The power of the Catholic Church rested on the natural supernaturalism of mankind, the recognition and sublimation of sensual impulses and pagan survivals, the encouragement of Catholic fertility, and the inculcation of a theology rich in poetry and hope, and useful to moral discipline and social order. In Italy the Church was also the main source of national income, and a valued check upon a people especially superstitious, pagan, and passionate. Superstitions abounded; as late as 1787 witches were burned at Palermo—and refreshments were served to fashionable ladies witnessing the scene.14 Pagan beliefs, customs, and ceremonies survived with the genial sanction of the Church. “I have arrived at a vivid conviction,” wrote Goethe, “that all traces of original Christianity are extinct here” in Rome.15 There were, however, many real Christians left in Christendom, even in Italy. Conte Caissotti di Chiusano, bishop of Asti, gave up his rich inheritance, lived in voluntary poverty, and traveled only on foot. Bishop Testa of Monreale slept on straw, ate only enough to subsist, kept only 3,000 lire of his revenues for his personal needs, and devoted the remainder to public works and the poor.16

The Church responded in some measure to the Enlightenment. The works of Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Helvétius, d’Holbach, La Mettrie, and other freethinkers were of course placed on the Index Expurgatorius, but permission to read them might be obtained from the pope. Monsignor Ventimiglio, bishop (1757-73) of Catania, had in his library full editions of Voltaire, Helvétius, and Rousseau.17 The Inquisition was abolished in Tuscany and Parma in 1769, in Sicily in 1782, in Rome in 1809. In 1783 a Catholic priest, Tamburini, under the name of his friend Trauttmansdorff, published an essay On Ecclesiastical and Civil Toleration, in which he condemned the Inquisition, declared all coercion of conscience to be un-Christian, and advocated toleration of all theologies except atheism.18

It was the misfortune of the popes, in this second half of the eighteenth century, that they had to face the demand of Catholic monarchs for the total dissolution of the Society of Jesus. The movement against the Jesuits was part of a contest of power between the triumphant nationalism of the modern state and the internationalism of a papacy weakened by the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the rise of the business class. The Catholic enemies of the Society did not openly press their chief objection, that it had persistently upheld the authority of the popes as superior to that of kings, but they were keenly resentful that an organization acknowledging no superior except its general and the pope should in effect constitute, within each state, an agent of a foreign power. They acknowledged the learning and piety of the Jesuits, their contributions to science, literature, philosophy, and art, their sedulous and efficient education of Catholic youth, their heroism on foreign missions, their recapture of so much territory once lost to Protestantism. But they charged that the Society had repeatedly interfered in secular affairs, that it had engaged in commerce to reap material gains, that it had inculcated casuistic principles excusing immorality and crime, condoning even the murder of kings, that it had allowed heathen customs and beliefs to survive among its supposed converts in Asia, and that it had offended other religious orders, and many of the secular clergy, by its sharpness in controversy and its contemptuous tone. The ambassadors of the Kings of Portugal, Spain, Naples, and France insisted that the papal charter of the Society be revoked, and that the organization be officially and universally dissolved.

The expulsion of the Jesuits from Portugal in 1759, from France in 1764-67, from Spain and Naples in 1767, had left the Society still operative in Central and North Italy, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in Catholic Germany, Silesia, and Poland. On February 7, 1768, they were expelled from the Bourbon duchy of Parma, and were added to the congestion of Jesuit refugees in the states of the Church. Pope Clement XIII protested that Parma was a papal fief; he threatened Duke Ferdinand VI and his ministers with excommunication if the edict of expulsion should be enforced; when they persisted he launched a bull declaring the rank and title of the Duke forfeited and annulled. The Catholic governments of Spain, Naples, and France opened war upon the papacy: Tanucci seized the papal cities of Benevento and Pontecorvo, and France occupied Avignon. On December 10, 1768, the French ambassador at Rome, in the name of France, Naples, and Spain, presented to the Pope a demand for the retraction of the bull against Parma, and for the abolition of the Society of Jesus. The seventy-six-year-old pontiff collapsed under the strain of this ultimatum. He summoned for February 3, 1769, a consistory of prelates and envoys to consider the matter. On February 2 he fell dead through the bursting of a blood vessel in his brain.

The cardinals who were called to choose his successor were divided into two factions: zelanti who proposed to defy the kings, and regalisti who favored some pacific accommodations. As the Italian cardinals were almost all zelanti, and soon gathered in Rome, they tried to open the conclave before the regalist cardinals from France, Spain, and Portugal could arrive. The French ambassador protested, and the conclave was deferred. Meanwhile Lorenzo Ricci, general of the Jesuits, compromised their case by issuing a pamphlet questioning the authority of any pope to abolish the Society.19 In March Cardinal de Bernis arrived from France, and began to canvass the cardinals with a view to ensuring the election of a pope willing to satisfy their Catholic Majesties. Later rumors20that he or others bribed, or otherwise induced, Cardinal Giovanni Ganganelli to promise such action if chosen have been rejected by Catholic21 and anti-Catholic22 historians alike. Ganganelli, by common consent, was a man of great learning, devotion, and integrity; however, he belonged to the Franciscan order, which had often been at odds with the Jesuits, both in missions and in theology.23 On May 19, 1769, he was elected by the unanimous vote of the forty cardinals, and took the name of Clement XIV. He was sixty-three years old.

He found himself at the mercy of the Catholic powers. France and Naples held on to the papal territory they had seized; Spain and Parma were defiant; Portugal threatened to establish a patriarchate independent of Rome; even Maria Theresa, hitherto fervently loyal to the papacy and the Jesuits, but now losing authority to her freethinker son Joseph II, answered the Pope’s appeal for aid by saying that she could not resist the united will of so many potentates. Choiseul, dominating the government of France, instructed Bernis to tell the Pope that “if he does not come to terms he can consider all relations with France at an end.”24 Charles III of Spain had sent a similar ultimatum on April 22. Clement, playing for time, promised Charles soon to “submit to the wisdom and intelligence of your Majesty a plan for the total extinction of the Society.”25 He ordered his aides to consult the archives and summarize the history, achievements, and alleged offenses of the Society of Jesus. He refused to surrender to Choiseul’s demand that he decide the issue within two months. He took three years, but finally yielded.

On July 21, 1773, he signed the historic brief Dominus ac Redemptor Noster. It began with a long list of religious congregations that had, in the course of time, been suppressed by the Holy See. It noted the many complaints made against the Jesuits, and the many efforts of divers popes to remedy the abuses so alleged. “We have observed with the bitterest grief that these remedies, and others applied afterward, had neither efficacy nor strength to put an end to the troubles, the charges, and the complaints.”26 The brief concluded:

Having recognized that the Society of Jesus could no longer produce the abundant fruit and the great good for which it was instituted and approved by so many popes, our predecessors, who adorned it with so many most admirable privileges, and seeing that it was almost—and indeed absolutely—impossible for the Church to enjoy a true and solid peace while this order existed, … we do hereby, after a mature examination, and of our certain knowledge, and by the plenitude of our Apostolic power, suppress and abolish the Society of Jesus. We nullify and abrogate all and each of its offices, functions, administrations, houses, schools, colleges, retreats, refuges, and other establishments which belong to it in any manner whatever, and in every province, kingdom, or state in which it may be found.27

The brief went on to offer pensions to those Jesuits who had not yet taken holy orders, and who wished to return to lay life; it permitted Jesuit priests to join the secular clergy or some religious congregation approved by the Holy See; it allowed “professed” Jesuits, who had taken final and absolute vows, to remain in their former houses provided they dressed like secular priests and submitted to the authority of the local bishop.

For the most part, and excepting a few missionaries in China, the Jesuits took the papal sentence of death for their Society with apparent docility and order. Anonymous pamphlets, however, were printed and circulated in their defense, and Ricci and several assistants were arrested on charges, never proved, that they were in correspondence with opponents of the decree. Ricci died in prison November 24, 1775, aged seventy-two.

Clement XIV survived the edict by little more than a year. Rumors multiplied that in his last months his mind broke down. Physical ills, including scurvy and hemorrhoids, made every day and night a misery to him. A cold contracted in April, 1774, never left him; by the end of August the cardinals were already discussing the succession; and on September 22 Clement died.

After many delays and intrigues the conclave raised to the papacy (February 15, 1775) Giovanni Braschi, who took the name of Pius VI. He was a man of culture rather than a statesman. He collected art, charmed everyone by his kindliness, improved the administration of the Curia, and effected a partial reclamation of the Pontine marshes. He arranged a peaceful modus vivendi for the Jesuits with Frederick the Great. In 1793 he joined the coalition against Revolutionary France. In 1796 Napoleon invaded the Papal States; in 1798 the French army entered Rome, proclaimed a republic, and demanded of the Pope a renunciation of all temporal power. He refused, was arrested, and remained in various places and conditions of imprisonment until his death (August 29, 1799). His successor, Pius VII, made the restoration of the Society of Jesus (1814) a part of the victory of the coalition against Napoleon.

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