Why was St Robert Bellarmine declared a Doctor of the Church? Pius XI

Sometimes it can feel like Heaven uses dates in a providential way.

Editors’ Notes

13th May 1917 was the date of the first apparition at Fatima, in which Our Lady brought a vital message to a suffering world. But on the same day, Eugenio Pacelli, later Pius XII, was made a bishop by Benedict XV.

But there is a third thing that makes this date interesting. It is the feast day of St Robert Bellarmine, the “Doctor of Ecclesiology“.

Is there a link between these three dates?

St Robert’s teaching on the Church herself and the Roman Pontiff is of the very highest authority. His importance for the first Vatican Council is clear from the text of Pius XI below. As Brodrick writes: “At Trent, the Bible and St. Thomas ruled the debates; at the Vatican [I], the Bible, St Thomas and Bellarmine.”[1]

His stature in this field is seen all the more clearly by those who, diverging from St Robert’s conclusions on ecclesiology, try to claim him as their authority. We would do well to appreciate his contribution to ecclesiology – especially during this especially ecclesiological crisis.

In my opinion, for the little that it is worth, this alignment of dates at least suggests a link between the message of Fatima, the position of Pius XII and the ecclesiology of St Robert Bellarmine. There are indeed parts of the message of Fatima that become a lot clearer when considered in light of Bellarmine’s ecclesiology.

As for the exact nature of this link: I think we can have ideas, even if the truth does not become clear until the future.

I have included a brief reading list after Pius XI’s text.

Providentissimus Deus
Acts of Pius XI

AAS 23 (1931) 433-438

Translated by “a Catholic layman“, with paragraph breaks added. First published at The Bellarmine Forums, 2002.
Further edited by S.D. Wright, adding headings, some punctuation and more paragraph breaks.
Reprinted from The Bellarmine Forums with permission. Image from Wiki Commons

Saint Robert Bellarmine, Cardinal of the Roman Church, of the Society of Jesus, is Declared Doctor of the Universal Church.

For a perpetual remembrance of the matter.

God in his great providence has from the beginnings of Christ’s Church even up to more recent times continually raised up men distinguished by learning and holiness to defend and illuminate the truths of the Catholic faith and opportunely to repair the damage inflicted by heretics on those same Christian truths.

Among these men [i.e. distinguished by learning and holiness], Saint Robert Bellarmine, Cardinal of the Roman Church, of the Society of Jesus, is without the slightest doubt to be counted. Even from the days of his most holy death he was called “an outstanding man, a distinguished theologian, an ardent defender of the faith, the hammer of heretics” and he was also declared to be “as pious, prudent and humble, as he was generous to the poor”. No wonder then that, with all canonical processes having at last being fulfilled, in our own times and by a particular counsel of Divine Providence, the man himself was elevated to the honours of the altar.

For in an Apostolic letter published under the ring of the fisherman on the 13th of May 1923, we bestowed upon Robert Bellarmine the title of Blessed. Then, when we were celebrating the fortieth year of our priesthood, together with the Blessed martyrs of the Society of Jesus who were put to death for the faith in the regions of North America, and Blessed Theophilus of Corte, of the Order of [Friar] Minors, in the sacrosanct patriarchal Vatican basilica last year, on the sacred solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul the Apostles, we inscribed the same Blessed Robert into the catalogue of Saints.

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St Robert’s Career

That was right and fitting, since the Saint himself was the most brilliant glory of the Catholic episcopate, of the College of Cardinals, of the famous Society of Jesus which produced for the Church so great a man and most diligently cultivated its student. For upon entering the same fertile Society, Saint Robert was so adorned with the peculiar virtues of a true comrade of Jesus, that he seemed altogether to be the ornament and glory of his companions, and the stimulus and model for them too.

In the same order he ascended and held nearly all the ranks; he was a student in the Politian College, then in the Society a novice, a scholasticus, religious, master, sacred preacher, professor, spiritual director, rector, provincial: in discharging all these duties he is perpetually to be cited as a model; in the same manner did he carry out the offices of the church entrusted to him, so much so that in all of them he proved himself to be outstanding: as a man devoted to studies, as a writer, as a theologian and consultant for the Roman Congregations, as one appointed to the pontifical legations, as a bishop, and finally as a Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church, he showed himself to be endowed with integrity and force of heart and mind, with sanctity of morals, with the highest consciousness of his duty.

Our predecessor Clement VIII who desired to make him, though “unwilling and reluctant to no avail”, a Cardinal of the Roman Church, praised him greatly; since at that time “with respect to learning, the Church of God had no equal” [to St Robert]. But the rich fruits of this singular learning Saint Robert gave back throughout his life even unto old age. When he was still a youth he wrote The Elements of the Hebrew Language and he also composed in a very learned manner a book On Ecclesiastical Writers, although this was published somewhat later. Afterwards and throughout his whole life he worked painstakingly on the Sacred Scriptures so that, in preparing an edition of the Septuagint and an edition of the Vulgate, having been called upon by the popes for that purpose, he achieved a success [marked by] greater refinement and carefulness.

He pursued all the departments of sacred teaching with the utmost constancy even up to his death. Even in the exchange of letters with acquaintances – letters which were sent throughout almost the whole world and of which a great number are extant today – he exerted himself in these departments of teaching most fruitfully. And it was with great zeal that he lent his aid to the Apostolic Congregations, and in the handling of the gravest matters, even of the Eastern Church, he exhibited shining testimonies of his learning and prudence. That is also confirmed abundantly by the same documents most of which still lie hidden and unpublished in the archives of the Congregations. The same vota – as they are called – “pertain to questions of faith, of the sacred rites, of the understanding of the Scriptures and of other controversies of that kind”, in which Saint Robert was continually engaged.

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The Controversies as his most noble work

His Disputations on Controversies of the Christian Faith against heretics constitute “clearly the most noble” and arduous work. Saint Robert, at the command of the Superior General of the Society of Jesus, first published them from 1586 to 1593, first in three, then in four, tomes. Indeed, after a long course of study and teaching, Saint Bellarmine had in a certain way already prepared them when earlier at Louvain in the College of the Society of Jesus he had delivered for six years from the year 1570 onward lectures on the Summa of St Thomas to a large audience of students of the university. After 1576 he had closely worked over them when after the establishment of a “Chair of Controversies”, he was entrusted by his superiors with the task of teaching theology and carried this out in this City in order to defend the Catholic dogmas against the errors which were then traversing over many nations in Europe.

This, the greatest of Bellarmine’s works deftly refuted the new attacks which the Magdeburgians had but recently carried out with their “Centuries” as they say, by means of which, especially by employing speciously historical arguments and the testimonies of the Fathers and the ancients, they had attempted to destroy the Roman Church.

Thus Saint Robert, being conscious of the needs of his times, resolved to keep wholeheartedly the Ignatian rule “of holding in the highest esteem sacred doctrine, both that which is commonly called ‘positive’, and that which is called ‘scholastic’”. This norm laid down by his father Ignatius, Bellarmine in fact persistently pursued, especially in disputations of controversies of the faith against all heretics: so much so that , especially in this matter of controversies, not unjustly is he to be regarded as the foremost model and to be cited as the most illustrious example of wedding together in a happy marriage, positive theology (as they call it) and scholastic [theology].

But in attaining the end that he proposed to himself, he was not lacking in suitable gifts of intelligence and genius. Already from his youth he appeared to be endowed with the keenest intellect, to be adorned with a unique intellectual liveliness toward his studies and with so great swiftness of mind and prodigious force of memory that whatever he read or heard once, all of it he both immediately apprehended and powerfully remembered. Furthermore the Saint naturally spoke and wrote his books with a ready and brilliant eloquence, eschewing the useless inclusion of subject-matter and literary embellishments fashionable in his age – and yet his refinements included familiarity with the more polished literature, and in his youth he was steeped in music, poetry and all the liberal arts [omnique humanitate] – the style he employed was lucid and plain;

“[B]eing of versatile genius, he was equally adept at the sublime scholastic speculation and at historical and philosophical inquiry which was so necessary in that age when the reformers boldly claimed that they took their chief arguments from the dominion of positive theology”.

No wonder therefore that as soon as Bellarmine’s Disputations on Controversies of the Christian Faith were read in the City [i.e. Rome], in the Gregorian University, they abundantly surpassed all expectations of them that they had aroused: that they were printed and published again and again, being desired and sought after continually by everyone; that their author was regarded by very many Catholic theologians not only in his own times, but even in our own, as the Master of Controversies. 

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Ecclesiology and the Papacy

But in addition to the same, very famous Disputations which cover in their massiveness nearly the whole of theology, they excellently recall [us] to the same defence and demonstration of the ninth and tenth article of the Creed, “one holy Church, the communion of Saints, the remission of sins”; many other works, of differing length according as the subject matter demanded, he wrote, and many labours he took upon himself for the promotion of the faith and for the guarding of the rights of the Church.

But it is an outstanding achievement of St Robert, that the rights and privileges divinely bestowed upon the Supreme Pontiff, and those also which were not yet recognised by all the children of the Church at that time, such as the infallible magisterium of the Pontiff speaking ex cathedra, he both invincibly proved and most learnedly defended against his adversaries. Moreover he appeared even up to our times as a defender of the Roman Pontiff of such authority that the Fathers of the [1870] Vatican Council employed his writings and opinions to the greatest possible extent.

Catechetical Works

Nor to be passed over in silence are his sacred sermons and catechetical works, especially the famous Catechism, “which has been approved by its use throughout the ages and by the judgement of very many of the Church’s bishops and doctors”. Indeed, in this Catechism, composed at the command of Clement VIII, the illustrious holy theologian expounded for the use of the Christian people and especially of children, the Catholic truth in a plain style, so brilliantly, exactly and orderly that for nearly three centuries in many regions of Europe and the world, it most fruitfully provided the fodder of Christian doctrine to the faithful. In his book expounding the Psalms he conjoined knowledge with piety.

Ascetical Writings

Lastly, by his ascetical writings famous everywhere, it is agreed that St Robert became the safest guide for very many people to the peak of Christian perfection. For whether it be in his Admonition to Bishop Theanensis, his nephew where he taught what pertains to the apostolic and ecclesiastical life, or his Domestic Exhortations where he inflamed his companions to all virtues, or his Good Government where he conveyed precepts to Christian princes and explained what are their duties, or whether it be in his exciting of the piety and devotion of the Christian faithful by those short but rich works based on the Sacred Scriptures, the teachings of the holy theologian Fathers and on the annals of the Church and the acts of the Saints, we see that St Robert carried out his ascetical teaching efficaciously and with expert zeal.

The illustrious monuments, therefore, that he left of his genius, readily show that there was almost no branch of the ecclesiastical disciplines in which the Saint did not fruitfully engage.

A Guiding Light

As a lamp placed on a candlestick to give light to all that are in the house, he illuminated by word and deed Catholics and those straying from the unity of the Church; as a star in the firmament of the sky he laid bare the truth which he promoted above all else to all men of good will “by the magnificent rays of his knowledge, rays as wide as they were high, by the splendour of his outstanding and brilliant genius”; the first apologist not only of his own age but of subsequent ages as well, by the strenuous defence of the Catholic dogmas that he took upon himself he commended himself to the memory and admiration of all those who follow the Church of Christ with genuine love.

Accordingly Bellarmine even up to this age has enjoyed with the most famous men of the Church, and especially writers, as many as have flourished, so great authority that already he has been regarded and reverently invoked by them as a doctor of the Church. On this matter let it here suffice for Us to mention the saints who on account of their eminent learning conjoined with heroic sanctity have already been declared doctors of the Universal Church; we speak especially of Saint Peter Canisius, of Saint Francis de Sales, of Saint Alphonsus Maria de Liguori. But there have been other saints, blesseds, venerables, Servants of God as well, whose high opinion of Bellarmine’s learning and knowledge is attested by unambiguous evidence.

No wonder then that many ardently desire truly to hail St Robert as a Doctor of the Church. That is a desire and wish fostered not only by those who share common principles of living with him in the Society of Jesus which has continually and everywhere served well the cause of promoting and defending the Catholic Faith, but also by the most illustrious men from all the ranks of the Church’s hierarchy. For the Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church and nearly all the Archbishops and bishops of the whole world, as well as the superiors of the religious communities, the officers of the Catholic universities, and lastly very many other illustrious men support such desires.

The Process of Elevation

Wherefore we have deemed it opportune to commit the matter of so great importance as a wish and earnest desire to the Sacred Roman Congregation for the protection of Rites. This Congregation by our Special Mandate delegated the most eminent and reverend men to examine the matter: Alexius Henricus Lépicier, titular Cardinal of St Susanna of the Holy Roman Church, Francis Ehrle, Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church, deacon of St Caesareus in Palatio.

So having sought and obtained the separate verdicts of these cardinals and even had them printed, the only thing that remained was to ask those in charge of the Congregation of Sacred Rites whether, all things being considered that are usually required in a Doctor of the Universal Church, they thought it was possible to proceed to the declaration of St Robert Bellarmine as a Doctor of the Universal Church. In an ordinary meeting on the fourth day of August just passed convened in the Vatican, after a due account of the matter had been given by our beloved son, the relater of the cause, Cajetan Bisleti, Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church, the Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church in charge of the Congregation of Sacred Rites declared with unanimous consent their affirmative opinion.

The Elevation Itself

Wherefore, having listened also on all these [matters] to our beloved son, Promoter General of the Holy Faith on the sixth day of August of this year, we, yielding of our own accord and gladly to the wishes of so many and so great proposers that have been laid before us, do by the tenor of these presents and in virtue of our own certain knowledge and mature deliberation establish and declare St Robert Bellarmine Bishop, Confessor, Doctor of the Universal Church; we decree therefore that the Mass and Office under the Double Minor rite, which have been assigned to the feast day of the same Saint on 13 May every year, be extended by Our authority from now on to the universal Church.

Whatever other Apostolic constitutions and ordinances may have effect to the contrary are not to impede this. We decree the present letters ever to be and to remain established, valid and in effect: and to receive and obtain fully and unimpaired their effects; and that it is thus rightly to be judged and defined that if anything with regard to these matters should happen to be attempted differently [= contrary to what we have decreed] by anyone, of whatever authority, whether knowingly or in ignorance, that would be from now on invalid and to no avail.

Given at Rome at St Peter’s, under the ring of the Fisherman, on the 17th day of September, in the year 1931, the tenth of our pontificate.

Brief Reading List for St Robert Bellarmine below:


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Theology and other treatises

Controversies of the Christian Faith. On the Holy Scriptures, Christ and the Roman Pontiff. Translated by Fr Kenneth Baker. (Sometimes available for UK readers)

On the Church (and for UK readers). 

On the Roman Pontiff (and for UK readers).

On Purgatory – The Members of the Church Suffering (and for UK readers)

On the Canonization and Veneration of the Saints (and for UK readers)

On the Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass (and for UK readers)

On the Sacraments in General (and for UK readers)

Commentary on the Book of Psalms (and for UK readers)

De Laicis – A Treatise of Civil Government (and for UK readers)

Catechetical Works

Doctrina Christiana: The Timeless Catechism of St. Robert Bellarmine (and for UK readers).

Short Catechism (Mostly pictures). included in Tradivox II – Three seventeenth-century catechisms. (UK readers)

Sermons, Part I – From Advent to Passion Sunday

Sermons, Part II – From Easter to the Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost, The Four Last Things, The Annunciation

Sermons, Part III – Twelve Sermons on the Catholic Faith; Eight Sermons on Tribulation; Twelve Sermons on Psalm 90 (91)

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Spiritual Writings (and for UK readers)

The Marian Writings (and for UK readers)

The Seven Last Words from the Cross (and for UK readers)

The Art of Dying Well (and for UK readers)

Hell and its Torments (and for UK Readers)

The Eternal Happiness of the Saints (and for UK readers)

The Ascent of the Mind to God by the Ladder of Creation (and for UK readers)

Lifes and About Bellarmine

The Autobiography of St Robert Bellarmine (and for UK readers)

Brodrick – Robert Bellarmine, Saint and Scholar (and for UK readers)

Brodrick – The Life and Work of Blessed Robert Francis, Cardinal Bellarmine, S.J. Two volumes, very rare (and for UK readers)

Hardon – Communion of Saints: St. Robert Bellarmine on the Mystical Body of Christ: Part I and Part II

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[1] Fr. James Broderick SJ, St. Robert Bellarmine, Longmans, London, 1950, Vol. I, p.188.

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