Was Robert Bellarmine Ahead of His Time?

In Empire of Souls, Stefania Tutino offers a fresh perspective on the central role Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621) played in the development of post-Reformation Catholicism, and its relationship to the early modern state. Tutino complements her study with a newly published collection of writings, never before translated into English, that she believes best represents Bellarmine’s political theology. These two impressive scholarly achievements go beyond the standard story of a reactionary crusader battling anti-papal princes, and protesting Protestants, typical of most traditional studies. Rather, Bellarmine is portrayed sympathetically as a controversial figure whose political theology was too liberal, or better yet, Whiggish, for some members of the Roman Curia who doubted his commitment to papal supremacy. Yet, his sophisticated defense of papal spiritual authority was influential enough to provoke many critical responses from across Europe. For Tutino, Bellarmine was not only the central figure in the debate over the proper relationship between Church and state in early modern Europe; his vision of the papacy still resonates today, perhaps more than it did during his lifetime.

However, his relevance in our day should not diminish in our minds how preeminent he was in his time. Before he began teaching at the Roman College in 1576, Bellarmine established a reputation as a distinguished scholar and preacher at Louvain, where he lectured on Aquinas at the Jesuit College. While there, he would counsel apologists to master the core of Catholic theology. He followed his own advice when he wrote his three-volume, Disputationes de controversiis Christianae fidei (or Controversiae for short), by weaving contemporary controversies into the larger fabric of the faith, presenting a comprehensive understanding of Christian doctrine. He re-imagined the Catholic Church as a res publica Christiana, a theo-political organism that enveloped into itself all Christian commonwealths without violating their temporal jurisdiction. This concept of Christian empire was a reconstruction of medieval Christendom with the pope as its spiritual head. Tutino believes this expansive vision of the Catholic Church as an empire of souls was a notable departure from the theological approaches of Bellarmine’s contemporaries.

What is the Best Regime?
With the publication of Controversiae, Bellarmine was drawn further into debates over how much temporal and spiritual power the pope could rightly claim. He thought a complete response to attacks on Church governance, by Protestants and others, must begin with answers to fundamental questions. So, in volume one of Controversiae (1586), Bellarmine sought to answer this perennial question in political philosophy: What is the best regime? The question was asked by the ancient Greeks, and reconsidered by Aquinas, who seemed to favor monarchy in some places, and mixed government in others. Bellarmine solved the apparent inconsistency by arguing that monarchy was the best regime in principle, but a mixed regime is better in practice, due to the “corruption of human nature.” After offering several additional reasons for mixed government, he added that a prince received his authority democratically, ex universo populo, and not from God directly. The democratic origin of temporal political legitimacy is an essential feature of Bellarmine’s argument for papal spiritual supremacy, since it is the pope, not the prince, who receives his authority directly from God. Furthermore, the temporal authority of the prince, and the spiritual authority of the pope, resides in separate jurisdictions. The pope’s role is not only different from the secular prince; it is superior. The fundamental features of this argument are found in the first translation of Tutino’s collection taken from the second volume of Controversiae (1588).

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Tutino does not see Bellarmine as a pro-papal defender of the temporal power of the pope. However, his understanding of Petrine authority did not preclude the possibility that his jurisdiction extends into temporal affairs. Yet, the pope’s options are limited since the secular state has its own legitimate political authority. While Tutino acknowledges Bellarmine’s debt to neo-Thomist thought, she argues that his doctrine of potestas indirecta “downsized the political power of the pope in temporal affairs to a larger degree than any neo-Thomist theorists had done.” Only Bellarmine insisted that papal involvement in temporal affairs be a direct extension of, and limited to, his spiritual authority; whereas, others favored more temporal intervention. If Aquinas was the first Whig, as Lord Acton claimed, then Bellarmine must have been his devoted disciple. It should be admitted, however, that Bellarmine did not depart very far from the scholastic tradition, even if he did not share completely the views of contemporary Thomists. The Dominican, John of Torquemada (d. 1466), first conceptualized implicitly the idea of the indirect power. Bellarmine would develop the idea explicitly over a century later. Furthermore, both Torquemada and Bellarmine believed that the deposing power of the pope, along with the suppression of heresy, were part of his potestas indirecta. And like Bellarmine, Torquemada rejected hierocratic claims to papal plenitudo potestatis in temporal affairs.

It was Bellarmine’s denial of papal supremacy in temporal affairs that caused Pope Sixtus V to submit the Controversiae to the Congregation of the Index in 1590. Tutino rightly notes how insignificant Bellarmine thought the pope’s temporal power was compared to his spiritual power. After all, he did admit that the Papal States were not a necessary aspect of the pope’s spiritual authority, since they arose from historical circumstances. On the other hand, he was unwilling to admit that the administration of his temporal possessions prevented the exercise of his superior spiritual authority. The members of the Index favored Bellarmine, delaying action until the timely death of Sixtus in August 1590, bringing the affair to a propitious and decisive end. The rejection of plenitudo potestatis by many neo-Thomist theologians, like Bellarmine, was gaining intellectual approval in Rome, just as state resistance to papal temporal authority was mounting. Yet, the Catholic debate over Bellarmine’s particular formulation of papal temporal power did not end with the death of Sixtus.

Papal Intervention in Earthly Affairs
Early in the seventh century, Bellarmine found himself at the center of an international controversy over clerical exemption. Several years earlier, in 1599, he was pressured into justifying exemption on more solid natural law grounds rather than treating it as mere human invention. Clerical exemption was a central issue in the Venetian Interdetto controversy of 1605-07, when Pope Paul V excommunicated Venice for violating ecclesiastical prerogatives. Bellarmine was caught in the middle. On one side were theologians, like Paolo Sarpi, who argued that clerical exemption was of human origin and, therefore, clergy were subject to secular law. On the other side were papalists who defended the divine origin of clerical privilege, like the Spanish jurist, Francisco Pena. Though he disapproved of the Interdetto, Bellarmine was drawn into the debate on the side of Rome, primarily to defend himself: first, against critics like Sarpi, who used his own theories to limit papal temporal power; and, second, against Pena, who blamed him for providing theoretical ammunition to the Venetians. This, argues Tutino, was a challenge for Bellarmine, whose insistence on the separate jurisdictions of temporal and spiritual authority, left unclear under what conditions a pope’s intervention into earthly affairs, on behalf of souls, might be justified.

The Venetian Interdetto was only one of several international crises that marked Bellarmine’s career. The second was the growing threat of royal absolutism to the spiritual jurisdiction of the Church. Bellarmine decided to refute the absolutist claims, contained in The True Law of Free Monarchies (1603) by King James I. Tutino argues that Bellarmine saw this text as a new political and theological challenge to the Church—and to his own political theology. James’s Protestant-sounding arguments were aimed at strengthening the crown at the expense of the Church, and constituted a new kind of heresy, one that went beyond the claims of his Tudor predecessors. The Stuart monarch was not merely a threat to the Catholics of England. His vision, of absolute temporal sovereignty over the spiritual authority of the Church, could spread across the continent. Indeed, the king directed his ambassadors to distribute copies of his book to receptive state officials in Catholic, as well as Protestant, capitals. The danger posed by James was not limited to his book, however. The controversy over the “Oath of Allegiance,” offered Bellarmine a new opportunity to defend papal spiritual supremacy. Imposed in January 1606, after the Gunpowder Plot was foiled, the Oath required English Catholics to deny the pope’s power to excommunicate and depose the king, asserting the latter’s primacy over spiritual affairs.

James was not the only one from across the English Channel to defy Bellarmine. Scotsman William Barclay was the leading “divine right” theorist of his day, according to English philosopher John Locke, and a professed Catholic, who taught civil law in France until his death in 1608. Barclay’s De potestate Papae was published in England the following year. Widely praised at the Sorbonne and elsewhere, his book explicitly challenged Bellarmine’s theory of potestas indirecta by denying the incommensurability of the temporal and spiritual jurisdiction, thereby elevating the sovereign to the same level as the pope. Bellarmine once again had to defend potestas indirecta, while fending off papalist critics like Pena, who believed his theory of papal primacy too modest to be effective against the enemies of Rome. Bellarmine’s refutation of Barclay is published in Tutino’s On Temporal and Spiritual Authority.

Just as in England, Bellarmine’s theories sparked a third international crisis. This one occurred in France, where the temporal and spiritual authority of the pope was challenged by defenders of the Gallican state. Sorbonne theology faculty syndic, Edmond Richer, became one of Bellarmine’s fiercest critics by advancing an extreme, conciliar argument, in 1611, that reduced the authority of the pope within the Church, transferring spiritual authority to the state to adjudicate ecclesiastical disputes. While Richer’s argument may have pleased political Gallicans, who did not welcome papal meddling in internal French affairs, it had the effect, nonetheless, of antagonizing religious Gallicans, who were not keen to see Parliament, or king, play the pope. André Duval, who led the ultramontane party within the faculty of theology at the Sorbonne, exploited this split within the Gallican camp when he composed his response to Richer. Sensitive to the realities of French domestic politics, Duval chose a strategy that would isolate Richer, by demonstrating his unfaithfulness to the Gallican and conciliar tradition.

However, his approach had the effect of weakening the spiritual supremacy of the papacy vis-à-vis the monarchy by arguing that both the pope, and the king, received their legitimacy in the same way. In private correspondence, Bellarmine corrected Duval by pointing out that cardinals, who elect the pope, do not transfer their authority to him, but simply choose the candidate to whom the authority is granted by God. The king, on the other hand, receives his authority from the people who choose him. Duval inadvertently weakened the pope’s supremacy, with respect to the secular sovereign, in his attempt to strengthen Rome’s authority over the council. Furthermore, Duval should not have ignored the pope’s indirect, temporal authority because it was dangerous “for the people to believe that their king cannot, in any case, be deposed either by the supreme Pontiff, or by the princes of the kingdom: on this, in fact, eternal tyranny would be founded.” Tutino highlights the constitutionalist implications of Bellarmine’s contractual language against the divine-right pretensions of absolutist monarchs, but does not discuss at length the pope’s deposing power.

In a 1948 essay in Theological Studies, not cited by Tutino, John Courtney Murray, S.J. asserts that the deposing power was not a permanent attribute of the Church. The medieval papacy adopted this power because there was no other “political institution able to constrain the monarch to obedience to law.” Still, once the civil order matured, it no longer needed the Church to intervene against unjust authority and, therefore, denied its deposing power any constitutional status. Murray does not deny the Church her spiritual authority to “direct and correct” the temporal order, but the techniques defended by Bellarmine were destined to become obsolete in due time. For Murray, Bellarmine accepted too much temporal interference by defending the deposing power. For Tutino, a more vigorous attempt to limit papal temporal power would have failed, since the papacy did not heed Bellarmine’s call to abandon its counterproductive interventions into mundane affairs, so as to strengthen its substantial spiritual patrimony. If it had, perhaps the Catholic reform effort would have been more successful. We are left to wonder whether Bellarmine’s lofty vision of a restored and unified Christendom, under papal spiritual leadership, was doomed from the start.

Contemporary Relevance of Bellarmine’s Political Theology
If these sixteenth-century manifestations of the indirect temporal power are no longer of value, what is left to salvage from Bellarmine’s political theology? While the picture looks grim, Tutino offers a glimmer of hope. The unique spiritual role of the pope, as an emperor of souls, did not die when the modern state triumphed over the political aspirations of counter-Reformation Catholicism. She reminds us that the battle is not over temporal power, but spiritual hegemony. Here, Tutino finds the reflections of cultural Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, surprisingly relevant. It was he who noticed the adoption, by Pius XI, of Bellarmine’s vision of Catholic spiritual hegemony, with Bellarmine’s canonization in 1930, and his elevation to a Doctor of the Church the following year (though he was not the only one to be so honored). The signing of concordats to protect Catholic rights was a peaceful alternative to the earlier use of temporal power. For Gramsci, the Reformation destroyed Catholic spiritual hegemony over Europe; it could only be restored through the non-coercive promotion of Christian art and culture. Yet, despite the efforts of Pius XI, Gramsci imagined the forces of state socialism ultimately defeating the Church, because she would fail to convert the working class. Here, writes Tutino, Gramsci’s thesis falls short, since his prediction, of inevitable Catholic demise, was crushed beneath the rubble of the Berlin Wall. Curiously, Tutino does not mention the contribution made by Pope John Paul II to the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe.

If John Paul II exercised papal spiritual authority as envisioned by Bellarmine, must Pius XI receive all the credit? The answer is, more likely, “No.” Instead, much or more thanks for the rise of the modern papacy should be given to Pope Pius IX, whose long and tumultuous pontificate began in 1846. A series of unfortunate events enhanced Catholic support for the pope—from the assassination of his prime minister in 1848 by a democratic revolutionary, to the loss of the Papal States in 1860 by Victor Emmanuel, whose government imposed anti-clerical laws on the new Italian nation. The historical consensus about the growth of papal spiritual authority in the nineteenth century is expressed by historian Josef Altholz, who said: “as the external position of the Papacy came to be increasingly threatened in this period, the internal authority of the Papacy was increased. The Pope himself came to be the object of personal affection and devotion among Catholics.” Catholic persecution, by liberal regimes in Italy, and across Europe, generated support for papal infallibility at the First Vatican Council. This teaching, as Tutino knows, was favored by Bellarmine. In fact, supporters of papal infallibility at the Council often invoked his name. And to the relief of critics like Acton, the Council remained silent on matters of civil allegiance. Furthermore, it was the first ecumenical council in which no Catholic state was allowed veto power over its proceedings.

The anti-Catholic measures of modern liberal states created the conditions for a religious revival during the long pontificate of Pio Nono, well before the apparent rehabilitation of Bellarmine in the 1930s. The magnitude of this achievement was so great, remarked E.E.Y. Hales, that papal spiritual authority had not reached similar heights “since the time of the Council of Trent.” By the 1920s and 1930s, many anti-Catholic liberal regimes were replaced by authoritarian dictatorships in Southern and Central Europe. The papacy was able to protect its interests because it had grown in strength, and because many—though not all—of these dictatorships where willing to accommodate the Church. The continuity from Pius IX and Pius XI cannot be ignored. “From the First Vatican Council of 1869-70 onwards,” observed historian Martin Conway, “the Papacy under the leadership of a series of like-minded and determined Popes used every means at its disposal to assert its central role in the defense, propagation, and definition of the Catholic religion.” While they may not have achieved every objective, “the reality of the increase in the power and prestige of the Papacy was incontrovertible.”

Despite his rehabilitation in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, Bellarmine’s intellectual legacy remains mixed. In one respect, at least, he was a product of his time because his vision of a res publica Christiana depended on a united Christendom that could never be restored. Yet, what is easy to see, in hindsight, was not so clear in the early seventeenth century. On the other hand, his defiance of royal absolutism, in defense of rule of law and religious truth, is far from outdated. Indeed, the very modern assertion of state power only justified further the papal need to secure its political independence by maintaining its temporal possessions. Yet, the Papal States could not secure this independence because the pope depended on other nations for their defense. This dilemma was resolved satisfactorily when the Italian state formally recognized the Vatican as a sovereign entity in 1929. The concordat, negotiated by Pius XI, secured for the papacy the freedom to exercise its spiritual duties. Furthermore, Bellarmine’s effort to limit spiritual and political power to their proper jurisdiction, was a continuation of, rather than a departure from, the long Scholastic tradition that formed the basis of Jesuit political ideas. As Harro Höpfl observed in Jesuit Political Thought, “In Jesuit political theory … legitimate government was limited government.” Given the modern state’s insatiable hunger for power, Bellarmine’s political philosophy has not lost its relevance.

Tutino is right to highlight the importance Bellarmine placed on papal spiritual authority. He was, in this respect, a man ahead of his time, because he saw clearly what papal spiritual power could do when unencumbered by temporal distractions. Yet, even with no temporal power, a pope, like Pius XII, thought it dangerous to confront the Nazi menace, explicitly and directly, with his spiritual authority. In a world indifferent to the Gospel, at best, and hostile, at worst, Christians oftentimes find themselves in a position of weakness and danger. For Catholics, all we possess is moral persuasion. Bellarmine may help us choose the only viable course we have left. Since it was all the Apostles had, there is reason for hope that lost ground can be recaptured, though not without some sacrifice. Tutino’s valuable study, and her handsome collection of translations, can help guide our way.

Editor’s note: This review first appeared April 12, 2012 in Homiletic and Pastoral Review and is reprinted with permission.


  • John M. Vella

    John M. Vella served as editor of Crisis Magazine from 2012 to 2019. For over a decade, he was the managing editor of Modern Age: A Quarterly Review published by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI). Before arriving at ISI, John served as publications manager at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. His essays and reviews have appeared in a variety of secular and Catholic publications including Chronicles, Chesterton Review, Modern Age, Homiletic and Pastoral Review, New Oxford Review, and University Bookman. He earned his Master’s in history at Villanova University in 2010.

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