was where Bellarmine and the theologians of 1616 failed. Beset by the polemics of Reformation and Counter-Reformation, they did not grasp the limits of scriptural inspiration that were already becoming evident to the pioneers of the new sciences. One can account for their failure easily enough, but it was to have disastrous consequences for their church and for religion in genergal.


The relationship between Bellarmine and Galileo is fully covered in James Brodrick, Robert Bellarmine (Westminster, Md., 1961). Brodrick’s earlier Life and work of Robert Francis Bellarmine (London, 1928) is quite defective in its treatment of the Galileo case. The most colorful recent account of the Bellarmine-Galileo dispute is Giorgio de Santillana, The Crime of Galileo (Chicago, 1955); a quite different reconstruction of the circumstances under which the disputed injunction came to be entered into the file is given by Stillman Drake in the appendix to his trans. of Ludovico Geymonat, Galileo Galilei (New York, 1965). Popper’s view of Bellarmine as an “instrumentalist,” in contrast with Galileo, the “essentialist,” is worked out in his “Three Views Concerning Human Knowledge,” in H. D. Lewis, ed., Contemporary British Philosophy (New York, 1956). pp. 355-388.

Ernan Mcmullin

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Bellarmine, Robert (1542–1621)


BELLARMINE, ROBERT (15421621), Jesuit theologian, spiritual writer, cardinal, and archbishop. Robert (Roberto Francesco Romolo) Bellarmine was born on 4 October 1542 in Montepulciano, Tuscany, to Vincenzo Bellarmine and Cintia Cervini. Attending the local Jesuit college, he proved himself to be an excellent student. During his studies, Bellarmine contemplated entering the Society of Jesus. Despite his father's initial opposition, he entered the novitiate at Rome in 1560. Upon the completion of his formation (immersion in the spirituality of the order) and his initial studies in philosophy, Bellarmine was sent in 1563 to the Jesuit colleges of Florence and Mondovì to teach classics. In 1567, he went to Padua to begin his theological studies. Completing his studies in Louvain, Bellarmine was ordained a priest in 1570.

In 1570, the Jesuits opened their own theological college at Louvain, where Bellarmine became its first Jesuit professor. Drawn into the religious controversies of the day, Bellarmine devoted his time to the study of Scripture, church history, and patristics. Utilizing the teachings of the church defined at the Council of Trent, Bellarmine's lectures were devoted to a defense of church doctrine against Luther and Calvin, whose theology he had studied.

Everard Mercurian, superior general of the Society of Jesus, established a professorship in controversial theology in 1576 at the Collegio Romano, to which he appointed Bellarmine. Pope Gregory XIII also requested that Bellarmine teach theology to the English and German missionary students at the college. These lectures became the foundation of his greatest work, Disputationes de controversiis Christianae fidei huius temporis haereticos (known as the Controversies ), a three-volume synthesis of Catholic theology that appeared in 1586, 1588, and 1593. The Controversies was the most significant refutation of the theology of the reformers during the Reformation, and long remained Catholicism's most complete response to the issues raised by Protestantism. The Controversies avoids a polemical approach, presenting a balanced criticism of reform theology, pointing out both its strengths and its weaknesses.

At the end of 1589, Sixtus V named Bellarmine as theological advisor to Cardinal Enrico Gaetani, the pope's legate examining the conflict in the French church between those who supported the Huguenot king, Henry IV, and those who opposed his reign. This would be the first of several church-state disputes with which he would become involved.

Upon his return to Rome in 1590, Bellarmine resumed his responsibility as spiritual director within the Collegio Romano. In 1592, he was named rector of the college and was appointed to be a member of the commission established to draft a final version of the Ratio Studiorum, the outline of the curriculum for Jesuit schools. In 1594, Bellarmine was named provincial of the Jesuit province of Naples. He returned to Rome in 1597 as theological advisor to Pope Clement VIII, and published two catechisms, one designed for children and one designed for teachers.

Clement VIII entrusted Bellarmine with the important task of revising the official text of the Latin Vulgate Bible begun by Pope Sixtus V. Bellarmine corrected Sixtus V's text, which became known as the Sixto-Clementine Vulgate (1592), and remained the official Latin Bible of the Catholic Church until the twentieth century.

The pope elevated Bellarmine to the rank of cardinal on 3 March 1599, appointing him to various Roman Congregations and commissions. On 21 April 1602 Clement VIII appointed him archbishop of Capua. Leaving Rome to take up residence in his diocese, Bellarmine took his duties as bishop seriously, preaching every Sunday, visiting the parishes, renewing the spiritual life of the religious communities, and providing for the poor.

Bellarmine was called back to Rome by Pope Paul V in 1605 to serve on various congregations. The most important of these was the Holy Office, which would lead to his involvement in the Galileo case in 1615. Both Galileo and Bellarmine agreed that there was no conflict between Scripture and scientific findings. However, Bellarmine insisted on the literal interpretation of biblical passages. In 1616 he was chosen to deliver personally to Galileo the Holy Office's admonition forbidding him from teaching the heliocentric theory (that the earth circles the sun).

During his final years, Bellarmine wrote largely devotional treatises aimed at ordinary Christians that reflected his own personal prayer and piety, as well as the spirituality of the Catholic Reformation. The most popular of his ascetical treatises were De Ascensione Mentis in Deum (1614; The mind's ascent to God) and De Arte Bene Moriendi (1619; The art of dying well).

Robert Bellarmine died on 17 September 1621 in Rome. His life unfolded in the midst of the church's resolve to reform itself and to combat Protestantism. As the author of The Controversies and as a member of the Inquisition, he contributed to the fight against heresy. As a diligent reforming bishop and author of spiritual works, he contributed to the renewal of the church's life. In 1930 he was canonized by Pius XI and in the following year declared a Doctor of the Church, a title given to certain canonized ecclesiastical writers on account of the great advantage the church has gained from their doctrine.

See also Galileo Galilei ; Inquisition, Roman ; Jesuits ; Reformation, Catholic .


Primary Sources

Bellarmine, Robert. Spiritual Writings. Translated and edited by John Patrick Donnelly and Roland J. Teske. New York, 1989. Includes The Mind's Ascent to God by the Ladder of Created Things and The Art of Dying Well, with introductions.

Secondary Sources

Blackwell, Richard J. Galileo, Bellarmine, and the Bible. Notre Dame, Ind., 1991. Examines Bellarmine's involvement in the early phases of the Galileo affair, including documents.

Brodrick, James. The Life and Work of Blessed Robert Francis Cardinal Bellarmine, S.J., 15421621. 2 vols. New York, 1928. The best biography of Bellarmine; reprints Bellarmine's autobiography.

. Robert Bellarmine: Saint and Scholar. London, 1961. Revised and condensed version of the earlier two-volume study.

Godman, Peter. The Saint as Censor: Robert Bellarmine Between Inquisition and Index. Leiden and Boston, 2000.

Kuntz, Paul G. "The Hierarchical Vision of St. Roberto Bellarmino." In Jacob's Ladder and the Tree of Life: Concepts of Hierarchy and the Great Chain of Being. Edited by Marion Leathers Kuntz and Paul Grimley Kuntz, pp. 111130. New York, 1987.

Riedl, John O. "Bellarmine and the Dignity of Man." In Jesuit Thinkers of the Renaissance. Edited by Gerard Smith, pp. 193226, 242254. Milwaukee, 1939.

Francesco C. Cesareo

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"Bellarmine, Robert (1542–1621)." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . 26 Mar. 2017 <>.

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"Bellarmine, Robert (1542–1621)." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . Retrieved March 26, 2017 from