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You suggest: Learning from Luther the Right Way Part 2 – Papacy
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St. Robert Bellarmine has long been considered one of the greatest apologists in defense of the Church, and his works have been a perennial challenge to the Protestant Revolt. For all that, today very few are familiar with Bellarmine’s actual writings, due to the loss of Latinity in our own culture. This is gradually being remedied, however and I am pleased to announce the publication of St. Robert’s De Romano Pontifice, On the Roman Pontiff, volume 1.

This work has been divided into to volumes, volume 1 embracing books I and II, while volume three which is projected for the coming month will contain books III through V.

Many Traditional Catholics are familiar with this work, but only on the question of the loss of Papal office for heresy, which occupies a scant 5 pages out of the 330 pages of the book. What is more interesting is the plan and argumentation that Bellarmine uses to refute not only Protestant teaching on the Pope, but that of the Greek Orthodox as well. But first we must note something on polemics. Bellarmine wrote at a time where polemical writings were a den of snakes, and it was very easy to resort to abuse and ad hominem to win the argument, not only on the Protestant side, (which had Luther as an archetype for how to ignore arguments and respond with abuse and cursing), but also on the Catholic side. Had I not read a number of books from 16th and 17th century authors, in apologetics, 

I would scarcely believe it could be true. Bellarmine, however, stands out as someone who did not engage in this abuse. Yet he does not mince his words. He has no problem making the judgment, that this or that author has “lied” if it is clear to him from the writings of say Calvin, or the Lutheran Illyricus, that they possess the facts but argue contrary to them. In a way, Bellarmine is actually being nice when he calls certain of his opponents liars, because the other option is that they are singularly inept, which is a far worse insult to the intellectual class than being called a liar. This he reserves for one Velenus, a Moravian Lutheran who attempted to argue that Peter never went to Rome, was never a Bishop as well as other things. Bellarmine soundly shows Velenus’ poor scholarship in Book II (the second half of this volume), using many of the arguments of St. John Fisher against the same writer.

Thus, the book proceeds in its first chapter by laying the foundations philosophically. So the first question begins to argue: “What is the best form of government?” Wherein, Bellarmine argues that monarchy is the best form of government, democracy the worst. Moderns will of course take issue with that, as our age has been the anti-monarchical age, but one must appreciate two things: 1) The Church is in fact a monarchy, a Papal monarchy established by Christ Himself, and thus the Protestants, preeminently Calvin, argue that monarchy is the worst form of government, so that it would follow that Christ could not establish the worst of all governments to be the government of His Church. 2) The explication in favor of aristocracy and democracy, which everywhere pervades society, also has its origins in John Calvin and other protestant writers.

Nevertheless, Bellarmine argues strictly on the question of utility, and against the teachings of Calvin in so far as it concerns the Papacy, although there is no doubt that he held the same view in politics in general.

After establishing the basis of the Papal monarchy, and refuting the teachings of Protestants on this question, he then goes to prove that Christ established such a Papal monarchy, with an exegesis of Matthew XVI and John XXI, going back not only to the original Greek, but also the Hebrew, and proceeds to answer objections from Protestants for the remainder of the book, basing himself on the teaching of the Fathers.

In Book II, Bellarmine takes up the question on the Successors of the Peter, that they succeed Peter in the Papal monarchy of the Church. As we mentioned above, he proceeds to prove that Peter did in fact go to Rome, from archeology and the universal testimony of the Greek and Latin Fathers. Then he describes the mode of succession: “In order that this whole matter might be better understood, a few things must be observed. First, succession is one thing, while the cause of the succession is another. The succession of the Roman Pontiff into the pontificate of Peter is from the establishment of Christ: moreover, the cause of the succession whereby the Roman Pontiff, instead of the Bishop of Antioch or someone else should succeed, has its beginning in act of Peter. I say the succession itself was established by Christ, and is of divine law, because Christ himself established in Peter a pontificate that was going to endure even to the end of the world, and hence, whoever succeeds Peter, receives the pontificate of Christ.

But on the other hand, because the Bishop of Rome, since he is the Bishop of Rome, becomes the successor of Peter, he has his origin in the act of Peter, not from the first establishment of Christ. For Peter could not have ever chosen any particular seat for himself, just as he did in the first five years, and then were he to die, could the Bishop of Rome or Antioch succeed; rather, that [see] which he would have chosen for himself as a Church. He could have always remained at Antioch, and then the Bishop of Antioch without a doubt would have succeeded, but since he set up his seat at Rome, and held it even to death, thence it came to pass, that the Roman Pontiff succeeded him.” (On the Roman Pontiff, Book II, Ch. 12, pg. 209).

While rejecting the teaching of the “reformers”, Bellarmine answers questions that explain how certain things actually work, or to put it another way, someone who looks at the Papacy and says “why is it that priestly unity begins in Peter?” or “Who do we see successors?” or “How is it that the Pope is judged by none?” Interestingly, he also does not argue merely against the Protestants, but also against arguments presented by a Greek Orthodox writer, Nilus of Thessalonika, who wrote a book against the Papacy that was translated into Latin by the Protestant Illyricus. Bellarmine thus refutes arguments, common today, that the Pope only had a primacy of honor, the authority of the Council in Trullo (the Quinisext Council), etc. As a last note, before arriving at the closing chapters, is Bellarmine takes up a question of what happened at the VI Council of Carthage, a truly fascinating subject that is still used by Protestants today to denigrate the Papacy. Augustine explains the true history of what took place at this council, and how the African Bishops remained in communion with the Popes of that time, and how the issue only covered the expediency of certain elements of Papal authority, not the fact of it.

Then of course there is the loss of Papal office, which in the full context of the entire chapter reads a little differently than certain people would have it.

Still, there are those who show up as scoffers whenever books such as this are put into English. They will perhaps say: “All this is irrelevant, it is just Bellarmine’s opinion. We have Councils, and Popes, and Denzinger, that is important.” Such, however, has never been the mind of the Church, as Cardinal Franzelin shows:

“Bishops, both as individuals and in Councils to declare and define doctrine, employ the Academies and the teachers of the schools in counsel so that the common doctrine of the schools would be like a type of preparation of an authentic definition of Popes and Councils . . . Although the schools and theologians of the schools are not an organ constituted by Christ for the conservation of revealed doctrine under the assistance of the Spirit of truth, nevertheless, from the unanimous and constant opinion of those in the affairs of faith, when they teach thus it is to be believed not merely as something which is true, but by Catholic faith, we are led in recognition of Catholic understanding and of doctrine, which the very apostolic succession hands down and conserves as custodians and authentic interpreters of revelation.” (De Divina Traditione, Thesis XVII, n. 1). Furthermore, Bellarmine, with this book in particular, was just as foundational for Vatican I as St. Thomas was for the Council of Trent.

As a special offer to Rorate Caeli readers, this book is being offered on a discount: $15.00! Follow this link for details!

Moreover, if you would like to support this project, please see the Bellarmine Project page on Mediatrix Press. Thank you!