Robert Bellarmine

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Robert Bellarmine

Cardinal, Archbishop Emeritus of Capua
Portret van kardinaal Robertus Bellarminus, onbekend, schilderij, Museum Plantin-Moretus (Antwerpen) - MPM V IV 110 (cropped).jpg
17th-century portrait of Robert Bellarmine, Antwerp, Museum Plantin-Moretus
ChurchCatholic Church
Appointed18 March 1602
Installed21 April 1602
Term endedAugust 1605
PredecessorCesare Costa
Successor Antonio Caetani Jr.
Other post(s) Cardinal-Priest of Santa Prassede
Ordination19 March 1570
Consecration21 April 1602
by  Clement VIII
Created cardinal3 March 1599
by Clement VIII
Personal details
Born(1542-10-04)4 October 1542
Died17 September 1621(1621-09-17) (aged 78)
Rome, Papal States
Coat of arms Coat of arms cardinal Roberto Bellarmino.svg
Feast day17 September; 13 May (General Roman Calendar, 19321969)
Venerated in Catholic Church
Title as Saint Confessor and Doctor of the Church
Beatified13 May 1923
Rome, Kingdom of Italy
by  Pius XI
Canonized29 June 1930
Rome, Vatican City
by Pius XI
Patronage Bellarmine University, Bellarmine Preparatory School, Fairfield University, Bellarmine College Preparatory, St. Robert's School, Darjeeling, canonists, canon lawyers, catechists, Robert Barron (bishop), catechumens, Archdiocese of Cincinnati, St. Robert Catholic High School
Shrines Chiesa di Sant'Ignazio, Rome, Italy

Robert Bellarmine, SJ (Italian : Roberto Francesco Romolo Bellarmino; 4 October 1542 – 17 September 1621) was an Italian Jesuit and a cardinal of the Catholic Church. He was canonized a saint in 1930 [1] and named Doctor of the Church, one of only 37. He was one of the most important figures in the Counter-Reformation.


Bellarmine was a professor of theology and later rector of the Roman College, and in 1602 became Archbishop of Capua. He supported the reform decrees of the Council of Trent. He is also widely remembered for his role in the Giordano Bruno affair, [2] [3] the Galileo affair, and the trial of Friar Fulgenzio Manfredi. [4]

Early life

Bellarmine was born in Montepulciano, the son of noble, albeit impoverished, parents, Vincenzo Bellarmino and his wife Cinzia Cervini, who was the sister of Pope Marcellus II. [5] As a boy he knew Virgil by heart and composed a number of poems in Italian and Latin. One of his hymns, on Mary Magdalene, is included in the Roman Breviary.

He entered the Roman Jesuit novitiate in 1560, remaining in Rome for three years. He then went to a Jesuit house at Mondovì, in Piedmont, where he learned Greek. While at Mondovì, he came to the attention of Francesco Adorno, the local Jesuit provincial superior, who sent him to the University of Padua. [6]


Bellarmine's systematic studies of theology began at Padua in 1567 and 1568, where his teachers were adherents of Thomism. In 1569, he was sent to finish his studies at the University of Leuven in Brabant. There he was ordained and obtained a reputation both as a professor and as a preacher. He was the first Jesuit to teach at the university, where the subject of his course was the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas. He was involved in a controversy with Michael Baius on the subject of Grace and free will, and wrote a Hebrew grammar. [7] His residency in Leuven lasted seven years. In poor health, in 1576 he made a journey to Italy. Here he remained, commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII to lecture on polemical theology in the new Roman College, now known as the Pontifical Gregorian University. Later, he would promote the cause of the beatification of Aloysius Gonzaga, who had been a student at the college during Bellarmine's tenure. [5] His lectures were published under the title De Controversias in four large volumes. [8]

New duties after 1589

Until 1589, Bellarmine was occupied as professor of theology. After the murder in that year of Henry III of France, Pope Sixtus V sent Enrico Caetani as legate to Paris [9] to negotiate with the Catholic League of France, and chose Bellarmine to accompany him as theologian. [10] He was in the city during its siege by Henry of Navarre.

Upon the death of Pope Sixtus V in 1590, the Count of Olivares wrote to King Philip III of Spain, "Bellarmine ... would not do for a Pope, for he is mindful only of the interests of the Church and is unresponsive to the reasons of princes." [11]

Pope Clement VIII, said of him, "the Church of God had not his equal in learning". [5] Bellarmine was made rector of the Roman College in 1592, examiner of bishops in 1598, and cardinal in 1599. Immediately after his appointment as Cardinal, Pope Clement made him a Cardinal Inquisitor, in which capacity he served as one of the judges at the trial of Giordano Bruno, and concurred in the decision which condemned Bruno to be burned at the stake as a heretic. [12]

In 1602 he was made archbishop of Capua. He had written against pluralism and non-residence of bishops within their dioceses. As bishop he put into effect the reforming decrees of the Council of Trent. He received some votes in the 1605 conclaves which elected Pope Leo XI, Pope Paul V, and in 1621 when Pope Gregory XV was elected, but his being a Jesuit counted against him in the judgement of many of the cardinals. [5]

Thomas Hobbes saw Bellarmine in Rome at a service on All Saints Day (1 November) 1614 and, exempting him alone from a general castigation of cardinals, described him as "a little lean old man" who lived "more retired". [13]

The Galileo case

In 1616, on the orders of Paul V, Bellarmine summoned Galileo, notified him of a forthcoming decree of the Congregation of the Index condemning the Copernican doctrine of the mobility of the Earth and the immobility of the Sun, and ordered him to abandon it. [14] Galileo agreed to do so. [15]

When Galileo later complained of rumours to the effect that he had been forced to abjure and do penance, Bellarmine wrote out a certificate denying the rumours, stating that Galileo had merely been notified of the decree and informed that, as a consequence of it, the Copernican doctrine could not be "defended or held". Unlike the previously mentioned formal injunction (see earlier footnote), this certificate would have allowed Galileo to continue using and teaching the mathematical content of Copernicus's theory as a purely theoretical device for predicting the apparent motions of the planets. [16] [17]

According to some of his letters, Cardinal Bellarmine believed that a demonstration for heliocentrism could not be found because it would contradict the unanimous consent of the Fathers' scriptural exegesis, to which the Council of Trent, in 1546, [18] defined all Catholics must adhere. In other passages, Bellarmine argued that he did not support the heliocentric model for the lack of evidence of the time ("I will not believe that there is such a demonstration, until it is shown to me"). [19]

Bellarmine wrote to heliocentrist Paolo Antonio Foscarini in 1615: [19]

The Council [of Trent] prohibits interpreting Scripture against the common consensus of the Holy Fathers; and if Your Paternity wants to read not only the Holy Fathers, but also the modern commentaries on Genesis, the Psalms, Ecclesiastes, and Joshua, you will find all agreeing in the literal interpretation that the sun is in heaven and turns around the earth with great speed, and that the earth is very far from heaven and sits motionless at the center of the world.


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. But I will not believe that there is such a demonstration, until it is shown me. Nor is it the same to demonstrate that by supposing the sun to be at the center and the earth in heaven one can save the appearances, and to demonstrate that in truth the sun is at the center and the earth in heaven; for I believe the first demonstration may be available, but I have very great doubts about the second, and in case of doubt one must not abandon the Holy Scripture as interpreted by the Holy Fathers.

In 1633, nearly twelve years after Bellarmine's death, Galileo was again called before the Inquisition in this matter. Galileo produced Bellarmine's certificate for his defense at the trial. [20]

According to Pierre Duhem and Karl Popper “in one respect, at least, Bellarmine had shown himself a better scientist than Galileo by disallowing the possibility of a “strict proof” of the earth’s motion, on the grounds that an astronomical theory merely “saves the appearances” without necessarily revealing what “really happens.” [21] Philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn, in his book, The Copernican Revolution, after commenting on Cesare Cremonini, who refused to look through Galileo’s telescope, wrote:

Most of Galileo’s opponents behaved more rationally. Like Bellarmine, they agreed that the phenomena were in the sky but denied that they proved Galileo’s contentions. In this, of course, they were quite right. Though the telescope argued much, it proved nothing. [22]


Bellarmine retired to Sant'Andrea degli Scozzesi, the Jesuit college of Saint Andrew in Rome. He died on 17 September 1621, aged 78. [23] He was buried in the Church of St. Ignatius in Rome. [24]

16th-century portrait of Saint Robert Bellarmine San Roberto Bellarmino.jpg
16th-century portrait of Saint Robert Bellarmine


Bellarmine's books bear the stamp of their period; the effort for literary elegance (so-called "maraviglia") had given place to a desire to pile up as much material as possible, to embrace the whole field of human knowledge, and incorporate it into theology. His controversial works provoked many replies, and were studied for some decades after his death. [lower-alpha 1] At Leuven he made extensive studies in the Church Fathers and scholastic theologians, which gave him the material for his book De scriptoribus ecclesiasticis (Rome, 1613). It was later revised and enlarged by Sirmond, Labbeus, and Casimir Oudin. Bellarmine wrote the preface to the new Sixto-Clementine Vulgate. [5] Bellarmine also prepared for posterity his own commentary on each of the Psalms. An English translation from the Latin was published in 1866. [25]


From his research grew Disputationes de controversiis christianae fidei (also called Controversiae), first published at Ingolstadt in 15811593. This major work was the earliest attempt to systematize the various religious disputes between Catholics and Protestants. Bellarmine reviewed the issues [11] and devoted eleven years to it while at the Roman College. In August 1590, Pope Sixtus V decided to place the first volume of the Disputationes on the Index because Bellarmine argued in it that the Pope is not the temporal ruler of the whole world and that temporal rulers do not derive their authority to rule from God but from the consent of the governed. However, Sixtus died before the revised Index was published, and the next Pope, Urban VII, removed the book from the Index during his brief twelve-day reign. [26]

Page of the short catechism of Bellarmine: Dottrina cristiana breve, 1752 Dottrina cristiana tradotta in lingua arabica.tif
Page of the short catechism of Bellarmine: Dottrina cristiana breve, 1752

In 1597-98 he published a Catechism in two versions (short  [ it ] and full  [ it ]) which has been translated to 60 languages and was the official teaching of the Catholic Church for centuries. [27]

Venetian Interdict

Under Pope Paul V (reigned 16051621), a major conflict arose between Venice and the Papacy. Paolo Sarpi, as spokesman for the Republic of Venice, protested against the papal interdict, and reasserted the principles of the Council of Constance and of the Council of Basel, denying the pope's authority in secular matters. Bellarmine wrote three rejoinders to the Venetian theologians, and may have warned Sarpi of an impending murderous attack, when in September 1607, an unfrocked friar and brigand by the name of Rotilio Orlandini planned to kill Sarpi for the sum of 8,000 crowns. [28] Orlandini's plot was discovered, and when he and his accomplices crossed from Papal into Venetian territory they were arrested. [29]

Allegiance oath controversy and papal authority

Bellarmine also became involved in controversy with King James I of England. From a point of principle for English Catholics, this debate drew in figures from much of Western Europe. [30] It raised the profile of both protagonists, King James as a champion of his own restricted Calvinist Protestantism, and Bellarmine for Tridentine Catholicism. [31]

Devotional works

During his retirement, he wrote several short books intended to help ordinary people in their spiritual life: De ascensione mentis in Deum per scalas rerum creatorum opusculum (The Mind's Ascent to God by the Ladder of Created Things; 1614) which was translated into English as Jacob's Ladder (1638) without acknowledgement by Henry Isaacson  [ d ], [32] The Art of Dying Well (1619) (in Latin, English translation under this title by Edward Coffin), [33] and The Seven Words on the Cross.

Canonization and final resting place

Bellarmine was canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1930; [34] the following year he was declared a Doctor of the Church. His remains, in a cardinal's red robes, are displayed behind glass under a side altar in the Church of Saint Ignatius, the chapel of the Roman College, next to the body of his student Aloysius Gonzaga, as he himself had wished. In the General Roman Calendar Saint Robert Bellarmine's feast day is on 17 September, the day of his death; but some continue to use pre-1969 calendars, in which for 37 years his feast day was on 13 May. The rank assigned to his feast has been "double" (19321959), "third-class feast" (19601968), and since the 1969 revision "memorial".


  1. On Laymen or Secular People; On the Temporal Power of the Pope. Against William Barclay; and On the Primary Duty of the Supreme Pontiff, are included in Bellarmine, On Temporal and Spiritual Authority, Stefania Tutino (ed.) trans., Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 2012

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  14. Blackwell (1991, p. 126).
    The Vatican archives contain an unsigned copy of a more strongly worded formal injunction purporting to have been served on Galileo shortly after Bellarmine's admonition, ordering him "not to hold, teach, or defend" the condemned doctrine "in any way whatever, either orally or in writing", and threatening him with imprisonment if he refused to obey.
    However, whether this injunction was ever properly served on Galileo is a subject of much scholarly disagreement.(Blackwell, 1991, p. 127128)
  15. Fantoli (2005, p.119). Some scholars have suggested that Galileo's agreement was only obtained after some initial resistance. Otherwise, the formal injunction purporting to have been served on him during his meeting with Bellarmine (see earlier footnote) would have been contrary to the Pope's instructions (Fantoli. 2005, pp.121, 124).
  16. Blackwell (1991, p.127). Maurice Finocchiaro's English translations of the purported formal injunction, the decree of the Congregation of the Index and Cardinal Bellarmine's certificate are available on-line.
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  19. 1 2 Bellarmine's letter of 12 April 1615 to Foscarini, translated in Finocchiaro, Maurice A., ed. (1989). The Galileo Affair: a Documentary History. Berkeley: U. California P. pp. 67–8. ISBN   0520066626.
  20. Galileo's third deposition (10 May 1633), translated in Finocchiaro, Maurice A., ed. (2014). The Trial of Galileo: Essential Documents. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. p. 130. ISBN   9781624661358.
  21. McMullin, Ernan (2008). "Robert Bellarmine". In Gillispie, Charles (ed.). Dictionary of Scientific Biography . Scribner & American Council of Learned Societies.
  22. Kuhn, Thomas (1957). The Copernican Revolution. New York: Random House / Vintage Books. p. 226.
  23. Chisholm (1911)
  24. Díaz Vizzi, Daniel (10 January 2021). "Church of St. Ignatius in Rome: the jewel of baroque architecture". Rome Reports. Translated by Christian Campos. Retrieved 15 September 2023.
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  26. Blackwell, Richard J. (31 January 1991). "Chapter 2: Bellarmine's Views Before the Galileo Affair". Galileo, Bellarmine, and the Bible. University of Notre Dame Press. p. 30. doi:10.2307/j.ctvpg847x. ISBN   978-0-268-15893-4. Archived from the original on 20 February 2023. Retrieved 4 September 2020. Bellarmine himself was not a stranger to theological condemnation. In August 1590 Pope Sixtus V decided to place the first volume of the Controversies on the Index because Bellarmine had argued that the pope is not the temporal ruler of the whole world and that temporal rulers do not derive their authority to rule from God through the pope but through the consent of the people governed. However Sixtus died before the revised Index was published, and the next pope, Urban VII, who reigned for only twelve days before his own death, removed Bellarmine's book from the list during that brief period. The times were precarious.
  27. Introduction by Bishop Athanasius Schneider to Bellarmine, St. Robert (2016). Doctrina Christiana: The Timeless Catechism of St. Robert Bellarmine. Translated by Grant, Ryan. Mediatrix Press. pp. xiv–xv.
  28. The Cambridge Modern History, Volume 4: Fra Paolo Sarpi (Cambridge University Press 1906), p. 671
  29. Robertson, Alexander (1893) Fra Paolo Sarpi: the Greatest of the Venetians, London: Sampson, Low, Marston & Co. pp. 114–117
  30. W. B. Patterson, James VI and I and the Reunion of Christendom (1997), pp. 76–77.
  31. "Bellarmine, Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence". National Catholic Register. Archived from the original on 16 November 2016. Retrieved 23 June 2017.
  32. "Iacob's ladder consisting of fifteene degrees or ascents to the knowledge of God by the consideration of his creatures and attributes". Archived from the original on 18 April 2016. Retrieved 23 June 2017.
  33. Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Edward Coffin"  . Catholic Encyclopedia . New York: Robert Appleton Company.
  34. Tutino, Stefania (2010). Empire of Souls: Robert Bellarmine and the Christian Commonwealth. Oxford University Press. p. 289. ISBN   978-0-19-978058-7. Archived from the original on 20 February 2023. Retrieved 19 November 2020.


Further reading

Works of Bellarmine

Works about Bellarmine