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Is a Jesuit Good for the Jews?

The Jesuits’ history with the Jews has been rocky, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t celebrate the ascent of Francis

Marc B. Shapiro
March 20, 2013
In this Dec. 12, 2012, picture provided by the NCI-Emanue El, Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (now Pope Francis), lights the menorah during Hanukkah celebrations in Buenos Aires, Argentina. At left is Rabbi Sergio Bergman, and at right is Rabbi Alejandro Avruj.(NCI-Emanu El/AP)
In this Dec. 12, 2012, picture provided by the NCI-Emanue El, Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (now Pope Francis), lights the menorah during Hanukkah celebrations in Buenos Aires, Argentina. At left is Rabbi Sergio Bergman, and at right is Rabbi Alejandro Avruj.(NCI-Emanu El/AP)

The election of a new pope is always an exciting time for Catholics—and with this particular pope, there is more new than usual. While most have focused on the fact that Francis is the first non-European pope in almost 1,300 years, and the first one elected from the New World, at my Jesuit university, the University of Scranton, students and professors are particularly thrilled about the fact that Pope Francis is the first Jesuit head of the church. Not surprisingly, many of those commentators who have concentrated on Pope Francis’ Jesuit identity have examined the Jesuits’ sometimes rocky relationship with the papacy, which in the 18th century even led to the order being suppressed.

Yet surely the election of a pope must also have implications for the Jews—or so we Jews are accustomed to thinking. In this case, it happens to be true. Throughout history, the Jesuits’ relationship with the Jews has been anything but smooth sailing. And yet, in recent decades we have seen a completely new attitude—so much so that Jews should be celebrating the ascent of Francis, who has had close ties with the Jewish community of Argentina, where he has attended synagogue and co-authored a book with an Argentinian rabbi.


Founded in the 16th century by a Spanish knight, Ignatius of Loyola (1491–1556), the Society of Jesus—whose members are known as Jesuits—was noteworthy in its early years precisely because of its liberal attitude toward the “Jewish question.”

In post-expulsion Spain no Jews publicly identified as such on the Iberian Peninsula. Yet there were lots of so-called New Christians—that is, Christians who had themselves converted from Judaism or were descended from converted Jews. Confronted with evidence of “Judaizing” among the New Christians decades after the last Jews had left Spanish soil, the Inquisition had its work cut out for it.

But even before the expulsion, with New Christians throughout Spain, many in Spanish society developed a loathing for those with Jewish blood not any different than what German Jews would confront centuries later. Limpieza de sangre, or purity of blood, was backed by the universities and influential figures in the church, and it helped ensure that former Jews and those of Jewish descent were not able to advance in church or state offices, and for a long time it stood as an unofficial bar to marriages between Old and New Christians.

It was in this matter that the Jesuits remained true to Christian principles longer than many other Catholic institutions in Spain. Facing widespread pressure to adopt “racial legislation,” it was only in 1593, years after various cathedral chapters and fraternities had banned New Christians, that the Jesuits instituted purity of blood legislation. Until then, those with “Jewish blood” were welcomed, and some of these reached high positions in the order, including Ignatius’ secretary, Juan Alfonso de Polanco, and his successor as Superior General, Diego Laynez, who was a significant intellectual leader of the Catholic Reformation. Francisco de Toledo, also of Jewish descent, was the first Jesuit to be appointed a cardinal. New Christians were so common in the order that King Phillip II of Spain termed the Jesuits “a synagogue of Hebrews.” (The fascinating subject of Jesuits and Jewish blood has received a full and expert treatment in Robert Aleksander Maryks’ recent work The Jesuit Order as a Synagogue of Jews.)

The New Christian “infiltration” of the Jesuits was sure to lead to a backlash, and in 1593 the society decreed that no one with any known Jewish ancestry was allowed to join, an adumbration of what in United States racial history would come to be known as the “One Drop Rule.” The 1593 decree was only slightly liberalized in 1608, with the new rule limiting the restriction on Jewish ancestry to the fifth generation. Incredible as it may seem, this racial restriction would only be revoked in 1946 (although there is evidence that it had not been enforced for some time). It is not surprising, as David I. Kertzer noted in his book The Popes Against the Jews, that the fifth generation rule was “often cited by both the Nazis and the Italian Fascists to demonstrate that their own racial policies merely echoed those of the Church’s most respected religious order.”

From the 16th-century blood restrictions until modern times, the Jesuits’ relationship with Jews had its ups and downs. There were times when Jesuits were active in stirring up anti-Jewish feeling, such as in 18th-century Poland, and through their Italian journal La Civiltà Cattolica, from its founding in the mid 19th century up until Vatican II. It has also been alleged that French Jesuits were involved with the movement to condemn Alfred Dreyfus as a traitor, in late-19th-century France.

While anti-Jewish prejudice is an unfortunate part of Jesuit history that can’t be overlooked, this is not the whole story by any means. There were always Jesuits who carried the spirit of Ignatius and fought against the prejudice that many of their brothers had succumbed to. It was none other than a German Jesuit, Augustin Bea, who played a central, indeed crucial role in the release of Nostra Aetate in 1965, which set the church firmly against anti-Semitism and inaugurated a new era in Catholic-Jewish relations. Bea’s spirit of tolerance now characterizes the order as a whole, and Jesuits take a leading role in Catholic-Jewish dialogue. While Vatican II had as one of its goals ending anti-Jewish prejudice among Catholics, it is worth noting that, as an Internet search will illustrate, a good deal of contemporary rabid anti-Catholic sentiment focuses on the Jesuits, seeing them as in alliance with, or even controlled by, the Jews.

The years subsequent to Vatican II have seen its promise brought to fruition. This applies to both general Catholic views of Jews and Judaism, as well as the views and activities of Jesuits in particular. This is obvious most vividly when it comes to Jesuit universities. Jewish Studies are now an important component at these institutions throughout the United States, and Jewish philanthropists, recognizing the opportunity for a new chapter in Jewish-Christian relations, have funded chairs of Jewish studies at Jesuit (and other Catholic) universities.

My own experience, having taught at a Jesuit university for the past 17 years, is that Jews can ask for no better friends than the Jesuits with whom I have been privileged to work. They have welcomed me and encouraged me to share in the ideals of Jesuit education, which is often characterized as “finding God in all things,” a sentiment that can also be found in many classic Jewish sources. Not long after I arrived in Scranton I was invited to deliver a lecture to the exceptional students who are part of my university’s Jesuit Liberal Arts Honors Program. The title of my talk was “A Jesuit University as Seen Through Jewish Eyes.” That a Jewish professor would be invited to share Jewish wisdom on what he saw as the strengths and weaknesses of Scranton’s Jesuit education illustrates more than anything else how far we have come.

One result of the election of a Jesuit pope is that many Jews are asking the perennial Jewish question: Is it good or bad for the Jews? If the welcome my colleagues and I have received at our respective Jesuit institutions is any guide, then the answer must be a resounding, “Good, very good.”


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Marc B. Shapiro is Weinberg Chair in Judaic Studies at the University of Scranton.

Marc B. Shapiro is Weinberg Chair in Judaic Studies at the University of Scranton.