Brief Historical Setting
Jesuits of Jewish Ancestry. A Biographical Dictionary


In the first three decades or so of the order’s history (1540-1572), the Jesuit leadership opened the doors wide to candidates of Jewish descent. Not only Francisco de Borja but also his two immediate Spanish predecessors, Ignatius of Loyola and the converso Diego Laínez, willingly admitted candidates of Jewish descent to the order. This anti-discriminatory policy of the early Jesuit leadership constituted an act of bold resistance to the early modern Iberian Zeitgeist. Throughout the sixteenth century, Iberian conversos “were excluded from an increasing number of guilds, religious confraternities, most colleges, religious and military orders, and residence in certain towns.” This is why some conversos who were rejected elsewhere found temporary haven in the Society of Jesus–among them Anrrique Anrriques, Afonso de Castro, and perhaps García Girón de Alarcón

          Radical anti-converso measures were initially introduced by the Archbishop of Toledo, Juan Martínez Guijarro or Silíceo, the author of El Estatuto de limpieza [de sangre] imposed in his archdiocese in 1547, just a few years after the foundation of the Society. Silíceo’s attempt to extend discrimination against conversos to the Society of Jesus was vigorously opposed by Loyola’s emissary, Jerónimo Nadal Morey, who visited the inquisitor in 1554. Following Loyola, Nadal insisted that the Jesuit Constitutions do not discriminate between candidates of the Society on the basis of lineage. Nadal therefore admitted (or confirmed) during his visit to Iberia a handful of converso candidates, among them Gaspar de Loarte, Manuel de Sá, and Luis (Diego) de Santander. In a heated debate over the acceptance of the latter, Nadal straightforwardly replied: “We [Jesuits] take pleasure in admitting those of Jewish ancestry.” 

          After Borja’s death (1572), however, a close-knit anti-converso lobby gained ground within the Society, as the Italo-Portuguese sabotaging of the election of Juan Alfonso de Polanco as Borja’s successor during General Congregation 3 strongly suggests. In spite of the death of the anti-converso royal minister, Ruy Gómez de Silva, and his Jesuit protégé, Antonio Araoz, in 1573, the anti-converso lobby found support in the newly elected superior general Mercurian (1573-80), who from the very first years of his office proceeded to remove from Rome (and possibly from Italy or even Europe) many converso Jesuits. Polanco was sent to Sicily (ironically, he was replaced as secretary by Possevino, who most probably was a closet-converso) and Nadal to Austria; Pedro de Ribadeneira, Hernando de Solier, Alonso Ruiz, Gaspar Hernández, Gaspar de Loarte, and Dionisio Vázquez were sent to Spain; Pedro de Parra and Manuel Sá were sent to Milan, and Cristóbal Rodríguez –to Flanders. Rodrigo Mena and Juan Gurrea were dismissed. Arguably, this segregationist policy of Mercurian–one that was subsequently endorsed also by Claudio Acquaviva–and the defeat of the converso lobby during GC 3 triggered the anti-Roman movement by Iberian Jesuits known as the memorialistas. Contrary to what the closet-converso Ribadeneira argued, in an attempt to minimize the participation of his fellow converso Jesuits in the memorialistas movement, many of its members, if not the majority, were probably of converso background. In an alleged plot against their superior general in Rome, they sent secret memorials to the Spanish court, the Inquisition, and the Holy See, asking for the reform of the Jesuit Institute, and especially for the autonomy of the Iberian Jesuit provinces. Even though according to Melchor de Valpedrosa’s Diario of GC 5 virtually all the memorialistas were conversos, the question of whether their participation in the movement gives that movement an exclusively converso character needs a more comprehensive and unprejudiced answer. 

          The converso character of the memorialistas movement was, nevertheless, accentuated by the anti-converso lobby, which after the election of Acquaviva (1581) included other high-ranking officials in the Jesuit curia, such as Paul Hoffaeus, Manuel Rodrigues, and Lorenzo Maggio. Their decade-long intense discriminatory campaign led to a punitive decree issued by GC 5 (1593), known as Decree de genere. Violating Loyola’s will as expressed in the Jesuit Constitutions, and contradicting the practice of the first three generalates, it proclaimed Jewish (and Muslim) ancestry, no matter how distant, an insurmountable impediment for admission to the Society. The anti-converso decree was deemed a fait accompli and even the superior general was forbidden to grant exemptions. Moreover, conversos who had not yet made their final vows had to be dismissed. The measure was softened by GC 6 in 1608, if only superficially, because of the strong opposition to it of many Jesuits. The 1593 decree was not abrogated until more than three hundred years later, in the decision of GC 29 in 1946. This was almost certainly under the sway of the Holocaust. 

          For a more detailed study of the subject, see my The Jesuit Order as a Synagogue of Jews: Jesuits of Jewish Ancestry and Purity-of-Blood Laws in the Early Society of Jesus (Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2009).