The Jesuits currently operate twenty-eight colleges and universities in the United States, including Georgetown in Washington, D.C. In addition to education and parish ministry, the order also provides opportunities for lay volunteers to assist the poor through the Jesuit Volunteer Corps.
Despite these many contributions to the common good, the Jesuits are central to many anti-Catholic conspiracy theories. Why the Jesuits figure so prominently in this paranoia can be better understood by looking at the history and special character of this religious order.
The founder of the Jesuits, St. Ignatius of Loyola (1495–1556), was born in the Basque region of Spain. As a young man, he dreamed of a military life by which he would win glory for himself and acclaim from the ladies. This worldly dream was cut short when Ignatius was crippled by a cannonball during the siege of Pamplona.
While recuperating, Ignatius experienced a profound conversion and decided to take the same discipline he experienced as a soldier and apply it to a new religious order, which he hoped would be a new army for the Church. This was the Society of Jesus, which was founded in 1540.
Through combining discipline and learning, the Jesuits became a powerful new force in Roman Catholicism. Of great significance for the Americas was the interest the Jesuits took in foreign missions.
The first Jesuits to arrive in the future United States were Fathers Andrew White (1579–1656) and John Altham (1589–1640) and Brother Thomas Gervase (1590–1637). Together, they established a mission in southern Maryland in 1634.
One of the characteristics of the Jesuit order was that, in addition to the three traditional monastic vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, there was added the fourth vow of special obedience to the pope. The order was founded in the midst of the Protestant Reformation, when it appeared that the religious world of Europe was in tatters.
Ignatius responded to this situation by stressing obedience to church authority in these chaotic times. Certainly, to people living centuries later, the manner in which Ignatius expressed his sixteenth-century understanding of obedience could be quite unsettling.
The faithful should be always ready to uphold and defend the precepts of the Church, and never criticize these in any manner; his view of obedience was strict and sounded very much like blind faith. In the constitution he wrote for the order, Ignatius stressed that a Jesuit should be completely obedient to the pope and the leaders of the order.
This stress on obedience, as well as their great success in the Counter-Reformation, led the Jesuits to be especially feared by Protestants. In 1585 Queen Elizabeth I of England issued the Act against Jesuits and Seminarianists, which banished all Jesuits from England and its territories.
The perceived threat of the Jesuits led to similar such legislation in the American colonies. In 1647 the colony of Massachusetts Bay passed the AntiPriest Law. After reviewing the violence and unrest on the European continent and claiming that these were caused by “those of the Jesuiticall order,” this law stated that no Jesuit was to come within the territory of the colony and that any currently residing in Massachusetts Bay were to be banished. Should any who were banished return to the colony, they were to be put to death.
Forty-three years later Massachusetts passed an even stricter law, the Act against Jesuits and Popish Priests, on 17 June 1700. This decreed that “every Jesuit, seminary priest, missionary, or other spiritual or ecclesiastical person” was to depart the colony within three months.
Any captured after that date would be imprisoned for life and subject to execution if they tried to escape. Anyone hiding or aiding in any way a member of the “Romish clergy” would be fined 200 pounds and pilloried for three days.
At the time of independence the American Catholic community numbered only about 25,000, but this was to change dramatically because of immigration. Beginning with the Irish in the early nineteenth century, and followed by the Germans, Italians, and Poles, the Catholic population reached 1.6 million in 1850 and 12 million in 1900.
This created a tense situation in the United States, because although the country was predominately Protestant, its largest denomination was the Catholic Church, which alarmed many Protestants, to whom this increase looked more like an invasion than immigration. And leading this threat to the country, they were sure, were the Jesuits.
A great number of anti-Catholic writings emerged in the nineteenth century. In 1882 Edwin A. Sherman published The Engineer Corps of Hell, which included the infamous Secret Instructions of the Society of Jesus. This was supposed to be a kind of classified procedure manual for the top echelon of the Jesuit Order.
Among its contents were chapters on how to gain influence over princes, magnates, and the wealthy. Three chapters were devoted to the methods by which rich widows were to be convinced to enter religious life and give their money to the order.
A very popular anti-Catholic work from the nine-teenth century that remains in print was Fifty Years in the Church of Rome. Written in 1885 by Charles Chiniquy, who claimed to be a former priest, the book warned of the threat of the Jesuits to U.S. liberty: “The American people must be very blind indeed, if they do not see that if they do nothing to prevent it, the day is very near when the Jesuits will rule their country, from the magnificent White House at Washington, to the humblest civil and military department of this vast Republic”.
In the early twentieth century there appeared E. G. White’s The Great Controversy (1911). White warned his fellow Americans that the Jesuits were “the most cruel, unscrupulous, and powerful of all the champions of popery. ... There was no crime too great for them to commit, no deception too base for them to practice, no disguise too difficult for them to assume.”
To those who countered that the Jesuits appeared holy, White responded that although the members of the order wore a garb of sanctity, this was only a disguise. Beneath this blameless exterior, he claimed, was a deadly intent against all that the American people stood for.
A fundamental principle for the Jesuits, White said, was that the end justifies the means: “By this code, lying, theft, perjury, assassination, were not only pardonable but commendable, when they served the interests of the church. Under various disguises the Jesuits worked their way into offices of state, climbing up to be the servants of kings, and shaping the policy of nations”.
In 1960 a Catholic was finally elected president of the United States. Despite all the dire predictions, the massacre of Protestants and suspension of liberties did not take place, nor were Jesuits appointed wholesale to key government posts.
A good deal of anti-Catholic bigotry subsided after the election of Kennedy, but it did not all go away. Hate groups with an anti-Catholic bias and belief in a worldwide Jesuit conspiracy still remain.
During the 1980s there appeared various print materials attacking the papacy and the Jesuits. Chick Publications issued a cartoon book in 1983 entitled The Poor Pope? that claimed that the Vatican “almost destroyed the United States when her Jesuits engineered the Civil War and murdered Abraham Lincoln. Her Jesuits even set up World War I and II, which has been carefully covered up”.
In 1984 the Tony and Susan Alamo Foundation published and widely distributed a pamphlet entitled The Pope’s Secrets. Typical of anti-Catholic conspiracy theories, the pamphlet blames the Vatican and its Jesuit agents for all of the world’s woes.
The scope and power claimed for this conspiracy is truly impressive: “Because of her age-old desire to control the world government and church, the serpent-like Vatican has infested the world and the U.S. government with so may of her zealous, highly-trained and dedicated Jesuit devotees, that she now controls the United Nations (which she created); the White House; Congress; every state, federal, civic, and social government agency including the U.S. Department of Labor, the IRS, the FBI, Supreme Court, judicial systems, the arms forces; state, federal and other police; also the international banking and federal reserve systems (called the Illumniati and Agentur), labor unions, the Mafia and most of the heavy-weight news media”.
This worldwide conspiracy includes communism under “Jesuit-trained” Fidel Castro, the corruption of youth with drugs by “Jesuit Vatican-trained” Timothy Leary, and control of the Israeli parliament, where some “Israelites have converted to this sect (Roman Catholicism). The Vatican wanted them to become rabbis so that they could place them in the Israeli Knesset as spies. Some of these Roman Jesuit rabbis are there today”.
Finally, the pamphlet makes much of Jesuit assassins dutifully removing enemies of the pope, including Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy. The assassination of Kennedy is an interesting twist on the old fear of a Catholic president. The claim is that Kennedy was assassinated because he wouldn’t turn the country over to the Vatican.
Today the Internet has become a major outlet disseminating Jesuit conspiracy theories. One example is a web page sponsored by the Pacific Institute, a group founded in San Diego in 1977 “for the express purpose of Biblical research.”
Entitled “America will soon lose its Constitution,” it warns of the great threat of the Jesuit conspiracy in the United States: “Today the pope’s Jesuits are not only entrenched at the highest levels of all branches and departments of the U.S. Government, but they are also entrenched at the highest levels of virtually all the major corporations and industries in the United States. ... Our God-given Constitution is the reason the United States has become the greatest country in the world, but it is being thoroughly undermined today by the Jesuits in the government as they work to destroy the United States”.
The group blames excessive environmental regulations and gun control laws on Jesuit politicians in Congress, and they even blame Jesuits for the tragedy of September 11.