Tag: St. Robert Bellarmine

The Art of Dying Well

Is it time for our annual visit with St. Robert Bellarmine already? Yes it is, and this time I’d like to talk about a short book of his called The Art of Dying Well.

Now, St. Robert is best known for his apologetical work, like De Laicis and De Romano Pontifice, and I’ve also covered his catechism, which serves a similar purpose for those already in the Church. He wrote The Art of Dying Well, though, near the end of his life, when he’d largely retired from public work, and it’s a much more immediately practical book than the others. In other words, where his other works are primarily concerned with what the reader should know, here he’s concerned with what the reader should do. It is, though, still noticeably his style, as he does explain why a man should do this or that, and every page is filled with quotations from Scripture and the saints.

He begins with the general precept “that he who lives well, will die well,” and continues:

[F]or since death is nothing more than the end of life, it is certain that all who live well to the end, die well; nor can he die ill, who hath never lived ill; as, on the other hand, he who hath never led a good life, cannot die a good death. The same thing is observable in many similar cases: for all that walk along the right path, are sure to arrive at the place of their destination; whilst, on the contrary, they who wander from it, will never arrive at their journey’s end.

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The Baltimore Catechism

Last year I wrote about Doctrina Christiana, St. Robert Bellarmine’s catechism for adults. Though excellent, it’s also rather short. Not that a catechism should go into great detail on every point, since it’s intended as a brief introduction to Christian doctrine, primarily stating what the Church’s main doctrines are and not a full explanation, but one can easily think of enough additional questions after reading it that many readers would benefit from something longer. Of course, one could look to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, but this is long enough to be intimidating and, in some cases, doctrines aren’t spelled out as clearly as in Bellarmine’s catechism. I’d still highly recommend keeping a copy of the CCC on hand, but the ideal would be a catechism somewhere in between.

Fortunately, we do have such a book in the Baltimore Catechism. This was written by a committee of bishops following the third Plenary Council of Baltimore, and from its publication in 1885 it quickly became the standard textbook for religious education classes in the United States up until the late 1960s, when it was replaced by, well, nothing at all, really. Just youth ministers trying with little success to hold children’s attention while having no expectations whatever of their maturity or intelligence, thus encouraging the students to live down to those expectations.

In any case, though people often refer to “the” Baltimore Catechism, there are actually a few different versions of it, generally referred to by numbers. No. 1 is intended for children preparing for First Communion, No. 2 for older children preparing for Confirmation, and No. 3 for high schools. Later, in 1921, came An Explanation of the Baltimore Catechism, often referred to as No. 4, written by Fr. Thomas Kinkead. This contains the text of Baltimore No. 3, but adds further explanations to many of the questions and is intended for teachers, so that they can expand on Baltimore’s straightforward but minimalist questions and answers, and answer additional questions that students may have. The language is still simple and the explanations and examples clearly assume a young audience, but for those wanting an introduction to what the Church teaches, with brief explanations of why, Fr. Kinkead’s book is the best that I’m aware of.…

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Doctrina Christiana

I don’t read as much theology as I perhaps should, but every Catholic should have some familiarity with the Church’s teachings, and work constantly to deepen our understanding of the Faith. I was fortunate to be better catechised than most in high school, but revisiting the basics once in a while doesn’t hurt, so I decided to pick up Doctrina Christiana, a catechism written by St. Robert Bellarmine, whose work is becoming a staple of my reading habits after the excellent De Laicis and the extraordinarily in-depth De Romano Pontifice.

Of course, Doctrina Christiana isn’t nearly as detailed as those two other works. Though this is intended for adults, as opposed to a shorter catechism he wrote for children, it’s still intended for those new to the Faith and so covers the basic doctrines, giving a brief explanation of what they are why they’re believed. So, among other things, he covers what doctrine is, the articles of the Apostles’ Creed, the meaning of the Our Father and Hail Mary, virtues, the capital sins, and the Ten Commandments. It’s set in the form of a dialogue between a student and teacher, though perhaps calling it a “dialogue” is a little misleading since that makes one expect something like Plato’s dialogues, when in practice it differs little from the question-and-answer format of, say, the Baltimore Catechism. That may be unavoidable, since it must remain as straightforward as possible, but it is a little less dry than Baltimore.…

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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.…

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De Laicis (75 Books – XLI)

The best Catholic writers tend to be the ones who divide the world into Catholics, schismatics, heretics, Jews, and pagans, with no “separated brethren” nonsense. St. Robert Bellarmine takes just this approach in De Laicis, in which he discusses the nature and scope of political power and its relationship to the Church. His answers tend to be orthodox by the standard of the time and the book isn’t very long, but it’s an excellent and uncompromising primer to a traditional Catholic understanding of the state.

Now, most of the book was written in answer to objections to Christians holding political power raised by various Protestant groups at the time, but much of it reads like a response to the modern Christian Libertarian crowd. For example, some Anabaptists apparently believed that while kings were given to the Jews, Christians should not have secular rulers. Bellarmine responds, in part:

But the contrary is true, for in the beginning the Prophets predicted that all the kings of the earth would serve Christ and the Church, which could not come to pass unless there were kings in the Church. “And now, O ye kings, understand; receive instruction, you that judge the earth; embrace discipline,” according to the Hebrew Naschechubar, “embrace ye the Son”, whom in the same Psalm the Scriptures call the Messias… And, “Kings shall be Thy nursing fathers and queens Thy nurses: they shall worship Thee with their faces towards the earth and they shall kick up the dust of Thy feet.” We have certainly seen this fulfilled in the cases of Constantine, Theodosius, Charlemagne, and others who venerated the tombs of the Apostles and Martyrs, and endowed and protected churches.

Many of the arguments draw from Scripture or the Church Fathers, as one would expect of a book primarily addressing a conflict between Christians. While writing about Dante’s Monarchia, I mentioned that many of the poet’s arguments draw as much from Aristotle or simple reason as Scripture. Bellarmine, however, caters his argument entirely towards fellow Christians, and uses Scripture and the Church Fathers as his primary authorities. Non-Christian readers may still agree with some of his conclusions, but not how he arrives at them. For example, he addresses an early version of the “social contract” theory, which drew from Cicero and stated that at one time men “wandered about in the manner of beasts,” but were later persuaded to live together in society. Bellarmine then says, “But that state of affairs never existed, nor could it have existed at any time. For Adam was a very wise man, and without doubt did not allow men to wander about like beasts, and Cain, his son, even built a material city; before Cain and Adam, man did not exist.” Non-Christian Rightists would certainly agree that this proto-social contract theory is nonsense, but certainly not for this reason!

A few of Bellarmine’s positions are not as reactionary as one might expect. While discussing sovereignty, for example, he states, “Divine law gives this power to no particular man, therefore Divine law gives this power to the collected body. Furthermore, in the absence of positive law, there is no good reason why, in a multitude of equals, one rather than another should dominate.” So, while he certainly does not object to monarchy, he does not consider it inherently better than an aristocracy or republic. Sir Robert Filmer would directly address some of Bellarmine’s arguments in his work (and John Locke, in turn, would respond directly to Filmer), though it may be worth pointing out that Bellarmine here follows Aristotle, who supported a mixed form of government, more closely than some of the philosopher’s Medieval, monarchist students, like St. Thomas Aquinas and Dante, who did argue that monarchy is best in tune with natural law.

Not that Bellarmine is, by any means, a soft-hearted man. After introducing the idea that a nation ought to allow freedom of belief, he writes:

But this error is most harmful, and without doubt Christian rulers are in duty bound not to allow freedom of belief to their subjects, but to afford opportunity that that faith may be preserved which the Catholic Church, and especially the supreme Pontiff, says should be held. It is proved first from Scripture, “the king, that sitteth on the throne of judgment, scattereth away all evil with his look.” And likewise, “A wise king scattereth the wicked.” Indeed, it cannot be denied that heretics are impious. And the same is said, “And now, O ye kings, understand, receive instruction, you that judge the earth. Serve ye the Lord with fear.”

He spends more time on this question than any other, understandably so since this was such a major issue at the time. What he believes should be done in a state that already has a large number of heretics, though, he doesn’t say. Interestingly, he doesn’t object to tolerating Jews, because their scriptures contain the prophecies that the New Testament fulfills, because they’re clearly not Christians (as opposed to heretics, who are wolves in sheeps’ clothing), and because they do not proseletyze anyway.

In any case, while one may disagree with some of Bellarmine’s conclusions (for example, in today’s world it seems wise to work with Protestants where possible), De Laicis makes for good reading if only as a reminder of a time when the Church’s bishops appeared absolutely confident in what the Church teaches, and were unafraid of speaking boldly against error.…

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