Notes on Bellarmine’s De Romano Pontifice

I’ve noticed that native English-speakers often assume that anything worth reading has either been written in English or, at least, has been translated into English. However, the more one branches out intellectually the more one finds that this is by no means the case. Take, for example, St. Robert Bellarmine’s De Controversiis, which is available only in parts in English. Fortunately, translator Ryan Grant over at Mediatrix Press has been working on a project to translate as much of Bellarmine’s work as possible, beginning with the first part of De Controversiis, called De Romano Pontifice (or On the Roman Pontiff). I’ve just finished the first two books, which Mediatrix Press collects into one volume; the remaining three books will be out in another volume later this year.

I reviewed another part of De Controversiis last year, De Laicis, and it was one of the five best books I read in 2015 and one of the most useful works on politics I’ve ever read. De Romano Pontifice has fully lived up to the expectations set by that work; if someone wants to know how a Christian approaches government, De Laicis is an excellent starting-point, and if one wants to read a defense of the papacy, De Romano Pontifice is, so far, looking like an indispensable resource.

Now, whether it’s the best starting point is another question. Bellarmine is extremely thorough, and in the first two books has spent a few hundred pages addressing basic questions like whether the Church ought to be governed as a monarchy, whether St. Peter was truly given authority over the other Apostles, whether he went to Rome, whether his authority is passed down to his successors, and so on. He also makes sure to answer every objection he’s aware of from the Eastern Orthodox and early Protestant churches to the papacy, typically quoting directly from the authors he’s answering. Generally, Bellarmine begins each section of the book with a question, which he answers, then lists objections, then goes through them one-by-one, primarily relying on Scripture and the Fathers of the Church, but also getting into the meanings of Greek or Hebrew terms, history, and simple logic.

Much of the book feels like an appeal to authority, because he does rely a lot on the Fathers, but he takes care to cite only those whose authority his opponents recognise. While discussing Matthew 16, for example, he says that he will cite only some of the Fathers and theologians who’ve addressed the topic and will leave out “the ancient pontiffs, Clement, Anacletus, Marcellus, Pius, Julius and others[…] both for the sake of brevity, and because our adversaries do not receive them.” One gets the feeling that Bellarmine would’ve been a valuable asset to a debate club’s research team, since he is very careful with his sources. In fact, though his style is generally simple and a bit dry, in Book I Chapter 16 he addresses a Scriptural citation put forward by the Smalkaldic Synod of the Lutherans, which seems to be a corruption of a line from Galatians 2, and says “it is certain it is not found anywhere in Paul. Yet no doubt that is the familiarity which our adversaries have with God, that they boldly add to his word, nor fear the wound which God threatens those who add to his word.” There are a handful of similar jabs at opponents, but not many. The vast majority of the book has the tone of a formal debate and focuses on the ideas  under discussion, not the people arguing the ideas.

Now, as for the work as a whole, it’s difficult to summarise since it doesn’t simply address and expound on one topic, but is more of a series of many arguments. Moderately well catechised Catholics will already be familiar with the most fundamental points, as will many Protestants. I’d highly recommend this to almost anyone looking for as thorough a defense of the papacy as one can find, with a couple caveats. One is that non-Christians will find little of immediate interest beyond the first few chapters, which deal with monarchism as it applies to religious authority; Bellarmine assumes that his audience is composed of people who believe the Bible is divinely inspired and respect the opinions of the Church Fathers.

The second caveat, not a deal-breaker by any means, is with this specific edition. The translation is perfectly fine as far as I can tell; I can’t address its accuracy, but it feels like natural English and is generally easy to follow. However, the e-book has a few formatting problems. A few chapters’ opening paragraphs are centred instead of justified, which is a small thing. The bigger problem, though, is that it garbles Greek text. Bellarmine quotes Scripture directly from Greek a few times, and though he explains the citation afterward and Grant does provide direct translations in footnotes, instead of Greek letters we just see a mess of Roman letters and punctuation marks. This is something that an editor could have easily spotted just by skimming through. The Kindle should be able to render Greek, but if not, this should have just been transliterated for the digital edition. The handful of Hebrew citations don’t render correctly, either.

Finally, setting aside generalities about the book and edition, there are a few points that Bellarmine brings up that seem to me worthy of some comment. In De Laicis, he focuses his discussion on government in general, and doesn’t address the various forms of government except to say that it’s not strictly a doctrinal matter and all are legitimate. Here, though, he goes into some more detail. He follows Aristotle’s division of government into three basic types, monarchy (rule by one), aristocracy (rule by a few), and democracy (rule by many). He also mentions the perverse forms of monarchy and aristocracy (tyranny and oligarchy), but he defines democracy as “the rule by the whole people, which does not rarely fall into sedition,” and doesn’t differentiate between the basic and corrupt forms. Authors and their translations differ in terminology, but in my experience the third form of government is usually called a “republic,” and its corrupt form as “democracy.” Bellarmine, though, apparently considers “rule by the whole people” to be corrupt  by nature. I don’t disagree, but most authors that I’m familiar with would give some credit to Athens, Rome, and the early United States and say that they weren’t always degenerate.

In fact, while De Laicis gives the impression that any of these three governments are acceptable, here Bellarmine comes across as a staunch monarchist. He includes a long passage emphasising the longevity and stability of monarchies, pointing out that Assyria’s monarchy lasted, depending on whose chronicle we believe, between 1,240 and 1,400 years, while that of the Scythians was even more long-lived. In contrast, “the most powerful republic of the Romans could scarcely count 480 years, as many years from the expulsion of the kings even to the reign of Julius Caesar. But under the monarchs in the east from Caesar even to the last Constantine, it endured for 1495 years without interruption.” He then continues:

Some, by chance, bring up the Venetian republic, which counts about a thousand and ten years. Yet that has not even attained the years of the kingdom of the Scythians, or of the Assyrians; on the contrary, not even the kingdom of the Franks: and what’s more it is not a republic, where aristocracy is mixed with rule by many, the form which Calvin praises, but an aristocracy mixed with monarchy: democracy has never existed in that city.

Bellarmine is not, however, an absolute monarchist, but favours a mixed form of government of monarchy and aristocracy. This, of course, is also how the Church is governed – the pope being the monarch, but supported by an aristocracy of the rest of the Church hierarchy, and the bishops especially.

In the course of this discussion, Bellarmine also addresses the inevitable objection to monarchy based on I Samuel 8, where the Israelites go to Samuel and demand a king. Bellarmine’s response is that there are two ways in which a man can be in charge of a state, “first, as a king and lord, who depends on no one; the second, that for a king or a primary general, someone is indeed in charge of the whole people, but who, nevertheless, is himself subject to a king.” The Israelites already had government in the second form, in that the various Judges ruled them but depended solely on God, not on his subjects. However, they wanted a king in the first manner, “who not only should command all as one, but even make generals and judges, and even should possess the whole kingdom as his own, and transmit to his sons and grandsons the inheritance.” So, when they rejected Samuel as ruler, they were in effect rejecting the one who gave Samuel his authority. This seems like a very fine distinction, especially since all kings are ultimately dependent on divine authority, but the difference is that the former rulers of Israel were essentially mere vicars appointed temporarily to an office. The later kings of Israel were kings in their own right and owned the office they possessed.

Bellarmine then adds, “Nor did that desire of having their own king so displease God that he commanded them to apply a rule by many, or to adapt to the spirit of aristocracy; rather he designated a king as the best for them, and afterwards saved and protected both their king and their kingdom for a long time, until it remained as a duty.”

Now, Bellarmine is clearly not a democrat or a demotist by any means, but he does make one comment that struck me as rather odd while discussing the role of the laity in Church governance. In brief, the laity don’t have authority in the Church, and he contrasts that with civil government, saying, “Indeed, it is not the same as civil power, which is in the people, unless it should be transferred to a prince.” I’ve always understood both civil and ecclesiastical authority to be given from God, and Bellarmine certainly thinks that in regard to ecclesiastical matters. He writes just after that line, “in the Holy Scripture, there is no place where the power of teaching, shepherding, ruling, binding and loosing is handed to the people, rather the people are always called the flock which ought to be put to pasture.”

What I’m guessing Bellarmine means is that the Church has received its authority directly from Christ, whereas civil government receives its authority only indirectly. Thus, a pagan king can be a legitimate ruler, even though he doesn’t even recognise Christ, by whose authority he reigns. Instead, kings can be elected by the aristocracy, like the Holy Roman Emperor, and even in hereditary monarchies the founder of a dynasty is often chosen by, or at least receives the acclamation of, an aristocracy. I wouldn’t call the aristocracy “the people,” though, so I’m not sure of this explanation.

I’ll end with one final point, from Book I Chapter 13, on “What Should Be Understood by the Keys in Matthew XVI.” After addressing an interpretation of John Calvin’s of this passage, Bellarmine adds, “it is a marvel, that so obvious an exposition was obvious to none of the fathers, but rather, at length, only occurred to Calvin.” This basic observation is a large reason why I’m on the Right; I don’t consider myself, nor my contemporaries, to be particularly wise or holy in comparison to our ancestors. Indeed, many of the authorities of past generations, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, for example, are clearly wiser and holier men than I or anyone I know. Some fields of human knowledge are cumulative, but others not, and if centuries of our forefathers had a consensus on something, I’m inclined to believe that they were probably correct. This isn’t always the case, obviously; the Fathers, for example, were not infallible, but it seems prudent to defer to them unless we’re presented with extraordinary evidence that they were mistaken.

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