Patron of catechists, catechumens, and canon lawyers—St. Robert Bellarmine, whose feast is celebrated Sept. 17 on the General Roman Calendar, was a Jesuit and a cardinal who used his incredible intellect to defend Catholic teaching, largely through responses to the Church’s opponents in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation.
In all his writings, St. Bellarmine “maintained a charitable disputation that kept the focus on the theological issues,” according to Fr. Mitch Pacwa, S.J.
After the reformation, “for the most part, the Catholics and the Protestants responded to each other with vitriol,” he said. “They threatened each other, ridicule was typical of the debate.”
“And in that context, St. Robert Bellarmine never used ridicule or anger or opprobrium or reviling or any such thing. He always treated his opponents with great respect and charity. He was convinced that charity with the opponents of the Church would win them over much more readily.”
This is one of the things that made him a saint, Pacwa stated.
Brilliant intellect, simple and humble life
Fr. Mark Lewis, a professor of Church history and academic vice rector at the Pontifical Gregorian University, told CNA Bellarmine lived simply, in accord with his vow of poverty.
Several religious congregations founded in the 16th century, including the Society of Jesus, were trying to present a model of a reformed priest, “one who took his vows seriously, that lived simply, followed poverty, that was willing to go on apostolic missions,” he said.
Because Jesuits, as a general rule, do not take the honor of cardinal, in his early life Bellarmine avoided being named a cardinal or bishop, Lewis said. “But when he was named one, he insisted that he would be a model of a reformed prelate.”
Bellarmine was named a cardinal in 1599, at a time when bishops were also often political lords, or the ruler of a city or town, but he supported the poor through the sale of his possessions.
The cardinal and his friend, Venerable Cesare Baronius, “wanted to show that if you are going to be a bishop, or you are going to be a cardinal, it’s at the service of the Church,” Lewis said.
“As a Jesuit, he had a vow of poverty as well as obedience. He wasn’t allowed to own anything. He was trained in ascetism, so he wasn’t looking for luxuries in this world,” Pacwa said, noting that once, when people in Rome were suffering from plague and famine, Bellarmine sold the tapestries off the walls of his apartment for money to give to the poor. “He said the walls won’t get colder, the poor will.”
Bellarmine, who was declared a Doctor of the Church in 1931, is well known for having written a catechism of the faith and for his Disputationes de Controversiis Christianae Fidei adversus huius temporis hereticos, a book which responded to the various issues dealt with by Protestant “reformers.”
He responded to their arguments using scripture, the Church Fathers, and tradition, Pacwa explained. “This made him an orderly thinker willing to take on the issues of his day.”
Lewis explained that what Bellarmine did, then called controversial theology, would now probably be called “dogmatic theology.” Though it probably was not seen as a dialogue in Bellarmine’s own time, Lewis argued, it was: “He was developing responses to the Protestant theology of the time.”
Bellarmine knew Galileo
Before being made cardinal, Bellarmine was a scholar and teacher, as well as rector of the Roman College. One of his students was St. Aloysius Gonzaga, next to whom, in the Church of St. Ignatius in Rome, Bellarmine asked to be buried.
Another friend of Bellarmine was the storied astronomer Galileo Galilei. But Bellarmine “was the kind of man who could be a friend and not necessarily agree with you,” Pacwa stated.
Galileo had put forward his unproven theory of heliocentricity, which the Church saw as contradicting scripture, Pacwa explained. Bellarmine gave Galileo a warning, because Galileo was asserting the theory as absolute truth without citing specific scientific proof to support the claim.
According to Pacwa, “this warning was given to Galileo, not as condemnation, and Galileo accepted it. Later there were rumors that Galileo had been forced to recant. And both Bellarmine and Galileo wrote that that wasn’t true, just that he had to be quiet about claiming that.”
When Galileo was later condemned, it was after Bellarmine’s death.
St. Robert Bellarmine was “indefatigable in his labor,” Pacwa asserted. “And he worked until he died,” on Sept. 17, 1621. Bellarmine was canonized by Pius XI in 1930.
“Knowing a lot does not make one a saint. Not everybody has the intellectual capacity that Robert Bellarmine did. But the way he used his magnificent intellectual capacity is what made him a saint,” Pacwa claims. “He committed his intellect to the service of God and the Church.”