The fortunes of Jesuits offering political counsel and the fervent debates triggered by their activities take us into the heart of early modern European, especially Catholic political culture. Jesuits gave political advice and educated members of the Catholic elite—from secular and ecclesiastical princes to magistrates and young nobles lower down the political and social hierarchy—during a period of profound change to the outlook, organization, and exercise of government.1 The ways in which government was informed, organized, and communicated came increasingly under scrutiny and pressure to reform. The unravelling of Christian unity, while destabilizing the established normative framework, at the same time escalated the debate about the religious character of political, especially monarchical authority. The question as to whether the means and ends of political action could be aimed at the preservation (and expansion) of the state and yet remain anchored in Christian ethics greatly exercised princes, counsellors, and theologians. The urgency with which the issue was discussed is reflected in a vast and diverse literature on reason of state and the politics of conscience. A good part of this literature, in turn, reflects new trends in how political knowledge and information was produced, disseminated, and fed into political decisions. Over time, the authority of expertise changed and established itself more firmly as a collaborator and a source of legitimacy for political power.2 Expertise and experts in various guises became integral to the administration and gradual bureaucratic transformation of early modern polities secular and ecclesiastical, and including the Society of Jesus and other religious orders.3
The political counsellor was very much at the center of these developments, with the role itself subject to ongoing debate.4 That good government required good counsel was commonly accepted. Those inhabiting the role could refer to a long tradition deeply embedded in European political discourse and practice. The relationship between counsellor, councilor, and counselee, however, was much in flux. The contributors to this special issue look at the role of the religious as political counsellor, and on the Society of Jesus as one of the laboratories of early modernity in particular. The term “political counsel,” for the purpose of this investigation, is hedged to encompass the activities of Jesuits advising on secular affairs and offering counsel to secular rather than ecclesiastical authorities, and including Jesuit instruction and preparation of lay individuals for political leadership.
The focus, then, is on the place of Jesuits in the complex process which saw medieval polities gradually mutate into early modern bureaucratic governments. Looking back, we recognize that the later sixteenth and seventeenth century saw the unfolding of an accelerating process of professionalization and relative secularization of political knowledge concomitant to a process of privatization of conscience. In this narrative of differentiation and relative ascendance of expertise in politics, the role and the fortune of the religious as political counsellor and of spiritual expertise in politics serves as a weathervane for long-term trends in European political discourse and practice.
The investigation is spread over three intersecting areas of consiliar activity. Each and one stand out for the intensity with which they inspired the practice and theory of early modern government and informed the relationship between individual and authority. The first, prominent in this volume, is the quest for clarification as to the spiritual framing and ethical value of political decisions, encapsulated in the debates on reason of state and the counsel of conscience (Gay, Haskell, Reinhardt). The second is the desire for fresh, clear, and manageable information that reflected the changing dynamic of early modern politics characterized by state-building and the global expansion of Christianity (Braun). The third is the open space created by the extension of European and Catholic political discourses and practices of governance into a global sphere (Redden). These three strands—in many, sometimes subtle ways—were closely woven into one another. They were bound together, for instance, by the overarching desire to pinpoint the modes and guidelines that would allow Jesuits to combine pastoral care and political counsel in support of political decision-makers. Together, the desire for a new Catholic language of statecraft, the experience of the global, and the draining effort to maintain spiritual authority in politics took early modern government and political discourse in new directions.
Jesuits offered political counsel as part of their varied but overlapping roles of teacher, preacher, missionary, and confessor. They did so orally as well as in writing, and did so in many different places and contexts, and through a variety of media—through confession, in the classroom and the council chamber, during informal conversation, in letters, manuals, and treatises. One of the characteristic and most important points about Jesuits as political counsellors—or any religious taking on that role, for that matter—is that advice was always submitted as integral part of pastoral and spiritual care, whether that care was delivered inside or outside the confessional. The spiritual salvation and well-being of the individual—and that of the wider community for which that individual bore responsibility—always was the stated objective.
It was, in fact, the soteriological and pastoral expertise of the Jesuit teacher, preacher, missionary, and confessor that recommended him as a source of political advice. This specific expertise extended, potentially, to every area of human activity. Arguably, it was required most urgently where individual and collective responsibilities and decisions would or could impact most dramatically on the salvation of a great many of souls. The Jesuit as counsellor offered the kind of expertise—theological and pastoral—required to ensure that decisions on secular matters and secular political reasoning would remain embedded in Christian ethics and spirituality. The Jesuit as counsellor—the Jesuit confessor in particular—both provided a point of contact with divine will and evidence that this contact was sought and present in political decision-making. The involvement of the Jesuit as political counsellor in itself, then, was an act of communication establishing legitimacy for a—wide or narrow—political-religious public.
The Jesuit dispensing with counsel on political matters immediately, invariably placed himself on one of the fissures between the secular and the spiritual. Inhabiting a mental world which saw the two spheres as inextricably enmeshed—a mental world far removed from common contemporary notions—the individual Jesuit and the Society of Jesus at large were committed to narrowing and bridging rather than widening those fissures. This objective entailed a constant and intricate exploration of how to maintain effective communication between two autonomous yet interdependent spheres and in fact secure the subordination of the one to the other—namely, the ultimate subordination of secular to spiritual authority.
The Society of Jesus stood out for the intellectual energy and theological sophistication with which its members sought to establish and discussed the right way to combine the office of spiritual and political counsellor. Yet, there was no unity of opinion about the matter among Jesuits themselves. The quest to maintain the priority of the spiritual over the secular could take various forms of political engagement and predicate very different levels of involvement with the business of secular government. The more the spiritual mingled with the secular, the more Jesuits were confronted with predicaments that would ultimately prove too difficult to resolve.
The essays gathered here explore some of fissures Jesuits sought to bridge and some of the predicaments and challenges they had to face as result of the decision to submit political counsel to lay authorities. Yasmin Haskell reminds us that almost from the outset—with the decision of Diego Laínez (1512–65), in 1560, to move education of the young to the core of the Jesuit spiritual enterprise—the Society endeavored to shape the minds of younger members of the European political elite. The Jesuit collegium and the Jesuit teacher quickly became highly successful and respected institutions within the early modern Catholic world. In her contribution to this issue “Group Therapy for Venetian Adolescents? Giannantonio Bernardi’s Prudence, a Didactic Prolusion (Venice, 1709) and Jesuit Moral Counselling in Verse”—Haskell explores the ways in which Jesuit teachers harnessed poetry to serve their didactic objectives.
Haskell sets out from the fact that Jesuits composed more Latin didactic poetry than any other order or profession in the early modern period, but, at the same time, rarely chose to render moral, political, or spiritual themes into this genre of verse. She examines one notable exception to this rule, Prudentia, prolusio didascalica, by the Jesuit Giannantonio Bernardi (1670–1743). A teacher, preacher, and confessor who spent most of his life in northern Italy, Bernardi composed the work for his rhetoric students in Venice, where it was first published in 1709. His verse takes the young Venetian noble through many iterations of the life-shaping potential of prudentia.
The concept of prudence was integral to early modern and Jesuit discussions of statecraft, governance, and ruler-ship.5 Jesuit literature tended to identify prudentia as a virtue indispensable in the political leader. The term connected moral theology and casuistry with matters of state, especially when it came to confronting, dissecting, and absorbing notions of (“Machiavellian”) reason of state. However, the relationship between prudence, reason of state, and Jesuit moral theology and casuistry—the method of applying principles of natural and divine law to specific moral decisions—was never easy. The boundaries could easily become or appear blurred. The term never lost its epistemological and moral malleability, and Jesuit political writers such as Leonard Lessius (1554–1623), by and large, sought to exploit this persistent ambiguity in order to reconcile actual political mores and practices with orthodox moral norms.6
Prudentia, prolusio didascalica and Bernardi’s other moral writings offer a particular and possibly rare facet of Jesuit discussion of prudence. Haskell sets out showing that Bernardi is well aligned with Jesuit didactic poetry of moral or spiritual counsel generally—such as Pierre Mambrun’s De cultura animi (1661)—in that he does not engage with matters of state directly. Where he does come close to doing so, he offers no more than general exhortations, such as an appeal to young Venetian noblemen never even to consider an alliance with the Turk. This puts Bernardi—as it puts Jesuit didactic poetry generally—in marked contrast to discussions of political affairs, norms, and ethics in Jesuit examples of the mirror-of-princes genre or the many treatises De iustitia et iure.
Bernardi, though, still displays the characteristic Jesuit stress on the inner life and the careful, critical, and continuous scrutiny of the self. As the title suggests, he still puts prudence at the core of his didactic verse. Yet Bernardi develops prudentia exclusively as the virtue directing the careful management of the self. Prudentia, prolusio didascalica was written to instil a habit of collective moral monitoring in his charges (and their families). Prudence is the guide, for instance, when it comes to proper ways of seeking and receiving counsel. Unlike fellow confrères—Pedro de Ribadeneyra (1527–1611), for instance—Bernardi does not aspire to distinguish between “good” and “false” reason of state and establish a proper, theologically, and ethically sound definition of political prudence.7 He takes a different course, and in fact absorbs and defuses a term highly problematic in the context of any discussion more openly touching on matters of state. At a point in time when reason of state had effectively slipped into the mainstream of Catholic political discourse, the poem might indicate a desire to “load” the term and concept of prudence with Christian piety and a sophisticated sense of introspection. This could have been Bernardi’s way of shielding young Venetian noblemen from the temptation of exploring the ethically dubious, “Machiavellian” notions of reason of state.
Like the teacher, the confessor is a staple of the Jesuit presence in the early modern world. The latter, though, takes a particularly prominent place in anti-Jesuit literature and what might be called the “Jesuit black legend.” The enemies of the Society reserved particular ire for the Jesuit confessor of princes. Criticism, arguably, was often laced with a good measure of fear, hypocrisy, and envy. The Jesuits were by no means the only religious order seeking proximity to royal or aristocratic houses as the source of power and patronage in an overwhelmingly dynastic and monarchical society. What set the Society of Jesus apart from other orders was the sophistication with which they scrutinized the theory and practice of the “politics of conscience” and the zeal with which they propagated and practiced moral casuistry as a means to release secular politics while maintaining spiritual supervision of the exercise of secular power.
The political, constitutional, and doctrinal turmoil caused by Jesuit involvement at the highest level of European courts and politics and the concomitant struggle to define a politics of conscience have, therefore, rightly received considerable scholarly attention. The contributions of Jean-Pascal Gay and Nicole Reinhardt to this issue further explore and differentiate the pitfalls, fault-lines and intricacies of the Jesuit politics of sacramental confession.
Nicole Reinhardt’s article—“Hernando de Mendoça (1562–1617), General Acquaviva, and the Controversy over Confession, Counsel, and Obedience”—takes us into the court of a Spanish grandee and into an example of the great scandal that could attach itself to the counsel of conscience. Reinhardt examines the clash between Superior General Claudio Acquaviva (in office, 1581–1615) and the Spanish Jesuit Hernando de Mendoça, briefly confessor to the viceroy of Naples, count of Lemos (1599–1601). She firmly places this confrontation within the wider context of Spanish Jesuit opposition to Acquaviva’s generalate. The first to take into account Mendoça’s overlooked writings, Reinhardt can show that this was no case of individual folly and disobedience—though ego surely played a role—but that it was part of the wider and increasingly bitter controversy over the role of the confessor as spiritual guardian of just government. She is also able to show that the casus Mendoça fanned Acquaviva’s resolve to revise regulations for princely confessors and bolster his position during the spectacular sixth general congregation of the Society of Jesus in 1608.
The afterlife of Mendoça’s writings as sketched by Reinhardt bluntly illustrates the motivation, potential, and peril of Jesuit political counsel. His critique of Jesuit regulations concerning the confessor as political counsellor—the Advis published in French in 1615, after the death of Acquaviva—joined the canon of polemic against the alleged Jesuit conspiracy of the sacrament of confession. The spirited defence of the confessor as a moral-political authority, on the other hand—the Tres tratados published in 1602—became part of the respectable literature on political advice and reform in the course of the seventeenth century.
Jean-Pascal Gay further expands our perspective of the conflict over conscience, counsel, and politics. He shows the close connection between the debates over Probabilism and the role of the Jesuit as political counsellor. In fact, his article places the issue of political counsel firmly at the very heart of the polemics and theological dispute over Probabilism. Jesuits and their critics were sorely concerned that Probabilism could lead political counsellors astray and encourage them to defer to the whims of political authorities. It appears that this was not merely a theoretical issue. Three cases from seventeenth-century France evidence the fact that political counsellors could argue that they had religious grounds for favoring obedience to their sovereign over obedience to religious authorities, and specifically to the pope. The discussion between anti-probabilists and probabilists during the second half of the seventeenth century shows the degree of unrest among theological and ecclesiastical authorities confronted with the demands of the state on individual conscience, and on the conscience of counsellors in particular.
Reinhardt and Gay both illustrate the fact that Jesuit confessors walking along controversial and often precarious lines of interaction between secular, ecclesiastical, and spiritual authority had to tread very carefully.8 It was widely accepted and common throughout sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe to subject political decisions to moral assessment. Yet the obligation, need, and desire to help make decisions informed by Christian values had to be constantly weighed up against the peril of corruption in a courtly environment and the lack of expertise in the business of secular government. The period roughly from the mid-seventeenth to the early eighteenth century saw the political role of the royal confessor contained and his expertise more strictly defined and compartmentalized. The concomitant privatization of the royal conscience and the exclusion of morality from politics—both integral part to the ideology of divine right of kings as opposed to the reality of monarchical government—was meant to provide a solution. It did not do so, however. The monarch, his government, and his policies continued to be exposed to moral scrutiny, judgement, and scandal.9
Andrew Redden’s chapter—“The Best Laid Plans…: Jesuit Counsel, Peacebuilding, and Disaster on the Chilean Frontier; The Martyrs of Elicura, 1612”—presents us with a case of Jesuit political ambition and counsel gone wrong. The experience of the frontier and the realization that indigenous insurgency arose from just cause made the Jesuit Luis de Valdivia (d.1642) the prime advocate of the defensive strategy the Spanish government in Chile adopted during the reign of Philip iii of Spain (r.1598–1621). Valdivia found it increasingly difficult to limit his involvement to a merely advisory role when offered the possibility or in fact required to implement his own counsel. As a result, he had to face a situation where existing Jesuit manuals and the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus would offer contradictory or insufficient instruction at best. Like today’s spin doctors, Valdivia the political counsellor found himself in “the thick of it,”10 and subject to the dynamic of events and demands from multiple agents. This Jesuit operating in one of the borderlands of Hispanic empire quickly learned that he had to shift or transgress the line between advisory role and executive function. He did so with courage and with much initial support from secular and ecclesiastical authorities. Eventually, unforeseeable events effectively undermined and condemned his efforts, and his service as political counsellor ended with the demise of his political project.
The example and experience of this Jesuit driven by a desire to prepare the ground for future peaceful mission on the Chilean frontier feed into the recent cultural turn in the study of early modern politics and governance. This perspective is informed by an increased sensitivity to local circumstances and the relationship between the local and the global—captured, for instance, in the German conceptualization of early modern government as Herrschaft vor Ort—and is firmly embedded in the realization that power had to be constantly communicated, negotiated, and legitimized among multiple players acting within complex normative, political, and institutional contexts.11 The need to explore and exploit the gaps and limitations of the Society’s normative framework and adjust role, responsibilities, and actions as required by the “situation on the ground” is a hallmark of Valdivia’s Chilean sojourn as well as Mendoça’s tribulations. It motivated Tirso González’s doctrine of Probabiliorism as much as it fanned his probabilist critics. The essays by Redden, Reinhardt, and Gay add to and differentiate our understanding of “negotiated obedience” as an important characteristic of that rather complex thing—early modern Jesuit identity.12 Each in its way, these three essays show how deeply involved Jesuits became with the changing processes and practices of early modern government. They also confirm that simplistic descriptions of the government of the Society of Jesus as monolithic are on the verge of becoming obsolete.
Finally, Harald E. Braun examines the relationship between knowledge, reason of state, and political counsel in Ragion di stato (1589) by the Italian ex-Jesuit Giovanni Botero (1544–1617). Arguably, it was Botero’s unwavering commitment to exploring the changing relationship between spiritual authority, secular government, and the material world of early modern politics that cut short his career in the Society of Jesus. Regardless, he not only maintained close personal contacts with many of his former brethren. He also set out to re-conceptualize the language of early modern Catholic and global politics.
While in the service of ecclesiastical and secular princes—as secretary to the Borromeo cardinals of Milan or counsellor to Duke Carlo Emanuele i of Savoy (1562–1630; r.1580–1630) and tutor to his sons—Botero continued to examine the relationship between the universal church and the many secular respublicae. In Ragion di stato, Botero’s endeavors bore fruit. He revised and expanded the terminology and conceptual register of political analysis and political counsel. In many ways, Ragion di stato laid the groundwork for his opus magnum, Le relazioni universali (1591–96), which would provide early modern readers with a comprehensive analysis and grand narrative of the Spanish monarchy and the universal church as deeply embedded into one another.13
There is little of the moral theologian and casuist in Ragion di stato, or Botero generally. Rather, the Piedmontese is dedicated to identifying, organizing, and conveying the wealth of data available to the contemporary political observer and analyst. The treatise marks a watershed in the history of European political thought not because of Botero’s “response” to Machiavelli, but on account of his conscious and innovative integration of different fields of knowledge into a new language of the state. The Italian ex-Jesuit is the first to capture convincingly the reality of the Counter-Reformation state and European global expansion. While devised by a staunch defender and theorist of Catholic universalism, his political language readily reaches across early modern confessional boundaries.
The history of Jesuit involvement in politics, unsurprisingly, is the history of incessant endeavor to maintain the right and responsibility of the religious to shape politics and society without compromising spiritual authority in the process. The struggle is tangible in every field of Jesuit thought and activity—from the practical and moral quandaries faced by missionaries in the borderlands of Christian empires to the furious debate about the ways in which counsel based on Jesuit moral theology affected obedience to ecclesiastical authority. It is also deeply embedded in wider historical processes—the gradual transfer of the sacred from church and individual monarch to the state, the germinating distinction between the public and the private in European political discourse, or the concomitant, manifold transformations of early modern political language.14
There is a caveat, though. Undoubtedly, the history of Jesuit political counsel—theory and practice—is enmeshed with the larger process of the secularization of European political and social thought. Yet it is necessary to bear in mind that this process is drawn-out, uneven, intricate, and, arguably, ongoing. Following a simplistic teleology of secularization will obscure the diversity of early modern political thinking, prevent us from capturing the issues, debates and resolutions that informed, exercised, and disturbed the early modern mind, and obscure our close relationship with our forebears.15
See Nicole Reinhardt, Voices of Conscience: Royal Confessors and Political Counsel in Seventeenth-Century France and Spain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016) for a detailed and persuasive study of the politics of conscience and the theory and practice of state-building in early modern France and Spain; see Robert Bireley, The Jesuits and the Thirty Years’ War: Kings, Courts and Confessors (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003) for the Jesuit confessors of the Austrian Habsburgs. On Jesuit Probabilism and Scholastic moral theology, also Jean-Pascal Gay, Jesuit Civil Wars: Theology, Politics and Government under Tirso González (1687–1705) (Farnham: Ashgate, 2012); on Probabilism in relation to Scholastic and humanist modes of inquiry, Robert A. Maryks, Saint Cicero and the Jesuits: The Influence of the Liberal Arts on the Adoption of Moral Probabilism (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008).
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