Jesuits As Royal Confessors
The Jesuits became the predominant group supplying confessors to (meaning, hearers of the confessions of) kings and princes and those in authority. As the New Catholic Encyclopedia says, "they acted as royal confessor to all French kings for 2 centuries, from Henry III to Louis XV; to all German emperors after the early 17th century; to all Dukes of Bavaria after 1579; to most rulers of Poland and Portugal; to the Spanish kings in the 18th century; to James II of England; and to many ruling or princely families throughout Europe."

Thus, they were faced with the problem of how strict to be in their moral advice to kings, knowing that if they did not cut a royal penitent some slack, he might simply find himself another confessor who understood the complexities of his situation, and did not expect the impossible from him. Since retaining the confidence of a king meant opportunities to save not only his soul but the souls of many of his subjects, the pressure to be lenient was often overwhelming. The problem is, of course, not restricted to Jesuits, but is faced by anyone who is giving moral advice and does not want the advisee to become discouraged and call the whole thing off, but at the same time does not want to give the impression that God's demands are negotiable. The Jesuits were doing this under a brighter spotlight than most, and under more pressure to be accommodating than most.

As advisors to kings, they influenced political policy. A royal confessor was not slow to tell a king that he had a duty to make the kind of political alliances that would promote the temporal interests of the Church. It was Le Tellier, Jesuit confessor to Louis XIV, who in the 1680's persuaded that monarch to revoke the Edict of Nantes, which granted religious liberty to Protestants.

One of their political involvements, in particular, proved disastrous. In October 1894, Captain Dreyfus, the only Jew on the General Staff of the French Army, was arrested for treason and spying on behalf of Germany. He was tried, convicted, and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil's Island, just off the northern coast of South America. Since he was in fact innocent, his arrest was a minor misdeed, which turned into a major misdeed when the French establishment showed itself ready to condemn an innocent man rather than admit a mistake. The dispute over Dreyfus divided French society, and threw it into a turmoil for the next several years. (The repercussions have still not completely died out.) Most of the officers on the General Staff were Roman Catholics, and the Chief of the General Staff had a Jesuit confessor, who was widely viewed as orchestrating the whole anti-Dreyfus campaign. The chief spokesman for the pro-Dreyfus faction was the anti-religious novelist Emile Zola. There were some devout Roman Catholics who were publicly pro-Dreyfus (Charles Peguy, for example, declared that as long as Dreyfus was denied justice, France was in mortal sin), and Pope Leo III spoke out for Dreyfus, but the public perception was that the anti-Dreyfus side was the clerical side, and when that side was finally completely discredited and Dreyfus himself was triumphantly recalled from Devil's Island to France, the Roman Catholic Church in general, and the Jesuits in particular, suffered the brunt of public disapprobation.

The Suppression of the Jesuits

By the middle of the 1700's (to go back more than a century), the Jesuits had made many powerful enemies, both inside and outside the Roman Catholic Church. There were those who wished them ill because they wished the Rcc ill. But there were also those who honestly believed that their accommodatist tactics were imperilling the soul of the Church. Governments turned against them because it was thought that the political advice they gave was bad advice. And so they were banned in one country after another: Portugal in 1759, France in 1764, Spain and her territories in 1767, followed by the Sicilies and Parma. Next the Pope was pressured to suppress the order altogether. Clement XIII refused. When he died in 1769, anti-Jesuit forces backed a candidate who won and became Clement IV. Four years later, in 1773, he disbanded the order. The superior general was imprisoned in Rome until he died in 1775. Members of the order continued to function as secular priests, and in some places were allowed to continue to teach and to run schools, though not as Jesuits. Ironically, the order survived as an organization in Russia, where the East Orthodox Empress Catherine valued them as schoolmasters, and refused to allow their dissolution. In 1814, after the fall of Napoleon, in the newly conservative political climate, the Pope restored the order.

Jesuits and Accommodationism

The principal complaint leveled against the Jesuits (not counting charges of criminal conspiracy) has been that they are politicians. Now, politics, it is said, is the art of the possible, and a good politician knows that to insist on a perfect program is often to end up with no program. Thus, the Jesuits did not expect too much of the kings they were trying to keep from slipping the leash altogether, did not expect too much of the newly converted Asian, and so on.

Example: some of their early missionaries to China dressed as mandarins, and held that the ANALECTS--the ethical maxims of Confucius--were full of sound moral wisdom, and should be regarded not as un-Christian but as pre-Christian, "a schoolmaster to bring us to Christ" (Galatians 3:24). This seems to place it in the same category as, say, the Proverbs of Solomon. Now the Jesuits were careful not to say in so many words that the Analects were inspired or had the same authority as the Proverbs, but they were prepared to quote them in their sermons, and to read aloud from them in church services. Again, there was the question of "ancestor worship." Chinese kept lists of their ancestors inscribed on wooden tablets, and these tablets held a place of honor in the home, and family members regularly bowed or knelt to them. This appeared to some Westerners as blatant idolatry, and something that must be stamped out. However, as a present-day Chinese Christian (Lin Yu-Tang, in his From Pagan To Christian) has observed, Chinese backs and knees are in general more flexible than Western ones. Chinese children regularly bow or kneel to their parents as a gesture of respect. It would not occur to them that they were treating their parents as deities. The Jesuits were prepared to tolerate the retention of the ancestral tablets by Christian converts. Before you decide whether they were right, consider the following question:

Suppose that you are a missionary in China. A man has heard your preaching, and is about to be baptized, together with his family. They arrive at the church for the ceremony, and you see that the man has brought with him his ancestral tablets. He says: "I wish my ancestors to witness this important step in our lives." Do you invite him to place the tablets on a chair or table near the baptismal font, or do you tell him that the tablets are idols and must be destroyed at once before the ceremony can proceed?

The Emperor of China had agreed to become a Christian, and was about to be baptized. But rivals of the Jesuits denounced them to Rome for compromises on questions like ancestral tablets. The Pope forbade any further honoring of the ancestors or the tablets, and the Emperor decided not to become a Christian after all. As one angry historian put it, "So the Franciscans were happy, and the Pope was happy, and nothing was lost but Asia!"

A debate:

Brown says: If the Emperor would not give up his tablets in order to become a Christian, then his conversion pretty superficial in the first place, and he would never have become a thorough Christian even if he had been accommodated on the matter."

Green says: "How do you know what he would have become if he had been baptized and had started attending Christian worship. He might have spontaneously given up the tablets. Do you really believe that no one grows in the faith after his initial conversion? Besides, you are ignoring the millions of Chinese who would have heard the Gospel if the Emperor had been baptized. Constantine may not have been in all respects an ideal Christian. But his support for Christianity, even if we suppose it to have been totally hypocritical, made possible the preaching of the Gospel to those who would not otherwise have heard it."

Brown says: "But how do you expect the Emperor, or any other Chinese convert, to see that tablets are wrong if their preachers have told them that tablets are all right?"

My comment: Both positions are such as might be taken by a reasonable Christian, and the one thing that it would really distress me to hear from either Brown or Green is the assertion that the other is shown by his position to be not a true Christian at all.

Unless otherwise indicated, this biographical sketch was written by James E. Kiefer and any comments about its content should be directed to him. The Biographical Sketches home page has more information.