Potestas Indirecta: The Relationship between Temporal and Spiritual Authority in the Thought of St. Robert Bellarmine

Doctoral Dissertation


This dissertation addresses a trend in modern scholarship to portray the political theology of St. Robert Bellarmine as an attempt to maintain and even strengthen papal domination of political affairs. Against the contention that Bellarmine’s conception of the pope’s indirect power over temporal affairs (potestas indirecta) is merely an attempt to retain the medieval papacy’s direct control under new, more palatable terms, this dissertation argues that Bellarmine was fully committed to the natural autonomy of the political order and did not intend his theory of indirect power to be invoked apart from quite exceptional circumstances, which he did not judge to exist at the time of his writing. Bellarmine’s interest in writing on the indirect power was, accordingly, to defend the truth of the doctrine but not to see it enacted.

The dissertation is divided into five chapters. After one chapter introducing Bellarmine and his modern interpreters, chapters 2 and 3 make use of Bellarmine’s Controversies to establish his teaching regarding the temporal power of political rulers and the spiritual power of ecclesiastical rulers, respectively. Chapter 4 then examines how that teaching was brought to bear in print controversies with the theologians of Venice (most notably Paolo Sarpi), King James I of England, and William Barclay. Chapter 5 draws upon Bellarmine’s De officio principis christiani; Admonitio ad episcopum Theanensem; and De officio primario summi pontificis, together with assorted shorter works, to demonstrate the consistency of Bellarmine’s thought through time and his emphasis upon spiritual, rather than political, concerns.


Attribute NameValues
Author Aaron D. Sanders
Contributor Joseph Wawrykow, Committee Member
Contributor Randall Zachman, Research Director
Contributor Brad Gregory, Committee Member
Degree Level Doctoral Dissertation
Degree Discipline Theology
Degree Name PhD
Defense Date
  • 2017-04-03

Submission Date 2017-04-11
Record Visibility Public
Content License
  • All rights reserved

Departments and Units


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