There’s More to St. Robert Bellarmine Than the Inquisition

Gillian Weyant

There’s More to St. Robert Bellarmine Than the Inquisition

September 17th marks the feast day of St. Robert Bellarmine, a Doctor of the Church and patron of catechists and catechumens.  He is remembered as a prominent theologian who was politically active as well, having been involved in significant events such as the Galileo affair.  He was born in Montepulciano, a town in southern Tuscany, in October 1542 to Vincenzo Bellarmino and Cinzia Cervina. The Bellarmine family possessed elements of nobility despite their material poverty, as Cinzia was the sister of Pope Marcellus II, who was Pope for a short time in the year 1555.  

This interior nobility became apparent in Bellarmine’s intellectual integrity, which was notable from an early age.  As a young boy, he held a strong interest in literature and poetry: he knew the writings of Virgil from memory, and composed a number of his own poems in both Italian and Latin.  His composition skills even extended to music, and one of his hymns about St. Mary Magdalene is still included in the Roman Breviary.

How His Early Education Set Him Apart from His Peers

Bellarmine’s proclivity to the intellectual life led him to enter the Roman Jesuits at the age of eighteen.  Bellarmine lived and studied in Rome for the next three years, and then traveled to a town called Mondoví in northern Italy to continue his studies.  While living in Mondoví, Bellarmine’s intelligence was noted by Francesco Adorno, a local superior of the Jesuits, and Bellarmine was sent to study at the University of Padua.  

From there, Bellarmine’s religious and academic careers expanded greatly, and he was ordained a Jesuit in 1570.  At the time of his ordination, the Catholic Church was undergoing a difficult time, to put it lightly. The Protestant Reformation had contributed to a general disregard and neglect of the study of Catholic theology.  Particularly suffering were the studies of Church history and the fathers of the Church. After Bellarmine’s ordination, he devoted himself to resurrecting and elucidating subjects such as these, and thus became known as both a scholar and a preacher.  

His especial talents in these arenas did not go unnoticed.  In terms of his intellectual career, Bellarmine became a professor at the University of Leuven in Flanders -- the first Jesuit to be appointed a professor -- and taught courses focused on a number of aspects of theology, including Thomistic ideas and the Summa Theologiae.  He remained at the University of Leuven for about seven years.  After his departure from the University due to poor health, Bellarmine returned to Italy.  He remained there for some time, and was commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII to lecture on theology at the Roman College, now known as the Pontifical Gregorian University.

Bellarmine remained at the Roman College until 1589.  At this time, European politics were shifting yet again, and so it was at this point that Bellarmine’s religious and political life took flight.  After the murder of Henry III of France, a man named Enrico Caetani was appointed by Pope Sixtus V to negotiate with the Catholic League of France, and Bellarmine was appointed by the Pope to be Caetani’s accompanying theologian.  After this, Bellarmine quickly rose in prominence in the Catholic Church. He was appointed rector of the Roman College in 1592, examiner of bishops in 1598, and cardinal in 1599.  

His Role in the Inquisition

At this point in time, Pope Clement VIII found Bellarmine’s intelligence to be highly impressive, and is quoted as saying that “the Church of God had not his [Bellarmine’s] equal in learning.”  Due to this, Pope Clement appointed Bellarmine as Cardinal Inquisitor. Although certain actions involved in the Inquisition are controversial, the Church at that time had undergone such difficulties in light of the Protestant Reformation, and the leaders of the Church were seeking to regain theological correctness and abolish current heresies to the best of their ability.  Perhaps the most famous of these cases involved Galileo Galilei and the controversy over scientific theories which seemed to contradict Scripture. Although Bellarmine did not live to see the last of this case, he was involved in the initial trials and sought to uphold the importance of Scripture and the teachings of the Church Fathers, saying, “in case of doubt one must not abandon the Holy Scripture as interpreted by the Holy Fathers.”  

Bellarmine retired from trials such as these due to old age and failing health.  He held the position of Bishop of Montepulciano, his birthplace, for four years at the end of his life.  He died on September 17th, 1621, at the age of 78. Fittingly, he died at a Jesuit college in Rome, signifying his dedication to both his faith and his intellectual life.  He was canonized by Pope Pius XI in the year 1930 and declared a Doctor of the Church in the following year. His body was laid to rest next to that of his student, St. Aloysius Gonzaga.  

Being Named a Doctor of the Church

There are a number of ideas we can consider regarding the life of St. Robert Bellarmine.  One of the first questions that comes to mind is why Bellarmine was given the great honor of Doctor of the Church, a title held by only 36 saints in the history of the Church.  Looking a bit further into what is required for someone to be named a Doctor of the Church, we see that there are three conditions: eminens doctrina, insignis vitae sanctitas and Ecclesiae declaratio (eminent learning, a high degree of sanctity and proclamation by the Church).  From learning about the events of the life of St. Robert Bellarmine, we know that he was committed at all times to upholding the teachings of the Church, even in the face of opposing teachings like those of the Protestant Reformation.  (Bellarmine was instrumental in the Counter-Reformation, namely the Catholic Church’s response to Protestants.) In addition, his intellectual life and role in leading the Catholic Church ultimately as a Cardinal made him a truly important figure in the history of the Church, one whose ultimate goal was always to protect Catholic theology and promulgate forgotten history and teachings.  It is clear why Bellarmine was given the title of Doctor of the Church, and it is fitting that his devotion to the intellectual life and to the truths of theology should be honored in this way.

What Modern Catholics Can Learn From St. Bellarmine

Another question that comes to mind is how should we, as modern Catholics, best incorporate Bellarmine’s intellectual and theological integrity into our everyday lives and interactions? Although many of us may not encounter situations in which it is demanded that we defend very specific aspects of theology, there is always opportunity to hold fast to the truths of Catholicism, just as Bellarmine did in times of social and political upheaval.  During Bellarmine’s lifetime, the attacks on the Church seem to have been more straightforward and concrete, such as Martin Luther posting his 95 Theses to doors of Catholic churches. 

The attacks that Catholicism faces currently are much more indeterminate and insidious, as moral relativism pervades every aspect of society and Catholicism faces subtle criticism at seemingly every turn.  There may not be occasions for us to publicly defend and maintain the teachings of our Church as Bellarmine did. We can, however, work to constantly defend the truths and dignity of Catholicism, especially when faced with casual criticism in our everyday lives.  May we always bear witness to our faith with charity and recall the words of St. Robert Bellarmine: “On the last day, when the general examination takes place, there will be no question at all on the text of Aristotle, the aphorisms of Hippocrates, or the paragraphs of Justinian. Charity will be the whole syllabus."