For the Jesuits of Zaragoza, 1555 was a challenging year. According to one chronicler, the “religious orders in the city … gathered together against ours and no limit was set to their complaints, threats and false accusations”. At one point, we’re told, “the monks and pastors marched through the whole city”, chanting curses and holding aloft “a crucifix facing backwards, covered with a black cloth”. “This business stirred up an amazing hostility, and the crowd was so excited … that everything was full of shouting and some horrible things were said against [us].”
Adversaries of the Society of Jesus were presumably delighted when local children carried banners bedecked with devils to the Jesuits’ residence, which they proceeded to pelt with stones.
Rivalry between the religious orders was nothing new, though rabble-rousing had been a relatively infrequent tactic. During the medieval period, Franciscans and Dominicans usually contented themselves with battling over academic jobs, producing art that sought to prove which of their founders was most favoured by the Almighty, or boasting about the eminent figures entombed in their establishments. In Cologne, mendicants bickered for centuries over whether it was more impressive to care for the final resting place of Albertus Magnus (the Dominicans) or that other mighty theologian, John Duns Scotus (the Franciscans).
The arrival of the Jesuits in 1540 does appear to have sparked unusual levels of animosity. It took no time at all for a Franciscan named Barbaran to propose the burning of every Jesuit between Perpignan and Seville.
Other expressions of the competitive spirit were less dramatic. In 17th-century Rome, the Jesuits’ Sant’ Ignazio Church and the Dominicans’ convent of Santa Maria sopra Minerva were, as one historian puts it, “in uneasy propinquity”, but where was the harm in both orders pushing their buildings to the absolute edge of the property limits?
Keeping up with the neighbours could even have positive devotional results. Sinners in 17th-century Antwerp were spoilt for choice when it came to places of penance: the city’s Jesuits and Dominicans constantly tried to out-do each other with their increasingly ornate, richly carved confessionals.
Many factors were in play: conflicting theological visions, turf wars in the expanding mission fields, and different models of how a religious order ought to behave. The tensions were particularly damaging when they polluted complex debates. For two decades from the late 1580s, the Catholic intellectual world endured a bitter contest between Jesuits and Dominicans over the relationship between grace and free will. It was far more than a rarefied scholarly tussle, with accusations of heresy being launched from both sides.
In 1607, an exasperated Pope Paul V informed all parties that they could hold whatever opinion they chose, but that they really must bring an end to all the name-calling.
A vital discussion had been soured by deep-seated institutional rancour, and much the same could be said of squabbles over missionary methods around the globe. The Chinese Rites Controversy, concerning acceptable degrees of accommodation with local beliefs, rumbled on for more than a century.
Happily, cooler heads sometimes prevailed. The Dominican Melchor Cano may have described Jesuits as the precursors of the Antichrist and ascribed heretical traits to Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises, but, in 1549, the Dominicans’ master-general issued a conciliatory circular letter to his flock. The Society of Jesus, it explained, was performing admirably through “its labours and example” and “ought rather to be looked upon as an ally”. The Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier, meanwhile, had considerable affection for the mendicant orders and explained that “they and we are bent on one common course, which is the glorifying of God and the salvation of souls”.
These days, such irenic sentiments appear to be more fashionable. Real differences remain, historical memories are long, and many a Jesuit or Dominican has a stockpile of jokes that poke fun at the other order. Tempers also flare from time to time – over who is really best at curating the legacy of Thomas Aquinas, or whether Girolamo Savonarola was saintly or dastardly – but there seems to have been no strife when Pope Francis recently stopped by the Dominicans’ General Chapter taking place in Bologna. He quipped that he was a “Jesuit among Friars”, but went on to praise the Order of Preachers’ long and faithful service to the Holy See.
It would be a shame if rivalry disappeared, but it might as well be respectful or, quite literally, sporting. Over in the US, colleges with strong links to the Jesuits, Augustinians, Dominicans and Vincentians routinely compete on the basketball court, and the cheers and boos are loud when the Georgetown Hoyas take on the Villanova Wildcats, or the Providence Friars square off against the DePaul Blue Demons.
It’s all a long way, thank goodness, from 1550s Zaragoza.
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