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Nostra Aetate Dialogue Explores Tangled Roots of Jesuits and Jews


Robert Aleksander Maryks, Ph.D. Photo by Ken Levinson

In 16th-century Spain, Jesuit priests of Jewish descent played a central role in forming the education, spirituality and philosophy that are integral to the Society of Jesus.

Their story—one of respect and comity that was marred by the rise of “purity-of-blood” laws—was discussed on Oct. 27 at the 18th annual Nostra Aetate Dialogue.

The event, which fosters discussion between Catholicism and Judaism, featured Robert Aleksander Maryks, Ph.D. (GSAS ’05), associate professor of history at the City University of New York; and Thomas Cohen, Ph.D., associate professor of history at Catholic University of America.

Claudio M. Burgaleta, S.J., associate professor of Latin studies in the Graduate School of Religion and Religious Education at Fordham, moderated the discussion.

Maryks, who earned his doctorate in early modern European history at Fordham, detailed how new Christians—called Conversos—were an important part of the membership of the young Christian church. But “purity-of-blood,” a concept that cast skepticism on new converts to Christianity and their descendents, eventually intruded.

Maryks explained three different sources of anti-Jewish bias:

• the economic (usury),
• the psychological (intelligence and arrogance), and
• the physical (body features and ungratefulness).

A mixture of prejudices based on these features, which the Conversos allegedly inherited by blood, pervades the entire anti-Converso literature. It manifested itself in 1449 with the first purity-of-blood law, passed by the mayor of the city of Toledo in Castile, Pero de Sarmiento, he said.

“Contrary to a rather significant number of Spanish civil and ecclesiastical authorities, the Basque founder of the Society of Jesus, Ignatius of Loyola, and his two Spanish successors … took pleasure in admitting men of Jewish ancestry into the order,” he said.

Thomas Cohen, Ph.D., Robert Aleksander Maryks, Ph.D. and Claudio M. Burgaleta, S.J. Photo by Ken Levinson

It was the death in 1572 of the Society’s superior general, Francisco de Borja, which provided an opening for Converso-phobes, who considered the converts “worms that infested the apple,” to push through an ancestry law.

The decree proclaimed that Jewish (and, by extension, Muslim) ancestry, no matter how distant, to be an insurmountable impediment for admission to the order.

“That contrasted Loyola’s anti-discriminatory spirit as expressed in the Jesuit Constitutions and contradicted the practice of the first three generalates,” Maryks said. “The lineage-hunting season began.”

“The measure, which was voted for by all but two delegates, was so unexpectedly harsh that it scandalized the Cardinal Archbishop of Toledo and Inquisitor General, Gaspar de Quiroga, who affirmed that the Society dishonored itself by promulgating such a law.”

The law stood until 1946, when the Jesuit delegates met in Rome for the General Congregation 29.

“It considered the impediment of ancestry unconstitutional, even though it did not condemn the racial discrimination practiced by the Society in the previous centuries,” Maryks said. “What led to this shift in the Jesuit policy was not only the Shoah, but also a change in the approach to the concept of purity of blood that took place among some Jesuits during the time of Nazi and Italian Fascism.”

Cohen, in his remarks, noted that that the initial schisms were as much about nationalism as religion.

“They would say, ‘Well, we’re not anti-Semitic, but people around us in Spain and Portugal are extremely anti-Semitic, and therefore we ought to accommodate that anti-Semitism and not admit a lot of new Christians,’” Cohen said.

He agreed that de Borja’s death sparked a crisis in the nascent order.

“One of the things I find so interesting is that there is a strain of anti-Semitism that Robert Maryks has talked about, but there’s also a strong strain of philosemitism and inclusiveness that runs throughout the history of the Society,” he said.


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