top of page

The Death of a Weak and Regretful Pope: September 22, 1774

This text comes from our book, Light to the Nations II: The Making of the Modern World. See digital samples, here.


Friedrich the Great of Prussia called them the “advance guards of the court of Rome.” Other “enlightened” despots held the same opinion. The philosophes thought them their chief enemy. “Once we have destroyed the Jesuits,” said Voltaire, “we shall have the game in our hands.” And Jean d’Alembert, Diderot’s friend and collaborator on the Encyclopedia, said of other religious orders that they were “nothing but Cossacks and Pandours, who will never stand firm against our disciplined troops.”

Since the 16th century, the Society of Jesus had been the popes’ right arm in the Church’s struggle against Protestantism. Jesuit priests had almost single-handedly halted the spread of the “reformed” religion into Catholic lands and had recovered areas for the Faith that had gone Protestant. In the 17th century, the Jesuits had provided the Church with brilliant scholars and theologians as well as with missionaries who spread the Faith to Asia and North and South America. In the 18th century, the Jesuits had become stalwart champions in the battle against rationalism and irreligion. And it was for this that men like Voltaire, Diderot, and d’Alembert hated them.

By the middle of the 18th century, the Jesuits were a formidable spiritual army. With about 23,000 members, they had 800 residences, staffed 700 colleges and universities, and oversaw 300 missions. Jesuits served as confessors to Catholic rulers throughout Europe and often played an important role in the appointment of bishops and abbots. Jesuit schools not only educated the sons of nobles and of the growing middle class but also worked among the masses of European poor.

It is not surprising, given their success, that the Jesuits had many enemies. Besides the philosophes, Gallicans, Febronians, and Jansenists opposed the Jesuits because they were Ultramontane. And, unfortunately, members of other religious orders often criticized the Jesuits out of nothing more than envy.

Some criticisms of the Jesuits were just. Jesuit moral theologians at times came up with clever arguments to justify lax behavior among Catholics; and Jesuit priests engaged in large business ventures and were at times involved in dishonest political dealings. So large a religious order was bound to have bad members who justified using dishonest means to achieve good ends. Still, the Jesuits were not criticized mostly because of their bad members, but because they were successful in advancing the cause of Christ and his Church.

Marques de Pombal

Many in the 18th century wanted to destroy the Society of Jesus. One of its chief enemies was Sebastiao de Carvalho e Mello, the marquis of Pombal in Portugal. Pombal, a disciple of the philosophes, was a zealous advocate of “enlightened” despotism and saw the Church as the chief obstacle to kingly power. In 1750, the new king of Portugal, José I, appointed Pombal as his prime minister. Given Pombal’s learning and talent, it was not long before he completely dominated the weak king.

Pombal came into conflict with the Jesuits as the result of a treaty Portugal had signed with Spain in January 1750. The treaty granted Portugal seven districts of the Spanish realm of Paraguay in South America in return for the Portuguese colony of San Sacramento. In Paraguay in the early 1600s, the Jesuits had organized what was an almost independent group of Indian republics, called “Reductions,” under the authority of the Spanish king. The Jesuits hoped that the Reductions could continue to flourish under Portuguese rule.

But the “enlightened” Pombal was not interested in preserving the Reductions in the lands Portugal received from Spain. When the Portuguese government ordered the 30,000 or so Indians on the Reductions to abandon their lands, many rebelled. Pombal blamed this rebellion on the Jesuits and began a campaign to destroy the order.

In 1757, Pombal succeeded in having the royal family’s Jesuit confessors dismissed from the court. But an attempt to assassinate King José the following year gave Pombal the opportunity he was looking for. Claiming that the Jesuits were behind the assassination plot, Pombal asked Pope Benedict XIV to investigate the Society. But Pombal would not wait for the pope’s decision before taking action. In 1758, he forbade the Jesuits to work in Lisbon. The following year, Pombal seized all Jesuit property in Portugal and rounded up all the Jesuits working in Portugal and its colonies.

Father Gabriel Malagrida

Pombal showed special cruelty to foreign Jesuits. These he had imprisoned. The Portuguese Jesuits, however, he sent by ship to Civitavecchia, a port in the Papal States. Pombal called these captives “a present to the pope.” But Pombal was not content with these measures. He placed several Jesuit superiors and missionaries in prison, where for 18 years they suffered greatly. Pombal held an 80-year-old Jesuit, Father Gabriel Malagrida, in prison on charges of treason. As a priest, Malagrida could be condemned only by the Inquisition, so Pombal accused him of heresy based on some works the priest was said to have written in prison. In 1761, the inquisitors (handpicked by Pombal) condemned Malagrida to death. He was publicly strangled and his body burnt.

Clement XIII, who succeeded Benedict XIV as pope in 1758, received the exiled Jesuits with great kindness and gave them aid. But Clement’s support for the Jesuits cost him dearly. In 1760, Pombal broke off all diplomatic relations with the Holy See.

Besides exiling, imprisoning, and killing the Jesuits, Pombal carried on a propaganda campaign against them. In one slanderous publication, Pombal accused the Jesuits of having set up an independent kingdom in South America where, he said, they enslaved the Indians and grew rich off their labor. (Voltaire repeated such stories in his novel, Candide, published in 1759.) Pombal’s actions and libelous publications inspired other governments to take active measures against the Jesuits.

In France, the Jansenist and Gallican-controlled Parlement of Paris called for an investigation of the Jesuits. Not surprisingly, the parlement decided that members of the Society were guilty of undermining the authority of government and corrupting Christian morality. The parlement then ordered all Jesuit students and novices to leave the order’s French houses by October 1, 1761.

Madame de Pompadour, about 1755

After hearing of the parlement’s ruling, King Louis XV tried to defend the Jesuits, but to no avail. In July 1762 the parlement took the final step and ordered the suppression of the Society of Jesus in France. Louis XV still could have stepped in to save the order, but the weak king followed the advice of the Gallicans, Jansenists, and philosophes who surrounded him. Louis’s mistress, Madame de Pompadour, also hated the Jesuits because some of them had condemned her immoral conduct. So it was that, after several delays, in November 1764 King Louis XV issued an “irrevocable decree” making the Society of Jesus illegal in France.

Pope Clement XIII had tried to save the Jesuits in France, and in January, 1765, he issued a bull protesting against the suppression of the order in France. But soon other Catholic monarchs joined in the attack on the Society. Convinced by his “enlightened” chief minister that the Jesuits were stirring up rebellion, King Carlos III banished all Jesuits from Spain and the Spanish realms overseas. On the night of April 2, 1767, about six thousand Jesuits were arrested throughout the Spanish dominions. After being treated with great cruelty, the Jesuits were sent to the Papal States. Carlos III’s son, King Fernando IV of Naples, followed his father’s lead and suppressed the Society in his domains on November 20, 1767. Even the pope’s vassal, the duke of Parma, who was influenced by an “enlightened” chief minister, expelled the Jesuits from his lands.

Pope Clement XIII protested against all these actions, but it did no good. Instead, Fernando IV of Naples called on his father, Carlos III of Spain, and on Louis XV to join with Portugal in demanding that the pope utterly suppress the Society of Jesus everywhere in the Church. France and Naples seized papal lands to force Clement to suppress the order, but the pope refused to give in to their demands.

After the death of Clement XIII on February 2, 1769, the Bourbon powers (Spain, Naples, and France) tried to force the cardinals to elect a pope who would agree to destroy the Jesuits. The Bourbon-backed cardinals found a candidate to their liking, Cardinal Lorenzo Ganganelli. A Franciscan, Ganganelli was a good and pious man; but before his election, he had said the pope could legally suppress the Society of Jesus. This was good enough for the Bourbon cardinals, and on May 18, 1769, Ganganelli was elected pope.

Pope Clement XIV on horseback

But the new pope, who took the name Clement XIV, was not entirely willing to suppress the Society of Jesus. He stalled, trying to appease the monarchs by carrying out only minor actions against the Jesuits. But when the Spanish ambassador told him that “only one thing will satisfy us, and that is, complete suppression,” Clement XIV weakly gave in. Emperor Josef II also demanded that the pope destroy the Society of Jesus, and Clement feared that if he did not give in, the monarchs would take their churches into schism. Thus, on July 21, 1773, Clement XIV suppressed the Society of Jesus. “The Church,” wrote the pope, “could not enjoy true and lasting peace so long as the Society remained in existence.”

The effects of the suppression were devastating. Jesuit schools and colleges were left without teachers. Many apostolates in Europe, as well as missions in foreign lands, were abandoned. The philosophes rejoiced, for they thought the suppression was the beginning of the final overthrow of their enemy, the Church. Voltaire himself chirped, “in 20 years there will be nothing left of the Church.”

Yet the Society of Jesus did not utterly cease to exist. Strangely enough, two “enlightened” despots saved it. Katerina the Great of Russia refused to allow the pope’s order to be published in her domains; and so, with the pope’s silent approval, the Jesuits continued as an order in White Russia. Friedrich the Great of Prussia, who had come to value the work of the Jesuits in Silesia, also refused to publish the pope’s order. Members of the Society thus continued to teach in schools in the lands of Voltaire’s friend.

The friends of the Church were dismayed by the suppression of the Jesuits. “Poor pope!” said St. Alphonsus di Liguori. “What could he do in the circumstances in which he was placed, with all the Sovereigns conspiring to demand this suppression? As for ourselves, we must keep silence, respect the secret judgment of God, and hold ourselves in peace.” But, it is said, Pope Clement XIV could find no peace; he deeply regretted his decision. Not long before his death on September 22, 1774, Clement is reported to have said of the loss of the Jesuits, “I have cut off my right hand.”

Have Mercy, O Lord!

Almost one month before Pope Clement XIV's passing, the composer Niccoló Jommeli, died in Naples. Known for his operas, Jommeli was also a composer of sacred music. In the year of his death, 1774, Jommeli composed a sacred work, Pietà Signore (Have Mercy, O Lord). This is the Miserere from this work.

966 views0 comments


bottom of page