St. Robert Francis Romulus Bellarmine, S.J.
Early in the 17th century, Saint Robert Bellarmine, S.J. found himself at the center of an international controversy over clerical exemption. Several years earlier, in 1599, he was pressured into justifying exemption on more solid natural law grounds rather than treating it as mere human invention. Clerical exemption was a central issue in the Venetian Interdetto controversy of 1605-07, when Pope Paul V excommunicated Venice for violating ecclesiastical prerogatives. Bellarmine was caught in the middle. On one side were theologians ,like Paolo Sarpi, who argued that clerical exemption was of human origin and, therefore, clergy were subject to secular law. On the other side were papalists, who defended the divine origin of clerical privilege, like the Spanish jurist, Francisco Pena. Though he disapproved of the Interdetto, Bellarmine was drawn into the debate on the side of Rome, primarily to defend himself: first, against critics like Sarpi, who used his own theories to limit papal temporal power; and, second, against Pena, who blamed him for providing theoretical ammunition to the Venetians. This, argues Tutino, was a challenge for Bellarmine, whose insistence on the separate jurisdictions of temporal and spiritual authority, left unclear under what conditions a pope’s intervention into earthly affairs, on behalf of souls, might be justified.
The Venetian Interdetto was only one of several international crises that marked Bellarmine’s career. The second was the growing threat of royal absolutism to the spiritual jurisdiction of the Church. Bellarmine decided to refute the absolutist claims, contained in: The True Law of Free Monarchies (1603) by King James I. Tutino argues that Bellarmine saw this text as a new political and theological challenge to the Church—and to his own political theology. James’s Protestant-sounding arguments were aimed at strengthening the crown at the expense of the Church, and constituted a new kind of heresy, one that went beyond the claims of his Tudor predecessors. The Stuart monarch was not merely a threat to the Catholics of England. His vision, of absolute temporal sovereignty over the spiritual authority of the Church, could spread across the continent. Indeed, the king directed his ambassadors to distribute copies of his book to receptive state officials in Catholic, as well as Protestant, capitals. The danger posed by James was not limited to his book, however. The controversy over the “Oath of Allegiance,” offered Bellarmine a new opportunity to defend papal spiritual supremacy. Imposed in January 1606, after the Gunpowder Plot was foiled, the Oath required English Catholics to deny the pope’s power to excommunicate and depose the king, asserting the latter’s primacy over spiritual affairs. James was not the only one from across the English Channel to defy Bellarmine. Scotsman, William Barclay, was the leading “divine right” theorist of his day, according to John Locke, and a professed Catholic, who taught civil law in France until his death in 1608. Barclay’s De potestate Papae was published in England the following year. Widely praised at the Sorbonne and elsewhere, his book explicitly challenged Bellarmine’s theory of potestas indirecta by denying the incommensurability of the temporal and spiritual jurisdiction, thereby elevating the sovereign to the same level as the pope. Bellarmine once again had to defend potestas indirecta, while fending off papalist critics like Pena, who believed his theory of papal primacy too modest to be effective against the enemies of Rome. Bellarmine’s refutation of Barclay is published in Tutino’s On Temporal and Spiritual Authority.
Link (here) to read the full article at Homiletic and Pastoral Review by John M. Vella