St. Robert Bellarmine

The Italian theologian and Jesuit St. Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621) was a cardinal, an adviser to popes, and a strong defender of the Roman Catholic position in the controversies stemming from the Protestant Reformation.

Robert Bellarmine was born on Oct. 4, 1542, in Montepulciano. As a young man of 18, he entered the Jesuits and underwent that group's rigorous intellectual training and discipline. After he was ordained a priest in 1570, he was assigned to teach theology at the University of Louvain, then one of the centers of Roman Catholic defensive scholarship against the Reformation. The young, talented, and religiously sincere Jesuit quickly became known for his effective presentation of Roman Catholic beliefs. He was brought to Rome in 1576 to lecture at the new Jesuit College. He worked there for 12 years to consolidate the Church's theological positions, and out of this research came his most important publication, the three volume Disputations on the Controversies about the Christian Faith against the Heretics of This Time.

When Bellarmine was 50, he was made rector of the Jesuit College in Rome. Two years later, in 1594, he was appointed provincial superior of the Jesuits in Naples. Pope Clement VIII brought him back to Rome in 1597 to be his personal theological adviser and 2 years later made him a cardinal. In 1602 he was sent to Capua as archbishop but in 1605 was recalled to Rome, where he spent the rest of his life as a respected papal counselor.

Bellarmine was active in many areas of intellectual life. In 1610 he wrote a book defending the power of the pope. His careful thinking on the natural rights of men had wide influence in political philosophy for the next 200 years. When Galileo's theories of the earth revolving around the sun created a sensation, Bellarmine advised that they be withheld until they could be more solidly proved. It was the 75-year-old cardinal's sad task to tell Galileo later that the Office of the Inquisition had found his theories opposed to the Bible.

During his long career as a theologian and churchman, Bellarmine was consistently highly regarded. He was a man of strong self-control, putting aside his own feelings in the interest of his duty to the Church. He was kind and particularly concerned about the poor. It was discovered at his death in 1621 that he had quietly given away all his money; there was not even enough left to pay for his funeral. In 1930 Robert Bellarmine was cononized a saint of the Roman Catholic Church.

Further Reading on St. Robert Bellarmine

James Brodrick, Robert Bellarmine: Saint and Scholar (1961), is a sympathetic, fair treatment and the best biography in English. John C. Rager, Democracy and Bellarmine (1926), is a scholarly exploration of Bellarmine's ideas on government and their influence on the American Declaration of Independence. An examination of Bellarmine's philosophy is in E. A. Ryan, The Historical Scholarship of Saint Bellarmine (1936).