Jesus, Society of

Society of Jesus, religious order of the Roman Catholic Church. Its members are called Jesuits. St. Ignatius of Loyola, its founder, named it Compañia de Jesús [Span.,=(military) company of Jesus]; in Latin it is Societas Jesu (abbr. S.J.). Today the society numbers about 19,000 members; in the United States, where there were approximately 2,900 Jesuits in 2007, there are many Jesuit schools and colleges (e.g., Georgetown, Fordham, and St. Louis universities).

Among the great organizers and theologians of the order are St. Francis Borgia, Claudio Aquaviva, Saint Robert Bellarmine, Luis Molina, and Francisco Suárez. The order has a tradition of learning and science; e.g., the Bollandists are Jesuits, and Jesuits have made a specialty of the study of earthquakes. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin is perhaps the most famous Jesuit scientist. The society is also noted for its foreign missionary work.

The Modern Order

The largest single religious order, it is characterized by a highly disciplined organization, especially devoted to the pope and ruled by its general, who lives in Rome. Jesuits have no choral office; like the secular clergy they are under obligation to individually recite the divine office each day. They have no distinctive habit. In principle they may accept no ecclesiastical office or honor, but members of the order have on occasion been named bishops or cardinals; Francis was the first Jesuit to have been elected pope.

Jesuit training is famous and may last for more than 15 years. The novice spends two years in spiritual training, after which he takes the simple vows of the regulars—chastity, poverty, and obedience. Then as a scholastic he spends 13 years and sometimes longer in study and teaching, completed by an additional year of spiritual training. Toward the end of this period he is ordained and becomes a coadjutor. He may then take a fourth vow of special obedience to the pope and become professed.


The Order's Beginnings

The society had its beginnings in the small band of six who together with St. Ignatius took vows of poverty and chastity while students at Paris. Their first plan was to work for the conversion of Muslims. Unable to go to the Holy Land because of the Turkish wars, they went to Rome and received ordination. Their constitution was approved by Pope Paul III (1540), and St. Ignatius was made (1541) general. The order then immediately began to expand.

In Europe the Jesuits were a major force in the Counter Reformation. They sought to reclaim Protestant Europe for the church and to raise the spiritual tone of the Catholic countries. They enjoyed considerable success in W and S Germany, France, Hungary, and Poland. In nearly every important city the Jesuits established schools and colleges, and for 150 years they were leaders in European education. One of their boldest efforts was the English mission of 1580, distinguished by Saint Edmund Campion. Another celebrated English Jesuit was Robert Southwell.

Missions in Asia and the Americas

One of the most brilliant of all foreign missionaries was St. Francis Xavier (see also missions); his work in the East was continued by a host of Jesuits. The mission in Japan was wiped out by persecution in the early 17th cent., but when Japan was reopened to the West in the 19th cent. a number of Christians were found there, descendants of these martyrs. The most distinguished early figures of the Chinese mission were Fathers Matteo Ricci, Adam Schall, and Ferdinand Verbiest in the 17th cent.; a characteristic of their mission was their popularity at court, where they were revered as men of wisdom and science. There were persecutions and martyrdoms, but the original Jesuit foundation became the nucleus of the Roman Catholic Church in that country. The Indian mission began under the aegis of the Portuguese in Goa, whence it spread over the country; one of the most remarkable Jesuits in this mission was Robert de' Nobili, who, after arduous asceticism and study, won recognition as an equal of the Brahmans.

The Jesuits worked all over Latin America; among their number was St. Peter Claver. The most remarkable missions were in Paraguay. In French North America the Jesuits came frequently into rivalry with the government and the other clergy; their missions among the Huron were especially successful, and they made headway among the Iroquois. The "Black-Robes," as the Native Americans called them, traveled as far afield as Oregon. Some of these Jesuits died as martyrs for their faith (c.1640); six of them have been canonized together, with two of their lay helpers, as the Jesuit Martyrs of North America (feast: Sept. 26). The Jesuit Relations is a firsthand account of Jesuit work in New France. The suppression of the order in Canada in 1791 and its later readmission as a teaching order led to the Jesuit Estates Act.

Suppression and Restoration

The Jesuits eventually became the object of criticism from vested ecclesiastical interests in every Catholic state. The Gallican party in France (see Gallicanism), being antipapal, was naturally anti-Jesuit. The polemics of Blaise Pascal and the Jansenists (see under Jansen, Cornelis) against Jesuit casuistry and alleged laxity in confessional practice were damaging. Through their loyalty to papal policies, the Jesuits were drawn into the struggle between the papacy and the Bourbon monarchies.

Before the middle of the 18th cent. a combination of publicists (including Voltaire) and the absolute monarchs of Catholic Europe undertook to destroy them. In 1759 the Jesuits were expelled from Portugal and its colonies, France suppressed them in 1764, and in 1767 the Spanish dominions were closed to them. Pope Clement XIII denounced these acts, but, in 1773, Clement XIV, under the coercion of the Bourbon monarchs and of some of his own cardinals, dissolved the order, and the Society of Jesus ceased to exist in the Catholic world.

Frederick the Great and Catherine the Great refused to publish the brief suppressing them, and the Jesuits continued to exist in Prussia and Russia, especially as educators. As the 18th cent. drew to a close Catholic Europe, especially Italy, began to ask for restoration of the Jesuits, and, in 1814, Pius VII reestablished them as a world order.


See T. A. Hughes, History of the Society of Jesus in North America (3 vol., 1907–17, repr. 1970); J. Brodrick, Origin of the Jesuits (1940, repr. 1971); W. V. Baugert, A History of the Society of Jesus (1972); J. C. Aveling, The Jesuits (1982); A. Scaglione, The Liberal Arts and the Jesuit College System (1986).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Jesuits: Selected full-text books and articles

Ignatius Loyola: The Founder of the Jesuits By Paul Van Dyke New York ; C. Scribner's sons, 1926
The American Jesuits: A History By Raymond A. Schroth New York University Press, 2007
A View from Rome: On the Eve of the Modernist Crisis By David G. Schultenover Fordham University Press, 1993
Passionate Uncertainty: Inside the American Jesuits By Peter McDonough; Eugenec C. Bianchi University of California Press, 2002
Faith, Discovery, Service: Perspectives on Jesuit Education By Michael J. Buckley; Francis M. Lazarus Marquette University Press, 1992
The Power and Secret of the Jesuits By René Feülöp-Miller; D. F. Tait; F. S. Flint Viking Press, 1930
The Jesuits in North America in the Seventeenth Century By Francis Parkman University of Nebraska Press, 1997
Black Robes and Buckskin: A Selection from the Jesuit Relations By Catharine Randall Fordham University Press, 2011
A primary source is a work that is being studied, or that provides first-hand or direct evidence on a topic. Common types of primary sources include works of literature, historical documents, original philosophical writings, and religious texts.
The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents: Travels and Explorations of the Jesuit Missionaries in North America (1610-1791) By Edna Kenton Albert & Charles Boni, 1925
A primary source is a work that is being studied, or that provides first-hand or direct evidence on a topic. Common types of primary sources include works of literature, historical documents, original philosophical writings, and religious texts.
The Counter-Reformation, 1550-1600 By B. J. Kidd Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1933
Librarian's tip: Chap. 2 "The Jesuits: To the Death of Their Founder, 1566"
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