The sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries were tough times to be managing the Catholic Church. Much of the apparatus was in the hands of greedy, self-serving, stubborn aristocrats. The rest of the upper echelon was controlled by dogmatic scholars who felt besieged by the Protestant Reformation and the Scientific Revolution. Pope Paul V seems to fall into the latter category, but he had Robert around to smooth out the rough spots and round the sharp corners.
Eventually granted the title Doctor of the Church, Robert was knowledgeable and influential in all the big theological disputes of the time. He took point in defending the Church against the anti-clerical movement in Venice. He argued that God invests sovereignty in the People, who delegate authority to kings -- a notion that challenged the divine right of kings, upsetting the King of France. The King of England was upset too, but that was James I, so who cares? Robert, Cardinal Bellarmine spilled a lot of ink attacking the many ideas of James I.
|Photo by Anthony Majanlahti, 11/11/2005|
In fact, he was attacking heresies all over the place, but at the same time, he was the Examiner of Bishops and Consultor of the Universal Inquisition, a spot that gave him the influence to defend Galileo's inquiries. He was an advocate for Galileo as long as the question was an open one for the Church, and seems to have cautioned the great scientist to tread lightly. Then again, he also delivered the order summoning Galileo to appear before the Inquisition, which found him "vehemently suspect of heresy" and ordered him to recant.
Bellarmine's own lifestyle was austere. At one point, he ordered the tapestries in his Vatican apartments taken down to clothe the poor. He defended the decision, saying that "the walls will not catch cold."
Often those who compromise are criticized for not being stalwart in the face of ignorance, injustice, and evil, but dogmatism leads to entrenchment, mistrust, and ultimately warfare. Compromise gives us time for dialogue. It is easy to be absolute about the Enlightenment in retrospect, at least until you trace it through to the murderous intolerance of the French Revolution. For my part, I'd vote for a Bellarmine, or hire one, or even take communion from one, any damn day of the week.