St. Robert Bellarmine, the Hammer of Heretics

Just one year after his 1930 canonization, the same pope, Pius XI, declared him “Doctor of the Church,” a designation given to only 36 saints.

Anonymous, “Portrait of Robert Cardinal Bellarmine,” ca. 1622
Anonymous, “Portrait of Robert Cardinal Bellarmine,” ca. 1622 (photo: Public Domain)

Four years ago I interviewed St. Robert Bellarmine’s latest translator, Father Kenneth Baker, who had put together The Controversies of the Catholic Faith — over 1,000 pages — from the original Latin into English.

Though I’ve had nearly a half-decade to read it, I still haven’t finished this mammoth work. However, whenever I have dipped into it, I always come away not only edified but mystified — not because it is a work of mysticism, but due to its author’s incredible acumen when it came to setting forth all that was good, true and of import to the Catholic Church in the face of the challenge by the Protestants — or as Bellarmine himself simply called them, “the heretics.”

Kenneth Clark, in his Civilization, begins his episode on the post-Reformation by painting a picture of Northern Europe, dominated by Protestants, and the city of Rome, which had been brutally sacked. Many thought it was time for the Catholic Church to face facts and meet Luther, Calvin and Zwingli half-way, and rely on the gold Spain was bringing over from the New World for financing.

But, Clark remarks us, the Catholic Church chose to do none of the above: The pope’s authority had been questioned by the Protestants? So be it: no time must be spared to elevate the papacy to heights of power, both temporal and spiritual, it had never achieved. The cult of the Blessed Virgin Mary had been questioned by all of the above “reformers,” thus, an upswell in devotion to the Mother of God was in order — something along the lines of the 12th century when suddenly almost every new Church was named after Our Lady. Relics of the saints had been questioned by Luther especially? Then all the more would the saints and their relics be glorified and disseminated.

The above — all of it — fell into the capable hands of the Jesuit theologian St. Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621).

He was born right in the midst of the Protestant Reformation, and was once described by one of his contemporaries, Cardinal Valfiero, as “the greatest little man on earth.” Despite his small stature, his literary output was, to put it mildly, prodigious. Not since St. Thomas Aquinas and even the voluminous St. Augustine had a theologian produced such a body of work. And like Augustine, he would be promoted to the episcopate — much against his will. (He had said that all he wanted to be was a professor, a role he excelled at at the celebrated University of Louvain, Belgium; he later served in Rome at the Gregorian, Jesuit and English Colleges.)

But to whom much is given much is always expected and in these expectations St. Robert Bellarmine did not disappoint. His work was pointedly direct against those who were objectively wrong in their beliefs in Christianity in a way that was almost not only irresistible, but irrefutable. Versed in Latin, Hebrew and several other languages, St. Robert could (and did) quote Scripture from memory during his show-stopping, spell-binding, hours-long lessons and sermons.

It is often derisively said, by ill-informed Catholics who are trying to sound wise, that the one and only job of the College of Cardinals is to elect the pope. Perhaps in the most narrow, highly-qualified definition that is true, but during the response to the Protestant Reformation, the popes realized that their closest advisers had to stop decorating their palatial estates with the works of Raphael and Michelangelo, and actually rebuild the Church that was being besieged on all sides — literally, given the horrific wars of religion.

For this reason, St. Robert, though a Jesuit, who had made a promise not to seek any higher office, was made not only an archbishop, but also a cardinal. Pope Clement VIII, on March 3, 1599, said: “We elect this man because the Church of God has not his equal in learning.” St. Robert, though obedient to the Pope, pleaded with his Jesuit superiors to stop the appointment and during the ceremony itself, Pope Clement ordered that St. Robert keep quiet or else himself be excommunicated (presumably for disobedience). Thus, a man who simply wanted to teach and preach was now not only an archbishop, but a cardinal.

Part of the reason he is one of the very few admitted to the rank of Doctors — literally, “teachers” — of the Church is that his method was not one of toeing the line, or endlessly ranting about the evils of Protestantism, but that unique quality of mind that allowed him to take apart his enemies arguments while at the same time building up his own, which were, of course, those of the Church. This was something almost altogether new: instead of stating a doctrine or dogma and saying that if you don’t believe it you are, by default, a heretic, St. Robert Bellarmine made convincing and compelling arguments not merely against the Church’s enemies, but in favor of the Church herself.

Not content with producing the greatest (and perhaps the longest) tome against the Protestants, St. Robert went on to write a Brief Christian Doctrine in 1597 — which was translated into more than 60 languages — and due to its success, a longer and more sustained catechism entitled The Longer Declaration of Christian Doctrine the next year. In his production of popular Catechisms, St. Robert Bellarmine was following in the footsteps of his fellow Jesuit, the great “Second Apostle to Germany,” St. Peter Canisius (also a Doctor of the Church).

But what makes St. Robert Bellarmine relatable — and not just some bookworm-savant — is the fact that even fellow saints occasionally looked askance at him. The great Doctor, St. Francis de Sales, wrote of St. Robert: “I have not found to my taste certain writings of a saintly and most excellent prelate in which he touches on the indirect power of popes over princes.” St. Robert, in his writings and studies, had more or less denounced the theory of “the divine right of kings.”

And in the unforgettable Galileo affair, St. Robert Bellarmine personally delivered the command to Galileo to stop teaching that the earth revolved around the sun. In short, St. Robert may have been brilliant, but he was also human.

In his later years he turned from writing on the controversies of the Reformation, and catechisms, but devotional spiritual works including The Art of Dying Well and The Mind’s Ascent to God by the Ladder of Created Things. (The latter’s title was a nod to the Seraphic Doctor, St. Bonaventure.)

But perhaps the oddest part of St. Robert Bellarmine’s life is what happened to him after his death, which took place in 1621 — he was not canonized for more than 300 years! However, just one year after his canonization, the same pope, Pius XI, declared him “Doctor of the Church,” a designation given to only 36 saints.

His relevance to our Church today is obvious by the fact that Keep The Faith has published his colossal Controversies of the Christian Faith in English, a book unlike any before or since.