The Jesuit Order: How Catholicism Took Over The World

By | October 15, 2020

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Monochrome version of the IHS emblem of the Jesuits. (Moranski/Wikimedia Commons)

Formed in 1540, the Jesuit Order began as a sect of militaristic monks ordained by the Catholic Church to travel the world, spreading the word of Christ. Their job wasn't a simple one: They were expected to convert literally everyone they met, which made them pariahs to much of the world, even as they brought millions to their flock. In the hundreds of years that the Jesuit Order has been kicking around, they've inspired conspiracy theories and debate over their practices, but they've also done quite a bit of good. As with any secret society, there's much to parse about the Jesuit Order.

Establishing The Jesuit Order

Six years before the Jesuit Order was officially established, Ignatius of Loyola, a Spanish soldier who'd experienced a religious awakening, set down his arms and inspired six of his students to take vows of poverty and chastity in the service of converting as many Muslims to Catholicism as possible. There was just one problem: Loyola and his followers couldn't travel to the Middle East, thanks to the Turkish Wars. They went to Rome instead to meet with the pope, figuring he might have some ideas and maybe even officialize them. In 1540, Pope Paul III finally approved Loyola's request to form a new religious society, and the Jesuit Order, A.K.A. the Society of Jesus, was officially sanctioned.

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Père Marquette and the Indians. (Wilhelm Lamprecht/Wikimedia Commons)

They Live, They Die, They Live Again

The Jesuit Order may have been militaristic in their beginnings, their look, and their whole vibe, but the first thing this group did was build schools across Europe where students learned about theology in addition to classical studies. Within 40 years, the group had built more than 30 primary and secondary schools in Europe as well as one in Macau and an art school in Japan.

From there, they journeyed the world on missions, and by the 1600s, they were embedded in communities across North America. They formed bonds with the tribes of Native Americans they attempted to convert to Catholicism, which annoyed the monarchies of Spain and Portugal because the new Christian Native American city-states, called "reductions," prevented residents from being corralled into slavery. By the 1760s, making such powerful enemies led to Jesuit universities in France being shut down and members of the order expelled from Spain and all of its colonies. In 1773, Pope Clement XIV abolished the order for good—or so he thought.

Just over 40 years after the Jesuit Order was scattered to the wind, Pope Pius VII restored the Jesuits to their original standing. During the 19th century, the Jesuits founded 22 more universities, but not everyone was happy to see them back in action. The Jesuits were banned from Norway in 1814, and Spain followed suit in the 1930s, mostly on the grounds that the order served a higher power than the state government.