March 9, 2016 The Memorial of Saint Frances of Rome
So now the Society of Jesus was suppressed, by the order of Pope Clement XIV in the brief Dominus ac Redemptor. The Holy Father was forced into making this decision. He did not wish it, but he had to do it. How do we know this? Here are some words taken from the English translation of the brief by John Murphy S.J.:
In cultivating God’s vineyard and in preserving the house of the Christian religion whose cornerstone is Christ, we root up and we destroy and we dispose and we scatter and we build and we plant. This has always been our mind and firm intention that we ought not leave anything undone for the peace and quiet of the Christian republic. We ought to act by planting, by building, by doing whatever is suitable. Similarly, when the same bond of charity requires it, we should be prompt and ready to uproot and to destroy anything even if it be most pleasant and gratifying to us and even if doing without it would cause the greatest distress and mental anguish.
Clement XIV’s motive was simply to preserve the peace and unity of the Catholic world as it stood in 1773. He was menaced by threats of schism by France, Spain, Naples i.e. all of the great Catholic powers, the only great Catholic powers along with their at the time worldwide empires that remained after the disaster of Martin Luther’s revolt two and half centuries before. And he had seen, after what the Marquis de Pombal had pulled off in Portugal, that this was no idle threat.
An evil seed had been sown in the courts of Catholic Europe, a seed that would shortly lead to their annihilation, but for now the target of this nascent conspiracy was the Society of Jesus. This Society had been instrumental in stopping the Protestant revolt in its tracks a few centuries before and it was in the 18th century the Church and the Holy Father’s best tool for keeping the Catholic nations aligned with the Church of Rome that had after all given them life in the first place. It had to be dismantled. And it was. The Bourbon courts were seduced by a motley crew of ne’er do well ministers into demanding the destruction of the only thing that was keeping them in power. And they did it. Clement XIV tried to placate them and to appease them and to play for time but it was not to be. The Society of Jesus was extinguished on August 16, 1773.
But Clement XIV did manage to include a provision in the brief that ended up doing a lot of good for the Church and the Jesuits but cost him a lot of frustration during the last year of his life. The brief was not binding on the members of the Society of Jesus in a particular diocese until they were informed of it by the local Ordinary i.e the bishop of that diocese. The pope did that in order arrange the distribution of the Jesuits’ property and that it remained within the Church rather than just being sold off to the highest bidder after an abrupt eviction.
Strangely enough this allowed the Society of Jesus to survive in of all places Russia. Poland had only been partitioned the year before (1772) by Russia, Prussia, and Austria. The empress Catherine the Great had therefore acquired a large number of Catholic subjects in this arrangement. The Jesuits had been in Poland for more than two centuries at that point and the empress, who was Russian Orthodox and therefore not in communion with the Roman Pontiff, did not wish to threaten the peace of her newly acquired territories by subjecting them to another major shake up coming so quickly after the partition. She therefore ordered the Bishop of Vilnius on pain of banishment not to communicate in any way the brief Dominus ac Redemptor to the local Jesuits. Things were to remain as before. This resulted in an almost comical situation where the local Jesuits, who were well aware of the Holy Father’s desires and wished to be obedient to them, pleaded with their sovereign to allow them to be suppressed and the schismatic Empress flatly refusing their pleas and thus managing to preserve one of the great orders of the Western Church. It is really strange the way Divine Providence works sometimes. Here are a bunch of Catholic kings trying to destroy one of the Roman Church’s great assets, and it ends up being a schismatic Orthodox empress who allows it to survive. More proof, if any were needed, that the Almighty truly does have a fine sense of humor.
But Clement XIV was not in a laughing mood. He was continually subjected to demands that the state should be able to get hold of the Jesuits property. His mental and physical health deteriorated over the next year. He was continually assailed by the mental torment of all that had transpired during his pontificate and he was tired. One of his successors, Pius VII, when he was imprisoned by Napoleon at Fontainbleu three decades later is reported to have quipped that he feared that he “would die mad, like Clement XIV.” Saint Alphonsus Liguori is reported, and this is documented in several of his personal letters, to have been extremely concerned over the Holy Father’s health and the burden that he was carrying. He prayed for him constantly and there is a very credible report of the Saint bilocating i.e. he rested immobile in his armchair for two days but later stated that he was not asleep but at the bedside of Clement XIV in his death agony. That end came on September 22, 1774.
He had been Pope for five tumultuous years and in all truth things did not look good for the Church at his death. His actions were ironically praised by the Voltaires of the world, but many Catholics thought he was weak and had left the Church disarmed. In truth what could he have done? The real damage was done under the reign of Clement XIII when the Jesuits were suppressed in the great Catholic kingdoms of France, Spain, and Portugal along with their world wide empires. If Clement XIV had defended the Society of Jesus to the last drop of blood and provoked a great schism then the Church, weak though she appeared at the end of his pontificate, would have been in a far worse position to meet the onslaught which was to be unleashed on her in a few short years. Whether the Society of Jesus had been suppressed by the pope or not that onslaught was still coming, and the Jesuits who had by that point been so greatly weakened by their suppression in the Bourbon monarchies were not then in a position to be any great help to the Church.
I don’t know if Clement XIV made all of the right choices but I do know that I would not have wanted his job. My own opinion is that he made the right choice with regard to the Jesuits. The conspiracy never did manage to provoke open schism. It has always been the goal of the Church’s enemies to separate the faithful from the Roman Pontiff. And while the last few centuries have been tragic in the life of the Church that union with Rome, however tenuous in some cases, yet remains.
Please go to Confession and say three Hail Marys in honor of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.