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The 400th anniversary of the death of Robert Bellarmine (September 17, 1621) invites a look back at this fascinating figure of the Catholic Reformation, engaged as he was with issues newly relevant today: the relationship of faith and science and of ecclesial and temporal power.

St. Robert Bellarmine was the Joseph Ratzinger of his day: A brilliant young scholar at the time of an ecumenical council (Trent for Bellarmine, Vatican II for Ratzinger) who would go on to high ecclesiastical office in the post-conciliar period. He joined the Jesuits just twenty years after their founding, and rose to become rector of the Roman College (now the Pontifical Gregorian University). 

Eighty years ago, when a young Avery Dulles converted to the Catholic faith at Harvard, he took “Robert” as his confirmation name. Dulles saw the great Jesuit scholar as a witness to the harmony of faith and reason. When Dulles himself was made a cardinal some 400 years after Bellarmine, those who addressed a celebratory dinner in Rome—at the very Gregorian University where Bellarmine was rector—spoke about how, in choosing Robert Bellarmine as a patron, Dulles chose the pattern for his life. (When it was Fr. Richard John Neuhaus's turn to speak, he uncharacteristically had little to add, the previous three speakers having stolen the Bellarmine thunder.)

St. Robert Bellarmine was widely acknowledged as the premier theologian-pastor of his generation. And while history remembers the theological more than the pastoral, the latter ought not be forgotten. Keenly interested in the formation of youth, he is buried in Rome’s St. Ignatius Church, not far from St. Aloysius Gonzaga, the young Jesuit to whom he gave spiritual direction. At a time when Catholics eager for holiness are increasingly seeking spiritual direction, Bellarmine is an apt patron. Is not the definition of success in spiritual direction that both master and disciple are canonized saints?

Bellarmine is principally remembered for two great theological controversies that touched upon worldly realities, one regarding astronomy and the other the political power of the pope.

He took part in the first Galileo trial in 1616, at which time Galileo’s heliocentric theory was not yet accepted. The definitive scientific demonstration would come more than two hundred years later. Bellarmine took a sensible, moderate position, given a millennium-and-a-half of biblical interpretation favoring geocentrism:

I say that if there were a true demonstration that the sun is at the center of the world and the earth in the third heaven, and that the sun does not circle the earth but the earth circles the sun, then one would have to proceed with great care in explaining the Scriptures that appear contrary, and say rather that we do not understand them, than that what is demonstrated is false.

If science demonstrates heliocentrism, then the Catholic position is not to say that the science is false, but to look again at the Scriptures with “great care” for the proper interpretation. As Dulles wrote, 

Bellarmine advised Galileo to propose his theory simply as a hypothesis, which would seem to have been a reasonable solution. When Galileo refused, Bellarmine was party to a declaration that the Copernican theory, as received by Galileo, ought not to be held. But at that trial no condemnation was issued, no punishment imposed, nor was Galileo ordered to make any retraction. For the results of the second trial of Galileo, which occurred in 1633, Bellarmine cannot be held responsible, for by that time he had been dead for 11 years.

If Bellarmine’s careful sense of balance had prevailed upon Galileo in 1616, or upon the canonical judges in 1633, much turmoil and tension between faith and science would have been avoided.

Bellarmine was also a man of balance when it came to Reformation-era polemics. There were many controversies—Bellarmine’s Controversies ran to several volumes, and served for centuries as the definitive Catholic response to the Reformation. That balance is sorely needed today. According to Dulles,

While writing overtly as a controversialist, Bellarmine was exceptionally fair and moderate toward his adversaries, at least by the standards of his day. In order to meet the real difficulties, he took pains to state the opponents’ arguments at their strongest. On occasion he even defended Protestants against unfair charges, such as Calvin’s alleged deviations from the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. Some Catholics distrusted Bellarmine on the ground that Protestants were using his account of them to find ammunition in their own defense.

Bellarmine’s second great controversy concerned the temporal power of the pope. In responding to the Reformers, some Catholic apologists lost their balance and went so far as to claim that the pope’s temporal power was itself willed directly by God. Bellarmine took the more balanced view—not rejecting the temporal power as wholly alien to God’s providence, but holding that it was not a necessary element of the Petrine ministry, which was primarily spiritual. 

Many in the Roman party viewed this as undue temporizing over temporalities, and Pope Sixtus V referred Bellarmine’s work for placement on the Index of forbidden books. Providence intervened, and Sixtus died in 1590, before any prohibition could be promulgated. Tempus fugit. 

Bellarmine may have avoided the Index, but his moderation on the temporal power issue still marked him as suspect in some quarters, even posthumously. Despite a widespread reputation for holiness and his indispensable theological contributions, he was not canonized until 1930. In 1931, he was declared a Doctor of the Church. 

Why so long? In 1929, Pope Pius XI signed the Lateran Treaty with the Italian Republic, definitively relinquishing any further claim to the Papal States. The temporal power question had been resolved practically in accord with Bellarmine’s principles. Now that that was done, and defenders of the temporal power had been thoroughly routed by history, the unfinished business of raising Bellarmine to the altars could be attended to. 

Historical circumstances made it easier to appreciate Bellarmine’s theology. Our circumstances could use a measure of his balance, too.

Raymond J. de Souza is a priest in the archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario.

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