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A sad and shameful chapter

30 November, 1999

Henry Peel OP tells the sorry tale of the suppression of the Jesuits in 1773, not one of the more glorious moments in Catholic Church history.

It was a sad day in the history of the Church when in July 1773 copies of a Papal Brief suppressing the Society of Jesus, popularly known as the Jesuits, appeared in print. The first printed copies of the Brief are dated July 21, just ten days before the feast of the founder. The Brief had been signed by Pope Clement XIV in the middle of June.

A dismal Papal letter
The crucial passages in the Brief of Suppression are: “Now, therefore, having perceived that the said Society of Jesus could not longer produce the abundant fruits and advantages for which it was instituted… but, on the contrary, that if it continued to exist it was almost impossible that the Church should have true and permanent peace… after mature deliberation, with certain knowledge and in the fullness of Our Apostolic power, we dissolve, suppress, extinguish and abolish the said Society. We take from it and abrogate each and all of its offices, ministries, administrations, houses, schools and habitations in all provinces, kingdoms and states whatsoever….

We suppress all its statutes, customs, decrees and constitutions, even when fortified by oath, apostolic confirmation or otherwise… we declare, therefore, that it is perpetually broken up and dissolved, alike to the spiritual as to the temporal.”

The Pope declared that there were other reasons for the suppression which were not in the Brief of Suppression. These other reasons were indicated diplomatically as reasons “…which we retain concealed in our breast.” These other reasons were the political pressures exercised in the names of the Catholic kings of France, Spain, Portugal and others. The religious language clothed the surrender of the Pope to secular interests. In justice to the Pope he may have judged that this surrender was the best way to safeguard the Church from greater evils.

Jealousy of Jesuit success
Those who hanker after a close alliance between Church and State would do well to ponder on the fate of the Jesuits. The Papal Brief of Suppression was the culmination of a series of attacks by the civil authorities. Portugal had been the first to act. Conflict with the civil authority had begun in the Jesuit missions in Paraguay.

In Paraguay the Jesuits had established villages of native Christians. Through a treaty with Spain in 1750 these villages came within Portuguese jurisdiction. The hope of finding rare metals within the territory of these Indian enclaves led to conflict between them and the Portuguese. The Jesuits were accused of being accomplices with the Indians for their own commercial and political advantage. Pombal, the chief minister of the crown and virtually ruler of the Portuguese dominions, accused the Jesuits of an attempt to assassinate the king. Cardinal Saldanha, Apostolic Visitor to Portugal, submitted to court pressure and agreed to the guilt of the Jesuits. Their property was confiscated, many were imprisoned and the missionaries were expelled from the Portuguese colonies.

France bans the Jesuits
In November 1764 the Society of Jesus was dissolved in France. This campaign against the Jesuits had also begun in the Jesuit mission in the Antilles. The French Provincial of the Jesuits refused to accept liability for debts incurred on the missions. A court judgement declared that the Society was liable. In the course of the litigation the Parlement of Paris demanded an examination of the Constitutions of the Society. The Parlement decided that some points in the Constitutions conflicted with the discipline of the Church in France and with the constitutional principles of the kingdom. Twenty-four Jesuit publications were condemned, acceptance of novices was forbidden and Jesuits were banned from teaching. On November 26, 1764, a royal decree dissolved the Society.

Spanish greed against the Jesuits
In 1767 the Jesuits were expelled from the Spanish empire which then included most of Latin America. The missionary experiment of communal villages for Indian Christians, known as ‘reductions’, was now finally ended. An earlier Jesuit venture in China and India had been ended by the Holy See. More flexible and pragmatic than the older religious orders the Jesuits had attempted to accommodate the Christian faith with the social and religious culture of the East. The experiment was opposed by Dominican and Franciscan missionaries as endangering the integrity of the faith. This experiment was forbidden by Pope Benedict XIV in 1742. Previous permissions granted to Jesuit missionaries were revoked.

The Pope wrote: “We define and declare that these permissions must be considered as though they never existed and we condemn and detest their practices as superstitious. And thus, in virtue of our present constitution to be in force forever, we revoke, annul, abrogate and wish to be deprived of all force and effect, all and each of those permissions and say and announce that they must be considered forever to be annulled, null, invalid and without any force or power.”

The eighteenth century prided itself on being the age of enlightenment. The suppression of the Jesuits was greeted as a great act of enlightenment. A French literary light, D’Alembert, hailed the suppression as “an occurrence worthy to figure among the outstanding events of an age which itself would prove a landmark in the history of the human mind”. To banish the Jesuits from their predominant place in the education field was to remove one of the chief obstacles to the spread of ‘enlightenment’.

Jansenists and Gallicans also rejoiced. The Jesuits were the great enemies of Jansenism. Jesuit moral theologians were accused of moral laxity. The Gallicans rejoiced because the Jesuits were noted for their obedience to Rome.

Saintly general of the Jesuits
On November 19, 1775, Father Ricci, the General of the Jesuits and then a prisoner in Rome wrote:

Considering myself on the point of being presented before the tribunal of infallible truth and justice, which is no other than the Divine tribunal – after long and mature consideration, after having humbly prayed my most merciful Redeemer and terrible judge, not to permit that I should allow myself to be led away by any passion, particularly in one of the last actions of my life without any bitterness of heart, or any vicious motive or end, and only because I hold myself to be obliged to do justice to truth and innocence – I make the two following declarations and protestations:

First: I declare and protest that the suppressed society of Jesus has given no ground for its suppression: I declare this, with all the certitude that a superior, well informed of his order, can morally have.

Secondly: I declare and protest, that I have not given any ground, not even the slightest, for my imprisonment. I declare and protest this, with the rectitude and evidence which everyone hath of his own actions. I make this second declaration, only because it is necessary to the reputation of the Society of Jesus, of which I was superior general.”

Rising to new life
The Society of Jesus was restored by the Holy See in August 1814. The suppression had lasted for forty one years. Paradoxically the society had continued to exist in Orthodox Russia. The Czarina Catherine II appreciated their educational work and refused to allow the Brief of Suppression to take effect within her dominions. This gave rise subsequently, to uncertainty as to whether or not the Society still existed canonically. The Pope might have approved of its existence where political circumstances allowed it. Even the Roman Curia did not speak with one voice on this issue. The restoration of the society by the Holy See removed this uncertainty. Pope Pius XI later referred to this whole episode as “a painful page in our history.”


This article first appeared in St Martin Magazine (July 1991), a publication of the Irish Dominicans.