Was Robert Bellarmine Ahead of His Time?

Empire of Souls: Robert Bellarmine and the Christian Commonwealth. By Stefania Tutino (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 416 pp. ISBN 978-0-19974-053-6.

On Temporal and Spiritual Authority. By Robert Bellarmine. Edited, translated and with an introduction by Stefania Tutino (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 2012), 500 pp. PB: ISBN 978-0-86597-717-4.

St. Robert Bellarmine, S.J.

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 compliments 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 controversies 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.

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).

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.

Early in the 17th 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 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, uncited 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.

If these 16th 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 19th 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 19th 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 17th 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.

John M. Vella
West Chester, Pennsylvania


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  1. Very important research. Thank you for bringing it to wider attention.

  2. Avatar W Lindsay Wheeler says:

    Your mention of “mixed government” elicits my response. “Mixed Government” is a republic or one might say a “classical republic”. Machiavelli is the break between classical republicanism and modern pseudo-republicanism. ‘Pseudo’ because modern republicanism is 180 degrees different from classical republicanism and there is no similarity except in name.

    To understand the history and creation of this form of government and how the definition of it changed please see The classical definition of a republic

  3. ….and St Robert was of the opinion that Anglican Orders were and are valid.

  4. Avatar Jim Foley says:

    Robert Bellarmine was decidedly not ahead of his time. Bellarmine’s crucial role in the Galileo affair continues to haunt the Church to this day. His education and intelligence should have allowed him to distinguish between the language of the Bible and a scientific statement. Instead he tried to silence the Carmelite Fr. Foscarini and the deeply religious Galileo in order not to undermine the faith. This technique of pushing unpleasant facts under the rug continues to cause trouble for the Church today. See Galileo, Bellarmine, and the Bible. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press. ISBN 0-268-01024-2. Drake, Stillman (1978).

    • Avatar John M. Vella says:

      Thank you for your thoughtful response to my review. Bellarmine’s role in the Galileo affair was not the focus of my review since it deals with the relationship between religion and science rather than church and state. On the latter subject, I made clear that Bellarmine was very much a man of his time but I agreed with Tutino that he was not hopelessly out of date. Thus his concern for the proper jurisdiction of temporal and spiritual power remains relevant even to this day. We see this with the Obama Administration’s attempt to challenge the ministerial exception of the First Amendment in the case of Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC in which the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission claimed to have sole authority over who was qualified to be a church minister. Fortunately, the Supreme Court unanimously rejected the government’s case. That, however, did not discourage the director of HHS from curtailing the religious liberties of church-affiliated organizations with its health care mandates. The attempt by the Obama Administration to curtail religious liberty by redefining “church” is reminiscent of similar attempts by anti-clerical governments in nineteenth-century Europe. Here Bellarmine’s work on the Church as a “perfect society” was retrieved in the 1850s and 1860s to demonstrate that the Church had social and juridical dimensions and therefore had a larger role to play in society beyond the individual. So, I believe posterity should give Bellarmine his due.
      Furthermore, Tutino did deal with Bellarmine’s treatment of Galileo and did so in a fair and accurate manner. Here is one key passage: “I think that Bellarmine’s role in this matter was not simply that of a censor in charge of attacking Copernicanism at all costs, for Bellarmine was not simply pushing toward obedience. Instead, he was trying to make sure that the Catholic Church retained its hegemony in scientific—as well as political—matters not by rejecting the new science tout court but by incorporating what needed to be incorporated, just as he did when “downsizing” the potestas papalis in temporalibus from direct to indirect. Only, he did not think that heliocentrism was “true” enough to justify the immense labor of scriptural exegesis that Bellarmine had mentioned to Foscarini as necessary in order to accord Copernicanism with scripture.” Unlike us, historical figures do not have the benefit of hindsight. What seems like an obvious error in judgment may not be so obvious to those who lived centuries ago. We should not be too quick to judge for another reason. Lord Acton felt free to criticize churchmen for their bad behavior. The result was that he sometimes accused them of committing crimes they did not commit. We should make sure we learn the right lessons from history.

  5. To Jim Foley:
    With regard to the Galileo affair, Bellarmine was certainly way ahead of his time. Galileo provided no proof that the earth moved. The idea that the tides showed the earth was moving would be laughed out of science classrooms today. But the more interesting scientific fact is that even today no one has proved that the earth moves, not Kepler, not Newton, not Einstein, no one. All the standard “proofs” popular a few years ago have either been discredited of falsified (stellar parallax, the Foucault Pendulum, stellar aberration, gravitational force laws, retrograde motion, etc). If Mr. Foley has proof that the earth moves, perhaps he should show it before relegating Bellarmine to the not-so-special category.

  6. Avatar Jim Foley says:

    This week we had a beautiful sight, Venus and the crescent moon in close conjunction. Seen through a telescope Venus too is a crescent! Galileo’s first sight of the moons of Jupiter through a telescope showed some of the moons as crescents. He had an ahah moment and realized that Copernicus was right. Did he understand all the ramifications of the heliocentric theory, no. This would have to wait for Kepler and Newton. The point here is that the Church cannot intrude on the scientific process unless some element of her rightful patrimony is challenged, such as morality. It is ludricrous for Bellamine to tell a man of true genius like Galileo that the earth doesn’t move because he sees with his own eyes that the sun rises and sets. You can’t argue with invincible ignorance. As John Paul II acknowledged when he apologized for the way Galileo was treated by the Church, science has its legitimate sphere just as much as the Church. Unfortunately, the Church set itself up early on as the enemy of science and this has led to no end of mischief in the modern world. Scientists are all too often taught that the Church is the enemy and atheism is the only choice for a rational person. This is a reflexive position rather than a well-thought out conviction, but it serves to mobilize hoards of prejudiced invective even today from the likes of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens. What would have happened if the Church had instead listened to the priests Copernicus and Foscarini and the genuinely pious Galileo?


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