A week ago, 37 lawsuits totaling about $3.1 million were filed in a Portland, Oregon bankruptcy court against organizations affiliated with the Jesuit province covering the northwestern United States. Two years earlier, that province had filed for bankruptcy, claiming assets of approximately $4.8 million and liabilities of nearly $62 million, after having paid out some $25 million in settlement of sex abuse lawsuits since 2001.
The current round of lawsuits seeks to recover payments made by the province to various affiliated organizations shortly before the bankruptcy filing. The plaintiffs aren’t necessarily alleging that these payments were fraudulently hiding assets from creditors, but our laws do permit the recovery of even some above-board pre-bankruptcy payments, and the plaintiffs naturally want to leave no stone unturned.
The critical issue here is “What exactly is ‘the Jesuits’?” Consider Spokane’s Gonzaga University, an asset-rich organization that is run by the Jesuits of the northwestern province. Its advertising for decades has proclaimed it to be a Jesuit institution; now that there’s money on the line, it quite vociferously asserts that it is not really “owned” by the Jesuits at all. As one plaintiff’s attorney put it:
The Gonzaga argument about it’s not really part of the Oregon Province is like Pontiac arguing it’s not really part of General Motors. Yeah, it may be a separate corporation, but it functions as part and parcel of the same organization.
Ultimately a court will decide just how separate Gonzaga University and a number of other Jesuit outfits (such as a $7 million retreat for priests at Hayden Lake, Idaho) really are from “the Jesuits” who have the $62 million liability. My completely uninformed guess is that the sharp lawyers who set up the intricate web of connected corporations will be found to have done their jobs competently, and that the losers will be the people who are owed the $62 million. They will end up with only a few cents on the dollar, and most of the Jesuit empire will roll along unscathed. But no matter how badly things turn out in this case, they won’t be as catastrophic as the first time the “Who are ‘the Jesuits’?” issue arose, in 1764 France.The “Company of Jesus” had been established by Ignatius Loyola in 1534 as an elite, ultra-disciplined corps of counter-revolutionaries with a single mission: support the Pope, God’s mouthpiece on earth, in his struggles against Protestant heretics.
Education of the upper classes was an early mission; cementing relationships with the future rulers they tutored, Jesuits worked their way into the position of “confessors” – priests who heard the sins of kings, forgave them on God’s behalf, and whispered in their ears what God wanted them to do. They developed a reputation for laxity on matters of morality, overlooking the sexual foibles of the powerful who did their political bidding. Father Benzi, for example, wrote that “It is only a slight offense to feel the breasts of a nun.”
Though Jesuits didn’t use “the end justifies the means” as a mantra, they may as well have. One Jesuit document noted that “Actions intrinsically evil, and directly contrary to the divine laws, may be innocently performed by those who have so much power over their own minds as to join, even ideally, a good end to the wicked action contemplated.” Loyola himself wrote that: “We must see black as white, if the Church says so.” Political assassination became a favorite Jesuit technique; the king of France and the Stadholder of Holland fell to Jesuit conspiracies, and the Queen of England nearly did as well.
Jesuits were also encouraged to lie, whenever doing so would advance their cause. For example, “A man may lawfully say he did not kill Peter, meaning privately another man of that name, or that he did not do it before he was born.” Enterprising Spanish Jesuits busied themselves in fabricating ancient documents and relics to make Spain’s Catholic heritage appear far more embedded in its culture than it really was. When the Pope in 1680 ordered the Jesuits to stop teaching this doctrine, the Superior General chose not to communicate the Pope’s decree to his subordinates.Loyola had prescribed vows of poverty for his followers, but after the Pope gave the Company the right to engage in banking and commerce it grew immensely wealthy, with its fingers in commercial enterprises around the globe. In 1760, a Jesuit slave-trading business on the island of Martinique became unable to pay its bills. Angry creditors back in Marseilles did not appreciate being offered satisfaction in the form of a Mass to be said on their behalf rather than cash; they filed a lawsuit against the Company itself, claiming it was a single entity, responsible for the bills of each of its subsidiaries – exactly the argument of today’s plaintiffs in Oregon.
Though the Jesuits argued that their Martinique representative was acting beyond his authority, and that anyway they were doing God’s work and should be considered above petty commercial law, they lost. They then committed the colossal blunder of appealing the verdict to the Parliament of Paris, even though they knew it to be sympathetic to a Church faction that Jesuits had been persecuting for decades.
The Parliament of Paris proceeded to launch a thorough investigation of the hitherto secret governing documents of the entire order, to determine just how independent the Martinique operation really was. Revelation after revelation piled up, not only about Jesuit business operations but about their disdain for government officials who did not carry out God’s will as they saw it. The ultimate outcome was a shocker: After Parliament confirmed every claim of the Marseilles merchants, a special council concluded that for promoting “a doctrine authorizing robbery, lying, perjury, impurity – all passions and crimes; inculcating homicide, parricide, and regicide; overturning religion, in order to substitute in her stead superstition; and thereby sanctioning magic, blasphemy, irreligion, and idolatry,” the Jesuit order must be banned from France. Its schools would be closed, its wealth nationalized.When their hearts resumed beating, French Jesuits assured themselves that the very Catholic king would never allow this order to stand. As indeed he would not have – but for the fact that precisely at this time, Voltaire was bombarding Paris with letters, pamphlets and books about the horrendous evil the clergy had committed in Toulouse in the Jean Calas case (about which I’ll be writing more in October), and getting the opinion-makers of Europe to join in his campaign. Although the Company actually had little or no direct involvement with the events in Toulouse, it drowned in the tsunami of Voltaire’s abuse, which proved that it was possible for common sense to prevail over even the most powerful of God experts. A visiting German princess wrote that “At Paris, among the clergy or laity, I do not believe there are a hundred persons who hold the true faith.”
The king let the dissolution order stand.
Voltaire expressed his views on the Jesuit plight in his Treatise on Tolerance:
In like manner, if these latter have been found to teach the most reprehensible doctrines, and if their institution appears contrary to the laws of the kingdom, it becomes necessary to abolish their society, and of Jesuits to make them useful citizens; which, in fact, so far from being an oppression upon them, as has been pretended, is a real good done for them; for where is the great oppression of being obliged to wear a short coat instead of a long gown, or to be free instead of being slave? In time of peace whole regiments are broken without complaining. Why, then, should the Jesuits make such an outcry, when they are broken for the sake of peace?
Other countries soon followed suit; in 1773, Pope Clement XIV dissolved the Company of Jesus altogether. It was only reconstituted in 1814, after the forces of reaction had dismantled revolutionary France.So no matter what happens in Oregon, it won’t hold a candle to 1764. By a sublime irony, though, there is one more connection between the time when Toulouse brought down the entire order, and the current siege. Most of the $62 million in Jesuit liabilities arose from sex abuse verdicts and settlements, the chief villain of which was a Jesuit priest who began raping boys in 1950 and continued doing so until 1970, despite attention being drawn to his activities by a pistol-wielding parent. Instead of having him arrested, the Jesuits simply moved him from spot to spot; he wound up at Jesuit-run Seattle University, where after his death a lectureship in philosophy was established in his name. The name?