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Must suppression bring on depression?


July 21 marked the 250th anniversary of the Suppression of the Jesuits by Pope Clement XIV. It was a significant event within the Church and the political world of the time. Through it flowed currents that still influence our world. For the Jesuits and those whom they served, however, it was and remains a personal experience. It had huge consequences for people’s lives and raised questions about their identity and how they should act.

In some respects, the Suppression of the Society as a Religious Congregation marked the end of a process and not its beginning. The Jesuits had already been expelled from Portugal and its colonies, from Spain and from France. In August 1773, the Pope acted under pressure from European powers to make this rejection definitive and universal.

Many movements both within and outside the Catholic Church, sometimes opposed to one another, supported the Suppression. The most significant was the desire of European rulers to control the economic and other institutions in their own territory. This inevitably brought them into conflict with the Papacy and its claims to authority over the local Churches and their wealthy institutions. The Jesuits were an international Congregation and were seen as the strongest defenders of the Papacy. They were also often portrayed as outsiders. Many political cartoons of the following century represented them with the same facial features used in caricatures of Jews, the perennial outsiders and victims in European societies.

At a time of social, intellectual and political ferment, too, groups on all sides saw the Jesuits as a hostile force. Those who reacted against the demand for change saw the Jesuits as worldly and as compromising the purity of an austere faith and its reliance on authoritative regimes that would defend it. Those who advocated the intellectual freedom and individual rights associated with the Enlightenment saw the Jesuits as supporters of authoritarian government. They also resented the political and cultural influence they exercised through their control of the educational institutions throughout Europe. Both those resistant to change and those pressing for it would support the expulsion and suppression of the Jesuits.

Other factors in the Suppression were the attitudes popularly attributed to Jesuits, such as pride and greed. Such sweeping accusations, whether justified or unjustified, can always be supported anecdotally and can influence public opinion. The most spectacular evidence of Jesuit greed was found in Antoine La Vaillette the Superior of the French Jesuit Missions in the Americas America, based in Martinique. To fund the Mission, he bought land, engaged in trade, and borrowed heavily from French institutions to cover his debts. When thirteen ships carrying spices to France were captured by the British, the French banks and their investors were bankrupted and the French Jesuits denied responsibility for the debt. This led to their expulsion from France. A cautionary tale, certainly, but perhaps not representative. La Vaillette had gone rogue, disobeyed Jesuit financial rules against speculation and was dismissed from the Society for his activities.

A final factor in the Suppression may have been institutional greed. It is always difficult to know whether vultures gather after the appearance of mortally wounded prey or before it. But they certainly gathered after the Jesuits were expelled. Colleges, libraries, houses of formation and estates and other institutions passed to the State and to their wealthy clients.

Whatever the reasons for the Suppression, its effects on persons, both on the Jesuits themselves and on those whom they served, were huge. The experience of many Jesuits of the time they echoed that of refugees today. In Portugal they were rounded up in a night and dumped on ships that were denied entrance to other ports and sometimes fired upon. They then had to begin a new life wherever and however they could. Many went from place to places where the Suppression had not been promulgated. The Jesuit General Lorenzo Ricci, a gentle man, was put in a Roman prison under brutal conditions where he died. If Jesuits after the Restoration, who were also frequently exiled, were sceptical about the benefits of modernity, and if many Jesuits today have sought companionship with refugees, the Suppression may have injected such attitudes into the blood.


'At a deeper level the Suppression took Jesuits back to Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises, and particularly to his commendation of the following of Jesus in choosing poverty over wealth, humiliation over honours, and a short life rather than a long one. Such attitudes implied that in discerning, planning and evaluating their works Jesuits needed to be open to regard failure and reputational damage as a blessing.' 


At a deeper level, the Suppression forced Jesuits to reflect on its significance for faith. They had to reckon with the fact that a Congregation, which was founded in order to be available for missions to one Pope and his successors and which had grown massively in its numbers and outreach, had been suppressed by another Pope. Men who had seen in the Pope’s approval of the Society, its growth and its good works, a sign of God’s favour and approval had now to reckon with the meaning of its Suppression and dissolution.

This reflection took them back to the life and spirit of St Ignatius. Stories seen previously of only incidental or hagiographical interest took on a new significance. Ignatius, for example, who faced the strong possibility in his lifetime that a determined Pope might disband or radically change the Society, remarked that it would take him fifteen minutes to reconcile himself to it.

At a deeper level the Suppression took Jesuits back to Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises, and particularly to his commendation of the following of Jesus in choosing poverty over wealth, humiliation over honours, and a short life rather than a long one. Such attitudes implied that in discerning, planning and evaluating their works Jesuits needed to be open to regard failure and reputational damage as a blessing. Crisis management had to be more than the avoidance of risk.

Do Jesuits actually think this way? Well, probably not unless forced by circumstances. But the docile response of Jesuits to the Suppression by Pope Clement XIV and to the more recent intervention of Pope John Paul II in Jesuit governance suggests that such countercultural attitudes may be latent in the blood.  




Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image:  A painting of the 1820 expulsion of the Jesuits from Russia (Wikimedia Commons)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Jesuit, Suppression



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Existing comments

Tough guys, eh! My Oxford Paperback Dictionary defines “tough” as: strong enough to withstand wear and tear; able to deal with pain or difficulty; strict; involving problems or difficulties. That is an apt description of the Jesuits. There seems to be something else too - a loyalty that is lightly worn and yet really powerful. Lovely article Andy.

Pam | 17 August 2023  

I’ve always respected the Society of Jesus. You mention the late Pope Paul 11 intervention in the Governance of the Society. I strongly believe that this came about due to Jesuit opposition to the Pope’s intention to pronounce Our Lady co-redeemer with Our Lord Jesus Christ,as Infallible Church Doctrine. If he had done this, it is almost certain that a Schism would have split the Church irrevocably and the General of the Society told him so. Thank God for the Jesuits!

William Stickwell | 17 August 2023  

Like most groups, the Jesuits are a diverse lot, often portrayed from crafty reactionaries to unrepentant radicals, with the latter seeming more prominent of late.
In a recent article I read about one politician's contradictory positions on an issue, the writer suggested a need to "call in the Jesuital Sophists to explain this."
But I always enjoyed writings from people such as Cardinal Avery Dulles. From a prominent American Presbyterian family, Dulles became a Catholic, and after WW2 service entered the Jesuits. A prolific writer, he took his vows so seriously that, "Every dime of his royalties went to the Jesuits; as for patching the holes in one's shoes, well, duct tape would do just fine." [Newsweek, 12/12/08]
But if the Jesuits were suppressed by Pope Clement XIV, the intervention by Pope John Paul II seems impotent, whereas the suppression of Latin Mass advocates by the Jesuit Pope Francis, reversing Pope Benedict's more tolerant approach, does make one wonder about "countercultural attitudes may be latent in the blood."

Ross Howard | 18 August 2023  

There is a joke, which, though about an Anglican, reminds me very much of the superb Jesuit intellectuals like Martin D'Arcy and Frederick Copleston. The BBC's Panorama team is looking for an Anglican theologian who believes in God. They draw a blank at Oxbridge and all the major cathedrals. Finally, they are given the name of a retired Canon in Chester. They waylay him outside his door, stick a microphone in his face and demand 'Do you believe in God?' 'Perhaps' says he 'And what's that to you?' Jesuits realize the search for God continues.

Edward Fido | 19 August 2023  

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