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Revisiting The Restoration Of The Jesuits

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Many assume that Jesuits have existed without much official opposition. Such has not been the case. This August 7 will mark the 200th anniversary of the issuing of the papal bull, Sollicitudo omnium ecclesiarum, which restored the Jesuit power that had been suppressed for some 41 years. The post-Restoration decades would see a mighty rebound, as Jesuit institutions — including many in the U.S. — began to flourish.
Established in 1540 by Ignatius of Loyola, the Society of Jesus consisted of members known as Jesuits who each desired “to serve as a soldier of God.” By the 1750s, there were over 20,000 Jesuits across the world.
Aside from converting countless souls to Catholicism, they were an intellectual force, having founded several hundred seminaries and colleges worldwide; they were also the preeminent scholastic influence in Europe.
With such power, however, came controversy and enemies. Anti-Jesuit sentiment was championed by leading philosophers of the Enlightenment era, which bloomed as the 1700s progressed. Aside from this opposition in the intellectual climate, Jesuits were viewed as meddling too much in governmental affairs and not deferring sufficiently to the European monarchs.
God’s Soldiers by Jonathan Wright tells how the first nation to turn against the Jesuits was Portugal. There was already tension between the Jesuits and the Spanish and Portuguese empires over the handling of Jesuit settlements in South America. Aside from conflict with the leadership, the Society irked much of the regular population when, in the aftermath of an immensely destructive 1755 earthquake, Jesuits blamed the event on the nation’s sinful climate.
In 1758, there was an unsuccessful assassination attempt on King Joseph of Portugal. The Jesuits were blamed for this act, and in February of the following year, the government took severe action.
All of the country’s Jesuits were restricted to three of their buildings, and their other properties went to auction. April 1759 saw the official banishment of the Society; over 1,000 Jesuits were exiled, and 250 were sent to prison.
After Portugal, came France. There, the monarchy had grown tired of disputing with the Society over its handling of French territories in the Caribbean. Inspired by the recent Portuguese turn of events, the French government declared in March 1762 that the Society had never held genuine legal status.
Many Jesuit works were cast into the fire, and the closure of all Jesuit schools began. Though the Society was officially dissolved in 1764, the terms were not quite as harsh as in Portugal, and ex-Jesuits were allowed to remain in the country.
After France, came Spain. Following a substandard harvest in 1766, the people of Madrid began to riot, lashing out against the increasing cost of bread. Amidst this climate of tumult and misery, the Jesuits became a scapegoat. In January 1767, Spain dissolved the Society and also expelled all of its members from Spanish America. Within one year, Naples and Sicily followed suit with their own official dissolutions.
As each leading Catholic monarchy had dissolved the Society, a universal Jesuit suppression seemed imminent. In Rome, Pope Clement XIV tried to delay any such suppression, but his effort was futile. Jean Lacouture, author of Jesuits: A Multibiography, writes how in 1773 Pope Clement XIV, “jostled, harassed, and threatened” by the worldly powers that be, succumbed to their wishes and formally ended the Jesuit Society by issuing the papal bull Dominus ac Redemptor.
There had been scant Jesuit resistance in Western Europe, where many members seemed resigned to the turn of events. However, there was passive rebellion among many Jesuits in faraway lands who, deciding that they were too geographically distant to be effectively disciplined, simply ignored the fact that their Society had been dissolved and went on with their work as if nothing had occurred.
Even in Western Europe, not every banished Jesuit met a grim fate; many instead joined a different religious order. Additionally, a number of former Portuguese Jesuits found their way to China. It appeared the Society had spread its tentacles too far to be fully extinguished.
Furthermore, two non-Catholic monarchs — Frederick the Great of Prussia and Catherine the Great of Russia — helped indirectly ensure the survival of the Jesuits in Europe; as these monarchs proudly refused to acknowledge any papal authority, Jesuits were allowed to ignore the Pope’s official dissolution.
Of course, the Jesuit question did not remain a top priority; plenty was going on in Europe — such as the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars — during the four decades of official Jesuit suppression. Some war-weary Catholics wondered if the suppressed Society might have had a mitigating effect on all of the bloodshed and terror. Perhaps mankind’s Enlightenment was not all it was advertised to be.
The 19th century began with a new Pope, Pius VII, in Rome. He had long wanted to restore the Jesuits, but felt he did not have sufficient authority until August 7, 1814, when he issued a papal bull reading: “With one voice the Catholic world demands the reestablishment of the Company of Jesus. . . . We have decided to do today what we would have wished to do at the beginning of our pontificate.”
Thus began the official Jesuit Restoration.
In the Restoration’s first years, things seemed somewhat less than auspicious, as almost every returning Jesuit was a very old man. Soon enough, though, younger members were recruited, and a full-fledged recovery was underway. The Society gathered particularly good momentum in the United States, where 22 Jesuit colleges were established in the 19th century.
Among the most notable of these institutions was Boston College, where a conference was held this June to “shed new light on neglected aspects” of the Jesuit Restoration. Though the Jesuits, like many religious orders, have seen a decline in recent decades, these “soldiers of God” continue to serve in well over 100 countries: Only the Apocalypse could suppress them now.

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(Ray Cavanaugh has written for such publications as Celtic Life, History Today, and New Oxford Review.)

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