The Jesuit cardinal Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621), the 400th anniversary of whose death is noticed in 2021, was the greatest polemical theologian, controversialist and defender of the Papacy that the Church of Rome ever produced. Whereas the Council of Trent (1545-1563) dogmatically defined the doctrine of the Church of Rome in a series of decrees and anathemas, it fell to Bellarmine to provide all the theological underpinnings and, by controversy, to counter every argument of Protestantism, whether Lutheran, Calvinist or whatever. He did so principally by his lectures to young Jesuits training to be the foot soldiers of the Counter-Reformation, and by his printed Controversies. Bellarmine also produced a catechism that was adopted by the Roman Catholic Church as its official teaching until the First Vatican Council in 1870, which relied heavily on Bellarmine’s arguments in favour of Papal infallibility.[1] He was declared by Rome a Doctor of the Church in 1931, the prerequisite to which was his canonization as a saint the previous year.

The Protestant Reformers had studied the Scriptures in their original languages, and deeply familiarized themselves with church history and the writings of the Church Fathers, but there was little comparable expertise within the Church of Rome: few Roman apologists until Bellarmine could argue convincingly from history, or from the Fathers, or from the original languages, leaving the Church of Rome at a significant disadvantage in controversy. A milestone in modern history was the production of the Historia Ecclesiae Christi by Lutheran scholars at Magdeburg (1559-74), thirteen volumes covering a century each, often known as the Magdeburg Centuries. Painstakingly and meticulously researched using primary sources from all over Europe, the Magdeburg Centuries demonstrated the continuity in all ages of the Church and her doctrine in each article of faith. This made it relatively easy for Protestants to expose and counter the errors in the traditional narrative of the Roman church with its mediaeval legends, inventions, hagiographies, and forgeries.[2]

Roberto Francesco Romolo Bellarmino was born on October 4, 1542 in the town of Montepulciano in Tuscany, then within the Papal States. He was the third of five sons, and had seven sisters. His maternal uncle, Cardinal Marcello Cervini, hailed from the town, and became Pope Marcellus II when Robert was 12. In 1557 Spanish Jesuits set up a school in the town, which attracted away Robert from the local grammar school. Robert quickly came under their spell to join the order, contrary to the will of his father, who wished him to qualify in medicine. In an extraordinary circumvention of the requirement for a 2-year noviciate, Robert was fast-tracked into taking vows at the age of seventeen. Within days Robert was fitted with his cassock and dispatched to the Jesuits’ Roman College in Rome. He became Il Maestro Roberto at 21, and thereafter taught at Florence, then at Mondovi in Piedmont, and at Padua, all the while honing his skills in preaching.

In 1569 Bellarmine was sent to Louvain in the Low Countries, where he distinguished himself by regular preaching and public lectures in Latin, his auditors exceeding 2000 persons at a time.[3] Louvain was a Roman Catholic stronghold in a region much influenced by Protestantism, and his Jesuit superiors knew that there he could in relative safety cut his teeth in controversy. The main dispute when he arrived was an intramural affair at the University, where Michael de Bay (Latin ‘Baius’), who had attended the Council of Trent as a theologian delegate, taught that Roman theology had become too reliant on mediaeval scholasticism and the writings of Thomas Aquinas. Baius records that he ‘endeavoured to bring theology back to Holy Scripture and the writings of the Fathers’, which sounded suspiciously like the trail that the Reformers had blazed. Unsurprisingly, Baius’ views were condemned by a Papal Bull and yet rumbled on.[4] The Jesuits, disliking any sympathy at the University for what they considered crypto-Protestantism, set up their own college in Louvain in 1570 and installed the recently ordained Bellarmine as its first professor, where he dutifully lectured and wrote against the views of Baius, while avoiding mention of his name. His star in controversy being in the ascendant, but now ailing in health and troubled by regional wars, Bellarmine was recalled to Rome in 1576 to take up the chair of Controversial Theology at the Roman College, where he had once trained. He served successively as lecturer, then as Spiritual Father of the college (1588), and at length its Rector (1592).

Bellarmine saw that his special task was by every means to disrupt the Reformation especially in England and Germany, and throughout his long life he strained every nerve in writing, in person, and by his considerable influences to achieve that end. The zeal of the Jesuits, who for generations infested kingdoms to subvert them to popery, was due in large part to the labours and legacy of Robert Bellarmine. ‘I was appointed to teach them controversial theology’, he said, ‘to arm these new soldiers of the Church for the war with the powers of darkness which they should have to wage when they returned home.’ Bellarmine began by teaching his students that ‘the sum and substance of Christianity itself’ was Papal primacy, and that Satan ‘goes to work with a certain method of attack on the Church’, assaulting each of the articles of the Creed in turn. Having successively failed to overthrow the Church from the first to the eighth article,

[Satan] turned with savage fury on the ninth and tenth articles: ‘I believe in the Holy Catholic Church, the Communion of Saints, the forgiveness of sins.’ From the year ad 1000, those two articles have been the main object of heretical attack…the heresies of this age are practically concerned with the ninth and tenth articles of the Creed.

These idiosyncratic premises assured that Bellarmine and his students would frame every argument of the Reformers ipso facto as heresy, and an anticipated satanic attack on the Church, its unity, the Papacy, the doctrine of justification, and hence salvation itself.

At the Roman College he also wrote his famous Disputationes de Controversiis Christianae Fidei, adversus huius temporis haereticos (‘Disputations on the controversies of the Christian faith against the heretics of these times’, often known simply as the Controversies). The enterprise comprised two million words that took him over a decade to complete,[5] endeavouring to close off every single argument of Protestantism, for, he said, ‘had I not produced all the arguments I could discover on their side, the heretics would say that the ones I omitted were unanswerable.’ John Eadie, writing in 1857, remarks that

These volumes exhaust the controversy on all points as it was known in those days…For many years afterwards [Bellarmine] was uniformly taken by protestant advocates as the champion of the papacy, and a vindication of Protestantism regularly took the shape of an answer to Bellarmine.[6]  

To this work Bellarmine added his treatise of fifteen ‘notes’ (i.e. marks) of the true church,[7] which was answered in a series of tracts by fifteen eminent English ecclesiastics, including no less than one archbishop and six bishops, each addressing one of the notes.

When in 1589 Henry IV of France, then notionally a Calvinist, succeeded Henry III, Bellarmine was dispatched to France with the papal Legate to strengthen the anti-Protestant League and by all means to prevent the installation of this excommunicated supporter of the Huguenots. ‘I have nothing to do with politics’, protested Bellarmine, ‘but I want to see a King of France that will establish the decrees of the Council of Trent’, which meant in practice willing Philip II of Spain to take the throne instead and impose the Spanish Inquisition. Bellarmine soon found himself trapped in Paris besieged by Henry IV, and endured ghastly depredations, surviving, he says, ‘on a sort of dog-broth’ and once ‘a splendid present’ from the Spanish Ambassador, ‘a haunch of his own charger.’ The poor were reduced to consuming axle grease or worse, and tens of thousands of them died. Eventually the siege was raised, and when news of the death of Pope Sixtus V reached him, Bellarmine returned to Rome.

While in Rome Bellarmine was constantly consulted on theological matters and pressed to serve on many committees. In 1597 Pope Clement VIII appointed him as his personal theologian, Examiner of Bishops and Consultor of the Holy Office (the Inquisition). In 1599 Clement chose him as Cardinal ‘because the church of God does not possess his equal in learning.’ Bellarmine disliked the role because it imposed expectations on lifestyle and required a large household and retinue to fulfil official duties, hospitality, and pompous ceremonies, which greatly interfered with his highly ascetic personal practices. Worse still, it brought the danger of being elected pope, which he dreaded: his late uncle Marcellus II had warned that it was scarcely possible to be saved once installed in that seat.

In 1603 Pope Clement conferred on Bellarmine the Archbishopric of Capua, where he took up residence for three years until the death of Clement, and then returned to Rome for the election of his successor. In this and the two subsequent conclaves he attended during his lifetime, Bellarmine attracted the largest share of votes in the first rounds, but to his great relief he could never succeed because he was judged to possess virtues incompatible with the office of pope. As Cardinal Borgia and others admitted, ‘Bellarmine deserves to be elected for his goodness, but his great rectitude and integrity of character are against him’, as were that ‘he professes to act according to his convictions’ and ‘would scruple to accept a bribe.’

Bellarmine’s zeal to ruin the Reformation and restore popery entailed wherever possible to persecute, arrest and execute Protestants, and to embolden Roman Catholics to intrigue and rebel against Protestant rulers, and encourage assassins to slay them. Whilst this had been the practical policy of the Roman church before Bellarmine, it was he who gave the institution its weighty theological justifications. The Gunpowder Plot of 1605 and its aftermath brought the matter again into focus, eliciting sharp controversy between King James I and Bellarmine. In the wake of that attempt at mass murder the English Parliament had imposed an oath of allegiance requiring abjuration of ‘the doctrine and position that princes which be excommunicated or deprived by the Pope may be deposed or murdered by their subjects, or any other whatsoever.’ Both Pope Paul V and Bellarmine strenuously resisted its imposition on Roman Catholics because it opposed the doctrine of ‘indirect power’ that they and their predecessors had long taught and assiduously practised, ‘stigmatizing as a usurpation the right that the church had claimed and exercised throughout the whole medieval period.’[8] After all, Pope Pius V had excommunicated the previous royal incumbent Queen Elizabeth, relieved all her subjects of obedience to her, and assured any would-be assassin that he would be doing God’s service, and would receive full absolution and a holy benediction from the Pope for sending her out of the world. Therefore, for Roman Catholics to swear such an oath and thereby relinquish the duty laid on them by the papacy to annihilate Protestant princes would, argued Bellarmine, be a violation of conscience, an execrable sin, and a denial of the Catholic faith.

Outside the annals of church history and theology, Bellarmine is remembered in secular history principally for his role as Inquisitor in relation to scientists: his leading the Roman Inquisition’s trial, condemnation and burning of Giordano Bruno in 1600 for formal heresy (who only incidentally advanced the hypothesis that the universe and was of infinite extent and had no centre); and especially the interdicting of Galileo Galilei, who taught the more traditional Copernican view that the sun was at the centre of a finite universe.

Galileo first visited Rome in 1587 and struck up a lifelong friendship with Jesuit mathematician and astronomer Christopher Clavius,[9] which he renewed in 1611 when visiting the Roman College. During that stay, Galileo had a private audience with the pope, and banquets were held in his honour at which Bellarmine and his Jesuit colleagues were invited to view the heavens through his telescope. But Galileo would not refrain from mocking those who on theological grounds opposed his views on the rotation of the earth and heliocentrism, and his disparagement appeared to bring the Scriptures into question. He was given friendly advice that Copernicanism had been extensively investigated and discussed with Cardinal Bellarmine of the Roman Inquisition, with the conclusion that ‘If you treat of the system of Copernicus and set forth proofs without bringing in the Scriptures, the interpretation of which is the business of qualified theologians, then you should not be opposed in any way whatsoever.’ Galileo brazenly ignored the advice, and the Grand Duke of Tuscany’s ambassador in Rome warned that the Inquisition was growing restive about Galileo’s obduracy and his determination to visit the city again. After a few months in Rome, matters came to a head in 1616, with the Tuscan ambassador complaining that

Galileo sets more store by his own opinion than by the advice of his friends…using so much violence in his attempts to force others into holding [his opinions]… he gets hotly excited about these views of his, and has an extremely passionate temper, with little patience and prudence to keep it in control. It is this irritability that makes the skies of Rome very dangerous for him.

The upshot was that Galileo was compelled to appear before Inquisitor Bellarmine, who notified him that his opinion that the sun was an immoveable body at the centre of the universe could not be defended or held,[10] though he also certified that Galileo had not been required to recant or abjure ‘in any place whatsoever, any opinion or doctrine held by him; neither has any penance…been imposed upon him.’

Towards the end of his life Bellarmine focused less on controversy and more on devotional writings. His last work appeared in 1619, The Art of Dying Well, and naturally raised expectations of its author, which were not disappointed in the hagiographic accounts of his Jesuit biographers, who had an eye to propelling him to sainthood. Many matters considered pious and saintly to Roman Catholic readers cannot but dismay Protestants, including the circus of ecclesiastics at his deathbed, who for relics brought innumerable caps, crucifixes, and rosaries that he might touch them, and reduced his clothing to tatters by snipping off swatches and pillaging his wardrobe; who dyed cloths in his blood after his passing, which was ‘so greedily ta­ken, as that no drop remained’, and, but for a guard, ‘the very bo­dy itself had been taken away and divided for pious spoil.’[11] They record that Bellarmine died in great peace on September 17, 1621, confident that he had never committed a single serious sin during his entire life, and comforted by thoughts of the immense blows he had struck to Protestantism all his days, which he had secured would long continue after his decease through his writings:

Having a little Cross of silver in his hand, he kissed it very often, and…blessed himself divers times wherewith…[H]e shewed this zeal to the holy Crucifix to shew his zeal against the heretics of these times…that the world might see how exact he was in adhering unto that Faith in all and every branch and member which in his works he had so learnedly defen­ded, and procured in this his last sickness…to have left registered in print after his departure.[12]

[1] Even those who opposed that doctrine at the Council acknowledged his pre-eminence over three hundred years. For example, Von Hefele wrote in 1883 that the Controversies were still ‘the most complete defence of the Catholic Faith…that has appeared down to this present day.’

[2] The Church of Rome eventually produced an official answer to the Magdeburg Centuries with the Annales Ecclesiastici by Caesar Baronius, 12 volumes (1588-1607). However, what material of this series appeared before Bellarmine had completed his Controversies (1581-93) covered only up to the mid-fourth century.

[3] In one sermon he advises his hearers that if ‘the last day has come’ and ‘our doctrine of the Eucharist turns out to be false and absurd’, they may readily counter the reproach of Christ for worshipping the communion elements: ‘we may safely answer: “Yea, if we were wrong in this, it was you who deceived us.” ‘

[4] Baienism was the direct precursor to Jansenism.

[5] The material originally appeared successively in three volumes (1581, 1582, 1593), but editions from 1596 bound them into the now standard set of four volumes with additional material.

[6] Those who wrote against the Controversies in their entirety include Andrew Willet, Amandus Polanus, William Ames, David Pareus, and Johann Gerhard. Those who tackled portions of them are very numerous, and include Franciscus Junius, William Whitaker, Matthew Sutcliffe, Johannes Piscator, George Downame, Zacharius Ursinus, Johann Alsted, Samuel Rutherford, John Davenant, Lancelot Andrewes, Thomas Tenison, Pierre Du Moulin, and Thomas Morton. Bellarmine himself considered William Whitaker his most learned and able opponent.

Surprisingly, the Controversies have never been translated into English in their entirety, and most of the translated portions are recent.

[7] John Henry Newman would come to add his own ‘notes’ in the nineteenth century based on his theory of the development of doctrine.

[8] J.C. Murray, Bellarmine on the Indirect Power (1948).

[9] Clavius was the architect of the Gregorian calendar introduced in 1582. The second largest crater on the visible side of the moon is named after him.

[10] Such a view is, as we now know, scientifically untenable.

[11] E. Coffin SJ, A True Relation of the Last Sickness and Death of Cardinal Bellarmine (1622).

[12] Ibid.