Saint Robert Bellarmine’s Clarity of Mind and Soul

In the midst of the theological and cultural confusion in which our Church is mired, we could use a few more men with the clear, disciplined, Thomistic 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 their original mission to evangelize in the truth. Bellarmine was one of the most influential and attractive figures in what has unfortunately been termed the Catholic ‘counter-reformation’, which was really the Catholic Reformation in response to the ‘Protestant’ revolt of those who ‘protested’ against any number of dogmas and disciplines of the Church, most of them Catholic priests or clerics themselves (Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Menno…).

Bellarmine was from a noble family, received an excellent formation in the humanities – he had memorized Virgil as a boy – and soon turned to the more foundational and important science of theology, steeping himself in the thought of Saint Thomas Aquinas, on whose Summa Theologica 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 the schoalstic method as perfected by Thomas Aquinas, and by ‘theological mind’ we mean a mind trained to make the proper distinctions, so the truth behind the words may be perceived as clearly as possible. And, to be clear, this is still the method prescribed at the highest levels of Church teaching, by both the Second Vatican Council in its decree of the formation of priests, Optatam Totius, as well as the 1983 Code of Canon Law, and a hundred or so other papal decrees prior to these.

Appointed a Cardinal in 1599, he saw what was stake in the issues of the day, including the controversial condemnation and burning of the heretic Giordano Bruno. He is perhaps more known for his role in the early stages of the complex Galileo affair, mired in a clash of human personalities. 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 – they knew even back then that our planet, if such were true, had to be moving at many thousands of miles per hour. Not only Scripture and our senses seem to tell us otherwise, that the Earth is quite stationary and stable. But the key word is ‘seem’. As Bellarmine concluded after meeting with Galileo in February of 1616, as the scientist began his championing of Copernicanism, if irrefutable scientific evidence were presented for such, 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’, and neither could anyone else in his day. In fact, proof for the Earth’s movement would have to wait until Frederic Bessel’s 1838 discovery of stellar parallax in the star Cygni. Hence, two centuries earlier, Bellarmine urged Galileo, whom he admired and saw as a kindred spirit in pursuit of truth, 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 – his evidence produced in his 1632 Dialogue on Two Chief World Systems, argued from the tides being caused by ‘sloshing’ of the oceans from the Earth’s double motion is patently false, ironically, based on the same laws of dynamics Galileo would later formulate.

The stubborn scientist was bent on foisting the Copernican model on all and sundry (which still relied on circular orbits and uniform motion of the planets, both of which Galileo claimed to be absolutely true, and which are in fact quite false), mocking derisively those who disagreed with him, and, hence, forcing the issue towards 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.

Bellarmine was involved in much of the work of the Church in the post-Protestant era of the 17th century, especially in implementing the decrees of the Council of Trent, which had its closing sessions just as Bellarmine was beginning his theological studies. As Pope Clement VIII remarked early as the young Jesuit began to be known, “The Church of God had not his equal in learning”. In many ways, one is reminded of Cardinal Josef Ratzinger. The philosopher Thomas Hobbes – no lover of Catholicism – saw him in his visit to Rome in 1614, and, even from his more secular perspective, was struck by something about the ‘lean, little old man’, who ‘lived more retired’ than the other prelates. Ironically, it was his very being a Jesuit – they have always been viewed with some suspicion since the days of Saint Ignatius himself – prevented Robert Bellarmine from ever being elected Pope. After all, Ignatius did not want his men to receive ecclesiastical dignities, and I’m rather sure the saint was quite relieved.

What Hobbes saw in that ‘little, old man’ was holiness, the fruit of a life of prayer, discipline and charity, even if 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.

May more Bellarmines rise up from the ranks of young, idealistic priests, they too steeped in Saint Thomas, the lives of the saints, and that sanctity is eminently attainable, if we but give our assent to the prevenient grace of the good and merciful God.

Saint Robert Bellarmine, ora pro nobis!