Of Jesuits and Jewishness

The Society of Jesus was “a liberal order for the first three decades. [Ignatius of] Loyola was very open to accept candidates of Jewish ancestry,’’ says author Robert Maryks. The Society of Jesus was “a liberal order for the first three decades. [Ignatius of] Loyola was very open to accept candidates of Jewish ancestry,’’ says author Robert Maryks. (Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff)
By Sam Allis
Globe Staff / May 22, 2010

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Robert Maryks is an expert on the history of early Jesuits — the Society of Jesus — and recently presented a paper at Boston College based on his book “The Jesuit Order as a Synagogue of Jews: Jesuits of Jewish Ancestry and Purity-of-Blood Laws in the Early Society of Jesus.’’ In it, Maryks details the significant role of “conversos’’ — Jews and their descendants who were pressured to convert to Catholicism before and during the Spanish Inquisition. An assistant professor of history at City University of New York, he spent the spring semester at Boston College’s Center for Christian-Jewish Learning.

Q. Did the conversos come about because of the Spanish Inquisition?

A. Not exactly. Most people think of Jewish conversion in Spain as the one that took place in 1492, but there were other massive conversions in the 14th century, if not earlier. A wave of pogroms occurred in 1391 which resulted in the creation of very affluent and influential conversi in Spanish society. Mostly they were top royal administrators or ecclesiastical figures. It was very symbolic when the chief rabbi of Burgos converted to Catholicism before the pogroms and went on to become bishop of the same city.

Q. Why was the Jesuit order so inclusive in its early days?

A. Ignatius of Loyola, the Basque who founded the Jesuit order in 1539, was joined by men who came largely from Iberia. It was a liberal order for the first three decades. Loyola was very open to accept candidates of Jewish ancestry into the order. He made sure there was no discrimination among candidates. One of the founding fathers was a converso. The Society of Jesus was substantially influenced by Christians of Jewish ancestry.

Q. So where did the purity-of-blood laws come from?

A. This class of conversos were definitely accepted by a good number of people and some were protected by royal powers, but other officials resented their power. This led to the first anti-converso pogroms in Castille in 1449 and a law in that year by the mayor of Toledo that deprived conversos of government jobs because their blood was impure because of Jewishness.

Q. And life got worse for the conversos?

A. Yes. The archbishop of Toledo issued a purity-of-blood law in 1547. So the foundation of the Jesuits coincided with the increase of purity-of-blood laws. In 1593, the society issued a law which said that no candidate of Jewish ancestry could enter the society, and those conversos already in the society who had not finished their vows had to leave. This was much harsher than the first because it did not limit the genealogical inquiry. In 1608, an inquiry was set at five generations.

Q. How long did this law last?

A. It existed until 1946, when, after the Holocaust, the law was abrogated. Some Italian fascists reminded the Jesuits that their purity-of-blood laws were even harsher than the German ones. The Nazis checked fathers and grandfathers. The Jesuits went far beyond that.

Interview was condensed and edited. Sam Allis can be reached at allis