Thou Art Peter

Father Kenneth Baker, S.J., the long-time editor of the Homiletic & Pastoral Review, has recently translated from Latin St. Robert Bellarmine, S.J.’s Controversies of the Christian Faith. The book is only 1087 pages long! Such a lengthy book, written between 1576 and 1592 at the Roman College, might seem rather out of date. But on this 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we might well look at how Bellarmine dealt with controversies about Scripture and Christology that Luther and Calvin inaugurated. Likewise, when the third part of this tome is devoted to “Controversies on the Sovereign Pontiff,” one pays attention.

Bellarmine treated the papacy in five sections (note #3!): 1) “On the Primacy of Peter in the Church Militant”; 2) “On the Succession of Roman Pontiffs in that Primacy”; 3) “On the Antichrist: He Has Nothing in Common with the Roman Pontiff”; 4) “On the Power of the Roman Pontiff in Spiritual Matters”, and 5) “On the Temporal Dominion and Power of the Same Pontiff.” Recall at this time, the Roman Pontiff was also the temporal ruler of territories in central Italy.

Each of these sections is over a hundred pages and subdivided into chapters. Bellarmine’s erudition was remarkable. He cites classical Greek, Roman, Catholic, and Protestant authors. He refers, chapter and verse, to many sources that Schall, not unsurprisingly, never heard of – to wit, “Theodore Bibliander,” “Pope Agatho in a letter to the Emperor Constantinus IV,” “Theophylact,” “Rabbi Akibam,” “Valutablus,” and “Laurentius Surius in his history of the year 1527.” Actually, I would not mind reading that last book.

Bellarmine began his discussion of the nature of the Office of Peter by reviewing the classical considerations of the Greeks and Romans about the best regime: “Simple monarchy is preferred to simple aristocracy and democracy.” Next, “monarchy mixed with aristocracy and democracy is more beneficial in this life than simple monarchy.” It is not surprising that the American Founders knew something of Bellarmine.

However, the “government of the Church is not democratic.” The purpose of the Church, and hence its structure, is not designed to deal with temporal affairs. It respects them, but that is not its purpose. The government of the Church “is not principally in the hands of the bishops or secular princes. Neither is it democratic.” So it was said “by Christ to Peter alone in John 21: Feed my sheep.” Bellarmine took on all issues.

Bust of Bellarmine by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1622 [Church of the Gesù, Rome]
Bust of Bellarmine by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1622 [Church of the Gesù, Rome]

In the second book of this discussion of the Roman Pontiff, Bellarmine affirms that “Peter was in Rome.” He died there, was its first bishop. Obviously, he then has to “refute” the arguments of the “heretics.” Baker points out that Bellarmine himself never used the word “Protestant.” They were “heretics” or “adversaries,” honors, we presume, that the “adversaries” redirected at him.

Bellarmine went on to “refute” no less than seventeen separate arguments against his position. We catch some of the flavor in this passage:

Now we will answer the objection of Velenus, which also contains the argument of Calvin and Illyricus. Their first argument is this: The authors who say that Peter came to Rome do not agree among themselves about the time when he came; for Orosius says that he came in the beginning of the reign of Claudius (41 A. D.); Jerome says it was the second year of Claudius; a packet of letters of the times say it was in the 4th year of the same Claudius, and an account of the lives of the saints put it in the 13th year of Claudius.”

To such objections, Bellarmine dryly answers: “Disagreement about the time when Peter arrived in Rome does not weaken our position that Peter came to Rome.”

Bellarmine left no objection unanswered.

In Chapter 30 of Book II of this section, Bellarmine even inquires: “Whether a heretical pope can be deposed?” This issue seems to be an ancient and recurrent one. Pope Honorius I (d. 638 A. D.) was accused of heresy. Bellarmine found five “opinions” on this sticky matter. He cites many authors on the subject – John of Turrecremata, dist. 40 can. Si papa, Cajetan, Cyprian, Athanasius, Aquinas, Optatus, “Pope Celestine I in his letter to John of Antioch,” John Driedonus, and Melchior Cano.

Bellarmine agreed with the fifth opinion: “That a manifestly heretical Pope per se ceases to be Pope and Head, just as per se he ceases to be a Christian and member of the body of the Church.” Bellarmine did not hesitate, when called for, to make a judgment.

And in case anyone is worried about the quaint Antichrist accusation, Bellarmine stated: “I respond in many ways so that it may be understood how impudently Calvin wrote that those err willingly who do not conclude from his arguments that the Roman Pontiff is the Antichrist.” Evidently, Bellarmine, stating his case, “erred willingly,” by calling the good Calvin “impudent.”

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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