For centuries, Jesuits have worn many hats: missionaries, educators and preachers; writers and scientists; priests with the poor and confessors of the royal courts of Europe.
But the Jesuits are also among the most controversial groups in the Church: they have sometimes clashed with Catholic groups with different views or ecclesiastical authorities, and they have also been accused of colluding in politics. For example, fearing that the order would interfere in American politics, the founding father John Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson in 1816 that the order deserved “Eternal Perdition on Earth and in Hell”.
So who are the Jesuits? And what makes them distinctive?
soldier in saint
In 1521, the Basque nobleman Inigo Lopez – known to history as Saint Ignatius of Loyola – was seriously wounded in battle against the French in Pamplona, Spain. Intense prayer during months of painful recovery brought about a personal transformation that would lead him to found the Society of Jesus in 1534.
Ignatius compiled his spiritual insights into a prayer manual called the “spiritual exercises.” This book was intended to help people “seek and find the will of God” and to guide them through a month-long silent retreat.
While studying at the University of Paris, Ignatius assembled a small group of like-minded men which he conducted through the “Spiritual Exercises”. They became the first Jesuits, soon elect Ignatius as their leader, the first Superior General. By the time Ignatius died in 1556 there were a few 1,000 Jesuits spread across Europe, India and Brazil.
One mission, many ways
Catholic religious orders generally require their members to take three lifetime wishes: poverty, chastity and obedience. The additional Jesuit “fourth vow” is a commitment to be available to be sent to work where the needs of the church and the world are most pressing. Often this means undertaking ministries in remote corners of the globe or in emerging fields of study.
Also embedded in the order is the desire to “seek God and find the will of God in all things.” This conviction has historically drawn Jesuits to many different fields of studyincluding math and Sciences, and sent them to distant places. Jesuit explorers mapped the Amazon River and discovered the source of the Blue Nile. Sixteen asteroids and some 34 lunar craters are named after Jesuit astronomers.
At a time when public education was scarce, they met this need and build a network of schools across Europe, Latin America and Asia. Their schools grew An innovation study programme which incorporated rhetoric, the classics, Arts and Science.
Lightning Rods for Controversy
The work of the Jesuits has sometimes plunged them into controversy and criticism.
Among the best known was the “Chinese ritualsdebate in the 17th century. Convinced that Christianity would spread faster if it adapted to local cultures, Jesuit missionaries in China incorporated elements of Confucian Ancestor Veneration in Catholic rituals. This decision was fiercely opposed by Franciscan and Dominican missionaries, and Pope Clement XI banned the strategy in 1704.
The close association of the Jesuits with the royal courts and the papacy made the order influential, but also vulnerable to opposition. Beginning with the territories of the Portuguese Empire, the Jesuits were gradually expelled from all Bourbon territories – regions that today are part of Spain, Italy and France and their former empires – and the Habsburg lands of Central Europe. Bowing to political pressure, the Vatican officially abolished the Jesuitsand they had no official existence from 1773 to 1814.
Adapt to change, embrace justice
In 1965, Father Pedro Arrupe, a Basque who had spent much of his life in Japan, was elected the 28th Superior General of the Jesuits. At the time, the Catholic Church was implementing the teachings of the Second Vatican Counciladapting many practices to make them more relevant to a changing world marked by decolonization, Cold War politics and the change in the catholic population to the southern hemisphere.
Under Arrupe’s leadership, the Jesuits officially declared that a commitment to justice was essential to the work of their order. This development led many Jesuits to adopt progressive positions in religion and politics. The Latin American Jesuits, for example, adopted aspects of liberation theology, which emphasized caring for the poor and oppressed: to provide for people not only spiritually, but materially. Today, in the minds of many, the Jesuits continue to be associated with and liberal views.
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Like those of other Catholic orders, Jesuit priests around the world have been accused of sexual abuse. A recent church report in Spain, for example, identified 96 attackers, most of whom were already deceased.
Meanwhile, more historical research is emerging on the involvement of the Jesuits with slavery. In 2021, the order promised 100 million dollars for the descendants of those enslaved by Georgetown University in the 19th century and for racial justice initiatives.
Pope Francis and the future of the Jesuits
The prospect of a Jesuit pope was once considered unlikely, given the tensions at times between other church leaders and the order. Therefore, the 2013 election of Jesuit Jorge Bergoglio as Pope Francis surprised many, and his papacy continued in that vein.
Vatican watchers note some features Ignatian Accents in Pope Francis’ Priorities, Language and Management Style, including greater attention to the poor. He stressed the need to examine all aspects of an argument when making church decisions and showed a pragmatic willingness to consider new approaches.
Future Jesuit priorities will continue to evolve as the order adapts to new circumstances. But it is the “Spiritual Exercises” that remain at the heart of the identity and mission of today’s 17,000 Jesuits.
Dorian LlywelynPresident, Institute of Advanced Catholic Studies, USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences