When Robert Bellarmine was ordained in 1570, the study of Church history and the fathers of the Church was in a sad state of neglect. A promising scholar from his youth in Tuscany, he devoted his energy to these two subjects, as well as to Scripture, in order to systematize Church doctrine against the attacks of the Protestant Reformers. He was the first Jesuit to become a professor at Louvain.
His most famous
work is his three-volume Disputations on the Controversies of the
Christian Faith. Particularly noteworthy are the sections on the
temporal power of the pope and the role of the laity. He incurred the
anger of monarchists in England and France by showing the
divine-right-of-kings theory untenable. He developed the theory of the
indirect power of the pope in temporal affairs; although he was
defending the pope against the Scottish philosopher Barclay, he also
incurred the ire of Pope Sixtus V.
Bellarmine was made a cardinal
by Pope Clement VIII on the grounds that "he had not his equal for
learning." While he occupied apartments in the Vatican, Bellarmine
relaxed none of his former austerities. He limited his household
expenses to what was barely essential, eating only the food available to
the poor. He was known to have ransomed a soldier who had deserted from
the army and he used the hangings of his rooms to clothe poor people,
remarking, "The walls won't catch cold."
Among many activities,
he became theologian to Pope Clement VIII, preparing two catechisms
which have had great influence in the Church.
The last major
controversy of Bellarmine's life came in 1616 when he had to admonish
his friend Galileo, whom he admired. Bellarmine delivered the admonition
on behalf of the Holy Office, which had decided that the heliocentric
theory of Copernicus (the sun as stationary) was contrary to Scripture.
The admonition amounted to a caution against putting forward—other than
as a hypothesis—theories not yet fully proved. This shows that saints
are not infallible.
Bellarmine died on September 17, 1621. The
process for his canonization was begun in 1627 but was delayed until
1930 for political reasons, stemming from his writings. In 1930, Pope
Pius XI canonized him and the next year declared him a doctor of the