The largest Roman Catholic religious order today, the Society of Jesus – known since the late sixteenth century as the Jesuits – was founded by Spanish priest St Ignatius Loyola (1491–1556) in 1534 as a mendicant order of priests dedicated to the propagation of Catholicism, and was formally approved by the Pope in a bull of 1540. See Roman Catholic Church.
Unlike older Catholic religious orders, which assign wide authority to local officials such as abbots and place important decisions in the hands of the brothers or sisters collectively, the Society of Jesus assigns absolute power to a single head, the General, who is elected for a life term by the General Congregation (a legislative assembly of provincial officials and elected delegates). The General can do anything within the scope of the Constitutions, the written law of the Society, and can even suspend the Constitutions at will, though he cannot change them without the approval of the General Congregation. He appoints the Provincials, who govern the Society in individual countries or regions, and a variety of other officials.
Ordinary members take, alongside the usual religious vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, a special vow of personal obedience to the Pope. In practice this requires perfect obedience to any superior in the Society. Enemies of the Jesuits have argued that this rule is used to justify Jesuit involvement in political crimes, including assassination. This has been energetically denied by the Society, but the involvement of Jesuits in attempts to assassinate England’s Queen Elizabeth I and other Protestant monarchs of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is accepted by many historians.
The Catholic Church, while theoretically under the Pope’s personal control, is in practice a diverse constellation of religious orders and regional authorities whose obedience to Rome is often a polite fiction. At the time of the Protestant Reformation, this disorganization put the survival of the Catholic Church itself at risk. The formation of an order under vows of personal obedience to the Pope was thus a godsend to Rome, and the Society received funding and encouragement from the highest levels of the Church. It repaid this by promoting Catholicism against the growth of Protestantism in France, southern Germany, and Austria, and by spearheading missionary efforts in the newly discovered lands of Asia and the Americas.
This concentration of power inevitably produced a reaction. The Jesuits aroused suspicions in France from the Wars of Religion onward, and were accused of having a role in the murder of Henri IV, who had converted from Protestantism to Catholicism before his coronation but who supported freedom of religion in France. German Protestants rightly identified the Society as the intellectual shock troops of the Catholic Counter-reformation, and attempted at several points to banish them from Germany forever. Other Catholic orders, jealous of the privileges conferred on the Society, encouraged opposition to the Jesuits even in the more staunchly Catholic countries.
The final straw, however, was economic. Jesuits used their position as missionaries in the New World to create mission plantations and mines worked by native labor, and their trade network inevitably came into conflict with the national trade policies of the colonial powers of the age. Portugal expelled its Jesuits in 1759 after a series of scandals capped by an assassination attempt on the royal chamberlain that allegedly had Jesuit backing. In France, a scandal that began with the sudden bankruptcy of the Jesuit missions on Martinique ended with the expulsion of the Society in 1764. Spain followed suit in 1767 after the Jesuits were implicated in political activity against the government. In 1773, after many tangled negotiations, the Jesuit order was formally suppressed by Pope Clement XIV. The suppression did not take effect in Russia, however, where Catherine the Great found the Jesuits useful in her struggles with the Russian Orthodox Church, but elsewhere the Society ceased to exist.
Many Jesuits reacted to the suppression by blaming it on intrigues by the liberals of the time, many of whom were Freemasons. The rise and destruction of the Bavarian Illuminati increased hard feelings on both sides; the Illuminati crusade against former members of the Society and Catholicism in general gave ex-Jesuits reason to believe the worst about Masonry, which was seen as closely allied to Illuminism, while liberal Masons blamed ex-Jesuits for the campaign against the Illuminati by the Bavarian government. See Bavarian Illuminati; Freemasonry.
Ironically, many Masons of the time argued that some branches of Masonry had become infiltrated and controlled by the Jesuits. Johann August Starck’s Order of Clerks Templar, one of the orders of high-grade Masonry active in Germany in the late eighteenth century, was one of the rites most often accused of Jesuit involvement. Writers with links to the Illuminati themselves, such as Nicholas de Bonneville, spread the charge of Jesuit infiltration more broadly, claiming that Jesuits had taken over the entire institution of Freemasonry and needed to be driven out by a secret order – presumably the Illuminati, though de Bonneville did not say so. It is worth noting in the light of all these charges that the Society is the only male Catholic religious order whose members are completely absent from lists of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century clergy in Masonry.
The sweeping European political changes that followed the French Revolution enabled a new Pope, Pius VII, to restore the Society in 1814. Penalties against the Society remained in force to varying degrees and in a variety of countries during the nineteenth century, however; as long as the Pope was a political as well as a religious figure, Jesuits were widely suspected of being his secret agents. With the absorption of the Papal States into the new nation of Italy in 1871, however, animosity against the Jesuits faded in most European countries, though many nations outside Europe have continued to treat them warily or forbid them altogether.
The Jesuits have long played a major role in conspiracy theory in Protestant countries, especially Britain, where books circulating allegations of Jesuit misdeeds have had steady sales for four centuries. Similar theories played an important part in the anti-Catholic movement in the United States, and during the first half of the twentieth century were frequently circulated in some branches of Freemasonry, particularly the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite (AASR). It is ironic that Freemasonry, which has so often been tarred with accusations of conspiracy, has had a major role in circulating similar allegations about another organization, but such ironies are common in the history of conspiracy theories. See Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite; Know-Nothing Party.
The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Societies : the ultimate a-z of ancient mysteries, lost civilizations and forgotten wisdom written by John Michael Greer – © John Michael Greer 2006