Jesuit, archbishop of Capua, and cardinal. Born at Montepulciano (Tuscany), he became skilled in writing Latin verse, playing the violin, and speaking in debates. In 1560 he became a Jesuit, taught classics in Florence and Piedmont for several years, and was ordained priest at Ghent in 1570. He then lectured on Aquinas' Summa Theologica at Louvain, attacking the opinions of Baius on grace and freewill, and wrote a Hebrew grammar. In 1576 he was appointed professor of ‘controversial theology’ at the Roman College: his lectures were the basis of his famous Disputations on the Controversies of the Christian Faith. This work was a complete defence of Catholic teaching, which was so learned in Scripture, the Fathers, and Protestant theology that it was wrongly believed to be the work of a team of scholars. It had instant success, even in England, where it was banned by the Government. Other projects in which he was prominent included the revision of the Vulgate, the production of a catechism, which remained in frequent use for 300 years, and the recognition of Henry of Navarre as king of France.
He became Rector of the Roman College in 1592, provincial of Naples in 1594, and cardinal in 1598. This did not prevent him from continuing his former austerities such as living on bread and garlic, or from using the curtains of his apartment to clothe the poor. In 1602 he became archbishop of Capua: immediately he took a prominent share of pastoral and welfare work.
He resigned his see when he was recalled to Rome in 1605 to become Prefect of the Vatican Library and an active member of several Roman Congregations. His moderate views on the temporal power of the papacy lost him the favour of Sixtus V and may have delayed his canonization; but they were vindicated by later theologians. He was sympathetic to Galileo, but recommended caution to him and the need to distinguish hypothesis from proved truth. He also denounced the six major abuses common in the Roman curia.
In his old age Bellarmine withdrew from controversy and wrote books of devotion including the famous Ascent of the Mind to God. He died at the age of seventy-nine on 17 September. Physically very small, Bellarmine had great powers of intellect and sympathy. He used to pray daily for the Protestant theologians (including King James I), whom he opposed, but never made personal, vituperative attacks on them. He was canonized in 1930 and named a Doctor of the Church in 1931. Feast: 17 September, formerly 13 May.
Works published at Cologne (1617–21) and Rome (1942–50); Lives by J. Fuligatti (1624), D. Bartoli (1678), and X. M. Le Bachelet (1911); also by J. Broderick, Robert Bellarmine, Saint and Scholar (1961), superseding his earlier study (1928). See also E. A. Ryan, The Historical Scholarship of St Bellarmine (1936) and A. Bernier, Un cardinal humaniste (1939).