Cardinal Cajetan

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  • For the saint, see Saint Cajetan.
Martin Luther and Cardinal Cajetan, 1557.

Thomas Cardinal Cajetan (Ca'jê-tan or Caj'e-tan, also known as Gaetanus), real name Tommaso de Vio (February 20, 1469 - August 9, 1534), was an Italian cardinal and theologian who represented the revival of Scholasticism during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Cardinal Cajetan is best known for his opposition to the teachings of Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation. At the Diet of Augsburg in 1518, Cajetan was entrusted with the task of examining and testing the teachings of Martin Luther. He was also one of the nineteen Cardinals who refused King Henry VIII of England an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, causing the king to break with the Roman Catholic Church and establish the Church of England.

Cajetan was Master General of the Dominican order, a Cardinal, and the trusted adviser of Pope Clement VII. Extremely intelligent and highly educated, his primary concern was to uphold the Roman Catholic church and the status of the Pope. He defended the doctrine of papal infallibility against the Council of Pisa and at the Fifth Lateran Council. His works included commentaries on Thomas AquinasSumma Theologica and on Aristotle, and several treatises directed against Martin Luther. He sought intelligent solutions to some of the questions raised by Catholic doctrines, often startling conservatives with his independence of judgment. Recognizing that a deeper knowledge of the Scriptures was necessary in order to fight the Reformers, during the latter part of his life he produced a translation, with commentaries, of the greater part of the Old and the New Testaments.

He is not to be confused with his contemporary, Saint Cajetan, the founder of the Theatines.


De Vio was born to a noble family in Gaeta in the kingdom of Naples, Italy on February 20, 1469, as Jacopo Vio. The name Tommaso was taken as a monastic name, while the surname Cajetan derives from his native city of Gaeta. He was a devout and studious child, and at the age of fifteen he entered the Dominican order, against the will of his parents. He was educated in Naples, Bologna, and Padua, devoting himself to the study of the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas. He became a bachelor of theology on March 19, 1492, and then a master of students at the university of Padua, where he was subsequently professor of metaphysics. He studied the humanism and philosophism which was sweeping Europe at that time, and opposed the Scotism of Trombetta and the Averroism of such men as Vernias, Pomponazzi, and Niphus, composing his treatise on Aquinas’ De Ente et Essentiâ (1494).

At Ferrara in 1494, Cajetan was selected to conduct the customary defense of theses in a public dispute before the assembled dignitaries of his order, facing, among others, Pico della Mirandola. He did this so successfully that the students lifted him on their shoulders and carried him to receive the congratulations of the Master General. This episode sealed his reputation as a theologian, and he was soon made master of sacred theology. For several years he taught the Summa of Aquinas at Brescia and Pavia, where he had been invited by the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza. In 1500, Cardinal Oliviero Caraffa procured his transfer to Rome. In 1501, he was made Procurator General of his order and appointed to the chairs of philosophy and exegesis at the Sapienza. On the death of the Master General, John Clérée, in 1507, Cajetan was named vicar-general, and in 1508, he was elected Master-General of the Dominican order. He worked constantly at promoting higher studies among the Dominicans.

In 1511, Cajetan appeared in support of the pope against the claims of the Council of Pisa, composing in defense of his position the Tractatus de Comparatione auctoritatis Papeœ et conciliorum ad invicem, which was condemned by the Collège de Sorbonne and publicly burned by order of Louis XII of France. At the Fifth Lateran Council (1512-17), which Pope Julius II set up in opposition to that of Pisa, Cajetan played the leading role. During the second session of the council, he brought about a decree recognizing the infallibility of the pope and the superiority of papal authority to that of councils. Under Pope Julius II, Cajetan was also instrumental in granting to Ferdinand of Spain the first Dominican missionaries who devoted themselves to the organized conversion of the American natives.

For his services, in 1517, Pope Leo X made him cardinal presbyter of Saint Sisto in Rome, and in 1518, bishop of Palermo. Opposition from the Sicilian senate prevented him from taking office, and he resigned as bishop of Palermo in February 1518. He was then sent as Apostolic legate to Germany, bringing the insignia of the cardinalate to Albert of Brandenburg, and a sword blessed by the pope to Emperor Maximilian, with whom he was empowered to speak about the terms of an alliance to defeat the Turks.

At the Diet of Augsburg, at the request of Frederick III, Elector of Saxony, Cajetan was entrusted with the task of examining and testing the teachings of Martin Luther. Treatises written by Cajetan in 1517, before he had any knowledge of Luther's theses, show that Luther was justified in his assertion that the Church had not yet arrived at a firmly established position on the doctrine of dispensation; Cajetan also seemed to regard the doctrine of confession as a subject open to controversy. Yet, he was a shrewd politician and appeared as a representative of the Pope, in all the splendor of ecclesiastical pomp which Luther associated with Rome and despised as hateful to Germans and German Christianity. Witnesses have testified that Cajetan spoke with moderation at the examination, but neither his pleading nor conciliatory words had any effect on Luther. In 1519, Cajetan helped draw up the bill of excommunication against Luther.

In 1519, Cajetan also represented the pope at the Diet of Frankfort, and took an active part in the election of Charles V as Holy Roman Emperor. As a gesture of friendship and gratitude, Charles V granted him the position of bishop of Gaeta.

The meeting of Martin Luther (left) and De Vio (right, before the book).

Cajetan was involved in several other important negotiations and political transactions. In the conclave of 1521‑1522, in collaboration with Cardinal Giulio de'Medici, he secured the election of Adrian Boeyens, bishop of Tortosa, as Pope Adrian VI. In 1523, he was sent by Adrian VI to King Louis of Hungary, to encourage the Christians in their resistance to the Turks. Recalled to Rome the following year by Clement VII, he became one of the pope's chief advisors. During the sack of Rome by the Constable of Bourbon and by Frundsberg (1527), Cajetan suffered a short term of imprisonment, and obtained the release of himself and household only by payment of five thousand Roman crowns of gold, which he had to borrow and later repaid by enforcing strict economy in the affairs of his diocese. He retired to his bishopric, but returned to Rome in 1530 to his post as advisor to Clement VII. He was one of the nineteen cardinals who, on March 23, 1534, upheld the validity of the marriage of Henry VIII of England and Catherine of Aragon; and wrote, on behalf of the Pope, the decision rejecting Henry VIII’s appeal for divorce. Nominated by Clement VII a member of the committee of cardinals appointed to report on the "Nuremberg Recess," he recommended, in opposition to the majority, certain concessions to the Lutherans, notably the marriage of the clergy as in the Eastern Orthodox Church, and communion in both kinds according to the decision of the council of Basel.

Cardinal Cajetan died in Rome on August 9, 1534, and was buried, as he requested, in a humble tomb in the vestibule of the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva.

Thought and works

Cajetan has been described as small in stature but a giant in intellect. In contrast to the majority of Italian cardinals of his day, Cajetan was a man of austere piety and fervent zeal. In all his responsibilities and public offices, he never neglected his daily study and writing, nor the practices of religious life. Committed to the Dominican idea of the supreme necessity of maintaining ecclesiastical discipline, he defended the rights of the papacy and proclaimed that the pope should be "the mirror of God on earth."

His primary concern was to uphold the Roman Catholic church and the status of the Pope, and he used learning, tact, and charity to pacify opponents, correct errors, stem the tide of heresy, and prevent division within the church. Within the Dominican order he emphasized religious discipline and the study of theology, encouraging every member to study for at least four hours daily. "Let others rejoice in their prerogatives," he once wrote, "but the work of our Order is at an end unless sacred doctrine be our commendation."

Cajetan was part of the revival of Scholasticism which took place during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Though in his theology he was a scholastic of the older Thomist type, Cajetan desired to retain the best elements of the humanist revival in harmony with Catholic orthodoxy, illumined by a revived appreciation of the Augustinian doctrine of justification. In the field of Thomistic philosophy he showed striking independence of judgment, expressing liberal views on marriage and divorce, denying the existence of a material Hell and advocating the celebration of public prayers in the vernacular. The Sorbonne in Paris found some of these views heterodox, and in the 1570 edition of his celebrated commentary on Aquinas' Summa, the objectionable passages were expunged. In this spirit, he wrote commentaries upon portions of Aristotle, and upon the Summa of Aquinas, and towards the end of his life, made a careful translation of the Old and New Testaments, excepting Song of Solomon, the Revelation of St John.

Cajetan wrote with calm and moderation, although he was often caught up in philosophical and theological controversies. His more than one-hundred-and-fifteen works include commentaries on AquinasSumma Theologica; on the Categories, Posterior Analytics, and De anima of Aristotle; the Praedicabilia of Porphyry; and his own writings De nominum analogia, De subiecto naturalis philosophiae, De conceptu entis, De Dei infinitate, and De ente et essentia. Cajetan was conscious of the intellectual needs of the Church, and sought, with judgment and frankness, to provide tentative solutions for some of the theological problems which were still unsettled. His writings on real-life moral problems covered a wide field and sometimes surprised the more conservative; he had numerous critics who attacked him just as zealously as his supporters defended him.

Cajetan did not believe that there existed a philosophically demonstrable argument for the immortality of the soul, and that it was instead something to be believed by faith alone. He therefore objected to a proposed decree of the Fifth Lateran Council, calling upon professors of philosophy to logically justify the doctrine of the immortality of the soul in their lectures.

Opposition to the Reformation and Biblical exegesis

Cajetan remained a steadfast opponent of the Reformation, composing several works directed against Martin Luther, and taking an important role in shaping the policy of the papal delegates in Germany. Cajetan bore witness to Luther's ability when he exclaimed, "Ego nolo amplius cum hac bestia colloqui: habet enim profundos oculos et mirabiles speculationes in capite suo." ("I do not want to have any further parley with that beast; for he has sharp eyes and fantastical speculations in his head").

Learned though he was in scholastic theology, Cajetan recognized that to fight the Reformers with some chance of success he would need a deeper knowledge of the Scriptures than he possessed. In his later years, he devoted himself, with characteristic zeal, to a translation with commentaries of the greater part of the Old and the New Testaments, and allowed himself considerable latitude in departing from the literal and traditional interpretation. This work began in 1523, and continued until his death in 1534. He relied on the assistance of rabbis for translation from Hebrew, with which he was not familiar, and on current Greek versions of the Bible. In a letter of dedication to Pope Clement VII, he declared his intention to ascertain the true literal sense of the Scriptures. He did not hesitate to adopt new phraseology, as long as it did not conflict with the Sacred Word and the teachings of the Church. His method was highly criticized in his time, but is commonly used today by modern Catholic exegetics.

His Biblical commentary caused distrust and alarm because of its wide departure from the Fathers and the theological schools. He suggested an allegorical interpretation of the first chapter of Genesis, and anticipated nineteenth-century Biblical exegesis by questioning the authorship of several epistles, and the authenticity of certain passages.


  • Opera omnia (5 vol, 1639)
  • Opuscula omnia (1530)
  • Commenatry on Saint Thomas' Summa theologiae (1540)
  • De divina institutione Pontificatus Romani Pontificis (1521)
  • In Porphyrii Isagogen (1934)
  • De comparatione auctoritatis papae u. Apologia (1936)
  • De Anima (1938)
  • Scripta philosophica (6 vols., edited by P. Zammit, M.-H. Laurent and J. Coquelle, 1934-39)
Preceded by:
Jean Clérée
Master General of the Dominican Order
1508 – 1518
Succeeded by:
García de Loaysa

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Baum, William W. 1958. The Teaching of Cardinal Cajetan on the Sacrifice of the Mass: A Study in Pre-Tridentine Theology.
  • Cajetan, Tommaso de Vio and Fabian R. Larcher. 1980. Cardinal Cajetan's commentary on Aristotle's Categories.
  • McInerny, Ralph M. 1996. Aquinas and Analogy. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press. ISBN 0813208483
  • O'Connor, Michael. 1997. Exegesis, Doctrine, and Reform in the Biblical Commentaries of Cardinal Cajetan (1469-1534). University of Oxford.
  • Oberman, Heiko Augustinus. 1966. Forerunners of the Reformation; the Shape of Late Medieval Thought. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
  • This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.

External links

All links retrieved November 26, 2023.

General philosophy sources


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