The Suppression and Restoration of the Jesuits

King Joseph I of PortugalIn the mid-18th century, few religious orders could rival the Society of Jesus in size and influence. More than 22,000 Jesuits operated nearly 700 colleges and 200 seminaries in the 1750s. They had powerful friends and wealthy benefactors, acting as confessors to many of the crowned heads of Europe. But they also had equally powerful and wealthy enemies among senior ministers and aristocrats seeking to control their monarchs and prevent the intervention of the Catholic Church in state affairs.

As the first missionaries the Jesuits had a great deal of influence in the American empires of Spain, Portugal and France.  As portrayed in the 1986 film The Mission, their championship of native populations against exploitation brought them into conflict with the colonial powers. 

Jeremy Irons in The Mission (Roland Joffe 1986)

During the eighteenth century, and influenced by the secularist Enlightenment movement,  Portugal, Spain, France and Austria were maturing as nation states and were rejecting papal influence.  The Jesuits were seen to represent all that these states disliked about papal interference in temporal affairs.  They became popularised as secretive, deceptive, manipulative, devious regicides, intent on world domination either for themselves or for the pope. They became convenient scapegoats, enabling the papacy to deflect antagonism from the papal Curia to the order.   Expulsion of the Jesuits from colonies and home territories gave their enemies the added advantage of the seizure of their many assets.


The expulsion of the Jesuits from FranceJesuits were first expelled from Portugal (1759), then France (1764), Spain (1767) and  Austria (1770).  Thousands of destitute priests and brothers sought refuge in Rome during these years.  Finally in 1773 anti-Jesuit forces succeeded in persuading Pope Clement XIV to issue Dominus ac Redemptor, the papal brief suppressing the Society of Jesus, in order to secure peace in the Church.  Jesuits in Italy had to renounce the Society of Jesus in order to remain in ministry.   Some of those who refused found refuge in Catherine the Great’s Russia (which then included much of Catholic Poland-Lithuania).  A fan of neither the Habsburg and Bourbon dynasties, nor the pope, Catherine put many Jesuits to work in extending their education system to Russia.  Frederick the Great and his successors in protestant Prussia had a similar attitude.


Pope Pius VII


Since it was still in theory illegal to be a Jesuit in Britain at this time, the position of British Jesuits was anomalous.  Ironically relations between secular clergy and Jesuits were extremely friendly at the time. Ex-Jesuits were able to remain united under a type of superior associated with the college then in Bruges (eventually moving to Liège and finally in 1794 to Stonyhurst) and to retain ownership of the province's not inconsiderable assets.

Following the French Revolution in 1789 war raged across Europe until the final defeat of Napoleon in 1815.  Europe was on its knees economically.  The Catholic Church was at a low ebb, successive popes having fared badly in their struggles with Napoleon.  Needing support to reinstate church structures and in particular church schools, one of Pope Pius V11’s first acts following Napoleon’s abdication in 1814, was to reinstate the Society of Jesus worldwide with the Bull Solicitudo omnium ecclesiarum.  He had paved the way to this step by approving the status of the Jesuits who continued their ministry in Russia in 1801; and in 1803 he allowed thirty-five ex-Jesuits to renew their vows at Stonyhurst under Marmaduke Stone as first Provincial of the restored English Province.