BELLARMINO Roberto Francesco Romolo (usually in English, Robert Bellarmine)—theologian and polemicist, doctor of the Church, b. October 4, 1542 in Montepulciano (Italy), d. November 17, 1621 in Rome.
He came from an eminent family. Through his mother he was related to Pope Marcellus I. He was first educated in a Jesuit college. In 1560 in Rome he entered the Jesuit novitiate. He studied theology in Padua (starting in 1567), and in the Louvain, where in 1570 he was ordained a priest. As a priest he preached the word of God to young students. From 1570 to 1576 he was a professor at the University of the Louvaine and explained St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica. In this same period he wrote his first work (Index Haereticorum). Next, Pope Gregory XIII summoned him to the chair of polemical theology in Rome. As professor of polemical theology (1576–1588), Bellermino published his first major work, Disputationes de controversiis christianae fidei adversus huius temporis haereticos (I–III, Ig 1586–1593, I–IV Ve 1596; Controversies). Bellarmino’s engagement and efforts as a defender of the Catholic faith in the time of the Reformation, when dogmatic errors were increasing, there was moral dissolution in all levels of society, and the authority of the papacy was declining, causes a reaction in religious life. Protestants saw him as a formidable opponent and prohibited the reading of his works, in which Bellarmino raised controversial questions concerning the Christian faith. In 1592 he became rector of the Collegium Romanum and then was elected as provincial of the Neapolitan Jesuit province. In this period he participated in many congregations of the Roman Curia and published the Little Catechism, which was popular for centuries (it was published 400 times and translated into 56 languages). In 1599 he was named a cardinal by Pope Clement VIII. He was a serious candidate for the papal office when Leo XI died. In 1602, because of differences that arose in the controversy concerning grace, he was transferred to Capua where he became the archbishop. As a pastor, Bellarmino exhibited an understanding of the material needs of the faithful: he supports to idea that land should be divided into parcels and the people should be guaranteed the opportunity to work. He was recognized as a good spiritual director and became the confidant to the secret of St. Aloysius Gonzaga’s deth. He became a friend of St. Francis de Sales and St. Philip Neri.
Bellarmino was active in many fields. Among other things, he was interested in Galileo’s research and his statements, and maintained a correspondence with him. He thought that Galileo’s statements were premature and did not go beyond the bounds of hypotheses. He saw a possibility of reconciling the Copernican system with Revelation. He dedicated the last years of his life to writing ascetic works.
Bellarmino was revered immediately after his death. He was beatified in 1923 after a two-year beatification process, and canonized in 1930. In 1933 Pius XI declared him a doctor of the Church.
Bellarmino formulated a definition of the Church that was dominant for centuries in Catholic ecclesiology. He was inclined to polemics with Protestants and in his definition of the Church he put special emphasis on the external and visible aspects of the Church. In connection with this he is regarded as the creator of a juridical-institutional current in ecclesiology that persisted almost to the end of the nineteenth century. Bellarmino’s definition appears as a synthesis of this current. Bellarmino was the author of a legal-apologetic doctrine concerning the Church.
Bellarmino was interested in the different meanings of the term “Ecclesia”. In Controversies he used the heritage of theological thought up to that time. He called upon the doctrine of St. Paul and the Fathers of the Church, according to which the Church is the body of Christ. Bellarmine held that the Church is the body of Christ in mystical and social aspects because it is united both by legal-social bonds and by supernatural bonds. Starting from the ideas of St. Paul, Bellarmine proved the visibility of the Church, and that visible offices, functions, and a visible head must exist in the Church. He called Christ the Head and Person whose body is the Church. Christ as the Head influences the other members. As the Person he is the principal cause that maintains the Church in existence and causes its activity. A supernatural life that begins by the virtue of faith and is perfected by supernatural charity pulses in the Church. The Holy Spirit is the source of this life. Bellarmino called the Holy Spirit the “counselor of the whole Church ” or its soul. The Church united internally and externally is marked by a strict unity that belongs to the essence of the Church. The causes of this unity are its origin from the one God (ex uno); its possession of one final end (ad unum); its movement to that end by the same means, that is, by faith, the sacraments, and laws (per unum); and the guidance of the Holy Spirit (sub uno). The Church’s essential unity consists in that that it is rules by the Head, Christ, who is internally joined with it, and there are mutual bonds among its members. Unity creates many internal and external bonds. The internal bonds are gifts of the Holy Spirit, and the external bonds are the confession of the faith and participation in the sacraments. Following St. Augustine, Bellarmino called the internal elements the soul of the Church, and the external elements he called its body. Bellarmino applied a distinction of these two elements when he discussed membership in the Church. Bellarmino distinguished three groups of people: (1) those who belong to the soul and body, united with Christ internally and externally—they are members of the Church in the most perfect way; (2) those who belong only to the soul—these include catechumens if they possess charity and faith; (3) those who belong only to the body—those who, while possessing no inner virtue, participate in the holy sacraments under the influence of some temporal hope or fear; in this way secret heretics and non-believers who pretend to be faithful belong to the Church.
In his polemics with Protestants who held that the true Church is an invisible reality and that it is the congregation of saints only (Luther) or of the predestined (Calvin), Bellarmino emphasized the visibility of the Church and stated that the visible Church established by Christ is the only true Church (book III of the fourth controversy De ecclesia militante). Bellarmino saw visibility as the principal attribute of the Church: the visible institution is not at all some external and changing image or a symbol of an invisible community of believers, but it constitutes the foundation and condition of this community. According to Bellarmine, those who belong exclusively to the body of the Church alone and perform purely external conditions of affiliation are true members of the Church. He thought that in the definition of the Church it is sufficient to present only its external characteristics, which can be affirmed by the senses alone: (1) the external confession of faith; (2) participation in the sacraments; (3) dependence upon legitimate authority. Against the Protestants, he held that imperfect people and sinners also belong to the Church, both those who are manifestly so and those who are secretly so, insofar only as they confess the faith externally, participate in the sacraments, and recognize the authority of legitimate pastors. The unbaptized, heretics, apostates, those who have been excommunicated, and schismatics, do not belong to the Church.
Bellarmino’s definition become very popular among theologians. Among those who used it in the seventeenth century were Dominic Banner and Gregory de Valentia. F. Salezy, J. Polman, and L. Abelly cited it literally. Cardinal J. D. du Perron and the Jesuit Jacob Platelius modified it. A. Matthaeucci, A. Natalis, and V. L. Gotti accepted it. In the nineteenth century, Bellarmino’s definition became the generally used definition of the Church and was introduced into almost all manuals and catechisms.
F. X. Arnold, Die Staatslehre des Kardinals B., Mn 1934; A. Portaluppi, San Roberto B., Mi 1944; G. Palumbo, Morale gesuitica. Stratificazioni simboliche e precorsi ideologici nella Dottrina christiana di Roberto B., Na 1989; G. Galeota, Roberto B., arcivescovo di Capua, teologo e pastore della Riforma Cattolica, Capua 1990; R. J. Blackwell, Galileo, B. and the Bible, Notre Dame 1991; P. Godman, Saint as Censor. Robert B. between Inquisition and Index, Lei 2000.