Why have the Jesuits been associated with conspiracies over the years? Back in 1540 they were an innovative order, distinctly different from the familiar Benedictines, Franciscans and Dominicans. Like many new and different initiatives they attracted suspicion from the establishment.
Unlike all previous orders in the Catholic Church they had no regular habit or uniform. As contemplatives in action they roamed the world, the intersections, going where the need was greatest. They did not spend their lives bound to a single monastery, nor did they pray at four hour intervals. They wore practical clothes. In mission territories such as India and China, they drew criticism for adopting the “heathen” dress of native populations. Because they were not easily identifiable they were often accused of dissembling, disguise and spying.
The order was formed as the protestant Reformation was gaining traction - a time of religious conflict, suspicion and turmoil. As newcomers to the scene taking an active role in the Counter Reformation through initiatives such as education, and new technology such as printing, the Jesuits drew suspicion from Catholic traditionalists and the older religious orders, and were feared and hated by the new Protestants.
Successive popes relied heavily on the Jesuits in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to build Catholic education as a force for Counter Reformation, and to develop the Church in the new world. Thus they quickly gained power and influence with the popes and with the Catholic crowned heads of Europe - possibly too much power as it attracted jealousy and suspicion.
Their growing knowledge of distant lands and foreign peoples, their commitment to scientific discovery, their interest in cultural enquiry were all causes of mistrust which sometimes led to accusations of witchcraft.
Because they have always worked “at the margins and intersections” individual Jesuits, whilst maintaining their vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, were (and are) given a great deal of freedom as to the means of achieving their mission. On some occasions this has led to individuals going too far and working against the local laws.
The Jesuits’ loyalty to the pope drew particular antipathy in sixteenth and seventeenth century England. Jesuits believed that Catholics’ first allegiance should be to the pope –or, significantly “another prince by his authority” rather than to a temporal monarch. In the turmoil the English Reformation where political and religious forces were intertwined, this was treasonous. While there is little evidence that any Jesuit working in England ever plotted directly to overthrow a British monarch, English Jesuits working abroad were in discussion with foreign governments about regime change.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as European nation states matured, this allegiance to the pope above temporal monarchs eventually contributed to the suppression of the order.
Some plots which Jesuits have been accused of masterminding: