St. Robert Bellarmine, Galileo, and the Glory of God

Today, September 17th, the Church celebrates the memorial of Cardinal Robert Bellarmine. St. Robert was born into a noble Italian family during the crisis filled 16th century – a time of great artistic and scientific achievements and a time of heart breaking dissension within the Catholic Church.

In 1560, St. Robert entered the Society of Jesus, became a teacher, and was ordained ten years later. St. Robert’s Jesuit superiors sent him to the Catholic University in Louvain and there he developed a reputation for scholarship, disputation, and eloquence. When he returned to Rome in 1576, he became a professor of theology and began the systematic dismantling of the Protestant positions on faith and spirituality.

His book Disputations on the Controversies of the Christian Faith criticizing and refuting the Protestant errors was so effective, and caused such a stir throughout Europe, that special faculty positions were established in Protestant colleges in an attempt to refute Bellarmine’s positions.

So why is Saint Robert Bellarmine important for us today?

First, his witness as a scholar and cardinal expresses that the Church must always remain vigilant in its mission to promote the truth and protect its Apostolic and Sacred Tradition. Second, Robert Bellarmine as a Jesuit was loyal to its motto, which is “All for the greater glory of God.” In that motto, you have the structure of a Jesuit’s life, of Saint Bellarmine’s life, for through it he was able to weigh issues in the balance of whether or not they promoted the truth of God’s glory. Allow me to provide a very brief example.

Bellarmine was involved in the early stages of the astronomer Galileo’s difficulties with the Church. In 1615, Cardinal Bellarmine was interested in, and open to, various types of scientific research. He recognized that indeed, the Church’s own astronomers had validated many of Galileo’s scientific observations, and he was certainly knowledgeable of the fact that Cardinal Barberini (the future Pope Urban the 8th) had spoken with Galileo and gave Galileo his personal support.

So what was the problem?

Cardinal Bellarmine said in an open statement that, because Galileo’s scientific theories were not sufficiently supported with solid evidence, then Galileo should follow the position of the Church and call his theories a hypothesis and not scientific fact; and very importantly, he went on to say that, if Galileo’s theories were solidly proven to be true, then care must be taken to interpret Holy Scripture only in accordance with these new scientific truths.

Galileo rebelled against this common sense position. He demanded that his theories be acknowledged as scientific truth and publicly said so. The Holy Office, St. Bellarmine, and the other cardinals had no other choice than to censure him.

They did so not because they completely disagreed with his scientific theories, rather, the censure occurred because Galileo was promoting his ideas as scientific truth when, in reality, he did not have conclusive proof to do so. It should be remembered that St. Bellarmine, in dealing with Galileo, did so “in a sympathetic and not in a heavy handed way.” Bellarmine saw his duty to reason and ethics, and, the decision’s impact on a continent in social and religious turmoil.

Cardinal Bellarmine died in 1621. He was canonized in 1930 and made a Doctor of the Church  a year later.

Galileo had some virtues, however, prudence does not appear to be one of them. As the years went on he continued to do his research; but ultimately got himself into trouble again when he published a book which made his friend, Pope Urban 8th, look like a simpleton.

As a result of this insult, in 1632, he was called to Rome to stand trial for a second time. At that trial the ideas in his new book were examined, and sadly, the case was mishandled on both sides. It was unfortunate that Cardinal Bellarmine was not there to add his reason and judgement. Galileo died ten years later while under house arrest. Many of those years were spent in continued research and writing on various scientific topics.

Cardinal Bellarmine desired to see God glorified, and understood that science, music, art, and architecture were just a few of the ways to do it. He said in one of his essays: “May you consider truly good whatever leads to your goal of the glory of God and your eternal salvation with Him. May you consider truly evil whatever makes you fall away from it.”

Copyright © 2012 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

8 thoughts on “St. Robert Bellarmine, Galileo, and the Glory of God

  1. I love to learn about the saints and their lives. I am astonishingly ignorant of most of them, despite being a cradle Catholic. Embarassing. Thank you for teaching me with your posts. And now I know who St. Robert Bellarmine is.

  2. Thank you for adding to my knowledge about St. Bellarmine. It wasn’t long ago that I found out that the real objection the Church had with Galileo was that he claimed his work as scientific fact when it had not been proven yet. So in essence the Church didn’t object to his theory. I’m adding Bellarmine’s book to my list of must reads. Thanks for sharing. God Bless.

  3. Correct me if I am wrong, but I believe that Galileo said that the universe was heliocentric. So, on top of everything, he was wrong in his theory, too!

    Whenever I hear folks spout off about the whole affair, I ask them if they agree with Galileo. They usually say they do until I point out the actually things he said. It doesn’t matter, of course. It is yet another rock to throw at the Church.

    Love the blog. I am an expat Rhode Islander, and love to hear from the homeland!

  4. As of 2015 it can still not be proved that the Earth is not the centre of the universe. In fact it is decidedly simpler and most accurate in space mechanics and the global positioning system (GPS) to use Earth Central Inertial (ECI) reference system, which is essentially the geocentric system that sacred scripture propounds.

    • I think that it would be a wonderful blessing upon humanity and our beautiful sphere called Earth to eventually learn that our Lord placed us at the center of His Universe; but in the end, I am just so very humbled and grateful that He loves us so much that He desired to send His only Son to teach, love, and most importantly, Redeem us in order to reunite us with His Father’s family.
      Thanks for reading and commenting on the article. Best wishes, Deacon Paul Iacono

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