The Society of Jesus (Jesuits) was founded during the Reformation era in 1534. St. Ignatius of Loyola became the society's first general when Pope Paul III approved it in 1540. Famed missionary, St. Francis Xavier, was one of the original seven Jesuits.
Love of Christ and the Roman Church animated these first Jesuits and many who followed them. Among the Jesuits were a number martyrs in North America including Isaac Jogues and Jean Brebeuf, men of ardent passion for Christ.
The Jesuits were a driving force in the Counter-reformation. Their energy and drive carried Catholicism beyond its pre-reformation bounds and regained much of the territory lost to Protestants. By emphasizing missions and education, the Jesuits from the first exerted influence beyond their numbers. Not that their numbers remained small. Even before Ignatius' death the Society had almost a thousand members. In time it became the largest Roman Catholic order. Jesuits became known as the schoolmasters of Europe and were prominent as confessors to kings and emperors. They made advances in science.
Their influence was resented. Partly this was their own fault. The Jesuits developed a system of logic and morality called casuistry which offered loopholes for all sorts of wrongdoing. In France, Blaise Pascal wrote his blistering Provincial Letters to expose alleged Jesuitical abuses. Elsewhere, Jesuitical controversies over rites, their theological disputes, and their close adherence to Rome made them many foes.
Because Jesuits took their orders from no local authority but only the popes and their own generals, they were viewed with suspicion as foreign agents. Such was the case with the heroes Edmund Campion and Robert Southwell, Jesuit missionaries to England. Both were executed although there is no evidence either had committed treason, but had merely administered the Catholic rites to congregations which had been driven underground.
Cries against the Jesuits rose louder and louder until on this day July 21, 1773, Pope Clement XIV dissolved the order completely. It had already been abolished in France and Spain. Clement refused to condemn the Society but merely noted he was making an administrative move for the peace of the church.
The effect of the suppression was hurtful for the Roman church, for it shut down much mission work and many schools. Some Jesuits were allowed to remain in existence. In 1814 the Society was restored.
Today's Jesuits are sometimes as controversial as their forebears. In South America many are closely identified with "liberation theology" which many Catholics consider heretical because of its emphasis on worldly aims and a materialistic interpretation of doctrine.
- Durant, Will and Ariel. Rousseau and Revolution. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967.
- "Jesuits." The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Edited by F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone. Oxford, 1997.
- Martin, Malachi. The Jesuits; the Society of Jesus and the betrayal of the Roman Catholic church. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987.
- Novak, Michael. Will it Liberate? Questions about liberation theology. New York, New York: Paulist Press, 1986.
- O'Malley, William J. The Fifth Week. Loyola Press, 1976.
- Pollen, J.H. The Jesuits." The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton, 1914.
- Ridpath. Cyclopedia of Universal History. 1980.
- Various encyclopedia and internet articles.
Last updated April, 2007.