Born Roberto Francesco Romolo Bellarmino at Montepulciano, in Tuscany, Italy, October 4, 1542, St. Bellarmine was a nephew of Pope Marcellus II, and came of a noble though impoverished family. His abilities showed themselves early; 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.
His father destined him for a political career, hoping that he might restore the fallen glories of the house; but his mother wished him to enter the Jesuit order, and her influence prevailed. He entered the Roman novitiate in 1560, remained in Rome three years, and then went to a Jesuit house at Mondovi, in Piedmont. Here he learned Greek, and taught it as fast as he learned it.
His systematic study of theology began at Padua in 1567 and 1568, where his teachers were Thomists , the Jesuits not yet having had time to develop a theology of their own. After a visit to Venice, where he increased his renown as a public speaker, Bellarmine was sent by the general, Francis Borgia, in 1569, to Louvain, then the most famous Roman Catholic university. He was ordained priest at Ghent on Palm Sunday, 1570, by the elder Jansenius.
A strict Augustinian theology prevailed among the teachers at Louvain, represented by Bajus, the precursor of Jansenism. Bellarmine had not enough deep knowledge of his own nature or Christian experience to be able to appreciate the Augustinian doctrines of the corruption of man and the necessity of divine grace to any good movement of the will. He contended accordingly against the propositions of Bajus, though his own views and expressions in the great controversy on grace were always a little uncertain.
He was the first Jesuit to teach at the university, where the subject of his course was the Summa of Thomas Aquinas; he also made extensive studies in the Fathers and medieval theologians, which gave him the material for his book De scriptoribus ecclesiasticis (Rome, 1613), which was later revised and enlarged by Sirmond, Labbeus, and Oudin .
In the Netherlands he gained a knowledge of the great controversy with the Protestants which he could hardly have got in Italy, though he seems never to have come into personal contact with the evangelical leaders. Finally he learned Hebrew, and wrote his often reprinted grammar. His genius for teaching, clearness of thought, and adroitness in controversy were indisputable.
Bellarmine’s residence in Louvain lasted seven years. His health was undermined by study and asceticism, and in 1576 he made a journey to Italy to restore it. Here he was detained by the commission given him by Pope Gregory XIII to lecture on polemical theology in the new Roman College.
He devoted eleven years to this work, out of whose activities grew his celebrated Disputationes de controversiis christianae fidei, first published at Ingolstadt in four volumes, 1581-1593. It occupies in the field of dogmatics the same place as the Annales of Baronius in the field of history.
Both were the fruits of the great revival in religion and learning which the Roman Catholic Church had witnessed since 1540. Both bear the stamp of their period; the effort for literary elegance (so-called “maraviglia”), which was considered the principal thing at the beginning of the sixteenth century, 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.
Bellarmine’s exposition of the views and arguments of the Protestants is surprisingly full and accurate, so much so that the circulation of the book in Italy was for a time not encouraged. The first volume treats of the Word of God, of Christ, and of the pope; the second of the authority of councils, and of the Church, whether militant, suffering, or triumphant; the third of the sacraments; and the fourth of grace, free will, justification, and good works.
The most important part of the work is contained in the five books on the Roman pontiff. In these, after a speculative introduction on forms of government in general, holding monarchy to be relatively the best, he says that a monarchical government and the related temporal power are necessary for the Church, to preserve unity and order in it.
Such power he considers to have been established by the commission of Christ to Peter. He then proceeds to demonstrate that this power has been transmitted to the successors of Peter, admitting that a heretical pope may be freely judged and deposed by the Church since by the very fact of his heresy he would cease to be pope, or even a member of the Church; this is almost like an echo of the great councils of the fifteenth century.
The third section discusses the antichrist; Bellarmine gives in full the theory set forth by the Greek and Latin Fathers, of a personal Antichrist to come just before the end of the world and to be accepted by the Jews and enthroned in the temple at Jerusalem—thus endeavoring to dispose of the Protestant exposition which saw Antichrist in the pope.
The fourth section sets forth the pope as the supreme judge in matters of faith and morale, though making the concessions (confirmed indeed by the First Vatican Council) that the pope may err in questions of fact which may be known by ordinary human knowledge, and also when he speaks as a mere unofficial theologian, doctor privatus.
His assertions are much more unbounded in the last part, which treats of the pope’s power in secular matters. While he says that the pope has no direct jurisdiction in such things, he yet stoutly contends for the power of deposing kings, absolving subjects from their allegiance, and altering civil laws, when these actions are necessary for the good of the souls committed to the charge of the chief pastor.
Until 1589 Bellarmine was occupied altogether as professor of theology, but that date marked the beginning of a new epoch in his life and of new dignities. After the murder of Henry III of France, Pope Sixtus V sent Gaetano as legate to Paris to negotiate with the League, and chose Bellarmine to accompany him as theologian; he was in the city during its siege by Henry of Navarre.
The next pope, Pope Clement VIII (1591-1605), set great store by him. Bellarmine wrote the preface to the new edition of the Vulgate, and was made rector of the Roman College in 1592, examiner of bishops in 1598 and cardinal in 1599. As inquisitor, he oversaw the trial and burning of Giordano Bruno.
In 1602 he was made archbishop of Capua. He had written strongly against pluralism and non-residence, and he set a good example himself by leaving within four days for his diocese, where he devoted himself zealously to his episcopal duties, and firmly executed the reforming decrees of the Council of Trent.
Under Pope Paul V ( 1605-1621) arose the great conflict between Venice and the papacy, in which Fra Paolo Sarpi was the spokesman of the Republic, protesting against the papal interdict, reasserting the principles of Constance and of Basel, and denying the pope’s authority in matters secular. Bellarmine wrote three rejoinders to the Venetian theologians, and at the same time possibly saved Sarpi’s life by giving him warning of an impending murderous attack.
He soon had occasion to cross swords with a more prominent antagonist, James I of England, who prided himself on his theological attainments. Bellarmine had written a letter to the English archpriest Blackwell, reproaching him for having taken the oath of allegiance in apparent disregard of his duty to the pope. James attacked him in 1608 in a Latin treatise, which the scholarly cardinal answered at once, making merry with delicate humor over the defects of the royal Latinity.
James replied with a second attack in more careful style, dedicated to the Emperor Rudolph II and all the monarchs of Christendom, in which he posed as the defender of primitive and truly Catholic Christianity. Bellarmine’s answer to this covers more or less the whole controversy.
In 1616, Cardinal Bellarmine notified Galileo Galilei of the decree of the Tribunal of the Inquisition against the Copernican hypothesis. When Galileo complained of rumors to the effect that he had been forced to abjure and do penance, Bellarmine wrote him a courteous letter describing what had been said, which was used in Galileo’s defense at his trial in 1633.
In reply to a posthumous treatise of William Barclay, the celebrated Scottish jurist, he wrote another Tractatus de potestate summi pontificis in rebus temporalibus, which reiterated his strong assertions on the subject, and was therefore prohibited in France, where it agreed with the sentiments of neither the king nor the bishops. He was among the theologians consulted on the teaching of Galileo when it first made a stir at Rome.
In his old age he was allowed to return to his old home, Montepulciano, as its bishop for four years, after which he retired to the Jesuit college of St. Andrew in Rome. He received some votes in the conclaves which elected Pope Leo XI, Pope Paul V, and Pope Gregory XV, but only in the second case had he any prospect of election.
Over the years, the members of his order have more than once attempted to procure his canonization, but without success. Finally he was canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1930; the following year he was declared a Doctor of the Church. His body rests in Sant’Ignazio Church, in the chapel of the Roman College, next to the body of his student, St. Aloysius Gonzaga, as he himself had wished.