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The Jesuit Order as a Synagogue of Jews: Jesuits of Jewish Ancestry and Purity-of-Blood Laws in the Early Society of Jesus by Robert Aleksander Maryks (review)

From: The Catholic Historical Review
Volume 99, Number 2, April 2013
pp. 355-356 | 10.1353/cat.2013.0124

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Reviewed by
The Jesuit Order as a Synagogue of Jews: Jesuits of Jewish Ancestry and Purity-of-Blood Laws in the Early Society of Jesus. By Robert Aleksander Maryks. [Studies in Medieval and Reformation Traditions, Vol. 146.] (Boston: Brill. 2010. Pp. xxxiv, 281. $147.00. ISBN 978-90-04-17981-3.)

The Jesuit Order as a Synagogue of Jews is a superb study of the relationship between Jesuits and New Christians—converts from Judaism and their descendants—during the three generations after the founding of the Society of Jesus in 1540. It has long been known that many New Christians joined the Society in the sixteenth century. The opposition that this influx of New Christians inspired both within and outside the Society, however, is something of which only a few specialists have been aware until recently. James W. Reites and Francisco de Borja Medina have written important studies of St. Ignatius of Loyola’s philosemitism and of the divisions within the Society that developed after Ignatius’s death. Maryks, however, does something that no one has attempted until now—he investigates the genealogical roots of dozens of sixteenth-century Spanish and Portuguese Jesuits. Among these men were several of the most notable Jesuit intellectuals of the period, including José de Acosta, Diego Laínez, Juan de Mariana, Jerónimo Nadal, Juan Alfonso de Polanco, Pedro de Ribadeneira, and Francisco Suárez.

Maryks links his genealogical study to a sophisticated analysis of the various factions that developed within the Society as a result of the debate about the admission of New Christians. In addition, Maryks analyzes the strong opposition in court and clerical circles in Spain and Portugal as a whole to the admission of New Christians in the Society.

The Jesuit Order as a Synagogue of Jews provides a profound and convincing analysis—based on extensive archival work—of the conflict between theory and practice in the Society of Jesus. The Society’s founding documents called for an inclusive approach to the admissions process. In practice, however, discrimination in the admission of a wide range of minorities—including not only New Christians but also Asians, Africans, Amerindians, and mestizos—was widespread.

The debate about New Christians hinged on the interpretation, by individual Jesuits, of Ignatius’s intentions. Drawing on their direct contacts with Ignatius, on their understanding of the Institute of the Society, or on both, Jesuits on both sides of the debate about New Christians asserted that they sought to adopt the policy that Ignatius would have adopted had he been alive in the 1570s, when the debate threatened to produce a schism in the Society.

The vocal minority in the Society that opposed the admission of New Christians gained strength at the Third General Congregation in 1573, when it prevented the election of Polanco to succeed Francisco de Borja as Superior General. Opponents of Polanco said that they wished to elect the [End Page 355] first non-Spanish Superior General, but their true goal—to prevent the election of a New Christian—was clear to all the electors. The new Superior General, Everard Mercurian, removed influential New Christians from their administrative posts in Rome and ordered them to return to Spain.

At the Fifth General Congregation in 1593, the electors voted to exclude men of Jewish and Muslim descent from the Society. Acosta cast one of only two dissenting votes. Maryks provides the most comprehensive analysis to date of the bitter debate surrounding the passage of the exclusion decree. Several notable Jesuits, including Ribadeneira and Antonio Possevino (an Italian who was likely of Jewish descent), mounted an eloquent defense of the principle of nondiscrimination in general and of the admission of New Christians in particular. The decree was modified slightly in 1608 to ensure that investigations of lineages not extend beyond five generations, but it was not formally rescinded until 1946.

Ironically, as Maryks notes, Mercurian’s marginalization of the New Christians gave several of these Jesuits—notably Nadal, Polanco, and Ribadneira—the opportunity to explore interests that they had not previously had time to pursue. During the next forty years, these men produced a brilliant collection of writings—ranging from history and biography to...