In the lore of conspiracism, few religious groups, with the exception of Jews, are more feared or thought to be more powerful than the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). As I write, it was only yesterday that the College of Cardinals elected the first Jesuit pontiff, Jorge Mario Bergoglio (now Pope Francis), which makes you wonder: If they were so powerful, what took them so long to ascend to power?
So why are Jesuits so feared among conspiracy theorists? The reasons are many and complex. The Society of Jesus was founded in the mid-16th century, just before the Counterreformation. Their founder, Ignatius of Loyola, was a Basque soldier who had a religious conversion while convalescing from wounds received in battle. Ignatius’sSpiritual Exercises, a formal regimen of meditation on the life of Jesus, is a foundational document still used in the training of novitiates. Indeed, Ignatius’sExercises were innovative theology for the time, and Ignatius is occasionally considered the first of the Spanish mystics, who derived knowledge of God not through the sanctioned external authorities of gospel, tradition, and Church fiat, but through revelations from internal meditation (a potentially dangerous and heretical position during the Counterreformation).
I suspect that the word “exercises” is a bit of a play on the Spanish word for army, orejército, as the order has retained a hierarchical structure and members adhere to a vow of obedience, giving them a bit of military feel. Indeed, the head of the order is known as the Superior General, and the internal hierarchy gives missions to its members largely independent of the rest of the Catholic hierarchy—the Superior General is an appointment for life and he has full control over the order. (For this reason, he is often described by conspiracists as the “Black Pope.”) The vow of obedience became crucial in the development of the Jesuits’ reputation as missionaries, as members could be ordered to the far corners of the world to spread the gospel. And they were. The earliest Jesuits very quickly found themselves dispersed around the world, in India, China and Japan, as well as in the Americas. As part of their missionary charge, the Jesuits established schools around the world (indeed they had dozens of universities around the world by the time Ignatius died in 1556). As a result they are known as an especially erudite order (or to conspiracy theorists, “shrewd”), and they have had a long tradition of being especially friendly to the sciences.
While the educational aspect of Jesuit tradition is likely one source of the widespread suspicion of the Jesuits, as educational institutions nexuses of influence in conspiracy lore, the fact that Jesuits do not have a specific ecclesiastical garb is probably far more central to their perceived untrustworthiness. The Society’s founding documents detail that Jesuits’ clothing “should have three characteristics: first, it should be proper; second, conformed to the usage of the country of residence; and third, not contradictory to the poverty we profess.” Conspiracy theorists have taken this to mean that the Jesuits intend to “blend in” and pass unnoticed. This idea was transformed into a perceived political threat that the Jesuits were thought to pose, as exemplified in a note from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson in 1816:
I do not like the late resurrection of the Jesuits. [...] Shall we not have more of them here, in as many shapes and disguises as ever a king of the gypsies … assumed? In the shape of printers, editors, writers, schoolmasters, &c? … If ever any congregation of men could merit eternal perdition on earth and in hell, it is the Company of Loyola.
Furthermore, during the Counterreformation, the Jesuits could not avoid political entanglements and controversy in Europe, as they worked hard and largely succeeded in keeping Poland from becoming Protestant. Additionally, a handful of Jesuits were implicated in the Gunpowder Plot, lending credence to the notion that the Order was seeking to manipulate world events. Lastly, the Jesuits maintained a special and complicated relationship to the French crown; by the time of the Revolution, the King’s confessor was traditionally a Jesuit. The aristocracy viewed the Jesuits as suspicious because of their presumed influence over the monarchy and association with the Vatican; the general public, unable to criticize the king directly, turned criticism of the Jesuits became a sort of shorthand for criticism of the crown.
The Jesuits possess a number of features that one expects to see in a group of potential conspirators. They are a transnational entity, which to some puts their loyalties in question. Their profession of loyalty to the Pope raises further concerns—indeed a whole imaginary initiation rite has been attributed to the Jesuits, which reads in part:
I do further promise and declare that I will, when opportunity presents, make and wage relentless war, secretly and openly, against all heretics, Protestants and Masons, as I am directed to do, to extirpate them from the face of the whole earth; and that I will spare neither age, sex nor condition, and that will hang, burn, waste, boil, flay, strangle, and bury alive these infamous heretics; rip up the stomachs and wombs of their women, and crush their infants' heads against the walls in order to annihilate their execrable race. That when the same cannot be done openly I will secretly use the poisonous cup, the strangulation cord, the steel of the poniard, or the leaden bullet, regardless of the honour, rank, dignity or authority of the persons, whatever may be their condition in life, either public or private, as I at any time may be directed so to do by any agents of the Pope or Superior of the Brotherhood of the Holy Father of the Society of Jesus. In confirmation of which I hereby dedicate my life, soul, and all corporal powers, and with the dagger which I now receive I will subscribe my name written in my blood in testimony thereof; and should I prove false, or weaken in my determination, may my brethren and fellow soldiers of the militia of the Pope cut off my hands and feet and my throat from ear to ear, my belly be opened and sulphur burned therein with all the punishment that can be inflicted upon me on earth, and my soul shall be tortured by demons in eternal hell forever.
This was in fact a late seventeenth-century forgery on the scale of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It was authored by Robert Ware and is a prime example of what Richard Hofstadter called anti-Catholic “pornography of the Puritan.”
In nineteenth-century America, the Jesuits were singled out as especially dangerous. In the 1830s, the same decade that saw the original publication of Maria Monk’s Awful Disclosures, the publication of Richard Baxter’s Jesuit Juggling. Forty Popish Frauds Detected and Disclosed. That same year, 1835, saw Samuel B. Morse’s (yes, that Samuel B. Morse) publication of Foreign Conspiracy Against the Liberties of the United States, which posited that Jesuits were being sent to this country by Austria (?!?) to foment revolt. One book, the 1851 publication The Female Jesuit, or, The Spy in the Family, was likely inspired by a line in the Robert Ware’s fabricated oath: “[...] I will place Catholic girls in Protestant families that a weekly report may be made of the inner movements of the heretics.”
By the end of the nineteenth century, fears of Jesuits (and Catholics in general) centered on the role of Catholic parochial education on the youth of the nation, with special attention to which Bible should be used in public schools, the “Romanish” or Protestant Bible. The growing influence of Catholicism in public life was indicative of the demographic shift that had started with the influx of poor Catholics in the early nineteenth century which eventually led to the political mainstreaming of the Catholicism in the twentieth (though conspiracist insinuations of Rome’s potential political influence on the White House dogged Kennedy during his election campaign).
The most visible modern incarnation of anti-Jesuit conspiracy theory seems to draw heavily on Christian fundamentalist fears of the end-times and David Icke–levels of paranoia. I am talking about Eric Jon Phelps, who runs the website Vatican Assassins. Until this week, the website looked like it had been abandoned, as the “News” section hadn’t been updated in almost 400 days, but the election of a Jesuit “White Pope” seems to have brought Phelps back to the website. According to the latest, surprisinglyshort post: “Vatican Assassins and Eric Jon Phelps will be making a groundbreaking announcement in the coming weeks.”
Phelps has woven a narrative of the type Michael Barkun terms a “superconspiracy,” which is characterized by vast, nested hierarchies of hidden influence. In the case ofVatican Assassins, the Jesuits are actively bringing about the end-times and are the powers behind...well, almost every atrocity, including the Holocaust. (The Southern Poverty Law Center has an excellent write-up of Vatican Assassins.) I interviewed Phelps a couple of years ago at an “alternative knowledge” convention in Atlanta a few years ago. As there were a large number of UFO conspiracy theorists in attendance, I asked him what he thought of aliens, and his answer confirmed to me that I had found my calling:
There are no such things as aliens. The ‘Grays’ are creations of the Jesuits in their deep underground military bases through their genetic experimentation. All the grays are hybrids. They cannot reproduce; they live short lives; they are lesser than what a man is—that’s one of the signs of a hybrid. What I maintain is that the Jesuits have perfected their antigravity craft, and god knows what other technology, and so what they did when they crashed at Roswell, they put those little creatures in there.
Because when you inadvertently reveal one secret technology, the really clever conspirator covers it up with…another secret project. Because nobody would expectthat.