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Bishop, Confessor, and Doctor of the Church, 1542-1621

When Luther supposedly nailed his ninety-five theses to the church door at Wittenberg, the "Protestant Reformation" was underway; since the theses were a denial of orthodox Catholic doctrine on indulgences, the movement started in error, and in error it continued. Calvin, Zwingh, Knox, and dozens more followed Luther, all manufacturing religious doctrine to suit their own opinions, until Europe was swamped in a sea of contradictory religious pronouncements. To the Catholic Church, of course, fell the laborious task of refuting this mass of error. The undertaking was begun by the Council of Trent and has continued ever since, with many able men participating in it. Of these, none has been more brilliant or effective than Saint Robert Bellarmine, who was born at Montepulciano, Italy, in 1542.

Robert, a member of an aristocratic family, was talented and likable; when, at the age of eighteen, he decided to become a Jesuit, many people, including his father, were shocked. The young man knew what he wanted, however, and after a ten-year period of study was ordained in 1570. His studies had been completed at the University of Louvain, in Belgium, and after his ordination he taught there for six years. Lecturing on the Summa Theologica of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Robert emphasized the topics of grace and free will to counteract the influence of the chancellor of the university, Michael Baius, who was spreading heretical views on those subjects. Both in the classroom and in the pulpit, where he preached sermons in Latin for the university undergraduates, Robert was a respected and popular figure. His weak health, however, forced his return to the warmer climate of Italy. In 1576 he joined the faculty of the Jesuit Roman College.

In his new position, Robert soon became known for his skillful teaching of controversial theology, or theology in which the articles of faith denied by the Protestants were given special attention. It was during this period that he produced his major work, the Disputations. Here Bellarmine presented the whole range of Catholic dogma; using arguments based on Scripture, tradition, and reason, he conclusively refuted the various Protestant attacks. When the Disputations appeared, they created a sensation in Europe; Bellarmine's work was so profound, complete, and brilliantly expressed that Catholics welcomed it as the best weapon yet produced for use in the struggle against heresy, and the Protestants quailed at its impact. Many Protestants, in fact, were convinced that no one man could produce such a stupendous work and believed that a syndicate of Jesuits had written the Disputations!

Under Pope Sixtus V, in 1589, Robert went on a diplomatic mission to France; under Clement VIII he took a leading part in a papal commission appointed to produce a revised edition of the Latin, or Vulgate, Bible (a version still used today). Also during Clement's reign, in 1597, Robert compiled his Catechism of the Christian faith, which in its two versions (large and small) has probably been the most widely used catechism in the history of the Church.

Many honors came to Robert during these years: he was named rector of the Roman College in 1592, head of the Jesuit's province in Naples in 1597 and in 1598 Clement VIII named him a cardinal.

In 1602 his life turned in a new direction when he was appointed archbishop of the diocese of Capua. Pastoral work was a new field for him, very different from his customary scholarly pursuits, and he plunged into it with a wholehearted zeal that brought him his usual success. No longer a young man, he went out among the people of his diocese, preaching to them, helping them in their needs, and firing them with the example of his own devotion and selflessness. In a short time the learned cardinal had captivated the whole diocese. When he was recalled to Rome in 1605, he left a saddened flock behind.

Back in Rome, Robert was appointed head of the Vatican Library by Pope Paul V, who also appointed him to various other papal commissions. Controversy once more surrounded him as he crossed swords with a variety of opponents, one of whom was the King of England, James I. The king, who had written a clumsy defense of his position as head of the English Church, had the honor of being answered by Bellarmine, who skillfully refuted the royal arguments.

Growing older, Robert began to leave controversy to others (to men trained by himself, in many cases), and concentrated on spiritual writing, his Art of Dying being one of the best known of these later works. As the physical infirmities that had plagued him all his life grew worse, he retired to a Jesuit novitiate and on September 17, 1621, at the age of seventy-nine, he died.

Bellarmine's life had been a stormy one, but in spite of being under constant attack by Protestants and even at times by Catholics (his views on the temporal power of the pope have never been popular with some of the clergy), he managed to maintain an attitude of humility and charity in his polemical battles. Robert fought the heretics only because he loved the faith and realized that the achievement of holiness was something far more important than the acquisition of knowledge. Bellarmine's final honors came in our own century, when Pope Pius XI declared him a saint in 1930 and a Doctor of the Church in 1931.



Copyright 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved