Considering St. Robert Bellarmine’s De Controversiis Part 2


In the last post of this series—part 1—it was discussed the historical disagreement of Thomas Paine, one of the founding fathers of the United States, arguing in his esteemed work Common Sense that theologically the ‘anti-monarchical’ passages of scripture had never been addressed—especially by those who supported monarchy as the best form of government. As Illustrated in that particular post, Sacred Scripture has been theologically examined in that light by John Calvin who argued for the supremacy of aristocracy in his Institutes. The synthesis by Calvin was then refuted by Catholic theologian St. Robert Cardinal Bellarmine. Bellarmine has been a forgotten man in both history and Catholic circles, so it would be prudent to give a short bio on the man.

St. Robert Cardinal Bellarmine lived from 1542-1621. Bellarmine born in the Tuscany region of central Italy. He was a sort of prodigy in his youth that disappointed his father when he decided he had a vocation to the priesthood, as his father desired him to become a lawyer to enhance their family station. In 1560, Bellarmine becomes a Jesuit entering as an initiate. Bellarmine was sent to study at the famed Louvain University in Belgium in 1569—the same place that Ven. Fulton Sheen would attend centuries later; after his studies, he would become a professor of theology at what is now known as the Pontifical Gregorian University. During the course of Bellarmine’s education and professorship, he taught himself both Greek and Hebrew to teach courses on the languages. Bellarmine was so respected by his intellectual prowess that at three separate conclaves he received votes and support to be elected Pope rather than respectively: Pope Leo XI, Pope Paul V, and Pope Gregory XV.

The Institutes, and other arguments of Protestantism, prompted a very lengthy response from St. Robert Cardinal Bellarmine called De Controversiis which is a very interesting text because it is a text written for the sole purpose to reject Protestantism by perhaps one of the very few Catholic Churchman who read Protestant works. Ryan Grant, translator of the text explains that it was discovered at the Gregorian institute that Bellarmine “not only had a perfect familiarity with the works of major Protestants, but also had a seemingly photographic memory of the teachings of the Fathers.”[1] The appeal of Bellarmine is the systematic synthesis in response to texts like the Institutes. Bellarmine sets out to respond to objections of Catholic teachings by appealing to Sacred Scripture and concluding with the teachings of the Church Fathers and their understanding of the text.

The text has largely been forgotten even in Catholic circles—especially post-Vatican II—in large part because of its support for the monarchy and the authority of the papacy which is considered to be an abomination to modernity. The issue of the papacy was not addressed at the council of Trent due to political interest; however, Bellarmine’s work does prove that the issue of Papal Supremacy is not one that originates in the 19th century like many conciliar theologians attempt to currently teach Catholics.

All of the considered, De Controversiis is also a controversial text in Catholicism (Well, the folks that know it exists) because it is a text used by Sedevacantist—those who argue there is no validly elected Pope since usually Pope Pius XII—to argue that Popes who commit heresy are no longer Pope. Scholars, even traditional Catholic ones like Ryan Grant, do not agree with this Sedevacantist position on Bellarmine.

Nonetheless, Grant notes that Bellarmine’s work on the Papacy, “not only refutes Protestant teaching, but lays down the theological foundations which would make their way into the definitions of the First Vatican Council[…] Yet today some would think a treatise like this redundant […] however, this work is still valuable […] many Protestants still teach that Rome is the Antichrist, and oppose any dialogue with Catholics.”[2]

[1] Robert Bellarmine, trans. Ryan Grant, De Controversiis: On The Roman Pontiff Vol. 1  Post Falls: Mediatrix Press, 2017), ii.

[2] Ibid, iii.

4 thoughts on “Considering St. Robert Bellarmine’s De Controversiis Part 2

  1. @Phillip

    Interesting. I guess I inspired you to write this, but I never expected the legitimacy of the papacy to get wrapped into it.🤔

    Generally, I don’t see much point in debating with other Christian denominations. I suppose the Apostle Paul would both approve and frown on my reluctance to debate other Christian. Lots of the things that separate us are relatively trivial, but some, like the supremacy of the pope, is serious.

    So, why don’t I debate the supremacy of the pope? Are you going to change your mind? Doubt it. Are you making a personal choice? Yes. Are you trying to force your choice on everyone else? Don’t think so.

    Given you are a Christian who is minding his own business and running his own life, I think I have better things to do than try to persuade you that the Bible does not support a popish monarchy. I don’t know which Christian denomination is the one closest to what Jesus would most approve, but Revelation 2-3 gives us a good place to start. Not much about how we govern a church in that. What Jesus seems most concerned about is that we love Him. If we love Him, I doubt that a church’s organizational structure matters very much. If we love Him, Jesus is in charge, and we will obey his commands.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. It’s true that we’ve discussed this topic of 1 Samuel 8 for a few years or so on various blog posts. I think what led to the inspiration is a renewed discussion a few weeks back, but I think the catalyst for my post is that my training in history. I was giddy to find historical discussions on this very topic centuries prior—and perhaps something that Paine was completely unaware. Paine might have come across the Institutes, but I am fairly certain he’d never have read Bellarmine.

      To be honest, I cleaned up and omitted a lot of the sectarian points made by Bellarmine in the text. As you’ve mentioned, it be silly to try to convince each other of the legitimacy of the Pope—although I find that fact interesting in the debate between Calvin and Bellarmine.

      What I hope to investigate is how Bellarmine views perhaps our particular form of government. He does discuss combined forms—in many ways; the US government is a combined form. And did the the founders err in not making Washington King? What is the particular consequences of the end of true monarchy after World War I? In the course of human history, we’re still living in a untried time in history.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Nicholas

    I think I would echo Citizen Tom, but darkly, Sometimes I wonder whether it has been worth blogging at all, whether it has done me – and I have done others – more harm than good. Dialoguing with other denominations is painful – and the more I get exposed to visceral imagery, the more effort it takes to curb myself. StJames was right about the danger posed by the tongue.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No man is an island.

      I think most find that if they want to take their faith seriously in their respective communities it can be lonely. So, you can go at it alone and have the secularists circle you like vultures.

      I’ve learned a lot from Tom. I’ve learned a lot from you. Heck Scoop and I are both Catholics and don’t always agree on everything.

      Some of the good that I’ve encountered here are perspectives that I’ve never would have considered. It helped me write my book. It’s helped me as a Catechist. And it’s helped me despite my best efforts to resist to value the dignity of those whom I disagree.

      Cardinal Robert Sarah wrote a book called the “Power of Silence.” And it speaks quite often about the Letter of James.

      He followed that book with another book 2-3 years after titled “The Day is well spent.” In that book he opens up, “I can keep silent no more.”

      Sure, there’s a time to bunker down. And yet Christ warns us very clearly about what happens to those who bury their talents instead of taking the risk.

      Liked by 2 people

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