ST. IGNATIUS LOYOLA
Founder of the Jesuit Order
WHEN A POPE
REALLY GETS IT
To the question: Has the Pope ever done something as Pope which the Church herself has had to later repudiate and reverse?, a very obvious case-in-point presents itself: the Suppression of the Jesuit Order by Pope Clement XIV in 1773 A.D.
Since its founding by the soldier-turned-priest Ignatius of Loyola in the 1500s, the Jesuit religious order had been in the forefront of the Catholic Church’s missionary and educational life. Ignatius had called his new group “The Company of Jesus” in order to indicate its true Leader. This name was latinized as Societas Jesu, hence the initials S.J. to indicate a Jesuit priest or brother.
Despite its prodigious contributions to the Church over two centuries, however, by the mid-1700s the Jesuits faced powerful enemies in several Catholic courts of Europe. This is the background to the feature film The Mission where Jesuit missionaries Robert DeNiro and Jeremy Irons are told to abandon their Mission among the indigenous peoples in South America on account of political intrigues against the Jesuits. Eventually, the Pope himself suppressed the whole Jesuit Order.
Of this 1773 Suppression the Catholic Encyclopedia (ed. 1912) writes:
Having enjoyed very high favor among Catholic peoples, kings, prelates, and popes for two and a half centuries, [the Jesuit Order] suddenly becomes an object of frenzied hostility, is overwhelmed with obloquy, and overthrown with dramatic rapidity. Every work of the Jesuits—their vast missions, their noble colleges, their churches—all is taken from them or destroyed. They are banished and their order suppressed, with harsh and denunciatory words even from the pope.
In the Papal Conclave of 1769 Lorenzo Cardinal Ganganelli was elected and took the name Clement XIV. Prior to the Conclave Ganganelli had indicated in writing that he was ready to sacrifice the Jesuits for political purposes. The enemies of the Jesuits were sure they had their man.
The whole matter of the Brief of Suppression was carried out in great secrecy. When it was finally released it fell like a sudden hammer blow. The Father-General of the Jesuit Order was arrested together with his assistants and confined like dangerous criminals in the Castel San Angelo. All of the papers of the Society were seized, with the title-deeds to Jesuit properties and considerable amounts of money designated for definite charities, which were now despoiled of their support.
The Pope’s Brief of Suppression was a veritable litany of calumnies and exaggerations against the Jesuits. The was no mention of anything in their favor. In sum, the Jesuit Order was represented as “having occasioned perpetual strife, contradiction and trouble. For the sake of peace the Society must be suppressed.”
The Suppression of the Jesuits was a shocking thing to many Catholic contemporaries, with all of its many-sided injustices and with the great harm done to the Church’s Mission. That it was the act of the Pope made it even harder to bear. St. Alphonsus di Liguori tried to be as charitable as he could as to the Pope’s motives but the darkness of the decision could not be explained away. “We must keep silence,” he said, “Respect the secret judgments of God, and hold ourselves in peace.”
It took 41 years before the damage was undone and the Jesuits were re-established in the Catholic Church. That occurred in 1814, after Napoleon Bonaparte’s defeat by the European Coalition and his first exile to the Island of Elba. The Jesuits as we know them today date back to this second founding.
The Suppression of the Jesuits then is an example of how a Pope can be wrong—even really wrong—about something and still be Pope, and still have all of the authority of the Petrine Office, and still do plenty of things that are right for the governance of the Church. While we have more opportunities than Catholics of the 1700s had for making our views known about Papal decisions we find objectionable, we should still keep St. Alphonsus’s counsel in mind and not lose our peace over them, no matter what.
Mary Immaculate of Lourdes, Newton/Needham, Massachusetts
Mary Immaculate of Lourdes,
270 Elliot Street,
Newton MA 02464
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