Among the greatest achievements of the great Catholic controversialist, Robert Bellarmine (1542–1621; Saint, Bishop, Confessor, Doctor of the Church; feast today in Old Mass), was in the conclaves of 1605, when he twice talked his fellow Cardinals out of electing him Pope. Others have done it once. But with the quick demise of Leo XI, Bellarmine became the only papabile in history (so far as I am aware) to do it all over again a few weeks later. This showed not only, perhaps, rare self-knowledge, but also considerable energy.
He was indeed the founder of the faculty of Controversial Theology, at what became the Gregorian university at Rome — a discipline he invented expressly for the purpose of methodically refuting Protestant theological and doctrinal assertions, in all their kaleidoscopic variety.
As an Anglican, young and eager, decades ago, perhaps my favourite divine was Lancelot Andrewes (1555–1626). His Preces Privatae (edited once by John Henry Newman) provided the boilerplate for my own private prayers. He was the organizing genius behind the King James Version of the Bible, whose tastes established its immortally “catholic” style. His sermons, too, enthralled me for his ability to turn from high learning to racy street language and back again, in successive clauses. The Elizabethans generally could do that sort of thing (Shakespeare thrives on such delicious toggles, between the coarse and the refined), but it seemed to me then that the Bishop of Winchester (Andrewes) had exceeded all others in his gift for making these sometimes humorous, often shocking gearshifts, resonate with sanctity.
My acquaintance with Bellarmine was through Andrewes. There was a great controversy between them, over the Oath of Allegiance (1606) that King James put before those of his subjects still Catholic, and which in good conscience many found impossible to take. Published in the backwash from the “Gunpowder Plot,” it appeared to offer English Catholics tolerance and safety, on the condition that they would recognize the Protestant King’s high authority, and abjure violence, insurrection, or tumult. To more modern eyes, this seems a real deal: “Let us live and let live. … Swear that you won’t try to overthrow me, and I swear that I won’t try to kill you.”
But it was not so simple as post-modern eyes see. In the course of the seven affirmations demanded of his subjects, King James was laying down the doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings (since mutated into the Divine Right of Elected Politicians). No Catholic can accept that; many dissenting Protestants were uncomfortable with it, too; and the controversy over this English Oath of Allegiance was joined across Europe, for many years.
It seemed to me, struggling through an epistolary debate largely untranslated from Latin, that Andrewes had got the better of Bellarmine, in a close-run thing. (But I was biased.) Later I became the more impressed with Bellarmine when I realized that, like a chess master simultaneously playing a hundred opponents, he was meanwhile arguing with a large number of the most formidable Protestants on many other boards. Too, that Andrewes had jumped into the ring on tag wrestling principles, along with several other leading English ecclesiastics, after Bellarmine had wasted (the learned) King James himself, in a previous round. Too, Andrewes himself is profoundly respectful of Bellarmine, and does not dare to take cheap shots. The two men seemed to bring out the best in each other.
I doubt all these impressions would stand if, now a Papist, and of riper years, I returned to that scene. I also doubt the question, “Who won?” is in itself coherent. On balance, I think God was winning. For from both sides an attempt was being made, I think generously, to get at the truth: to formulate a position that could be universally acceptable, and thus might indeed win peace, without submission to moral compromise.
At this distance, I think the debate worth revisiting because every question touching the “separation of Church and State” is on the table, and each is pursued (by both sides) in dimensions since neglected. It is the more enthralling because the participants have implicitly agreed to appeal to man’s conscience. Previously they had thought of it more as a contest between their respective armies.
That a King, or other secular ruler, has an authority or legitimacy that is in some sense divinely sanctioned, Catholics would have to agree. This is affirmed even within Christ’s “give unto Caesar,” when properly understood. But it is affirmed, throughout Catholic teaching — ancient, mediaeval, and modern — with a very important qualification. When the State claims an authority even over conscience; and more particularly, when it claims the right to form that conscience in defiance of Holy Church; and even more particularly, when it establishes an alternative religion (whether that be “Anglican” as then or, as today, “Secular Humanist”) — it has lost its legitimacy, its right to be obeyed. For the demand now is no longer “give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s,” rather, “give unto Caesar what is God’s.” This becomes a martyrdom issue.
No King (and no State in Christendom) has the “divine right” to do any such thing. King James’s essential claim, to a spiritual authority within his own realm, must be rejected.
A moment’s thought will reveal innumerable parallels today, within the Church, as well as from outside. Let me mention just one: the claim of German bishops to doctrinal competence on divorce and remarriage, within Germany. This immediately involves a claim to a “divine right,” which cannot be diffused.
It will be further seen that the controversy, in its own day, went to the heart of the Protestant Reformation. Saint Robert Bellarmine’s role, from his first experience of teaching at the Catholic university of Louvain in Flanders, was to clarify the Catholic position for the benefit not only of the other side, but of the many Catholic priests who had acquired, through contemporary fashions, quite Protestant attitudes.
U.S. Americans, defending their own Constitution, should be aware that many of the arguments of Jefferson and Madison against the “divine right of George III” were in fact lifted from Bellarmine; and that for many other Founding Fathers, the whole idea of the USA was Bellarminian: to dethrone one version of this “divine right” without, via “democracy,” setting another up in its place. In other words, the actual authors of that Constitution held views directly opposed to the liberal-progressives who interpret it in American law courts today; and were, with respect to natural law, quaintly “catholic.”
I have touched quickly and in a dangerously summary way on only one aspect of Bellarmine himself. His mind was very broad and very deep, and his works will repay very close study. I wish that I had ever found the time, for even on the basis of a glancing acquaintance I have come to realize how much is there.
Notwithstanding, I doubt he was among “the greatest Popes we never had.” More than anything I think I would defend this extraordinary Jesuit for the insight he showed in declining, or more precisely, avoiding, the papacy itself. His Jesuit mission was on the front lines of intellectual and spiritual controversy. He was a catechist for all the ages. But the role of a Pope is different in kind. It is, surely, to defend the faith from any alteration, but with a serenity that omits any personal agenda. Indeed, I long thought (before 2013), that it was a mark of the profound wisdom of the Roman Church that no Jesuit had ever been seated upon the Throne of Peter. For at their best — which they are far from, today — the Jesuits are an order established to serve the Vicar of Christ, only. (You don’t make cops into judges.)
In his retirement from the world, in his seventies, Bellarmine did however write several remarkably serene tracts, including spiritual masterpieces which began with, The Ascent of the Mind to God. Written consciously in the tradition of the early seventh-century Saint John Climacus, and the thirteenth-century Saint Bonaventure, it provides what I think is not only an intellectual, but a mystical key to the entire Counter-Reformation, in whose wake we still bob.
It takes deadly seriously the primary commandment of Jesus Christ: that we love God, not negatively but positively, with our whole heart, our whole soul, and with our whole mind.