This year marks the 200th anniversary since the Jesuit Order was restored by Pope Pius VII after it had been suppressed 41 years earlier. This is the second in a series of four articles in which Fr Robert Soler SJ reviews the suppression of the Jesuit Order in 1773.
The first article of this series dealt with the life of the founder, St Ignatius, the formal approval of the Jesuit Order in 1540 and its impressive expansion up to 1757.
The first 200 years were, of course, not free of difficulties, such as the contentious Chinese rites issue. The Jesuits were also at times involved in inner-Church debates, the most famous being the De Auxiliis controversy with the Dominicans regarding the role of divine grace and of free human will in a good action. Pope Paul V in 1607 had ultimately decreed that both Orders could legitimately hold their theological position, forbidding them to criticise each other’s doctrine.
But serious trouble, not merely controversy, was brewing for the Jesuits around 1750.
On one hand, in Europe this was the Age of Enlightenment, which emphasised reason and sought the political and social reform of society. It embraced scientific method and advances, admirably represented by Isaac Newton. The renowned and influential Encyclopédie, to which hundreds of intellectuals (‘philosophes’) like Voltaire and Rousseau contributed, reflected the Enlightenment.
The Enlightenment scorned organised religion, while recognising that religious belief supported good social order. Some intellectuals held that each person should believe only what he or she found convincing, and that religion should be evaluated by its moral fruits, not by its theological logic. Many intellectuals were deists, believing only in a Creator God, not in the Trinitarian God of Christianity.
On the other hand, the Jesuits were opposed by Jansenism, a Catholic movement named after the Dutch theologian (later bishop) Cornelius Jansen. In his 1640 treatise Augustinus, Jansen wrote that the Jesuits, in opposing the teaching of the Protestant reformers Luther and Calvin, had emphasised human responsibility while failing to sufficiently stress divine grace, which is absolutely necessary for good actions. This, Jansen held, was a re-edition of Pelagianism, a heresy forcibly combated by St Augustine. Jansen followed Augustine in stressing the infallible efficacy of grace and in holding a pessimistic view of human nature, depraved as a result of original sin.
The Jesuits countered that Jansen’s work divested human free will of all significance. Their view of mankind redeemed and radically transformed by Christ was more positive, marked by Christian hope.
The Holy See, backed by the Jesuits, sanctioned Jansenism three times. The third decree in 1713, with input by the Dominican cardinal Gregorio Selleri, condemned 101 propositions by the Jansenist Pasquier Quesnel.
The Jesuits won this initial round. The Jansenists would respond when the Society was being suppressed.
Pombal held the Jesuits responsible for the war in the reducciones and accused them of avarice and disloyalty to the monarchs of Spain and Portugal
The process of the suppression of the Jesuits initially involved territorial expulsions. It started in Portugal in 1759. The dominant figure there was Sebastião José de Carvalho, Marquês de Pombal. A staunch monarchist and former ambassador in London, he had became familiar with the Enlightenment and seen how the Anglican Church, independent of Rome, was incorporated into the State.
The Jesuits, with their vow of obedience to the Pope, defended the monarchical model but not regal absolutism. Pombal decided they had to be eliminated.
Trouble between the Portuguese authorities and the Jesuits started with the war of the seven reducciones, the villages established by the Jesuits for the indios indigenous people. The 1750 Boundary Treaty between Portugal and Spain provided for the exchange of land in South America. Seven reducciones with over 29,000 indios were on Portugal’s newly-acquired land.
The indios were given minimal compensation and ordered to move to Spanish territory. The Jesuit missionaries held that this forcible expulsion breached the indios’s natural rights to life, liberty and property. Sadly, Jesuit superiors in Rome were unsympathetic, ordering the missionaries to obey: they did. The indios, however, rebelled against enforcement of the treaty, leading to loss of life.
In 1755, an earthquake struck Lisbon. The Jesuit Gabriel Malagrida unwisely wrote that this was divine retribution for grievous public sins, and not due merely to natural causes: this evidently upset Pombal. He published a pamphlet in which he held the Jesuits responsible for the war in the reducciones and accused them of avarice and disloyalty to the monarchs of Spain and Portugal.
Pombal then placed the blame for a 1758 attempt on the life of King Joseph I on a number of nobles and, without any proof whatsoever, on some Jesuits, among them Malagrida, who was later brutally murdered.
Pombal acted swiftly. Twenty Jesuit colleges in Portugal and 30 in its colonies were closed down. Jesuit properties were confiscated. In April 1759, Joseph I informed the Pope he was expelling the Jesuits from Portugal. About 1,100 Jesuit exiles reached Italy. Some 180 Jesuits were imprisoned in dark, damp dungeons. The riches Pombal alleged the Jesuits held in South America and Asia, however, did not exist.
The next country to expel the Jesuits was France. Antoine Lavalette, superior of the Jesuit mission in Martinique, seeking to expand the sugar and coffee plantations from whose income the mission survived, borrowed from a bank. Ships with merchandise travelling to Europe were destroyed in a storm. Having lost the expected income, he borrowed again. Other ships laden with merchandise were impounded by the British, then at war with France.
The bank took the French Jesuits to court to recover the debts incurred by Lavalette. A court in Marseilles and then an appeal court in Paris found in the bank’s favour. Since Lavalette had acted without authorisation from his superiors, the Jesuits appealed again, this time to the Paris Parlement in its judicial capacity.
The Jansenists, the Jesuits’ long-term adversaries, ensured that the Parlement in May 1761 confirmed the decision of the lower courts. The Parlement imposed the obligation to submit a copy of the Jesuit Constitutions. The Jesuits complied. King Louis XV intervened, reserving to himself the study of the Constitutions. This turned the issue into a constitutional struggle between monarch and Parlement.
Again, on the initiative mainly of the Jansenists, the Parlement decreed the closure of Jesuit colleges, forbidding the Society to receive novices in France. The philosophe D’Alembert wrote in delight to Voltaire about the Jansenists: “They think they are of assistance to religion, but unwittingly they are serving reason.”
On August 6, 1762, the Paris Parlement barred the Society from France, disbanding its communities and confiscating its buildings. Several regional Parlements took other harsh measures against the Jesuits.
In the end, King Louis XV reluctantly suppressed the Society throughout France in November 1764, but nevertheless allowed former Jesuits to remain in the country. He added that, “I wish at least that it not be believed that I concurred in all that the Parlements did and said against them”.
It may be of interest to Maltese readers to note that Antoine Lavalette hailed from Aveyron in the south of France. Jean de Valette, as is known, was born much earlier in Quercy, in southwest France. It has not been possible to establish whether the two men were even remotely related. In the Jesuit archives in Rome and Paris there is no image of Lavalette, who left the Jesuit Order in disgrace in 1762.
The Jesuits were next expelled from Spain, which like Portugal and France was under a Bourbon monarch. Among the causes of the Jesuits’ expulsion from Spain, Jesuit historian Ferrer Benimeli (2013) mentions the strong influence, if not power, the Jesuits had through their schools, their role as the King’s confessors and advisers; Jesuit opposition to absolutist monarchical claims and their strenuous defence of the Pope’s spiritual authority over Catholic countries; the documented fact that around 1765 some 80 per cent of people in public office such as councillors and judges, were ex-students of the Jesuits; and the claim that, because the Jesuits had allegedly amassed riches in the reducciones, the State was entitled to expropriate Jesuit property as compensation.
The entourage of King Charles III embraced Enlightenment figures like Grimaldi and Abarca y Bolea and the Jansenist Manuel de Roda. As in France, this coalition was to prove lethal for the Jesuits.
A riot sparked the expulsion of the Jesuits from Spain. People protested vehemently, among other things, against rising food prices. Some Jesuits affirmed the people’s right to protest. The Jesuits were falsely accused by Crown Attorney Campomanes of plotting to overthrow the King. As the Jesuits opposed regal absolutism, Charles III believed the accusation, decreeing their expulsion from Spain.
This decree was executed in April 1767. An estimated 2,700 Jesuits were sent into exile. About 2,300 Jesuit missionaries from South America and the Philippines travelled to Europe. The exiles ended up mainly in the Papal States. In total, 188 colleges closed down. Jesuit property was confiscated. No riches were found in the reducciones.
Roda wrote to the Duc de Choiseul, France’s foreign minister: “We have killed the son. Now nothing remains for us to do except to carry out the action against the mother, our Holy Roman Church.”
In 1767, the Society of Jesus was also expelled from the Bourbon Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Prime Minister Bernardo Tanucci, another Enlightenment figure hostile to the Holy See and the Jesuits, persuaded King Ferdinand IV to imitate his father, Charles III of Spain, and expel the Society from Naples and Sicily.
Then in 1768, the Jesuits were expelled from Bourbon Parma, and from Malta too. Malta, granted in feud to the Order of St John by Emperor Charles V, subsequently became a fief of the Bourbon Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Tanucci from Naples pressured Grand Master Manoel Pinto to adopt Bourbon policy, even threatening he would prohibit the exportation of grain from Sicily and boycott commercial activity with the Maltese islands.
Pinto was in an awkward position. He was bound to the papacy as head of a Catholic religious order. How could he expel another religious order? So Pinto asked Tanucci to obtain from King Ferdinand a written demand that the Jesuits be expelled.
Informed by Pinto of Tanucci’s threats and the King’s written demand, Pope Clement XIII reluctantly agreed that the Jesuits be expelled from Malta, but insisted that it should be done “with due decency”, without the use of force.
Pinto signed the decree of expulsion on April 22, 1568. The Jesuits were confined in their college building in Valletta, until on April 29, when they were respectfully taken to a ship travelling to Civitavecchia. Twenty Jesuits (13 Fathers, five brothers and two students) were expelled. Three other elderly Jesuits, two of them Maltese, remained behind – two priests were housed with the Franciscan Conventuals, a brother with the Friars Minor.
The hounding of the Jesuits by the Bourbons did not stop there: it now moved directly to Rome. The Duc de Choiseul launched the idea of a concerted effort by the Bourbon monarchies to urge and force the Pope to suppress the Jesuits.
Pope Clement XIII refused to give in. He thought highly of the Jesuits and vigorously resisted Bourbon pressure to suppress the Order, saying he would rather have both his hands cut off. He was hassled by the Bourbons till he died in February 1769.
The main causes of the suppression were the prevalent ideological movements in interaction with the absolutist claims of Bourbon monarchs, who wanted a subservient Church
De Choiseul later wrote that if Clement XIII had reigned for 10 more years, a schism would have been likely to occur, with Portugal, Spain and France following England in leaving the Catholic fold. The possibility of a disastrous schism loomed large in Rome as the conclave approached.
In a lengthy conclave, the cardinals were conditioned by the Bourbons’ ambassadors to, by modern standards, an inconceivable degree. The Bourbons insisted that the new Pontiff should cherish the interests of religion and peace in Catholic states, and therefore suppress the Society of Jesus.
Franciscan Conventual Lorenzo Ganganelli, a well-meaning reformer, was identified by the Bourbons as the ideal candidate. He gave a verbal commitment that he would do what the kings required. Once elected in May 1769, he took the name of Clement XIV. He wrote to assure Charles III of Spain that he would be happy to resolve any issues the King might present to him, which in the context evidently included the suppression of the Jesuits. In November he went further, committing himself in writing to dissolving the Society.
The Bourbon Kings started to pressure the Pope. Clement XIV removed the Roman Seminary and the Irish College from the care of the Jesuits, but seemed unconvinced that the Society of Jesus should be dissolved. He tried to gain time.
In 1772, a new Spanish ambassador, José Moñino reached Rome. A deceptively suave diplomat, he schemed to obtain the suppression of the Society, using very hard tactics with Clement XIV. Moñino used the threat of a schism by the Bourbon Catholic countries. He enrolled a Spanish priest, Francisco de Zelada, to prepare the decree of suppression, along lines he himself dictated.
There was still one political obstacle. The Hapsburg Catholic Empress Maria Theresa of Austria admired the Jesuits. If she resisted, the Pope would have the perfect excuse. She was, however, understandably, more interested in marrying off her daughter Marie-Antoinette to the dauphin of France than in securing the future of the Jesuits. In April 1773, she signalled she would not veto the nefarious Bourbon scheme.
The Pope’s last reason for refusing to suppress the Jesuits was gone. Moñino heartlessly bullied the sick Pontiff, who finally capitulated.
Clement XIV suppressed the Jesuits worldwide through a lengthy document, Dominus ac Redemptor, promulgated on August 16, 1773.
Clement XIV stressed that not only serious crime but also the Church’s inner harmony could justify the dissolution of a religious order. The decree lists charges made against the Society of Jesus – without, however, actually saying they were justified. Then the decree orders the universal suppression of the Jesuit Order, specifying certain provisions for its execution.
The decree of universal suppression of the Jesuit Order was immediately executed. The Jesuit superior general, Lorenzo Ricci, and his closest advisers were imprisoned in Castel Sant’Angelo, on trumped-up charges of embezzlement of funds that were never proved. Ricci defended himself – all money sent to the foreign missions could be checked in the Society’s accounts, and far from the Order having money stashed away, it had been unable to help Jesuit exiles in the Papal states.
Clement XIV’s last months were troubled by physical illness and depression: it seems to have weighed heavily on him that he had, in fact, seriously harmed the Church by suppressing the Jesuits.
Pope Pius VI was elected in February 1775. Ricci appealed for justice, but the Bourbon kings vehemently opposed. Ricci died in prison in November 1775.
A copy of the decree of suppression was sent to all bishops: they had to oversee its execution. At one stroke, around 20,000 men became former Jesuits: they were allowed to join other religious orders or the diocesan clergy. Most chose to somehow eke out a poor existence. Hundreds of colleges closed. Flourishing foreign missions were sacrificed. The Society’s property was confiscated.
The Jesuits had sadly contributed to their own downfall. Factors at work include: too much influence in high places, causing irritation and jealousy; intellectual and corporate pride; the near-total control of the educational scene with too exclusive an accent on the liberal arts, while not keeping abreast of scientific developments; the lack of readiness to engage constructively with at least some ideas of the Enlightenment; grave mistakes by some Jesuits, like Lavalette and Malagrida.
Even so, the main causes of the suppression of the Society of Jesus were the prevalent ideological movements (Enlightenment, Jansenism) in interaction with the absolutist claims of Bourbon monarchs, who wanted a subservient Church in their own country, and who ultimately wanted to subjugate the Pope himself.
The Jesuits defended the Pope and had to be got rid of first. Unscrupulous politico-religious manoeuvring and threats were employed in the process.
After the vision of La Storta in 1537, Ignatius had interpreted the words ‘I will be propitious to you in Rome’ as meaning that the companions would suffer there. His interpretation found its most poignant embodiment in the Order’s suppression in 1773. The Jesuits were, like their Lord, humiliated to the point of death and burial. They could then hardly have envisaged that their Order would before long share in Jesus’ resurrection and new life.
To be continued.
Independent journalism costs money. Support Times of Malta for the price of a coffee.Support Us