In the years of interdenominational polemics that followed the Protestant Reformation, the foremost Catholic controversialist was the little Jesuit saint, Robert Francis Bellarmine.
Robert Bellarmine was born in the Italian province of Tuscany, a member of a noble if unprosperous family. He early displayed rich gifts of mind and heart: a good Latinist, public debater, and even violinist. Despite his father’s objection, Robert sought admission in 1560 into the Society of Jesus. The father general of the Jesuits knew he was welcoming a winner.
Robert Bellarmine was always of frail health, and this consideration at times governed the assignments he was given. In his period as a Jesuit “scholastic” or teacher, he was sent to teach Greek at one Jesuit prep school. When assigned, he knew not a word of Greek, but he learned it by keeping one day ahead of his boys. Teachers commonly disciplined pupils with a whip in those days. Robert was opposed to flogging as a teaching tool, and never practiced it.
To prepare for the priesthood, he was sent to study theology, first at the University of Padua, then to the University of Louvain, Belgium. Already an articulate theologian, he was ordered to combat the errors being taught there by a Louvain professor, Michael Baius. (Baius had adopted a semi-Lutheran view of grace and free will.) After his ordination at Ghent in 1570, Father Bellarmine was named a professor at the University of Louvain. In his sermons and lectures, he developed real skill as a controversialist against Protestant errors. Unlike most of those engaged in theological polemics, he never attacked the person of his antagonists, only their false doctrines.
Because of this skill, Father Robert was called back to Rome and appointed to the new professorship of controversial theology at the Jesuits’ Roman College (now called the Gregorian University). His public lectures against Protestant doctrine (Disputation on the Controversies of the Christian Faith) became a best seller among Protestants as well as Catholics throughout Europe. The British government forbade its circulation in England, but it sold well there below the counter, and one London bookseller said, “I have made more money out of this Jesuit than out of all the other divines put together.”
The popes used Father Robert’s talents in every way they could think of, including diplomacy. Sometimes he disagreed with these popes, but he did so with charity as well as honesty. Meanwhile, he served as the spiritual director of the Jesuits at the Roman College (and the guide of young St. Aloysius Gonzaga, whom he revered). Robert was likewise chosen to important offices in the Jesuit community. On papal order, he wrote two outstanding catechisms. Then Pope Clement VIII, despite Bellarmine’s protests, made him a cardinal. Although he had palatial cardinalitial quarters, he lived there in austerity. He even used the cloth hangings of his room to clothe the poor. “The walls won’t catch cold,” he explained, with typical wit.
In 1602, the pope suddenly appointed Cardinal Bellarmine archbishop of Capua, a rural see that needed overhauling. Overhaul it he did, in three years, although he had had no pastoral experience previously.
One of the cardinal’s theological antagonists was King James I of England. James had asked English Catholics to deny papal authority. He also upheld the “divine right” of kings. When Bellarmine rejected these points, James declared a literary war against him. The king was the clear loser. Some of Robert’s arguments in the dialogue stimulated the spreading movement in favor of democracy.
Among his several spiritual writings was Bellarmine’s popular The Art of Dying. He lived up to its principles in his own death at 79. Because of the bad repute given him by English and French propaganda, the canonization of this brilliant, holy man did not take place until 1930. That same year Pope Pius XI also declared the diminutive Jesuit one of the great doctors of the church.
–Father Robert F. McNamara