Bellarmine and a Few Good Men

We could use a few more men with the clear mind and soul of Robert Bellarmine (+1621), bishop, cardinal, doctor of the Church, Jesuit, back in the days when the Order was young and, shall we say, more united in the truth. Bellarmine was one of the most influential figures in what has unfortunately been termed the Catholic ‘counter-reformation’., which were really the Catholic Reformation in response to the rebellion of those who ‘protested’ against any number of dogmas and disciplines of the Church, most of them Catholic priests themselves (Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Menno…).

Bellarmine was steeped in the thought of Saint Thomas Aquinas, on whose Summa he lectured for years as a professor at the Roman College, now the Gregorian University. There is no better way to form a theological mind than Thomas Aquinas, and by ‘theological mind’ I mean a mind trained to make the proper distinctions, so the truth behind the words may be perceived as clearly as possible. Leave ambiguity and obfuscatory language to literature and modern poetry.

Appointed a Cardinal in 1599, he saw what was stake in the issues of the day, including, not least, the whole messy Galileo affair. Bellarmine realized how difficult it would be for people to accept that the Earth was spinning on its axis, all the while hurtling around the Sun at fantastic velocities; both Scripture and our senses seem to tell us otherwise. But the key word is ‘seem’. As Bellarmine concluded after meeting with Galileo, if irrefutable scientific evidence were presented, we would have to accept it, and in the meantime be open to the possibility of its truth:

I say that if there were a true demonstration that the sun is at the center of the world and the earth in the third heaven, and that the sun does not circle the earth but the earth circles the sun, then one would have to proceed with great care in explaining the Scriptures that appear contrary, and say rather that we do not understand them, than that what is demonstrated is false.

Galileo could not produce such a ‘true demonstration’, which would have to wait until Frederic Bessel’s 1838 discovery of stellar parallax. Bellarmine urged the scientist to put forward Copernicansim and its heliocentric model as a workable and worthy hypothesis until he had irrefutable evidence, and all would be well.

But the hubristic Galileo could not wait, and he acted as though he did have such proof when he did not, forcing the Copernican model (itself not entirely true, still relying on circular orbits and uniform motion of the planets, both false) on all and sundry, drawing the issue into its unfortunate and tragic finale. Things may well have turned out differently, and more felicitously, had Bellarmine lived a bit longer. But God has His ways, sometimes rather long and torturous from our temporal perspective, of allowing the truth to be known.

On that note, it was a full three centuries before Robert Bellarmine was canonized, by Pius XI in 1930, and declared one of the 36 Doctors of the Church the following year.

And speaking of men and the Church Cardinal Ouellett has apparently suggested that we need more women to form our future priests, whose feminine genius could also help in choosing our future bishops. Before we get there, I would in turn suggest to the good Cardinal that we first find a few more good men to form our priests, and bring order to the seminaries: Teach the Summa, along with an orthodox reading of Scripture; the Church Fathers, the saints, the roots and foundations of growth in the spiritual life (Garrigou-Lagrange is an excellent place to start), and instil in our future priests solid and persevering virtue, even dare I say holiness, in all its dimensions, according to the prescriptions of John Paul II’s 1992 Apostolic Exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis.

We should start by doing what the Church has always said we should do, according to her wise, God-given Tradition. As I have discovered in my own rather limited teaching experience, such ‘bread and butter, meat and potatoes’ goes a long way to producing good fruit. We can leave the salad until afterward.