What Exactly Do Priests Have to Do to Get Kicked Out of the Church?

More than 200 years ago, the Jesuits—the order Pope Francis belongs to—found out.
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A painting of the 1820 expulsion of the Jesuits from Russia (Wikimedia Commons)

Nearly a year ago, Jorge Mario Bergoglio became the world's first Jesuit pope. This was an unlikely choice: In the final stage of their vows, the order's priests promise never to strive for higher office within the Catholic Church or their communities. The order's founder, Ignatius of Loyola, was also opposed to Jesuits becoming bishops—and now a Jesuit is the bishop of Rome.

Pope Francis's election is ironic for another reason: The Jesuits were once kicked out of the Church. This year marks the 200th anniversary of the order's return to the Church, orchestrated by Pope Pius VII in 1814. To understand more about this tumultuous period in the history of the Society of Jesus, I spoke with John O'Malley, a Jesuit, historian, and author of What Happened at Vatican II and Trent.

In the lead-up to the suppression of the order in 1773, a few factors exacerbated hostility toward the Jesuits, O'Malley said. By that time, the group had existed for more than two centuries, and its influence had expanded rapidly. Jesuits like Matteo Ricci had ventured to China and established a mission there. But by the late-17th century, these efforts had grown controversial: The order allowed Chinese converts to participate in traditional cultural rites, which they justified by making a distinction between "civic" and "religious" observance. When other orders of priests visited the country, they were suspicious of this practice.

Others found the Jesuit lifestyle too lax. Followers of Jansenism, a theological movement within the Catholic Church, were particularly disdainful of the Society of Jesus. "The Jesuits seemed to have a softer look at Christianity than other orders," O'Malley said. "They had villas for their members, houses in the country. They seemed very worldly because their schools put on these plays—theater was a big thing. It just drove the Jansenists crazy."

Jesuit thinkers also defended an approach to moral decision-making called probablism, which was divisive within the Church. This was the idea that, in a morally ambiguous situation, someone can follow a teaching that's probably morally correct, even if other teachings seem more correct. The Jansenists particularly despised this aspect of Jesuit teachings. "They seemed to be soft on sin," O'Malley said. 

All of these grievances culminated in Dominus ac Redemptor, a brief issued by Pope Clement XIV in 1773. He outlined a long list of accusations against the Society, concluding:

It was very difficult, not to say impossible, that the Church could recover a firm and durable peace so long as the said Society subsisted.

After a mature deliberation, we do, out of our certain knowledge, and the fulness [sic] of our apostolical power, SUPPRESS AND ABOLISH THE SAID COMPANY: We deprive it of all activity whatever, of its houses, schools, colleges, hospitals, lands, and, in short, every other place whatsoever, in whatever kingdom or province they may be situated.

Clement went on to specify all the ways that Jesuits were banned from the Church (he was quite thorough). And just like that, a 233-year-old order ceased to exist—at least for a while. 

Then came the French Revolution.

"In France, [the revolution] turns out to be rabidly anti-Christian and anti-Catholicism," O'Malley said. "The bishops and priests—it's hard to estimate how many were killed and executed. Liberty, equality, fraternity—come on! This brought the destruction of order, of hierarchy."

The revolution, according to O'Malley, was a Europe-wide distraction that offered political cover for Jesuits. After the order was suppressed, Catherine the Great had offered the priests a haven in Russia, and there, a small group deftly maneuvered to continue their work. In 1801, after the French Revolution had thoroughly upended political affairs on the continent, Pope Pius VII issued a decree confirming the legitimacy of the Jesuits in Russia. Thirteen years later, he universally restored the order with the papal bull Sollicitudo omnium ecclesiarum.

But 40 years had passed since the Society was formally banned from the Church. Who would become the next Jesuits? Young people who came of age during the the French Revolution. "You had a generation or several generations of conservative young people entering the order," O'Malley said. That meant loyalty to hierarchy, structure, tradition—and the Vatican.

This trend lasted until about 1960, he noted, and "the Jesuits were never more papal than they were during this period.... Pius VII and the other popes were very favorable toward the Jesuits, and the Jesuits really kind of kowtowed to the papacy. They were the papacy's most faithful disciples—and were known for this." In the 1960s, the Second Vatican Council, a gathering of more than 2,600 Church leaders that lasted for three years, took the Holy See in a new direction, shaping the Church we know today.

O'Malley sees many of these themes in Pope Francis's approach to his office. “He comes with a very different view of the papacy—a very Jesuit vision,[emphasizing] consultation and participation," he said.

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Emma Green is an associate editor at The Atlantic.

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