St. Robert Bellarmine
Doctor of the Church
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
Great Catholic Books Newsletter
Volume I, Number 9
St. Robert Bellarmine was born in 1542 in the tiny village of Monte Puciano.
He died at the age of 79 in Rome in 1621. Canonized in 1930 and a year later
made a Doctor of the Church, Bellarmine's, along with Peter Canisius, canonization
were delayed for so long a time because of strong objections to having these
two Jesuit champions of the Papacy declared saints in what was beginning to
become the Ecumenical Age. Significantly, Bellarmine's mother was the half sister
of Pope Marcellus II who reigned for less than a month. He was a nephew of a
pope who later as cardinal came within a hair's breath of being elected pope
and escaped the papacy, as it were, by pleading and urging his fellow electors
not to make him pope.
Robert was naturally very brilliant. As a youth of seventeen, his teachers
declared he was the best in the school in his studies and not far from heaven.
At the age of eighteen, he entered the Society of Jesus and for the rest of
his life was plagued with poor health. Because of his poor health, his superiors
sent him from one city to another, and from one country to another, in the hope
of restoring his health. Because Bellarmine was appointed to preach even before
his ordination to the priesthood, everywhere he was sent he would preach. Bellarmine
was ordained in 1570 and appointed professor at the University of Louvain in
Belgium where he lectured on the work of St. Thomas Aquinas.
It was at Louvain that Bellarmine first encountered the rising tide of Protestantism.
He discovered at the University professors who were, to say the least, tainted
with Protestantism. The most famous of these professors was Baius, a man who
is not well known today, but is important because he influenced Jansenius, who
gave the world Jansenism, a heresy that afflicted the Church for centuries.
Even as a young professor, Bellarmine took to refuting his colleague because
Baius, in common with the early Protestants, denied man's free will. Bellarmine
more than any single man in Christendom analyzed Protestantism to its roots.
When he was sent to Rome to teach in the Roman College, now called the Gregorian
University, he established a new department that had never existed in any university
the Department of Controversial Theology. This theology controverses which
means refutes the errors of the Protestants.
He gradually published his lectures that became a series of volumes covering
all the major areas contested by the early Protestants. By Bellarmine's day,
the Council of Trent had already finished. It had opened in 1545 and closed
in 1563. Bellarmine therefore had not only all the writings of the Protestants
who were his contemporaries at his disposal but also the teachings of the Council
of Trent. In his writings he directly quotes at great length from Luther, Calvin,
Zwingli, and Cramer. He picks out the heart of their error, quotes them verbatim,
and then after sometimes several pages of quotation, refutes them point by point.
Bellarmine wrote a famous catechism and many treatises on the spiritual life.
He has a wonderful treatise on Purgatory in which he urges the faithful to avoid
venial sins because even these so-called small sins offend the infinite majesty
of God and are punished by Him. In this treatise he relates the story of a German
mystic, St. Lutgardis, a religious who lived during the reign of Pope Innocent
III, one of the most famous popes in the history of the Church. The just deceased
Innocent III appeared to St. Lutgardis in her monastery to thank her for the
prayers and sacrifices she had offered for him during his reign as Roman Pontiff.
Innocent III said that it was her prayer and penance that saved him from hell.
During his pontificate he was not strong enough and destined to be condemned
to hell. But before he died, he made his peace with God and the Lord revealed
to him that it was her prayers and sacrifices that saved him. But now he was
in purgatory destined to stay there until the end of time; so he asked her to
redouble her prayers and penances to free him from purgatory before the consummation
of the world. St. Lutgardis heeded his plea and years later he reappeared to
her resplendent in glory to thank her for obtaining his release from purgatory.
Bellarmine also has a treatise on martyrdom one of the fifteen marks of the
Church. The true Church has been sealed by the blood of martyrs in every age
from St. Stephen on the last one who has died for the faith. Bellarmine points
out there would be no martyrs unless they looked forward to dying for Christ.
Of course, martyrdom is naturally painful but every martyr Bellarmine observed,
faced death with joy.
In writing on the Holy Eucharist, Bellarmine defended the Real Presence from
the attacks of John Calvin who argued that the Real Presence is unnecessary.
The gist of Calvin's argument is that when a child is baptized in the name of
the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, we do not say that the Holy
Trinity is in the water. In other words, Christ who is God does not have to
be present in the Eucharist to give us grace, so why concoct a Real Presence
to produce grace that Christ can bestow without really being present. Bellarmine
refutes Calvin by pointing out that if we measured God's goodness by what He
has to do, none of us would exist. Nor did God have to become man. He could
have redeemed the world without becoming man simply by an act of the Divine
Will. And after becoming Incarnate neither did He have to suffer and die for
our salvation. The least act of Christ's human will would have been enough to
save a thousand worlds. Bellarmine said that Calvin's problem was that he did
not realize how much God loves us. If Christ said, "he that eats my flesh
and drinks my blood, has life in him" then who is John Calvin to contradict
the Son of God?
A man of Bellarmine's prolific genius would have all kinds of enemies. Many
wanted to refute Bellarmine because they knew if they could defeat him, more
Catholics would be taken in by the errors of the so-called reformers. His most
famous adversary was the King of England, James I. By this time England had
already been robbed of its faith by Henry VIII, Elizabeth, and now James I.
Bellarmine refuted the king in defending the papacy. Bellarmine also wrote extensively
against a famous Servite, Paulo Sarpi.
St. Robert Bellarmine had a great devotion to St. Francis of Assisi, and was
especially devoted to honoring Francis' stigmata. Bellarmine urged that there
be a special feast in honor of the five stigmata of St. Francis. Bellarmine
had an important position in the Vatican and he made sure that the feast was
introduced in the Church, despite strong opposition. As Providence arranged,
Robert Bellarmine died on the feast of the stigmata of St. Francis, September
17. And in the revised liturgical calendar St. Bellarmine's feast, which used
to be celebrated on May 13, has been moved to September 17. Among Franciscans
September 17 is the feast of the stigmata of St. Francis. In the Universal Church
it is the feast of St. Robert Bellarmine.
Bellarmine's name should be held in benediction by every American. The concept
of our form of government was first developed by the Jesuit philosophers in
the 16th and 17th centuries, especially Robert Bellarmine. Our founding fathers
relied heavily on Bellarmine in forming their idea of our constitutional government.
The first mark of Bellarmine's spirituality was his devotion to the Vicar of
Christ. He was a great defender of the Holy See, especially of Papal infallibility.
At the first Vatican Council, the bishops of the Catholic Church mainly used
the writings of St. Robert Bellarmine to finally chisel out the definition of
Another characteristic of his spirituality was an all embracing charity. As
a contemporary of those who had severed the Mystical Body of Christ and divided
Christendom, Bellarmine's attitude towards the Protestant leaders was one of
consummate charity. We must hate error with a holy hatred; we must love the
people who are in error. That characterizes the spirit of Bellarmine. Despite
his poor health and super-human activity, he was a very cheerful person.
Bellarmine's spiritual life was one of the deepest; though he was not a mystic
like saints Alphonsus Rodrequez or Stanislaus. Ecstasies that we commonly associate
with those we call mystics were quite foreign to his spirituality. For years
he found writing an effective way of praying. It is good to know that when Bellarmine
was a superior, he had a reputation for being a very mild superior. He would
encourage, even when he had to reprimand; he was kind even to those he had to
One thing that Bellarmine teaches us is that the root of evil is error and
the root of error is ignorance. If we want to root out evil, we must teach the
truth. It is not enough to believe. With God's grace, which means reflection
and prayer, you must understand what you believe.
Bellarmine, though a bishop and a cardinal, insisted on living in a Jesuit
house, though by Canon Law he would have been exempt from that obligation. He
especially wanted to practice poverty. One day his superiors came into his room
and discovered that all the window and wall hangings in his room had been removed.
They had been put there because of the dignity of his office. He had taken every
strip of silk and velvet and damask and had given the cloth to the poor so they
might keep warm. He reasoned that the walls do not catch cold, but people do.
Rome can be very cold in winter; however, members of his community never remembered
him having heat in his room.
Bellarmine wrote one little book that has gone through countless printings
in numerous printings: The Assent Of The Mind To God. The title is revealing;
Bellarmine had a big heart, but he realized the most important faculty that
God wants of us to use is our mind. He saw God in everything, and as the little
treatise explains, every creature, even the lowliest, is a ladder by which we
can climb to God.
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