On July 21, 1773, Pope Clement XIV abolished the religious order known as the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). The formal dissolution of the order was the culmination of a series of persecution the Jesuits experienced in Portugal, France, and Spain. These events are recorded on the Bible Timeline Chart with World History during that time period.
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The Early Years and the Jesuits’ Rise to Power
On September 27, 1540, Pope Paul III recognized the Society of Jesus in a bull entitled Regimini militantis Ecclesiae. This religious order was established by Father Ignatius of Loyola and his friends six years earlier. As the years passed, the Jesuits (as they were later called) gained a reputation as educators, preachers, and missionaries. They also founded orphanages, shelter houses, seminaries, and colleges. They later rose to become the confessors and advisers of most of the members of Catholic royal houses in Europe. They were also the Pope’s staunchest supporters during the next two hundred years.
The Age of Enlightenment and the weakening of the Pope’s power would eventually change the Jesuits’ fate. They received the first blow to their existence in Portugal during the reign of King Joseph I and the administration of the Marquis of Pombal. During his time as ambassador to England, Pombal had become an admirer of British politics and intellectualism. He was recalled to Portugal later on and appointed as minister by King Joseph I upon his father’s death. This appointment was secured with the help of the king’s Jesuit confessors, Father Carbone and Father Moreira.
Unlike England, however, Portugal had been reduced to insignificance during the 18th century. Pombal the reformer believed that his country’s lack of progress was caused by the Jesuits’ involvement in politics and domination in commerce (especially in the colonies). The minister took advantage of King Joseph I’s ineptitude and used his own power to suppress the Jesuits.
In 1750, Portugal and Spain agreed to sign the Treaty of Madrid. The terms of the treaty included Portugal’s abandonment of the Colonia del Sacramento (in present-day Uruguay). The Portuguese would then allow Spain to occupy the area. In return, Portugal would receive the resource-rich Spanish reductions (Misiones Orientales) in Paraguay that had been under Jesuit administration. In 1752, Portuguese troops marched into these Jesuit reductions in Paraguay to enforce the terms of the treaty. However, the Jesuits (whether out of genuine concern for the natives under their care or for fear of the loss of their wealth) resisted the Portuguese troops until they were finally expelled.
The Jesuits’ resistance angered Pombal and he soon released an anti-Jesuit memoir to damage their reputation. In 1755, an earthquake devastated Portugal and the minister used the tragedy to destroy them. Most of the houses owned by the Jesuits were damaged, while Pombal’s house escaped destruction. He then insinuated that the earthquake was God’s way of punishing the Jesuits and that he alone was favored by God because his house was not destroyed.
Only one of the accused Jesuits was eventually hanged, but the accusation was a death blow to the religious order. More than a thousand friars were kept in jail or placed under house arrest. Finally, on September 1, 1759, King Joseph issued an edict of expulsion against the Jesuits in Portugal. Some of the friars remained in prison, while others were forcibly shipped to the Papal States. The expulsion of 1759 essentially ended the existence of the Society of Jesus in Portugal.
The Jesuits fared no better in mid-18th century France. Like their counterparts in Portugal, they served as confessors of French royalty and soon became influential at court. During the reign of Louis XIV, the friars succeeded in persecuting the Jansenists and those who supported Gallicanism. Louis XIV died in 1715, but the Jesuits retained their influence at court despite their refusal to grant absolution to the womanizing king. Their fortunes, however, would suffer a reversal during the reign of the dissolute Louis XV.
The two powerful persons who became instrumental in the downfall of the Jesuits in France were Louis XV’s royal mistress Madame de Pompadour and the government minister Duc de Choiseul. Madame de Pompadour had asked a Jesuit confessor to grant her absolution, but he refused to do so because of her affair with the king. She never forgot nor forgave this slight. Her ally, the Duc de Choiseul, also turned against the Jesuits after they supported his enemy, the Duc d’Aiguillon.
Between 1753 and 1754, the French court discovered that the Jesuit Father La Valette not only served as a missionary in Martinique but had also engaged in trade. The ship which carried the friar’s cargo back to France was later seized by the English navy, so the loss of the goods soon plunged him into bankruptcy. After an unsuccessful attempt to get his superiors in France to pay his debts, his creditors then transferred the complaint to the Parlement. La Valette was expelled from the religious order later on, but the die was cast. His shady business dealings soon plunged the Jesuits into unpopularity among the French.
The failed assassination of Louis XV by Robert-François Damiens in 1754 also sealed the fates of the Jesuits of France. Damiens was a former servant of the Jesuits in a college in Paris, so the friars were suspected of colluding with him. This and Pombal’s persecution of the friars in Portugal only encouraged the Jesuits’ enemies in France.
In the 1760s, the French crown started to seize the properties of the Jesuits. The French authorities also drove priests and lay brothers out of their monasteries afterward. In November 1764, King Louis XV issued a decree which dissolved the religious order in his realm. He then signed an edict of expulsion against all the Jesuits of France one month later. The pope protested, but to no avail as the Jesuits had few sympathizers in 18th-century France.
The Jesuits also dominated the Spanish court before their expulsion from Bourbon Spain in 1767. Like their counterparts in France and Portugal, the Jesuits of Spain also enjoyed many privileges because of their role as confessors and advisers of the members of the royalty. Those expelled from Portugal thought that they had finally found a safe haven when they were welcomed by King Charles III in 1759. They could not have predicted that they would be expelled from Spain eight years later.
In March 1766, a crowd gathered in Madrid to protest the king’s decree forcing people to trim their long cloaks and wide sombreros. This law was created by the king’s unpopular Italian advisor Marqués de Esquilache who wanted to discourage the locals from concealing weapons. A riot soon ensued, but the crowd was easily pacified by the Jesuits. The ease with which they disarmed the mob was used by the anti-Jesuit Count of Aranda to create suspicion in the king’s mind. The Count of Campomanes also convinced the king that the Jesuits were conspiring to have him deposed and elevate his brother as king.
With the help of the Count of Aranda and his cohorts Bernardo Tanucci and Grimaldi, the easily swayed Charles III started the secret plans to expel the Jesuits from his domain. Letters of the edict of expulsion and confiscation of the Jesuits’ properties were then sent all over Spain to unwitting administrators. During the early hours of April 2, 1767, soldiers raided the Jesuit colleges, seminaries, and houses. They roused the priests and read to them the king’s edict of expulsion. They were then transported to the docks where they were forced to board ships that would take them to the Papal States. Jesuit missionaries sent to the Spanish colonies in the Americas and the Philippines were also expelled. The persecution and expulsion were also implemented in Naples, Malta, Poland-Lithuania, and Parma.
The Final Suppression of the Jesuits
Pope Clement XIII was helpless against the attacks on the Jesuits. He died in 1769 with the issue of the Jesuit expulsion still unresolved. He was succeeded by the Conventual Franciscan friar Clement XIV who, under pressure from European monarchs, treated the Jesuits harshly. He ordered the imprisonment of the Jesuit Superior General Lorenzo Ricci and ordered them not admit new novices into the order.
The death blow to the Jesuits finally arrived in on July 21, 1773, when Pope Clement XIV signed the brief entitled Dominus ac Redemptor. In this brief, Clement XIV effectively abolished the Order of the Society of Jesus and cited the need for peace as justification for dissolving the order.
The brief was followed by the secret issuance of Gravissimis ex causis less than a month later. The document was sent to Catholic monarchs of Europe and was opened only on the 17th of August 1773. The Jesuits received the abolishment of their order in shock and dismay. Their disbandment and dissolution were then carried out in all Catholic countries of Europe. The only exceptions were Protestant Prussia and Orthodox Russia where the Jesuits continued to thrive in spite of the suppression.
Campbell, Thomas J. The Jesuits: 1534 – 1921: A History of the Society of Jesus from its Foundation to the Present Time. New York: Encyclopedia Press, 1921.
McCabe, Joseph. A Candid History of the Jesuits. New York, NY: Putnams Sons, 1913.
O’Malley, John W. The Jesuits: A History from Ignatius to the Present. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017.