Bellarmino, Roberto

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BELLARMINO, ROBERTO (15421621), Jesuit theologian, controversialist, and cardinal; canonized saint of the Roman Catholic church. Roberto Francisco Romulo Bellarmino was born at Montepulciano in Tuscany on October 4, 1542. His father was an impoverished nobleman. His mother was a sister of Marcello Cervini, papal legate at the Council of Trent and later Pope Marcellus II (1555). Bellarmino entered the Society of Jesus in 1560. He studied philosophy at the Roman College and theology at Padua. He was frail as a youth and suffered from uncertain health all his life. As a student he was much devoted to literature and even wrote some poetry, most of which he later destroyed.

In 1569 Bellarmino was sent by his Jesuit superiors to Louvain in Flanders. The following year he was ordained priest by the bishop of Ghent and assumed his duties as lecturer in theology at the Jesuit house associated with the university. He was an immediate success in this capacity, so much so that by the end of his sojourn at Louvain, in 1576, he was offered prestigious positions at Paris and Milan. He was recalled instead to Rome, where a special chair of theological controversy was established for him at the Roman College. The lectures he delivered there, confuting all the leading Protestant spokesmen, were published in 1586 under the title Disputationes de controversiis Christianae fidei adversus hujus temporis haereticos (Lectures concerning the controversies of the Christian faith against the heretics of this time), a manual that soon became the standard of Roman positive, as distinguis hed from scholastic, theology. It had to pass first, however, through the displeasure of the imperious Pope Sixtus V, who threatened to put Disputationes on the Index of Forbidden Books because it argued that the pope's temporal jurisdiction is only indirect. Bellarmino was spared this embarrassment by the death of Sixtus in August 1590.

In 1591 Bellarmino was appointed spiritual director of the Roman College and a year later its rector. In 1595 he became Jesuit provincial in Naples, where he lived for three years until he was chosen by Clement VIII to be the papal theologian and grand penitentiary, a post that carried with it a red hat. Bellarmino was created cardinal under the title of Santa Maria in Via on March 3, 1599.

In the midst of his various administrative duties, Bellarmino continued to publish works in defense of Catholic doctrine and piety, as well as works on the Fathers, scriptural studies, and liturgy. All these books taken together amount to a considerable corpus, most conveniently consulted in the twelve large volumes edited by J. Fèvre in 1874.

Inevitably, Bellarmino was drawn into the sharp quarrel between the Jesuits and the Dominicans over the problem of the relation between grace and free will. It has been said that Bellarmino's position on this issue displeased the pope, who, for whatever reason, sent him off to be archbishop of Capua in 1602. When Clement died in March 1605, Bellarmino resigned his see, and Pope Paul V named him librarian of the Vatican. He remained active in the Curia Romana for the rest of his life and took an intellectual's part in many of the great events of the time, including the Venetian interdict (1606), the literary controversies with James I of England (16071609), and the debate on Gallicanism (16101612), which was the occasion for his celebrated treatise on the powers of the pope, De potestate summi pontificis in rebus temporalibus (Concerning the powers of the supreme pontiff in temporal matters). In 1615 he was involved in the first curial interrogation of Galileo, a man for whom he had great regard and whom he treated with marked respect.

The process of Bellarmino's canonization began in 1627, six years after his death, but because of what was conceived to be his minimizing views about the papacy, it was not consummated until 1930. Roberto Bellarmino, personally austere, pious, and kindly, set the highest tone for the positive theology of the Counter-Reformation, not only because of his erudition and industry, but also because of the amiability and courtesy he brought to his controversial writingscharacteristics rare indeed in his tumultuous era.


The best short study of Bellarmino's life and work is Xavier-Marie Le Bachelet's entry, "Bellarmin, François-Robert-Romulus," in Dictionnaire de théologie catholique (Paris, 1932). Somewhat effusive but nevertheless useful is James Brodrick's The Life and Work of Blessed Robert Francis Cardinal Bellarmine, 2 vols. (London, 1928). E. A. Ryan's The Historical Scholarship of Saint Bellarmine (Louvain, 1936) examines the centerpiece of the subject's controversial writings. For a recent treatment of one of Bellarmino's controversies within his own communion, see Gustavo Galeota's Bellarmino contra Baio a Lovanio (Rome, 1966).

Marvin R. O'Connell (1987)