The sudden collapse of the Society of Jesus, though it was effected rather by the Parlement of Paris than by the philosophes, revealed the temper of the times. Called by its founder the “Company of Jesus,” approved by Pope Paul III in 1540 as Societas Jesu, “a mendicant order of clerks regular” (i.e., a body of religious following a defined rule and living on alms), these “Jesuits,” as their critics called them, became within a century the most powerful group of ecclesiastics in the Catholic Church. By 1575 they had established twelve colleges in France alone; soon they dominated the education of French youth. For two hundred years the kings of France chose Jesuits as their confessors; other Catholic rulers followed suit; and by this and other means the Society of Jesus intimately influenced the history of Europe.

Almost from their beginnings in Paris they were opposed by the Parlement and the Sorbonne. In 1594 the Parlement accused them of instigating the attempt of Jean Châtel upon the life of Henry IV, and in 1610 it charged them with having stirred Ravaillac to murder the King. The Parlement gave force to its accusations by referring to the De rege of the Spanish Jesuit Mariana, who had defended, under certain conditions, the morality, of regicide. But the Society grew in number and power. It dominated the religious policies of Louis XIV, and led him to attack the Jansenists of Port-Royal as Calvinists in a Catholic disguise. The Provincial Letters then written by Pascal (1656 f.) were still remembered by the educated minority in France. Nevertheless, in 1749 the Society had 3,350 members in France, of whom 1,763 were priests. They stood out among the French clergy as the best scholars, the subtlest theologians, the most eloquent preachers, the most devoted, industrious, and successful defenders of the Church. They contributed to a score of sciences, and influenced the forms of art. They were, by general consent, the best educators in Europe. They were distinguished by the austerity of their morals, and yet they used every device of casuistry to lighten the demands of Christian ethics upon common men; even so they never condoned the adulteries of the nobles or the kings. By their arduous preparation and their patient persistence they made themselves a power over the policies of sovereigns and the minds of men. At times it seemed that all Europe would yield to the tenacity of their united and disciplined will.

Their power almost ruined them. It became too evident to the kings that the “Ultramontanism” of the Jesuits, if unchecked, would make all secular rulers the vassals of the popes, and would restore the authority of Imperial Rome. Though closer than any other group to royal ears, they defended the right of the people to overthrow the king. Though they were relatively liberal in theology and morals, and strove to reconcile science and the Church, they cultivated popular piety by supporting the claim of Marguerite Marie Alacoque that Christ had revealed to her his Sacred Heart burning with love for mankind. They trained the intellects of Descartes, Molière, Voltaire, and Diderot, only to see these brilliant men turn against them and the whole system of Jesuit education.

It was charged that the curriculum of their schools clung too long to Latin; that it discouraged the growth of knowledge by excluding any but traditional ideas; that it appealed too much to memory and to passive obedience; that the unchanging ratio studiorumhad lost touch with the needs of the time for a greater utilization of science and a more realistic view of human life. So d’Alembert, in the article “College” in the Encyclopédie, deplored the six years spent by Jesuit pupils in acquiring a dead language; he recommended more attention to English and Italian, to history and science and modern philosophy; he appealed to the government to take control of education and establish a new curriculum in new schools. In 1762 Rousseau published his Émile, announcing a revolution in education.

The philosophes, however, were a minor factor in the decline of the Jesuits in France. A kind of mutual truce dulled the mutual hostility: the unbelievers respected the learning and character of the Jesuits, and these, by patient handling, hoped to bring the errant skeptics back into the orthodox fold. Voltaire found it hard to make war against his former teachers. He had submitted his Henriade to Father Porée with a request for the correction of any passages injurious to religion.46 In the Temple de gout he had praised the Jesuits for their appreciation of literature, and for their large use of mathematics in the education of youth. The Journal de Trévoux responded with favorable reviews of the Henriade, Charles XII, and the Philosophie de Newton. This entente demi-cordiale ended when Voltaire joined Frederick in Potsdam; the Jesuit leaders then abandoned him as a lost soul, but as late as 1757 some of them attempted a reconciliation between Voltaire and the Society.47 At Ferney (1758 f.) Voltaire maintained friendly relations with the local Jesuits; several of them enjoyed his hospitality; meanwhile he had attacked the Church on a hundred pages of the Essai sur les moeurs, and he was writing anti-Christian articles for the Dictionnaire philosophique. When he heard of the attack upon the Jesuits of Portugal (1757 f.) by the chief minister, Carvalho, and the burning of the Jesuit Malagrida (1764), he denounced Carvalho’s charges as unjust, and condemned the execution as an atrocity.48 But all through those years he himself was at war with the Church, and the writings of his “brethren” Diderot, d’Alembert, and Morellet, were contributing to the weakening of the Jesuits in France.

Perhaps the Masonic lodges, generally dedicated to deism, shared in the sapping operation. But the strongest influences in the tragedy were personal and class antagonisms. Mme. de Pompadour could not forget that the Jesuits had opposed every step in her rise, had denied absolution to the King as long as he kept her, and had refused to take seriously her sudden conversion to piety. Cardinal de Bernis, long a favorite of the Marquise, later declared that the suppression of the Society in France was due mainly to the unwillingness of the Jesuit confessors to grant absolution to La Pompadour despite her assurances that her relations with Louis XV were no longer physical.49 The King echoed her resentment. Why were these priests, so lenient to others, so hard on the woman who had brightened his weary, isolated life? Why were they increasing in corporate wealth while he was struggling to raise funds for his army and navy in a disastrous war—and for the robes of his mistress and the pensions of her understudies in the Parc aux Cerfs? Damiens had tried to kill the King; the Jesuits had no demonstrable connection with the attempt; but Damiens had had a Jesuit confessor; and had not some dead Jesuit defended regicide? The King began to listen to Choiseul and other semi-Voltaireans in his ministry, who argued that the time had come to free the state from tutelage to the Church, to build a social and moral order independent of an obscurantist clergy and a medieval theology. If little Portugal, darkly superstitious, had dared to expel the Jesuits, why could not enlightened France?

Stricken by these diverse enmities, and widely suspected of having bound France to Austria in the Seven Years’ War, the Jesuits suffered a strangely sudden unpopularity. After the defeat of the French by Frederick at Rossbach (1757), and the fortunes of France had apparently reached nadir, and crippled soldiers became a frequent sight in Paris, the Jesuits became a target for jokes, rumors, slanders running even to suggestions of pederasty.50 They were accused of worldliness, of heresy, of coveting wealth, of being the secret agents of foreign powers. Many of the secular clergy criticized their theology as too liberal, their casuistry as demoralizing, their politics as the betrayal of France to Rome. In 1759 d’Alembert wrote to Voltaire: “Brother Berthier and his accomplices dare not appear on the streets these days for fear that people will throw Portuguese oranges at their heads.”51

The most powerful of all the forces that were converging upon the Jesuits was the hostility of the Paris Parlement. That assemblage was composed of lawyers or magistrates belonging to the noblesse de robe, encased in gowns as awesome as the cassocks of the priests. This second aristocracy, well organized and eloquently vocal, was rapidly rising in power, and eager to challenge the authority of the clergy. Moreover, the Parlement was predominantly Jansenist. Despite all the suppression that Jansenism had suffered, that austere doctrine, the gloomy outcome of Paul’s hardening of Christ’s more gentle Christianity, had captured large sections of the French middle class, and most thoroughly those legal minds that felt its logic and saw in it a stance of strength against the Jesuits. Now, it was precisely the Jesuits who had urged Louis XIV to pursue the Jansenists to the complete destruction of Port-Royal, and to the bitter compulsion to accept the reluctant papal bull that had made Jansenism a heresy more disabling than atheism. If only some opportunity would come to retaliate those injuries, to avenge that persecution!

The Jesuits gave the Parlement that opportunity. They had for generations past engaged in industry and commerce as a means of financing their seminaries, colleges, missions, and politics. In Rome they held a monopoly in several lines of production or trade; in Angers, France, they ran a sugar refinery;52 they maintained trading posts in many foreign lands, as in Goa; in Spanish and Portuguese America they were among the richest entrepreneurs.53 Private enterprise complained of this competition, and even good Catholics wondered why an order vowed to poverty should accumulate such wealth. One of their most active businessmen was Father Antoine de La Valette, superior-general of the Jesuits in the Antilles. In the name of the Society he managed extensive plantations in the West Indies. He employed thousands of Negro slaves,54 and exported sugar and coffee to Europe. In 1755 he borrowed large sums from banks in Marseilles; to repay these loans he sent a shipment of merchandise to France; the vessel, with a cargo valued at two million francs ($5,000,000?), was seized by English men-of-war (1755) in the preliminaries to the Seven Years’ War. Hoping to recoup these losses, La Valette borrowed more; he failed and declared bankruptcy, owing 2,400,000 francs. His creditors demanded payment, and asked the Society to acknowledge responsibility for the debts of La Valette. The Jesuit leaders refused, alleging that he had acted as an individual, and not in the name of their order. The bankers sued the Society. Father Frey, political expert of the Society in France, advised it to lay the matter before the Parlement. It was so done (March, 1761), and the fate of the order lay in the hands of its strongest enemy. Meanwhile a Jesuit sent a secret paper to the King, recommending dismissal of Choiseul from the ministry as a man hostile to the Society and religion. Choiseul defended himself successfully.

Parlement seized the opportunity to examine the constitutions and other documents revealing the organization and activities of the Society. On May 8 it gave judgment in favor of the plaintiff, and ordered the Society to pay all of La Valette’s debts. The Jesuits began to make arrangements with the principal creditors.55 But on July 8 the Abbé Terray presented to the Parlement a report “on the moral and practical doctrine of the … Society of Jesus.” On the basis of this report the Parlement issued (August 6) two decrees. One condemned to the fire a large number of Jesuit publications of the preceding two centuries as “teaching murderous and abominable” principles against the security of citizens and sovereigns; it forbade further additions to the membership of the Society in France; and ordered that by April 1, 1762, all Jesuit schools in France be closed except such as should receive letters of permission from the Parlement. The other decree offered to receive complaints against abuses of authority in or by the Society. The King (August 29) suspended the execution of these decrees; Parlement consented to hold them in abeyance till April 1. The harassed King tried for a compromise. In January, 1762, he sent to Clement XIII, and to Lorenzo Ricci, general of the Jesuits, a proposal that henceforth all the general’s powers for France should be delegated to five provincial vicars sworn to obey the laws of France and the Gallican Articles of 1682, which in effect freed the French Church from submission to the pope; furthermore, the Jesuit colleges in France should be subject to inspection by the parlements. Both the Pope and Ricci rejected this proposal with a defiant response: “Sint ut sunt, aut non sint” (Let them [the Jesuits] be as they are, or not at all) ,56 In behalf of the Society Clement appealed to the French clergy directly, which violated French law; the French clergy refused to accept the brief, and remitted it to the King, who returned it to the Pope.

The provincial parlements now entered the drama. Various reports filed with them added to the charges against the Jesuits. The Parlement of Rennes in Brittany was impressed by the Comptes rendus des constitutions des Jésuites presented to it in 1761–62 by itsprocureur général, Louis René de La Chalotais. This charged the Society with heresy, idolatry, illegal operations, and the inculcation of regicide; it contended that every Jesuit had to swear absolute obedience to the pope and to the general of the order, who resided in Rome; that therefore the Society was by its very constitution a threat to France and the King; and it urged that the education of children should be the exclusive right of the state. On February 15, 1762, the Parlement of Rouen ordered all Jesuits in Normandy to vacate their houses and colleges, to remove all foreign directors, and to accept the Galilean Articles. Similar decrees were issued by the Parlements of Rennes, Aix-en-Provence, Pau, Toulouse, Perpignan, and Bordeaux. On April 1 the Parlement of Paris ordered the enforcement of its decrees, and transferred to other administrators the Jesuit schools within its jurisdiction.

The secular clergy, though traditionally jealous of the Jesuits, tried to save them. An assembly of French bishops (May 1) appealed to the King in behalf of the order as an institution useful to the state, … a society of religious who were so praiseworthy for the integrity of their morals, the austerity of their discipline, the vastness of their labors and their erudition, and for the countless services they have rendered to the Church… . Everything, Sire, pleads with you in favor of the Jesuits: religion claims them as its defenders, the Church as her ministers, Christians as the guardians of their conscience; a great number of your subjects who have been their pupils intercede with you for their old masters; all the youth of the kingdom pray for those who are to form their minds and their hearts. Do not, Sire, turn a deaf ear to our united supplication.57

The Queen, her daughters, the Dauphin, and the others of the dévot party at the court added their pleas for the Jesuits, but Choiseul and Pompadour now definitely advised the King to yield to the Parlement and close the Jesuit schools. Louis was reminded that he must soon raise new taxes, and that these would require the assent of the Parlement. While he vacillated between opposed counsels the Parlement took decisive steps. On August 6, 1762, it declared that the Society of Jesus was inconsistent with the laws of France, that the oaths of the members overrode their loyalty to the King, and that the subjection of the Society to an alien authority made it a foreign body within a supposedly sovereign state; therefore the Parlement ordered the Society dissolved in France, and bade the Jesuits vacate, within eight days, all their French property, which was declared forfeited to the King.

The King delayed by eight months the full execution of this decree. Two parlements-Btsançon and Douai-refused to obey the decrees; three -Dijon, Grenoble, Metz-temporized. But the Paris Parlement insisted, and finally, in November, 1764, Louis ordered the complete suppression of the Society of Jesus in France. The confiscated property amounted to 58 million francs,58 and may have helped to reconcile the King to the dissolution. A small pension was allowed to the ex-Jesuits, and for a time they were permitted to stay in France; but in 1767 the Paris Parlement decreed that all former Jesuits must leave France. Only a few renounced their order and remained.

The expulsion was agreeable to the nobility, the middle class, the literati, and the Jansenists, but was unpopular with the rest of the population. Christophe de Beaumont, archbishop of Paris, vigorously condemned the actions of the Parlement. An assembly of the French clergy (1765) unanimously expressed grief over the dissolution of the Society, and pleaded for its restoration. Pope Clement XIII, in the bull Apostolicum, proclaimed the innocence of the Jesuits; the bull was burned in the streets of several cities by the public executioner, on the ground that the popes had no legal right to interfere with French affairs.59 The philosophes at first hailed the expulsion as an inspiring victory for liberal thought, and d’Alembert noted with pleasure the comment of the Biblical scholar Jean Astruc that “it was not the Jansenists but the Encyclopédie that killed the Jesuits.”60 The number of free-thought publications now rapidly increased; it was in the decade after the expulsion that d’Holbach and his aides carried the anti-Christian campaign to the point of atheism.

On second thought, however, the philosophes perceived that the victory belonged less to them than to the Jansenists and the parlements, and that it left free thought facing an enemy far more intolerant than the Jesuits.61 In his Histoire de la destruction des Jésuites (1765) d’Alembert expressed only a tempered elation over their fate:

It is certain that the greater part of them, who had no voice in affairs, … should not have suffered for the faults of their superiors, if such a distinction were practicable. There were thousands of innocents whom we have regretfully confused with some twenty guilty individuals… . The destruction of the Society will redound to the great advantage of reason, provided Jansenist intolerance does not succeed to Jesuit intolerance.… If we had to choose between these two sects we should prefer the Society of Jesus as the less tyrannical. The Jesuits—accommodating people provided one did not declare himself their enemy—allowed one to think as he pleased. The Jansenists want everyone to think as they do. If they were masters they would exercise the most violent inquisition over minds, speech, and morals.62

As if to illustrate these views, the Jansenist Parlement of Paris, in the same year of 1762 in which it ordered the dissolution of the Society of Jesus, also ordered the public burning of Rousseau’s relatively pious Émile; the Jansenist Parlement of Toulouse, in that year, broke Jean Calas on the wheel; the Paris Parlement, in 1765, burned Voltaire’s Dictionnaire philosophique, and, a year later, confirmed the sentence of torture and execution laid upon the young Chevalier de La Barre by the court of Abbeville.

On September 25, 1762, d’Alembert had written to Voltaire: “Do you know what I heard about you yesterday? That you begin to pity the Jesuits, and are tempted to write in their favor.”63 There had always been a fund of pity in Voltaire, and now that the battle against the Society seemed thoroughly won he could hear some voices of reproach from his dead teachers. He took into his home at Ferney one of the ex-Jesuits, Père Adam, who handled his charities and regularly beat him at chess. Voltaire warned La Chalotais: “Beware lest one day Jansenism do as much harm as the Jesuits have done… . What will it serve me to be delivered from the foxes if they deliver me to the wolves?”64 He feared that the Jansenists, like the Puritans in seventeenth-century England, would close the theaters, and the theater was almost his favorite passion. So he wrote to d’Alembert: “The Jesuits were necessary; they were a diversion; we made fun of them, and we are going to be crushed by pedants.”65 He was ready to pardon the Jesuits if only because they had loved the classics and the drama.66

His friend and enemy Frederick the Great joined in these sentiments. “Why,” Frederick asked the Prince de Ligne in 1764,

why have they destroyed those repositories of the graces of Athens and Rome, those excellent professors of the humanities, and perhaps of humanity, the Jesuits? Education will suffer… . But as my brothers the Kings, most Catholic, most Christian, most faithful and apostolic, have tumbled them out, I, most heretical, gather as many as I can; I preserve the breed.67

When d’Alembert warned Frederick that he would regret this amiability, and reminded him that the Jesuits had opposed his conquest of Silesia, the King reproved the philosopher:

You need not be alarmed for my safety; I have nothing to fear from the Jesuits. They can teach the youth of the country, and they are better able to do that than anyone else. It is true that they were on the other side during the war, but as a philosopher you ought not to reproach one for being kind and humane to everyone of the human species, no matter what religion or society he belongs to. Try to be more of a philosopher and less of a metaphysician.68

When Pope Clement XIV dissolved the entire Society of Jesus in 1773 Frederick refused to allow the publication of the papal bull in his realm. The Jesuits were maintained in their property and functions in Prussia and Silesia.

Catherine II left undisturbed the Jesuits whom she found in that part of Poland which she appropriated in 1772, and she protected those who later entered Russia. There they labored patiently until their restoration (1814).

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!