The Jesuits—“All Things to All Men”?
By Awake! correspondent in Spain
THE JESUIT order never sought a reputation for permissiveness. The papal bull that established the Society of Jesus in 1540 was entitled “For the Rule of the Church Militant.”* At the time, this new militant order seemed tailor-made to defend Catholicism in the religious battles that were being waged.
Although Ignatius of Loyola urged his followers to “do battle . . . under the banner of the Cross,” he also instructed them to be “all things to all men.” The Jesuits believed that if they abided by the latter, they could better accomplish the former; flexibility would be the key to open many doors.
Before long, adaptable and learned Jesuits were in demand as teachers and statesmen, courtiers and confessors. Perhaps they went further than Loyola had intended. Success in many fields—especially politics—brought them money and power, but it also sowed the seeds of catastrophe.
In 1773, Pope Clement XIV, bowing to pressure from France, Portugal, and Spain, disbanded the Jesuit order “for all eternity.” The motive? To “establish a real and enduring peace within the Church.” Because of their political influence, the Jesuits had become a liability. Although this papal decision was rescinded 41 years later, the Jesuits never again attained their former preeminence.
Today numbering about 23,000 worldwide, the Jesuits are still at the center of Catholic controversy, be it about liberation theology, priests in politics, or birth control. Their nonconformity has led to papal displeasure. In 1981, Pope John Paul II sidestepped Jesuit electoral procedure in order to install his own man as their superior general.
Over the last few years, the pope has increasingly turned to the adherents of Opus Dei* as a conservative bulwark for his church. However, the Jesuits are no ordinary Catholic order. Why have they always aroused so much controversy, even among Catholics? Have they lived up to their name—the Society of Jesus? What exactly is their mission?
Men With a Mission
At the outset, Loyola intended that his small band convert the people of the Holy Land. But 16th-century events pointed them in another direction. The Protestant schism was undermining the Roman Church, and new sea-lanes to the Orient and the Americas were opening up. Thus, the Jesuits chose a twofold mission—to fight “heresy” within Christendom and to spearhead the conversion of the non-Catholic world. The task they set for themselves was immense, and their numbers were few, so Loyola determined that every Jesuit be well-trained.
He established the four Jesuit vows, worked out a series of spiritual exercises for novices, and drew up the constitutions, or the Jesuit code of conduct. (See box.) Absolute obedience to the church was their watchword. Francis Xavier, one of Loyola’s first followers, said: “I would not even believe in the Gospels were the Holy Church to forbid it.” Nothing was to deter them from fulfilling their mission. “Fight for the souls wherever you find them, and by any means at your disposal,” Loyola told his men. What were the means at their disposal?
Turning Back the Protestant Tide
Education and the confessional were the Jesuits’ principal weapons to combat the growing power of Protestantism. Almost by accident, they discovered that their newly created quality schools could instill Catholicism in kings and nobles much more effectively than any preaching campaign. And in the 16th century, it was the nobility who had the power to determine the religion of their domain.*
Loyola himself noted that “the good that the Order can do to promote the Roman cause depends less upon preaching than teaching in our colleges.” The elitist Jesuit schools educated and indoctrinated many of the future European rulers who, once they came to power, were inclined to suppress the Protestants. This initial success was reinforced by a novel approach to confession. Historian Paul Johnson explains: “In the confessional, the Jesuits and their powerful penitents had a lawyer-client relationship.” Not surprisingly the new approach was more popular. Before long, many European monarchs had their private Jesuit confessors, who excelled at being all things to all the influential men they advised.
Jesuit confessors were indulgent in matters of morality but implacable when dealing with “heretics.” A Jesuit confessor to French king Louis XV recommended that “in the interest of decency,” the king install a hidden staircase between his bedroom and that of his mistress. On the other hand, his great-grandfather, Louis XIV, was persuaded by his Jesuit confessor to revoke the Edict of Nantes (a law that allowed French Protestants, or Huguenots, limited freedom of worship). This step unleashed a wave of terror against the Huguenots, many of whom were massacred.
Paul Johnson, in his book A History of Christianity, observes: “Above all, the Jesuits were widely identified with the view that the moral code could in some way be suspended when Catholic interests were at risk. . . . The Jesuits were a striking case of a highly educated and strongly motivated élite allowing the stresses of religious conflict to confuse their moral values.”
Despite—or possibly because of—their ambivalent moral scruples, the Jesuits played a key role in the Counter-Reformation. Just 41 years after their founding, Pope Gregory XIII wrote: “At the present time there is no single instrumentality that was fashioned by God for the extirpation of the heretics that is mightier than your holy Order.” Flexibility, along with influence in high places, had proved successful in battling “heresy.” Would it also win converts?
In the Orient, following their custom in Europe, the Jesuits aimed to convert the rulers and hence their subjects. In the pursuit of this goal, they stretched to the limit Loyola’s command to be all things to all men. Roberto de Nobili, a Jesuit missionary in India during the 17th century, lived like a high-caste Brahman in order to preach to the ruling class. To avoid offending fellow Brahmans, he offered the Eucharist, or the consecrated wafer of the Mass, to the low-caste Untouchables by means of a stick.
Matteo Ricci became an influential member of the Chinese court, mainly because of his gifts as a mathematician and astronomer. He kept his religious beliefs to himself. His Jesuit successor at the Ming court, Johann Adam Schall von Bell even set up a cannon foundry and trained Chinese troops to man the guns (which were named after Catholic “saints”). To win converts, the Jesuits allowed Chinese Catholics to continue practicing ancestor worship, a controversial decision that was eventually rejected by the pope. Despite such accommodation, both in India and in China, the rulers remained unconvinced.
In South America a colonial approach was tried. In uncolonized areas of the interior, Jesuits set up autonomous settlements in which Guarani Indians were more or less ruled by Jesuit missionaries. In return they were taught agriculture, music, and religion. These settlements, which at their height harbored 100,000 natives, finally disintegrated when they came into conflict with Portuguese and Spanish commercial interests. Although the Jesuits trained an army of 30,000 Indians, which fought at least one pitched battle against the Portuguese, in 1766 the settlements were destroyed and the Jesuits were deported.
Over the centuries many individual Jesuits made heroic sacrifices to spread the Catholic message far and wide. Some were martyred in a terrible way for their pains, especially in Japan, where they had some success before the shogun banned their activity.*
Although they had zeal and a spirit of sacrifice, the Jesuit efforts to convert the world were thwarted mainly because of their own scheming methods.
A Political Gospel
Despite problems in the past, 20th-century Jesuits seem loath to leave politics to the politicians. Nevertheless, one about-face has been noticeable. After centuries of supporting conservative, right-wing governments, today’s Jesuit is much more likely to back a revolutionary cause, especially if he lives in a developing country. Nicaragua is a case in point.
When the Sandinistas came to power in Nicaragua, they counted on the support of Fernando Cardenal and Álvaro Argüello, two prominent Jesuit priests who accepted posts in the government. Argüello defended his political post, claiming that “if there is anyone in Nicaragua who does not want to participate in the revolution, he is certainly not a Christian. In order to be a Christian today, it is also necessary to be a revolutionary.” Understandably, such a political gospel offends many sincere people.
Back in the 1930’s, Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo, a famous Spanish philosopher, criticized the Jesuits’ intervention in politics as alien to the teachings of Jesus. He wrote: “The Jesuits . . . come along with this old story about the social kingdom of Jesus Christ, and with that political ideology, they want to deal with political, economic and social problems. . . . Christ has nothing to do with socialism nor with private property. . . . He said his kingdom was not of this world.”
On the doctrinal front, modern-day Jesuits also tend to be revolutionary. Michael Buckley, a prominent American Jesuit, has publicly criticized Vatican rulings on women priests. In El Salvador, Jon Sobrino defends liberation theology and the “influence of Marx on the conception of theological understanding.” In 1989 the Jesuit superior general felt obliged to send a letter to all Jesuits ordering them to refrain from criticizing Vatican rulings on contraception.
In view of the Jesuits’ record, past and present, can it truly be said that they are a society of Jesus?
A True Society of Jesus?
Jesus said: “You are my friends if you do what I am commanding you.” (John 15:14) A true friend and disciple of Jesus owes absolute obedience to God and to Christ, and to no one else. (Acts 5:29) Obeying men rather than God inevitably leads to abuses and to a politicization of Christ’s message.
Undoubtedly, the Jesuits won some battles in their fight against Protestantism. But at what cost? Success depended more on political intrigue than on love of neighbor. Their evangelizing served to spread a gospel message polluted by political ideas and ambitions. Setting out to convert the world, the Jesuits became a part of it. Was that what Jesus wished?
Jesus said of his true disciples: “They are no part of the world, just as I am no part of the world.” (John 17:16) True, the apostle Paul became “all things to all men.” (1 Corinthians 9:22, Douay) But this meant adapting his message to his audience, not compromising Christian principles in order to make converts or wield political influence.
Loyola intended that the Jesuits present themselves to the world as imitators of Jesus Christ, but this image has been tarnished by politics and subterfuge. They have become “all things to all men,” but they have not done “all things for God’s glory.”—1 Corinthians 10:31.
The Society of Jesus is the name that Ignatius of Loyola, the Spanish founder, gave the order. It was the Protestants who coined the term “Jesuits,” the name by which they are generally known.
Literally from the Latin for “God’s Work.” It is an organization of mainly elite Catholics, founded in Spain in 1928 by Catholic priest José María Escrivá.
The Peace of Augsburg in 1555 established the rule defined in Latin as cuius regio eius religio (his religion whose realm [it is]).
In retaliation for a Spanish threat that conquistadores would follow in the steps of the missionaries, Japanese shogun Hideyoshi executed a number of Jesuits and Franciscans. A Jesuit scheme to conquer China with the help of Filipino and Japanese volunteers doubtless fueled suspicions about Jesuit motives in Japan. The official ban, which came in 1614, specifically mentioned fears that the Catholic aim was to “change the government of the country and obtain possession of the land.”
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The Making of a Jesuit
The four vows. There are three initial vows: poverty, chastity, and obedience. After 12 years, the Jesuit takes his fourth vow, pledging to “obey every instruction of the Pope of Rome.”
The Spiritual Exercises is a manual that outlines a four-week program of meditation designed to instill in the novice a lifelong dedication to the Jesuit cause.
During the first week, the participant imagines—with all his senses—the tortures of hell. In the second week, he must decide whether to enlist as a Jesuit. The third week is devoted to explicit meditation on the suffering and death of Jesus, and the final week is reserved for “experiencing” Christ’s resurrection.
Step-by-step instructions are provided. In the first week, for example, the novice is told to “smell the smoke, the brimstone, the foul stench and the corruption of Hell” and to “feel how those flames catch hold of the soul and devour it.”
Constitutions is a Talmudlike book of rules and regulations drawn up by Ignatius of Loyola. Among other things, the Jesuit is told how to position the hands, how to look at someone who wields authority, and why he should avoid wrinkling his nose.
Above all, Constitutions stresses the Jesuit’s absolute obedience to his superiors: “The inferior is as a cadaver in the hands of his superior.”
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Why a Jesuit Became One of Jehovah’s Witnesses
It was while working in the poorer parishes of Bolivia that I began to have doubts. At first these were not about the church but about its representatives. For example, each month I had to hand over to the local bishop a certain percentage of the collections and payments received for special Masses, weddings, funerals, and so forth. Since my parish was poor, the bishop’s portion was never very impressive. It hurt me deeply when he used to open the envelope and say with disdain: “Is this the miserable contribution you bring me?” Evidently the ‘widow’s two mites’ did not count with him.—Luke 21:1-4, Douay.
Yet another factor that disturbed me was the hierarchy’s willingness to accept and permit local pagan ideas and practices in relation to the worship of the Cristo de la Vera-Cruz (the Christ of the True Cross), which was the image in my parish church. In many cases the practices were an outright manifestation of demonic fanaticism. In addition drunkenness was often associated with these religious feasts, but no official voice was raised against this pagan bacchanal.
I became convinced that in the course of the centuries, the Catholic Church had deviated from Bible truth, replacing it with human traditions and philosophy, and that it was not just men, as isolated individuals, that were failing. Accordingly, I realized that I was no longer a Catholic at heart.—As told by Julio Iniesta García.*
For his full story, see The Watchtower, November 15, 1982.
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The founder of the Jesuits, Ignatius of Loyola, and his shrine in Spain
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Because of their reputation for political intrigue, the Jesuits were expelled from Spain in 1767