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Jesuit Plots

The Society of Jesus has been responsible for many revolutions both political and spiritual.

Society Of Jesus Celebrates Jubilee Year 2006 At Vatican

The Jesuits: A History, by Markus Friedrich, translated by John Noël Dillon, Princeton University Press, 872 pages

In Evelyn Waugh’s masterpiece Brideshead Revisited, a Canadian bounder named Rex Mottram converts to Catholicism in order to marry the novel’s leading lady, Julia Flyte. As part of his conversion, Rex is catechized by the Flyte family’s priest, Father Mackey. In one oft-quoted scene, Father Mackey recounts the previous day’s lesson to Julia:


Yesterday I asked him whether Our Lord had more than one nature. He said: “Just as many as you say, Father.” Then again I asked him: “Supposing the Pope looked up and saw a cloud and said ‘It’s going to rain,’ would that be bound to happen?” “Oh, yes, Father” “But supposing it didn’t?” He thought a moment and said, “I suppose it would be sort of raining spiritually, only we were too sinful to see it.”

Waugh himself was a convert to Catholicism. He used Rex as a mouthpiece for the Anglo-American stereotype of Catholics. Rex doesn’t care about religion one way or the other. He’s only interested in the beautiful Julia—and her family’s fortune. The Flytes are a family of recusants: English Catholics who refused to convert to Anglicanism during the Reformation. The Flyes themselves represent Waugh’s preferred brand of Catholicism. Unlike Rex, they have culture and breeding. They were all educated by Jesuits, the brainiest religious order in the Catholic Church.

What’s funny is that the Jesuits—the Society of Jesus—were founded on solid Mottramist principles. In his book Spiritual Exercises, the order’s founder, St. Ignatius Loyola, declares: “To be right in everything, we ought always to hold that the white which I see, is black, if the Hierarchical Church so decides it.”

Ever since Ignatius founded the Society of Jesus in 1540, it has found itself at the center of countless conspiracy theories, most of them related to the Pope. Throughout the centuries, whispers of “Jesuit plots” have spread across Europe, America, and Asia. Like most conspiracy theories, these ones are quite true.

Loyola himself was a man of great holiness and charity. He was also a nobleman, a knight, and a bit of a social-climber. According to one official Jesuit history, Ignatius possessed a “great appetite for honor and glory.” He used his courtly upbringing to recruit high-quality priests—including St. Francis Borgia, great-grandson of both King Ferdinand II of Spain and the infamous Pope Alexander VI—as well as powerful and wealthy patrons. Ignatius lived to see his Order become a powerhouse in European politics.


Of course, whatever social-climbing occurred was in the service of a higher cause: preventing the spread of Protestantism in Europe. For the Jesuits, Protestantism could only be countered by a strong papacy. Indeed, “papalism” might be called the Jesuit charism. In addition to the usual vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience to one’s superiors, the Jesuits take a fourth vow: total obedience to the Roman Pontiff.

This papalism has landed the Jesuits in several tricky situations throughout their history. Shortly after their founding, the pope urged the Jesuits to set up shop in Portugal. Within a hundred years, they enjoyed a virtual monopoly over the country’s education system. Ironically, this led to their persecution in Ignatius’s homeland: the Spanish throne suspected them of being Portuguese agents. In fact, they were: when Portugal seceded from Spain in 1640, the Jesuits preached sermons and published pamphlets championing the House of Braganza. 

In 1589, Henry IV became King of France. A Protestant by birth and conviction, Henry openly boasted that he converted to Catholicism merely to secure the throne. (“Paris vaut bien une messe.”) As sovereign, his religious policy was both tolerant and “localist.” Of course, he was opposed stridently by the Jesuits. The Order had been partisans of the ultraconservative Catholic League; its priests preached sermons and published pamphlets demanding that the Kingdom of France be purged of all Protestant influence and that ecclesiastical authority be centralized in the Vatican. After an attempt was made on Henry’s life by a partisan of the Catholic League, the Jesuits were banned in several parts of France. Henry survived the attempt on his life only to be cut down in 1610 by yet another partisan of the Catholic League.

It was also in the 1850s that the Jesuits launched their first mission to England, where the Catholic Church had once again been outlawed by Elizabeth I. In all, twenty-seven members of the Society of Jesus were martyred in England, including two of England’s greatest saints: Edmund Campion and Robert Southwell. These young men insisted that one could be both a loyal Catholic and a patriotic Englishman. They meant it, too. Unfortunately, their superiors felt otherwise. A group of powerful Jesuits led by David Wolfe, then papal legate to Ireland, began scheming for the violent overthrow of the House of Tudor. As in France, the Order would accept no compromise with Protestantism. All effort must be made to eradicate resistance to the Pope—no matter the means, no matter the cost. And so the Jesuits loudly supported the Spanish Armada. Of course, this seemed to confirm Elizabeth’s suspicion that “papists” were disloyal to the Crown. All hopes of a peaceful Catholic mission to England were dashed.

Rumors of “Jesuit plots” have long plagued the United States, fueling anti-Catholic bias. This was deeply unfair to ordinary Catholics. However, the Jesuits’ reputation as agents of papal political influence was hard-earned.

Nor, of course, was their influence purely political. In fact, the order was largely responsible for the largest sea-change in Western spirituality since the dawn of Christianity. 

First, Ignatian spirituality (as it is known) places a heavy emphasis on the use of the imagination. This was a significant departure from the Christian tradition, which generally discourages the use of the imagination in prayer. As the fifth-century mystic Hesychius the Priest warned, “Only by means of a mental image can Satan fabricate an evil thought and insinuate this into the intellect in order to lead it astray.” 

Second, there was an intense (some would say inordinate) focus on the suffering and death of Christ and His Mother. This was in keeping with atonement theology, which originated with St. Anselm of Canterbury and flourished in the medieval West. Graphic depictions of Christ’s Passion were still comparatively rare: because Christians had little use for the imagination, Christian art traditionally placed a low premium on realism. 

Markus Friedrich describes what happens when these two elements come together: 

The vividness of these imagined visions was crucial. While meditating, the Jesuit should envision the tiniest detail of Jesus’s suffering. In 1670, the Jesuit preacher Philipp Kisel of Worms calculated that Christ had shed exactly 97,035 drops of blood on the cross, every one of which was grounds for a sinner to repent.

Some might posit that Ignatius propagated this “guilt-and-gore” spirituality in order to frighten Europe into embracing his Mottramist ecclesiology. A few might go further and say that such an ecclesiology was promoted largely for the sake of advancing the pope’s political power. That, however, would be reductive and uncharitable.

All the same, since 2014, when the Church was blessed with its first Jesuit pope, faithful Catholics have begun to suspect that the papacy is not an intrinsically “conservative” institution. 

In 2021, Pope Francis published an encyclical severely restricting access to the traditional Latin Mass. He titled the encyclical Traditionis Custodes, or “Guardians of Tradition.” Of course, the guardians to which he refers are the popes; the tradition to which he refers is papal authority. At first this seems like a mean joke. However, Francis is of a mind with Pope Pius IX, who promulgated the dogma of papal infallibility. “I am the Tradition!” Pius once declared; “I am the Church!” Rex Mottram would approve of the sentiment, and so would Ignatius Loyola.