The Jesuit Order as a Synagogue of Jews: Jesuits of Jewish Ancestry and Purity-of-Blood Laws in the Early Society of Jesus
Robert Aleksander Maryks
“Those from the circumcision subverted the entire house of the Society. As sons of this world who are shrewd in dealing with their own, and avid of new things, they easily excite disorders and destroy the unity of souls and their bond with the government.”
Lorenzo Maggio, Jesuit Curia in Rome, 1586.
One of the more interesting aspects of Jewish group behavior is the presence of subversive strategies employing crypsis, often facilitated by a combination of deception and self-deception. To date, the most forthright and convincing theoretical framework for understanding cryptic forms of Judaism is found in Kevin MacDonald’s groundbreaking Separation and Its Discontents: Toward and Evolutionary Theory of Anti-Semitism. A substantial portion of the fourth chapter of the text (1998/2004: 121–132) is devoted to ‘Reactive Racism in the Period of the Iberian Inquisitions.’ Here MacDonald puts forth the view (147) that the blood purity struggles of the Spanish Inquisition during the 15th and 16th centuries should be seen as “an authoritarian, collectivist, and exclusionary movement that resulted from resource and reproductive competition with Jews, and particularly crypto-Jews posing as Christians.” The historical context lies predominantly in the forced conversion of Jews in Spain in 1391, after which these ‘New Christians’ or conversos assumed (or indeed retained) a dominance in the areas of law, finance, diplomacy, public administration, and a wide range of economic activities. MacDonald argues (148) that despite superficial religious conversions, the New Christians “must be considered a historical Jewish group” that acted in such a way as to continue the advance of its ethnic interests. An integral aspect of this was that Wealthy New Christians purchased and endowed ecclesiastical benefices for their children, with the result that many prelates were of Jewish descent.
Indirectly, and almost certainly unintentionally, MacDonald’s arguments find much in the way of corroboration in The Jesuit Order as a Synagogue of Jews (2010) by Boston College’s Robert Aleksander Maryks. Examining the same geographical area during the same period, Maryks presents an account of the early years of the Society of Jesus, during which a fierce struggle took place for the soul, fate, and control of the Order; a struggle involving a highly influential crypto-Jewish bloc and a competing network of European Christians. In this unpolished but interesting book, Maryks illuminates this struggle with reference to previously undiscovered material, in the process shedding light on some of the most important recurring themes of reactive anti-Semitism: Jewish ethnocentrism, nepotism, the tendency to monopoly, and the strategic use of alliances with European elites. Perhaps most fascinating of all, Maryks makes significant reference to Jewish responses to European efforts to stifle their influence, some of which are remarkable in the close manner in which they parallel modern examples of Jewish apologetic propaganda. As such, The Jesuit Order as a Synagogue of Jews is highly recommended for anyone seeking to understand, via an easily-digested historical case study, the dynamics of the ethnic conflict between Jews and Europeans.
Maryks divides his text into four well-paced chapters. The first provides readers with ‘The Historical Context of Purity-of-Blood Discrimination (1391–1547),’ a detailed standalone introduction to the nature of the ‘New Christian’ problem in Iberia but which should be read in conjunction with MacDonald’s work on the same theme. The second chapter concerns ‘Early Jesuit Pro-Converso Policy (1540–72),’ which demonstrates the intensive manner in which crypto-Jews infiltrated key positions in the Society of Jesus, adapting its ideological positions in accordance with their interests, and eventually establishing a monopoly on top positions that extended to the Vatican. The third chapter, ‘Discrimination Against Jesuits of Jewish Lineage (1573–93),’ concerns the establishment of a movement acting against the crypto-Jewish strategy, with an analysis of the key figures and their rationale. The fourth chapter, ‘Jesuit Opposition to the Purity-of-Blood Discrimination (1576–1608),’ examines the efforts of crypto-Jewish Jesuits to fight back against the European counter-strategy, often involving the employment of tactics and stances that are now familiar to us as the hallmarks of a Jewish intellectual movement.
This sequence parallels the processes that led to the Inquisition—New Christians establishing themselves in top positions in Spanish politics, business, and culture, provoking a reaction by the Old Christians aimed at regaining power, followed by Jewish counter efforts against the Inquisition and the against the Spanish government generally, the latter typically played out on the international scene.
One of the key strengths of this fascinating book is that Maryks can rely on relatively recent genealogical discoveries to prove beyond doubt that many of the individuals once merely “accused” of being crypto-Jews were undeniably of Jewish lineage. Maryks can thus cut through a clouded period in which ancestry was vital and yet fogged with accusations, denials, and counter-accusations, with tremendous clarity. In the author’s words (xxix), “racial tensions played a pivotal role in early Jesuit history.”
Opening his book, Maryks recalls delivering a paper on converso influence in the Jesuits, and afterwards receiving an email from a man with origins in the Iberian peninsula. The email concerned the remarkably long survival of crypto-Jewish behaviors in the sender’s family:
From Friday evening through Saturday evening, his grandfather would hide the image of baby Jesus from a large framed picture of St. Anthony that he kept in his home. It was, in fact, a wind-up music box. On Fridays he would wind up the mechanism and push a button, so that Jesus would disappear out of St. Anthony’s arms, hidden in the upper frame of the picture. On Saturdays he would push the button, so that Jesus would come back out from hiding into St. Anthony’s arms. As eldest son in his family, my correspondent was told this story by his father, who also asked him to eat only kosher food. (xv)
The survival of such eccentric, and in this case apparently trivial, forms of crypto-Judaism into what one assumes to be the early twentieth century, might appear to be little more than a socio-historical curio. In actual fact, however, it is a small but memorable vestige of what was once a very powerful means of continuing the Jewish group evolutionary strategy in the Iberian peninsula after 1391 — an overwhelmingly hostile environment. In a political, religious, and social context devoid of the synagogue and many of the most visible aspects of Judaism, small reminders of group difference, even otherwise trivial ones like hiding images of Jesus or adhering to discreet dietary rules, became vital methods for retaining group cohesion.
For some time, these methods were largely successful in facilitating the continuance of Jewish life ‘under the noses’ of the Christian host society. During this successful period, conversos were able to expand nepotistic monopolies of influence in a wide range of civic and even (Christian) religious spheres. When it failed, however, the consequences could be catastrophic. Maryks points out (xxii) that from its founding in 1540 to 1593, the Society of Jesus had no discriminatory legislation against individuals of Jewish heritage, and that during this period converso Jesuits “held the highest administrative offices, and defined the Society’s institutional development and spirituality.” However, significant resistance to this crypto-Jewish monopoly had developed by the latter date, and from 1593 to 1608 a power struggle resulted in the defeat of the crypto-Jewish element and the introduction of laws prohibiting the admittance of members of ‘impure blood.’ From 1608 until 1946 this involved a review of the ancestry of any potential member of the Society of Jesus, up to the fifth generation.
The Jewish Origins of the Jesuits
On 15 August 1534, Ignatius of Loyola (born Íñigo López de Loyola), a Spaniard from the Basque city of Loyola, and six others, all students at the University of Paris, met in Montmartre outside Paris, in a crypt beneath the church of Saint Denis, to pronounce the religious vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Ignatius’ six companions were: Francis Xavier from Navarre (modern Spain), Alfonso Salmeron, Diego Laínez, Nicolás Bobadilla from Castile (modern Spain), Pierre Favre from Savoy, and Simão Rodrigues from Portugal. At this point they called themselves the Compañía de Jesús, and also Amigos en El Señor or “Friends in the Lord.” The Spanish “company” would be translated into Latin as societas, deriving from socius, a partner or comrade. This soon evolved into the “Society of Jesus” (SJ) by which they would later be more widely known. In 1537, the seven travelled to Italy to seek papal approval for their order. Pope Paul III gave them a commendation, and permitted them to be ordained priests. The official founding of the Society of Jesus occurred in 1540.
The presence and influence of conversos in the Society of Jesus was strong from the beginning. Of the seven founding members, Maryks provides categorical evidence that four were of Jewish ancestry — Salmeron, Laínez, Bobadilla, and Rodrigues. In addition, Loyola himself has long been noted for his strong philo-Semitism, and one recent PhD thesis has even advanced a convincing argument that Loyola’s maternal grandparents, (his grandfather, Dr. Martín García de Licona, was a merchant and financial advisor at court), were full-blooded conversos — thus rendering the ‘Basque nobleman’ halachically Jewish. Jewish scholar of the Inquisition, Henry Kamen, who had earlier argued that the Inquisition was “a weapon of social welfare” used mainly to obliterate the conversos as a distinct class capable of offering social and economic competition to ‘Old Christians,’ once voiced his own personal view that Loyola was “a deep and sincere spiritual Semite.”
Straightforward assessments of the reasons for Loyola’s philo-Semitism are, as Maryks admirably elucidates, complicated by the ubiquitous presence of converso propaganda. More specifically, Loyola’s reputation as an ardent admirer of the Jews rests predominantly on a series of anecdotes and remarks attributed to him — and many of these derive from biographies penned shortly after his death by converso Jesuits aiming to promote and defend their interests. For example, the only source for the argument that Loyola had an overwhelming desire to be of Jewish origin so that he could “become a relative of Christ and his Mother” is the first official biography of Loyola — penned by the converso Pedro de Ribadeneyra. Ribadeneyra is described by Maryks as “a closet-converso” who distorted many now-established facts about Loyola’s life, including a concealment of the fact that “the Inquisition in Alcalá had accused Loyola of being a crypto-Jew.” (43) An important aspect of Ribadeneyra’s biography was thus the promotion of the idea that being Jewish was desirable and admirable — Loyola’s philo-Semitism (real or imagined) was intended to be emulated. Meanwhile the sinister aspects of crypto-Judaism, and their suppression by the Inquisition, were excised from the story altogether.
Whether Loyola was in fact a crypto-Jew, or whether he indeed was a European but possessed a strong desire to be a Jew, remains unconfirmed at time of this writing. However, it is certain that Loyola surrounded himself with many converso colleagues and that he opposed any discrimination against converso candidates within the Society of Jesus. Maryks argues that, issues of crypsis and philo-Semitism aside, Loyola was probably “motivated by the financial support that he had sought from their [converso] network in Spain.”(xx) In this reading then, Loyola was fully aware of the elite position of the conversos within Spanish society and was prepared to accept their money to establish his organization in exchange for adopting a non-racial stance in its governance.
The question of course remains as to why the crypto-Jewish elite in Spain would back, both financially and in terms of manpower, a Christian religious order. The important thing to keep in mind is that religion and politics in Early Modern Europe were intimately entwined, and that, through spiritual confraternities and their relationships with local elites, even poverty-espousing religious orders like the Franciscans could exert a strong form of socio-political influence. This was often made even more sharply evident when religious orders engaged in missionary work in foreign lands, often taking pioneering roles in colonial regimes, and even assisting with their economic enterprises. William Caferro notes that in Renaissance Italy “the Florentine political elite was closely tied to the church. Government officials often held high church office and benefice, which aided their local political power.” Involvement in religious orders was thus a necessary aspect and extension of political, social, and cultural influence.
Unsurprisingly then, it can be demonstrated that crypto-Jews straddled the interconnected networks of royal administration, the civic bureaucracy, and the Church. Citing just some examples, Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh note in their history of the Inquisition:
In 1390 the rabbi of Burgos converted to Catholicism. He ended his life as Bishop of Burgos, Papal legate and tutor to a prince of the blood. [Burgos’s son would later become an important pro-converso activist and will be discussed below]. He was not alone. In some of the major cities, the administration was dominated by prominent converso families. At the very time the Spanish Inquisition was formed, King Ferdinand’s treasurer was converso in his background. In Aragón, the five highest administrative posts in the kingdom were occupied by conversos. In Castile, there were at least four converso bishops. Three of Queen Isabella’s secretaries were conversos, as was the official court chronicler.
For the crypto-Jewish elite of early modern Spain, the founding of an influential religious order headed by a philo-Semite (if not a fellow crypto-Jew), staffed predominantly by a converso leadership, and constitutionally tolerant of converso applicants, would undoubtedly have been an attractive prospect. That a bargain of some form existed between Loyola and his crypto-Jewish sponsors is suggested, as noted above, by the nature of the early Jesuit constitution and by early correspondence concerning the admission of candidates of Jewish ancestry. The founding of the Jesuit order had coincided with the rise of a more general Spanish anti-converso atmosphere that reached its peak in 1547, “when the most authoritative expression of the purity-of- blood legislation, El Estatuto de limpieza [de sangre], was issued by the Inquisitor General of Spain and Archbishop of Toledo, Silíceo (xx).” Pope Paul IV and Silíceo’s former pupil, King Philip II, ratified the archbishop’s statutes in 1555 and 1556, respectively, but Ignatius of Loyola and his converso successor, Diego Laínez (1512–65) vigorously opposed the Inquisitor’s attempts to preclude conversos from joining the Jesuits. In fact, in a letter addressed to the Jesuit Francisco de Villanueva (1509–57), Loyola wrote that “in no way would the Jesuit Constitutions accept the policy of the archbishop (xxi).”
Seeking to quell rising tensions over the issue, in February 1554 Loyola sent his plenipotentiary emissary, Jerónimo Nadal (1507–80), to visit the Inquisitor. Nadal insisted that the Jesuit Constitutions did not discriminate between candidates of the Society on the basis of lineage, and even personally admitted a number of converso candidates during his visit to Iberia. In a heated debate with the Inquisitor over the admission of one of them, Nadal replied: “We [Jesuits] take pleasure in admitting those of Jewish ancestry.” In what would become a striking pattern, most of the pro-converso arguments were made by crypto-Jews claiming to be native Spaniards. Maryks notes that his historical investigations suggest that Nadal was “most probably a descendant of Majorcan Jews (77).”
Jewish attempts to alter Christian thinking about Jews, from within Christianity, were already well-established by the date of Nadal’s intercession with the Inquisitor. An excellent example is the classic work of Alonso de Santa María de Cartagena (1384–1456) — Defensorium unitatis christianae [In Defense of Christian Unity] (1449–50). Alonso de Cartagena had been baptized (at the age of five or six) by his father Shlomo ha-Levi, later renamed Pablo de Santa María (c. 1351–1435), who— as chief rabbi of Burgos—converted to Christianity just before the anti-Jewish riots of 1391 and later was elected bishop of Cartagena (1402) and Burgos (1415). The fact that the wife of this Bishop of Burgos remained an unconverted Jewess does not appear to have impeded the latter’s career in the Church is interesting to say the least.
Meanwhile his son, Cartagena, like many other conversos, studied civil and ecclesiastical law at Salamanca and went on to a highly influential career straddling royal, civic, and religious spheres. He served as apostolic nuncio and canon in Burgos. King Juan II appointed Cartagena as his official envoy to the Council of Basel (1434–9), where he contributed to the formulation of a decree on “the regenerative character of baptism without regard for lineage (4).” Like other examples of pro-converso propaganda, however, Cartagena’s arguments always went beyond mere appeals for ‘tolerance.’ According to Cartagena, “the faith appears to be more splendid in the Israelite flesh,” Jews naturally possess a “civic nobility,” and it was the duty of rough and uncouth native Spaniards to unite with the “tenderness of the Israelite meekness.” (14, 17)
Conversos thus emerge in the works of the earliest crypto-Jewish activists as more special than ordinary Christians, as naturally deserving of an elite status, and, far from being the worthy objects of hostility, were in fact uniquely blameless, ‘tender,’ and ‘meek.’ One is struck by the regular use of similar arguments in our contemporary environment, a similarity that only increases when one considers Cartagena’s attribution of anti-Jewish hostility solely to “the malice of the envious.” (20)
Against this backdrop of crypto-Jewish apologetics, Maryks demonstrates, whether he intends to or not, that the early Jesuits were largely a vehicle for converso power and influence (both political and ideological). Loyola continued to be “surrounded” by conversos throughout his leadership (55). Enrique Enríques, the son of Portuguese Jews, even authored the first Jesuit manual of moral theology, Theologiae moralis summa, in 1591. (65) Maryks describes Loyola as having an unlimited “trust” in candidates of Jewish heritage, citing his decision to “admit in 1551 Giovanni Battista Eliano (Romano), the grandson of the famous grammarian and poet Rabbi Elijah Levita (1468–1549) …. He entered the Society at the age of twenty-one, just three months after his baptism (66).”
In explaining Loyola’s lax requirements for converso applicants, and resultant acquiescence in flooding the Society with crypto-Jews, it is strange that Maryks should abandon his own prior suggestion that the founding of the Jesuits may have rested on a quid pro quo with the converso elite in favor of a less convincing theory based on a putative and ill-explained “trust” that Loyola possessed for Jews. Unfortunately this is a common theme throughout Jewish historiography, where the facts and conclusions presented in the same text are often on entirely different trajectories. In a similar vein, Maryks’s skeletal explanation that crypto-Jews flooded the Jesuits simply because Loyola had “numerous contacts with the converso spiritual and merchant network” before he founded the Society of Jesus, seems woefully inadequate and lacking in context.
Despite the best laid plans of Loyola and his colleagues, and just 32 years after its founding, the Society of Jesus would undergo a revolt from below against a rapidly expanding crypto-Jewish elite. The features of this revolt represent a fascinating case study in the reactive nature of anti-Semitism. Maryks narrative of how two competing ethnic groups struggled for the future of the Jesuit Order, outlined in his second and third chapters, is certainly the greatest strength of the text. It is to this European counter-strategy that we now turn our attention.
 See Kevin Ingram, Secret lives, public lies: The conversos and socio-religious non-conformism in the Spanish Golden Age. Ph.D. Thesis (San Diego: University of California, 2006), pp. 87–8.
 Quoted in Maryks, The Jesuit Order as a Synagogue of Jews, p.xx.
 W. Caferro, Contesting the Renaissance (Oxford:Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), p.158.
 M. Baigent & R. Leigh, The Inquisition (London: Viking Press, 1999), pp.75-6.