Calvinism and the Jesuits

Many general histories of Europe or of the Reformation have included comments about the similarities and differences between the Calvinists and the Society of Jesus. This is hardly surprising, since the rise to prominence of these movements was concurrent and the stimulus which they gave to flagging Protestantism and assailed Catholicism precipitated another round of religious conflict in the second half of the sixteenth century. The purpose of this chapter is to emphasize the comparisons and contrasts between the organizations, taking as points of reference, their origins, doctrines, structure and impact on Europe and the rest of the world.

John Calvin (1509–64) and Ignatius Loyola (1491–1556) were of very different backgrounds. Calvin was a typical member of the French bourgeoisie and spent his youth in thorough and systematic study: theology at Paris and law at Orleans. Loyola, on the other hand, was born into the Spanish nobility in the province of Guipuzcoa and showed an early interest in military matters rather than education.

These backgrounds determined the roads to their religious commitment. Calvin developed his spiritual awareness through his education; his writings show the influence of his training in law in the presentation of his ideas, while the radical content of his beliefs was stimulated initially by his growing interest in the works of Erasmus and Luther. The whole process was gradual and predictable. With Loyola the reverse was true. His commitment was the result of conversion, which took place while he was suffering from a leg wound sustained while assisting in the defence of Pamplona, Navarre, against French attacks in 1521. He lived in great austerity until 1523, and education had little to do with his early devotion; he came to realize the importance of study after the failure of his mission to Palestine in 1523, and he attended the Universities of Alcala (1526), Salamanca (1527) and Paris. Loyola, therefore, experienced a radical change, which Calvin did not.

Both became closely involved in the process of reform and regeneration. To some extent, however, the actual achievement of their status and influence was due to the current political situation; in the formative years both of their careers took unexpected turns. Calvin was expelled from the University of Paris in 1533 and fled to Basle with no obvious future. His opportunity came as a result of the situation in Geneva, which was in revolt against the Duchy of Savoy and had expelled the Catholic bishop. Calvin was invited to take up residence in Geneva to fill the gap left by the destruction of the Church hierarchy. His reforms were not universally popular and he spent a period in exile between 1538 and 1541 before his Régime became really effective. Loyola's opportunities were somewhat different. Like Calvin, he incurred the displeasure of the authorities, his trouble with the Spanish Inquisition being one of the main reasons for the continuation of his studies in France rather than in Spain. By 1537 he had conceived a plan to pursue a holy life in Palestine (despite the failure of his attempt to convert the Muslims there between 1523 and 1524) and he formed the Compana de Jesu for this purpose. This, however, was thwarted by a war between Venice and the Turks, which affected normal sea routes to the Middle East. Loyola took the momentous decision to devote his order to the service of the Pope and this was given recognition in the bull Regimini militantis ecclesiae in 1540. Rome was the headquarters of the society and, like Geneva, soon became the centre of a process of religious conversion and widespread political influence.

The main part of Calvin's doctrinal teachings is contained in his Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536) and in his Reply to Sadoleto (1540); Loyola's ideas are set forth in his Spiritual Exercises, compiled during the 1520s. The contrast between them is considerable.

The most obvious is their attitude to the Catholic Church. According to Calvin, the hierarchy of the Church was based on ‘usurped instruments of tyranny and ambition’1 and authority should be restored to the ‘magistrates’ or civil government. Calvin was far more uncompromising than Luther in his rejection of the claims of the Church to provide the only true interpretation of the scriptures and to act as an essential intermediary between man and God. By contrast, Loyola insisted on total obedience to all doctrine as interpreted by the Church. The first of the Rules for Thinking with the Church contained in the Spiritual Exercises stated: ‘Laying aside all private judgement, we ought to hold our minds prepared and prompt to obey in all things the true Spouse of Christ our Lord, which is our Holy Mother, the hierarchical Church.’2 Furthermore, according to the Thirteenth Rule: ‘To arrive at the truth in all things, we ought always to be ready to believe that what seems to us white is black, if the hierarchical Church so defines it.’ What Calvin attempted to destroy, therefore, Loyola sought to uphold and preserve.

As a result of his radical views Calvin became a doctrinal innovator. His main departure from Catholic ideas was his emphasis on predestination, although he claimed that the concepts of grace and predestination were evident in the early teachings of the Church and that therefore ‘our agreement with antiquity is far closer than yours’.1 The Church had ‘nefariously effaced’ predestination from the memory of man, and ‘those who shut the gates that no–one may dare to seek a taste of this doctrine wrong man no less than God’.3 Loyola showed the innate caution of the Catholic Church in dealing with the issue. He did not deny the validity of predestination but observed in the Fourteenth Rule: ‘Although it is very true that no–one can be saved unless he is predestined, and has faith and grace, we must be very careful in our manner of speaking and treating of these subjects.’2 Indeed, according to the Fifteenth Rule: ‘We ought not habitually to speak much of predestination.’ Loyola was convinced that overemphasis on predestination would result in the paralysis of man's own striving for salvation and that the role of ‘good works’ would be considerably undermined. He also feared that this ‘poisonous teaching’ would destroy the whole basis of ‘free will’, a vital part of man's relationship with God. On the whole he avoided any detailed interpretation of the concepts of grace, faith and predestination and relied on the official pronouncements of the Church. The Jesuit contribution to the debate came later, when Louis Molina in his De liberi arbitrii cum gratia donis concordia (1588) tried to provide a synthesis between predestination and free will.

Calvin's attack on the Church included a revision of the sacraments which was again based on the assumption that Catholicism had departed from early practices. ‘In the sacraments, all we have attempted is to restore the native purity from which they had degenerated, and so enable them to resume their dignity.’1 In the process, he roundly condemned ‘your gross doctrine of transubstantiation’. Loyola upheld the sacraments in their entirety and devoted the Second, Third, Fourth and Fifth Rules for Thinking with the Church to the importance of regular and complete observance. The rejection of Calvin's revision by the Jesuits was followed by the strengthening of the role of the sacraments in the Catholic Church by the Council of Trent (1545–63). The Jesuits were therefore the spearhead of orthodoxy in upholding traditional institutions.

Calvinists and Jesuits differed totally in their attitude to ceremony and the use of the senses. Calvin was uncompromisingly hostile to ‘the accursed worship of images’1 and referred to Church ceremonies as ‘childish in their import, and vitiated by innumerable forms of superstition’. Loyola, however, firmly believed in the importance of sensuousness in private devotion and in public worship; the Eighth Rule therefore called Catholics ‘to praise the building and adornment of churches, and also images, and to venerate them according to what they represent’. He also upheld ‘pilgrimages, indulgences, jubilees, crusades and candles lighted in churches’ (Sixth Rule). Again, the Council of Trent affirmed the importance of ritual, refusing to come to terms with any form of Protestantism. In 1530 Luther had attempted to initiate a measure of doctrinal compromise between Protestantism and Catholicism. Such a prospect, however, became increasingly unlikely as Calvinism exerted more radical influences in one direction and the Society of Jesus restored the concept of the Church militant in the other.

The institutions set up by Calvin and Loyola were intended to be self-contained and capable of close co-operation with political authority or, if necessary, of survival in the face of political opposition and persecution. There was, however, a fundamental difference in purpose. Calvinist organization, as laid down in the Ecclesiastical Ordinances (1541), was designed to replace the previous hierarchy of the Catholic Church in Geneva and to establish close cooperation between secular authorities and the Calvinist ministry in defining and regulating all doctrine and morality. Calvinism, therefore, affected the lives of the entire population. The Jesuits, on the other hand, were in essence a minority movement operating within the framework of the Church. The basis of the Order was Loyola's Constitutions (1550) and its purpose, as defined in the papal bull of 1540, was to educate, to propagate Christianity and to hear confessions. The Society of Jesus was so successful as a pressure group with an almost military structure and as the guardian of the interests of the larger institution which it served that later non-religious bodies imitated aspects of its organization.

Both Calvinism and the Society of Jesus stressed the importance of obedience, discipline and morality, and the details of their institutions were directed towards these. These details, however, were so different that they are difficult to compare directly. Calvinism in Geneva was based upon four main types of official: pastors, who were responsible for religious activities and for the care of souls, teachers or doctors, who interpreted the scriptures, elders, who regulated moral discipline and deacons, who dispensed funds and cared for the poor. Doctrine and morality were enforced by the Consistory, which comprised six pastors and twelve lay elders. With the full co-operation of the City Council they imposed punishments for a variety of offences ranging from drinking and swearing to heresy and witchcraft. The death sentence was frequently applied in Geneva, and victims included the writers Gruet (1547) and Servetus (1553). The Jesuits, by contrast, made no claims to state assistance in the enforcement of morality or orthodoxy: more serious cases were seen to be within the scope of the Spanish Inquisition, while censorship was directed by the Vatican in the form of the Index librorum prohibitorum, established by Pope Paul IV in 1559. The organization and rule of the Jesuits proved to be more complex than those of Calvinism even though they affected only a few, those who voluntarily entered the Order. Membership included novices, who trained for a probationary period of two years, lay brothers and scholastics of the second class, ‘coadjutors’ of the third class, and the ‘professed’ of the fourth class, usually about one tenth of the entire organization.4 The overall leader was the General of the Order, under the personal authority of the Pope, and the central institution was the General Congregation. The Society of Jesus was, therefore, a compromise; it reaffirmed the importance of the role of the religious order, which both Luther and Calvin had rejected, but it substituted worldly contact and semi–military discipline for the more extreme asceticism of monasticism.

What was the impact of Calvinism and the Society of Jesus? Loyola died in 1556 and Calvin in 1564, by which time their influence was already deeply rooted. The second half of the sixteenth century saw a struggle between Calvinism and reformed Catholicism, spearheaded by the Jesuits, in most of Europe. Calvinism established itself firmly in the northern Netherlands, Scotland and several German states, including the Palatinate; other areas, including France, Bohemia, England, Poland and Hungary, saw Calvinism emerging as a militant minority movement. Geographically it is more difficult to assess precisely the spread of Jesuit influence, since it was part of the more general offensive of the Counter Reformation. Usually, however, the Jesuits were most successful in those areas which had become partially Lutheran, such as Austria, Bavaria and Hungary, or in combating the new threat of Calvinism, especially in the southern Netherlands and Poland.

Of primary importance to the success of Calvinism was its ability to harmonize with the political authority (as in the Netherlands) or to establish a cohesive opposition unit (as in France and Scotland). The latter involved adapting some of Calvin's ideas and superimposing concepts of resistance and natural law—Languet and Buchanan provided approval, in certain cases, for rebellion. The Jesuits, too, operated on a political plane, although they were rarely directly associated with political institutions. They overcame the traditional Catholic abhorrence for regicide which was so pronounced in the writings of St Thomas Aquinas, and developed an acceptance of regicide in those instances where Catholic interests were threatened. This explains Jesuit involvement in various plots to overthrow Elizabeth (whom the Pope had excommunicated as a ‘Calvinist’). The Jesuits increased their influence over those in high places. They established themselves as confessors to most of the leading Catholic monarchs of Europe by the end of the sixteenth century and, as such, were able to exert political pressure through advice after consultation. The Emperors Rudolf II, Matthias, Ferdinand II and Ferdinand III all had Jesuit confessors who had some influence on the events before and during the Thirty Years’ War. It was not until the eighteenth century that the Jesuits came to be universally regarded as a source of political danger, and that the Catholic countries vied with each other in expelling them.

Education was regarded by both Calvinists and Jesuits as a crucial element in the process of conversion, although that provided by the Jesuits was more systematic, thorough and permanent. Calvin's emphasis on scriptural knowledge necessitated a widely literate population and it was to this that the main priority was given. Nevertheless, there was sometimes little attempt to go beyond basic requirements and any science subject was regarded with some suspicion. The Jesuits made a conscious decision to aim at the higher reaches of the educative process in Europe, concentrating on secondary and university education, often leaving the gap of primary education to be filled by other Orders. They provided the most systematic structure for secondary education until the state eventually assumed responsibility over three hundred years later. The courses provided by the Jesuits included not only doctrinal training as defined by the Council of Trent but also teaching in the sciences.

The vitality and irrepressible nature of Calvinism and the Society of Jesus resulted inevitably in the spread of their activities outside Europe. Again, the reasons and results were different. Calvinism was not exported as a deliberate policy but as part of a series of refugee movements from persecution in Europe.

The two main examples were the origins of the North American colonies in the early seventeenth century and the development of the Cape Colony in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Puritans and Huguenots carried with them the basic ethos of Calvinism, including the doctrine of predestination which was adapted to the rigours of frontier societies and assumed a greater degree of harshness as a result. Calvinist settlers set themselves apart from, struggled with, and overcame the indigenous populations whom they encountered. The Jesuits spread their influence with greater calculation and planning, the scope of their activity extending from China and India, through much of Africa to most of the South American continent. They made careful study of the areas which they intended to convert and frequently tried to harmonize their activities, practices and doctrine with indigenous customs. Their willingness to experiment, which produced among other things the famous Paraguay settlement, sometimes brought them into conflict with the colonial administrations of Spain and Portugal but this rarely acted as a deterrent. Increasingly, the Jesuits gave a spiritual purpose to Spanish and Portuguese imperialism; at the same time Calvinism was contributing much to the initial impetus of colonial activity for the countries of Western Europe.

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