The (In)famous Jesuits?

The word “Jesuit” is often associated with great intellectual skill, cunning, and deception. In academics the Jesuits have long been recognized as the leading order within the Catholic Church that fulfills a predominantly educational mission. Unfortunately, their intellectual expertise has in the past been used to subvert intellectual discussion. From their intellectual wranglings with the Jansenists in France during the seventeenth century, the expression “Jesuit casuistry,” or just “casuistry,” has become synonymous with hypocrisy, or with reference to anyone who is skilled at argumentation or specious reasoning and sophistry to support otherwise questionable, immoral behavior.

Officially known as the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits have a checkered history, not only among non-Catholics but also within the Catholic Church. Consider the following: they received the papal blessing and official sanction in 1540, just six years after their inception by Ignatius Loyola; they were also expelled from several European countries between 1750 and 1773; they are renowned for their educational mission, primarily for establishing schools for educating the youth; in academic debate, they are known as casuists; in modern times, they have performed praiseworthy actions, such as struggling for the rights of indigenous peoples in South America; during the 1970s, they had been placed under a ban of silence regarding liberation theology, considered akin to Marxism by the Curia (the Roman Catholic Church’s official doctrinal authority).

It is worth noting, as well, that among famous Jesuits are John Carroll, a cousin of Charles Carroll, who signed the U.S. Declaration of Independence; John Courtney Murray, who authored most of the Declaration on Religious Liberty (Dignitatis humanae) of Vatican II; and Pope Francis I (formerly Cardinal Bergoglio).


Although their origins are well documented historically, they are often regarded as an organization shrouded in mystery. Ignatius Loyola, a Spanish soldier wounded in battle and who claimed a conversion experience during his convalescence, was the founder of the order. Ignatius wrote Spiritual Exercises, a detailed manual designed to lead the practitioner into a profound, mystical experience of commitment to Jesus Christ. The Spiritual Exercises consist of “meditations, prayers, and contemplative practices” developed by Loyola. As originally practiced, the devotee entered a “long retreat” of about 30 days in solitude and silence. So from the beginning a certain spiritual mysticism accompanied their intellectualism.

By 1599 Jesuit administrators and teachers had written Ratio Studiorum (the abbreviation of the full title, Ratio atque Institutio Studiorum Societatis Jesu, Method and System of the Studies of the Society of Jesus), which outlined the Jesuit plan of education. Such an education produced priests who were well equipped to defend the Catholic faith, an additional part of the Jesuit mission that was added to their Oath of Allegiance in 1550.The Society of Jesus had such remarkable results of regaining former Catholics that they became the front line of defense in the spiritual warfare against Protestants, presenting such formidable challenges as to have regained the majority of formerly Protestant countries back to Catholicism by the mid-1600s in what historians term the “Catholic Counter-Reformation.”

Being highly educated, but often steeped in philosophy more than Scripture, the Jesuits of the medieval era recognized that the strength of Protestantism resided in a “Thus saith the Lord”; that is, a plain declaration from the Holy Bible. From the Scriptures, Martin Luther and other Reformers identified the antichrist with the medieval Papacy. They were offended by its lust for power and influence, not to mention its persecutory nature, having initiated the Inquisition in an attempt to purge society of those it deemed to be heretics. To counter Protestant biblical teachings, two Jesuits—Francisco Ribera and Luis de Alcázar—developed two conveniently countervailing methods of interpreting prophecies found in the Holy Scriptures. Preterism, the interpretational method of viewing all prophecies as past events, and thus already fulfilled, would identify the antichrist as a figure of history and would not identify popery as such.

Futurism; the hermeneutic (interpretational method) of viewing biblical prophecies as all having a future fulfillment, would likewise remove the accusatory finger away from the See of Peter. Five hundred years later the fruit of their interpretational methods can be seen among Protestant denominations that adopt them (Scofield Reference Bible; the rapture theory, etc.), resulting in less opposition toward Catholicism and a much heartier unity on social service projects, as well as theological dogma.However, perhaps the single factor that has contributed most to the perception of Jesuits as sinister and shrouded in mystery is the political intrigue that many Jesuits have been involved in.

Political Intrigues

In past centuries some Catholics (and perhaps with Jesuit involvement) have sought to address political grievances through assassinations of Protestant political leaders. For example, the Gunpowder Plot was an attempted assassination of King James I and Parliament on November 5, 1605. The plan was designed to jolt Protestant England back to the Catholicism that “Bloody” Queen Mary had enforced.

In Jesuit Political Thought: Jesuits and the State, 1540-1630, Harro Hopfl details how in England the Jesuits introduced political ideas regarding the relation of the church to the state, as well as the allegiance of citizens to their king, that sought to undermine the influence and jurisdiction of monarchs deemed to be out of step with Rome. Chapter 13 debates tyrannicide and the Oath of Allegiance taken by subjects toward their ruler.

During the twentieth century, Jesuits and priests supported General Franco in Spain from the early 1940s until the shift from Communism to democracy that occurred during the 1970s. Sensing how the political winds were shifting, priests actively mobilized society to desire a democratic rule. Utilizing information campaigns, priests distributed pamphlets, as well as preached in their pulpits to encourage the populace to seek a democratic form of government. Spain transitioned smoothly to democracy in no small part because of clerical involvement. But priestly overtures did not end here. During the drafting and debates on the constitution for the new democracy, priests assured the church a favored, prominent legal role, as well as stipulating that certain moral values from the church become codified (such as marriage).

During the 1990s and after the fall of Communism in Europe, the expression “Vatican ratlines” (information lines of communication that enabled the Vatican to match the CIA at intelligence collection) came to public knowledge as Time (“Unholy Alliance”) and other media revealed how intimately involved Pope John Paul II, and other Vatican leaders, including Jesuits, had effected the defeat of one of the Catholic Church’s archrivals.

However, in some cases, the roles have been reversed.Instead of Jesuits effecting political change through a variety of methods, on November 16, 1989, the shocking news from El Salvador of the assassination of six Jesuits caught worldwide attention. Although tragic, this event spawned the Ignatian Solidarity Network, which seeks to “network, educate, and form advocates for social justice animated by the spirituality of St. Ignatius of Loyola and the witness of the Jesuit martyrs of El Salvador.” What kind of political power might this organization possess? It possesses enough to produce the joint efforts of a U.S. senator and a Jesuit to appeal to Congress requesting support of immigration legislation. Senator Dick Durbin, a graduate of Georgetown University and coauthor of the bipartisan DREAM Act legislation, organized a press conference for (Jesuit) Father Michael Sheehan to appeal to Jesuit-educated members of Congress, both Republicans and Democrats, in support of the Dream Act of 2017.Sheehan estimated that 10 percent of congressional members were educated at Jesuit colleges and universities. He therefore based his appeal upon “responsible citizenship” and the “obligation to respect and protect the natural rights of other human beings,” both of which are core elements of Jesuit education.

Following the lead of Pope Francis I, the Jesuits of Honduras on December 7, 2017, denounced the corrupt manipulation of the Honduran elections.The Jesuits of Canada and those of the United States echoed the objection of the Jesuits of Central America regarding what they deemed a flagrant violation of the democratic rights of the Honduran citizens.

Modern-Day Pursuits

While Jesuits of prior centuries may have sought to produce political change through assassination attempts, such as the Gunpowder Plot, those Jesuits of the modern era utilize democratic values, such as voting, free speech, and peaceful assembly, to accomplish their political goals.Jesuits masterfully leverage their educational expertise through formal educational institutions and through drama.

In fulfillment of their educational mission, there are, based on 2014 statistics, 28 Jesuit universities in America, seven of which are operated by lay presidents (i.e., presidents who are Catholics, but not Jesuit priests).Considering that there are roughly 251 Catholic universities throughout the nation, the Jesuit universities consist of about 11 percent of that number.

The underlying tension facing Jesuit universities in America is whether they are “Catholic enough.” Although they adhere to some Catholic values and teachings, they also allow for intellectual inquiry, which necessitates a large degree of academic freedom beyond what is pleasing to Rome and conservative Catholics. Speakers, whose views on abortion are often at odds with those of the church, are typically given invitations to speak at Jesuit universities, whereas other Catholic universities avoid addressing the issue altogether.

Regarding the use of drama to achieve their mission, Loyola Productions is a Jesuit-owned and -operated filming company. The director/owner, Reverend Eddie Siebert, not only graduated as a Jesuit priest, but also earned a degree in film production from Loyola Marymount University. In light of that, many would expect the company to promote Catholic values and teachings through movies. However, the film genre is anything but Catholic.

Such discrepancies between the historical Jesuits and their modern counterparts leads one to consider whether the society has lost its spiritual commitment, or whether it is being disingenuous in its modern-day pursuits, harboring an ulterior motive behind its benevolent deeds. Or, perhaps this is just another Jesuit casuistry at play? Time will tell. However, an order that has played such an active and pivotal role in defending the church and the popes can hardly be expected to just fade away, or abandon all of its tactics of the past.


Nicolas Chapuis, “Qui sont les jesuites?” Le Monde, March 14, 2013, http://www. (accessed September 17, 2017).

The Catholic Encyclopedia, (accessed December 20, 2017). (accessed December 20, 2017).

S. S. Schmucker, Discourse in Commemoration of the Glorious Reformaton of the Sixteenth Century, (accessed December 20, 2017).

U.K. Parliament staff, “The Gunpowder Plot,” about/living-heritage/evolutionofparliament/parliamentaryauthority/the-gunpowder-plot-of-1605/ (accessed December 13, 2017).

Ignatian Solidarity Network, “Our Mission,” (accessed December 20, 2017).

Ignatian Solidarity Network Staff, “AJCU President Challenges Jesuit-educated Members of Congress to Respond to Situation of Undocumented Young People” (October 25, 2017), (accessed December 13, 2017).

Statement from the Jesuit’s Office of Justice and Ecology on the Honduran election, (accessed December 13, 2017).


Autumn Jones, “The New Brand of Jesuit Universities,” The Atlantic, December 30, 2014, (retrieved December 9, 2017).


Article Author: Ed Cook

Ed Cook has a doctorate in church-state studies from Baylor University, Waco, Texas, where he currently leads in church religious liberty activities.