The Dissolution of the Jesuits and the Birth of an Anti-Semitic Conspiracy Theory in the Age of Enlightenment

By Samuel Weber

Unsettling life events sometimes lead to disturbing thinking. Until the dissolution of the Society of Jesus in 1773, Tommaso Termanini (1730–1797) led the typical life of an eighteenth-century Jesuit. After graduating from the Society’s Roman College, he embarked on a career as a teacher in Jesuit institutions in Umbria, dreaming no doubt of returning to Rome to teach at his alma mater one day.[1] Alas, these hopes were dashed when Pope Clement XIV suppressed the Jesuits. As Termanini slid into precarity, he turned his pedagogical vocation into a perilous career as a hack, writing to foster an esprit de corps among former Jesuits like himself. Barnstorming Central Italy as an itinerant preacher throughout the 1770s and 1780s, he churned out rabidly anti-modern screeds that helped give birth to one of the sturdiest anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.[2]

As an author, Termanini specialized in biographies of Jesuit missionaries who could serve as role models for down-and-out Ignatians. By his own admission, Termanini knitted his stories together from “many scraps and snippets of paper, which were all loose and flying around.”[3] Like their author, the protagonists of his writings inhabited a distinctly Catholic world of paper in which booklets with anti-Enlightenment content blended seamlessly with portable devotional objects. Consider Termanini’s biography of Domenico Maria Alessandri (1714–1789), a Jesuit missionary from the Marches. To promote the cult of the Sacred Heart, Alessandri “used devotional images, both large ones to hang in the bedroom and small ones to be kept inside devotional books so as to better stir one’s devotion and fervor.”[4] Alessandri’s campaign paled in comparison with that of his confrere, Domenico Maria Saverio Calvi (1714–1788). Hunkered down in Bologna with other former Jesuits, Calvi ran a commercial operation to ship baubles of the Sacred Heart across the globe, pumping cheap prints of Jesus’s heart into a world that had largely turned its back on the message of redemption it stood for.[5]

Termanini’s vita of Francesco Pepe (1684–1759), which remained in manuscript form, is yet another portrait of a media-savvy Jesuit.[6] In the 1740s, decades before Alessandri and Calvi, Pepe had revolutionized Jesuit proselytizing in Naples. To popularize the once distinctly aristocratic cult of the Immaculate Conception of Mary among Naples’s sprawling working population, Pepe mass-produced paper chits dedicated to the Virgin Immaculate and encouraged the urban poor to swallow these paper pills to avert the hazards of life in the metropolis, which ranged from traffic accidents to the inability to pay rent. To peddle his amulets, Pepe authored booklets that detailed the miracles the chits had effected among the working poor.[7] These miracle reports formed the basis on which Termanini spun his own story about the man who had pioneered the paper religion of Alessandri and Calvi and who he held up as role models for his audience of former Jesuits.

Portrait of Francesco Pepe. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

In retelling Pepe’s life, Termanini deviated from the existing manuscript sources in the Jesuit archives in one significant way: he expatiated on the Jesuit’s encounters with Naples’s Jewish community. Unlike their counterparts in most other Italian cities at the time, Neapolitan Jews did not live in a cordoned-off ghetto and were allowed to mingle freely with Catholics. According to Termanini, Pepe did not deny that close contact between Jews and Catholics could have potentially positive outcomes: it exposed Jews to the one true faith while teaching Catholics a valuable lesson about Jewish servitude.[8] Termanini illustrated this with an episode that featured Pepe’s paper pills. The chits had long been popular with Catholic parturient, but in the instance Termanini recounts, they worked their magic on a Jewish mother-to-be. When this woman went into labor, her Christian neighbor offered her a holy card she could swallow to ease the pain. Shortly after that, a baby girl was born with the chit attached to her head, tempting the mother to convert to Catholicism. This betrayal angered the girl’s father so much that he tried to shave the chit off with a razor, and when that failed, he split his daughter’s head with an axe. As the baby girl “met the same enviable fate as the innocent killed in Bethlehem in hatred of Christ,”[9] she became the latest addition to the growing list of child martyrs who had allegedly died at the hands of Jews.[10] The promiscuity of Jews and Catholics, then, was a potential source of new converts and martyrs, with the useful side effect that they revealed the Jews’ innate perfidy to Catholics.

If the presence of a Jewish minority had advantages for Termanini, the negatives far outweighed the positives of unregulated coexistence. He was adamant that having “this sort of people mixed between this huge populace with neither a ghetto nor a uniform”[11] ate away at the Christian commonwealth. To hammer home this point, he played on base fears of the loss of virility. In Naples, Catholic boys had allegedly been abducted, and when they were returned to their parents, their foreskins had been cut off.[12] Christian youngsters had been led into temptation by Jewish prostitutes who worked their exotic wiles on these hapless Catholics.[13] Indeed, in other instances, it was the sheer presence of Jews that emasculated good Christian men. As Termanini pointed out, while the Jews enjoyed freedom of movement in Naples, the new Bourbon king, Carlo (r. 1735–1759), had only had daughters who had all passed away in infancy. The lack of a male heir was God’s punishment for Carlo’s toleration of a Jewish community in Naples, a sin that was sapping at the very foundation of the new monarchy.[14] From the bottom of society to its very top, the toleration of Jews threatened the social and gender order of Neapolitan society, a view that Pepe and his hagiographer Termanini shared.

Jews featured so prominently in Termanini’s account because they stood for the much larger challenge that enlightened reforms posed to Pepe and other Jesuits’ worldview. The tiny Jewish community of Naples comprised about one-hundred merchants from Ancona, Livorno, and the Levant who had been called to the city in 1740 to revive its sagging Mediterranean trade and invest in local manufactures.[15] This mercantilist policy was the centerpiece of a broad program of economic and social reforms spearheaded by King Carlo’s minister, José Joaquín de Montealegre (1698–1771). In the eyes of Termanini, Montealegre’s willingness to collaborate with Jews for the prosperity of the Kingdom betrayed his heretical vision of society in which social ills could be eradicated in this world rather than the next. With his supercilious rejection of Providence, Montealegre was truly “a man of little to no faith.”[16] In light of this betrayal of reformist elites, Pepe pushed his alternative to blind faith in government tampering with God’s design. In true populist fashion, he whipped into being what the Mercure called an alliance of “the rabble, priests, and monks.”[17] When the plague broke out, Pepe blamed the epidemic on the Jews, liberally blending centuries-old ideas of Jews as contaminants with hints at divine punishment. By 1747, Pepe convinced King Carlo to sack Montealegre and expel the Jews, foreshadowing a much broader assault on the enlightened reforms that their presence epitomized. As enlightened ministers were sacrificed on the altar of a pact between traditionalist elites and the populace, Father Pepe peddled his substitute for worldly amelioration: the paper amulets that willed the Virgin Immaculate into action for truly deserving Christians, lifting them out of their predicament without the dangerous social leveling of hubristic elites.

In Termanini’s rendition, Pepe’s principled conservatism made the Jews gang up on the Jesuit and his order. The archival record shows, rather prosaically, that Pepe’s paper business was put to bed by the Inquisition in the late 1750s.[18] Termanini, however, turned the intervention of the Holy Office into a belated revenge of Pepe’s nemeses. As he told the story, Pepe’s reliance on the hereafter to solve social woes exposed him to a defamation campaign of the “malevolent” who accused him of having enriched himself by promising the impossible to the consumers of his paper pills. Believing that money “spent to honor God and his saints” was “needlessly thrown away,” Pepe’s detractors saw the miraculous chits as little more than an inventive way of “stealing from the poor’s mouth.”[19] This was, of course, the standard argument against baroque piety that Catholic reformers weaponized as they aggregated to dissolve the Society.[20] Writing after its suppression, Termanini interpreted these charges as proof positive of a plot: to his mind, the accusations against Pepe were mere projections of those “interested in the world” who “would long, like Judas, to have for themselves the money that they see being spent so profusely on the glory of God.”[21] Building on an age-old tradition that identified the traitorous disciple with Jews, Termanini lumped together reformers and Jews into one and the same invincible conspiracy of bottomless greed that threatened to undermine God-made inequalities. Indeed, in their wicked designs, the undoing of Pepe was only the first step toward their real goal: the “modern sect” had simply “slander[ed] [Pepe] to then oppress the Society.”[22] In the historical revisionism in which Termanini dabbled after the dissolution of the Jesuits, Father Pepe was the first victim of a much larger conspiracy that would, within little more than a decade, proceed to dismantle the order and worldview of which Pepe had been a standard-bearer.

Invented on the eve of the French Revolution, Termanini’s trope of the Judaized “modern sect” would soon morph into a touchstone of traditionalist Catholic ideology. Termanini offered his readers a new version of the timeless trope of how Jews, if left unchecked, could not help but subjugate good Christians. That argument had been mobilized to institute the ghettos in the sixteenth century.[23] Two centuries on, Termanini amalgamated that legend with the conspiracy theories that swirled around in reformist circles about Jesuit confessors who were rumored to exert undue influence on kings and their counselors. In a sleight of hand, Termanini argued that it was in fact the Jews who pulled the strings behind reformist ministers, instigating them to dissolve the Society of Jesus. In Termanini’s manuscript, that story still had limited explanatory power for an audience of former Jesuits mourning the loss of their order. But as the French Revolution loomed, that trope became the kernel of one of the most persistent antisemitic conspiracy theories.[24] Trumpeted to the world by the likes of the Civiltà Cattolica, the Jewish plot would go on to explain to generations of Catholics everything from the French to the Russian Revolution.


Samuel Weber is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Bern and a Swiss National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellow at the École française de Rome. He is working on the cults of the Immaculate Conception and the Sacred Heart in the eighteenth century, probing the impact of the second media revolution on these controversial devotions.

Title image: Vue de l’Edifice de l’Observatoire et du Collège des Jésuites, 1790. Source: Gallica

Further Reading:

Caffiero, Marina. The History of the Jews in Early Modern Italy: From the Renaissance to the Restoration. Translated by Paul M. Rosenberg. London/New York: Routledge, 2022.

Kertzer, David I. The Popes Against the Jews: The Vatican’s Role in the Rise of Modern Anti-Semitism. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001.

McMahon, Darrin M. Enemies of the Enlightenment: The French Counter-Enlightenment and the Making of Modernity. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Michelson, Emily. Catholic Spectacle and Rome’s Jews. Early Modern Conversion and Resistance. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2022.

Soyer, François. Antisemitic Conspiracy Theories in the Early Modern Iberian World: Narratives of Fear and Hatred. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2019.

Teter, Magda. Blood Libel: On the Trail of an Antisemitic Myth. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2020.

Endnotes:

[1] Mario Zanfredini, “Termanini, Tommaso,” in Diccionario Histórico de la Compañía de Jesús, ed. Charles E. O’Neill and Joaquín María Domínguez, 4 vols. (Rome: Institutum Historicum Societatis Iesu and Madrid: Universidad Pontificia Comillas, 2001), 4:3779.

[2] On this milieu, see Niccolò Guasti, “The Age of Suppression: From the Expulsions to the Restoration of the Society of Jesus (1759–1820)” in The Oxford Handbook of the Jesuits, ed. Ines G. Županov (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 918–50 (926-8) and Glauco Schettini’s article An Eighteenth-Century Crusade: The War Against Revolutionary France and the Origins of Modern Catholicism, 1789-99 – Age of Revolutions.

[3] Tommaso Termanini, Breve ragguaglio della vita, e virtù del sacerdote Domenico Maria Alessandri, patrizio anconitano (Foligno: Giovanni Tommassini, 1790), 4.

[4] Ibid., 82–3.

[5] Tommaso Termanini, Vita e virtù del sacerdote Domenico Maria Saverio Calvi, nobile bolognese (Parma: Stamperia Carmignani, 1796), 191–2.

[6] Vita del P. Francesco Pepe della Provincia di Napoli: Archivum Romanum Societatis Iesu, Vitae 95, ff. 66r-78v. The manuscript is anonymous, but an archivst’s hand on the first page clearly attributes it to the “former Jesuit Father Tommaso Termanini.” On Pepe, see PEPE, Francesco in “Dizionario Biografico” (treccani.it).

[7] Francesco Pepe, Prima novena di sabati dell’Immacolata Concezione di Maria SS.; Seconda novena [… ]; Terza novena […] (Naples: Stamperia di Giovanni Ricci, 1744).

[8] Emily Michelson, Catholic Spectacle and Rome’s Jews. Early Modern Conversion and Resistance (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2022).

[9] Vita, 72v.

[10] Magda Teter, Blood Libel: On the Trail of an Antisemitic Myth (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2020), ch. 8.

[11] Vita, 68r.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 68r–v.

[14] Ibid., 68r.

[15] Franco Venturi, Settecento riformatore. I: Da Muratori a Beccaria, 17301764 (Turin: Einaudi, 1969), 75–9.

[16] Vita, 68r.

[17] Quoted in Venturi, Settecento, 76.

[18] Archivio della Congregazione per la Dottrina della Fede, D.V. D.V. 1754–1760 8, 272r–310v.

[19] Vita, 70r.

[20] The literature on these debates is vast, but see Brian Larkin, The Very Nature of God: Baroque Catholicism and Religious Reform in Bourbon Mexico (Albuquergue: University of New Mexico Press, 2010) and Dale K. Van Kley, Reform Catholicism and the International Suppression of the Jesuits in Enlightenment Europe (New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 2018).

[21] Vita, 70r.

[22] Ibid., 70v.

[23] Marina Caffiero, The History of the Jews in Early Modern Italy: From the Renaissance to the Restoration, transl. Paul M. Rosenberg (London/New York: Routledge, 2022), ch. 5

[24] The genealogy of this conspiracy deserves further study. See, however, Marina Caffiero, “La rhétorique symétrique, discours et stratégies d’autolégitimation des jésuites” in Les Antijésuites. Discours, figures et lieux de l’antijésuitisme à l’époque moderne, ed. Pierre-Antoine Fabre and Catherine Maire (Rennes: Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2010), 197–220.

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