For more than 150 years, from 1610 to 1768, the Jesuits maintained missions among the Guaraní Indians of the Upper Rio de la Plata Region of what is now Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina and Uruguay. There were eventually 30 missions with 140,000 to 180,000 inhabitants. The governance of the missions followed Spanish statutes of the time which required that the Indians be brought out of the forest into villages (called reduciones). The obligations of the Indians and community life were set out in detail in the legislation. Of all the missionaries sent to the New World by Spain and the Catholic Church, the Jesuits were the most successful in making these regulations work. The missions grew in wealth and power and became “a Jesuit state.”
As shown in the film, the Jesuits’ initial foothold among the Guaraní was gained through music. The Jesuits would attract Indians by singing religious hymns. Music was also key to the long term success of the missions. Before the Jesuits came, the Guaraní did not live in permanent settlements. Most of their food came from hunting and gathering, although they practiced some primitive agriculture. They were not inclined to the hard manual labor of a settled agricultural life-style. The Jesuits found, however, that if a band of musicians played as the Guaraní marched to the fields and while they worked, the Guaraní would perform quite well.
The Guaraní were talented musicians and artisans. Without training, they would sing complex harmonies. With training they could play European instruments such as violins and trumpets. In addition, they could make these musical instruments from samples provided by the missionaries. Music was a part of each stage of the day in the Guaraní missions. It was especially stressed in church services.
The missions were communal enterprises in which most of the wealth was owned in common. Critics called it “theocratical communism.” There were very few Jesuits, usually two in each mission. The internal governance was nominally by elected inhabitants of the missions. However, all real power was in the hands of the Jesuits who believed that the Indians were not intelligent, as the Jesuits understood the term.
The Jesuits effectively isolated the Guaraní from most aspects of European culture. The priests learned the Guaraní languages and did not permit the Indians to learn Spanish or Portuguese. When it was necessary for European traders to come to the Missions, they were kept apart from all but a few of the Indians. If the Europeans stayed overnight, they slept in a separate house, under armed guard. Non-Jesuit Europeans were not permitted to stay at the missions more than three days.
The missions were intended to be a sanctuary for the Guaraní from which they could not be seized by slavers. But the slavers would raid the missions and, over time, tens of thousands of Guarani were lost in this manner. As the pressure from the slave traders increased, the Jesuits obtained permission from the Spanish Crown to arm the mission Indians and maintain a militia. The Guaraní were effective fighters. Under Jesuit leadership, they established a sophisticated military with strong forts and good communications. The Jesuit-Guaraní militias were enlisted by the Spanish King to fight the Portuguese but later, when Spanish interests opposed those of the missions, there was fighting between the Spanish and the militias. In fact, the Jesuit-Guaraní militias repeatedly defeated the Spanish, the Portuguese and large armies of slave traders. In the end, the Spanish and Portuguese fielded a large enough army to overcome the militias, forcing the missions to retreat into areas further removed from “civilization.” The coup de grace came when the Jesuits were banished from Latin America, first from the Portuguese possessions and then from the Spanish. The last Jesuit left the region in 1768 and the missions were soon destroyed. The Guaraní who escaped the slavers retreated back into the forest.
The Guaraní Missions of the Society of Jesus created the only successful long term, large scale experiment in communism of which these authors are aware. It is clear that the circumstances were unique. The Jesuit priests, the de facto rulers of the missions, were not interested in personal gain or advancement. The Guaraní were not “civilized” and had not developed the acquisitiveness and ambition which characterize European society. Sharing physical possessions with the group was a value in traditional Guaraní society. The Guaraní were also under constant threat from the slave traders outside the missions. They therefore had a large incentive to make their new communities work.
However, the missions radically changed the native culture. Given the conquest of South America by the Europeans, the Jesuit missions were a much better alternative than slavery. Leaving aside the issue of whether or not it was a benefit to the Indians to be inducted into the Christian religion, the rule of the missionaries was benevolent. They kept families together, preserved the native language, contributed the rich traditions of Western liturgical music, permitted the Guaraní to keep the fruits of their labor, and avoided the exploitation and early death that was the fate of the vast majority of the Guaraní who were enslaved. As shown in the film, there was constant friction between the Jesuits, seeking to protect the Guaraní, and the colonists, who sought to destroy the missions and enslave the Indians.
The competition between Portugal and Spain for land to the West of Europe goes back to 1493, one year after Columbus’ fateful voyage west across the Atlantic. At that time, Spain and Portugal, two Catholic nations, were the foremost maritime nations of the Western World. In an effort to prevent war between the two countries, in 1493 Pope Alexander VI set a Line of Demarcation which ran from north to south about 350 miles (563 kilometers) west of the Azores and Cape Verde Islands. Spain was permitted to claim land to the west of the line. Portugal could claim land to the east. The South American mainland, which had not yet been discovered by Europeans, was barely touched by the line. Neither nation found this settlement satisfactory. Therefore, in the next year Spain and Portugal moved the line west to a point about 1,295 miles (2,084 kilometers) west of the Cape Verde Islands, in the Treaty of Tordesillas. This agreement supported Portugal’s claim to territory that is now eastern Brazil. Over time, Portuguese settlers and its military penetrated the line and established settlements deep within territory that was nominally ruled by Spain. The Treaty of Madrid of 1750 established the doctrine of “Uti Posseditis” which confirmed that the country whose nationals possessed the ground would have sovereignty. This legitimized the expansion of Portuguese control. While the treaty was later annulled, the same principles were embodied in ensuing treaties.
The Society of Jesus, called the Jesuits, was founded in 1514 and confirmed by the Pope in 1540. Its goal was to promote missions at home and overseas. The Jesuits played an important role in stopping the spread of Protestantism in Europe, becoming the spearhead of the Counter Reformation. They also played crucial roles in Catholic missions in Asia, the Americas and Africa. In addition, the Jesuits have long been leaders in the field of education.
The Jesuits have been one of the most successful, powerful and controversial orders of the Catholic Church. The origins of their success lay in the manner in which they recruited and trained their members and in the centralized organization of the order. Historically, only men of sound judgment, good character, energy and perfect health were admitted to the order. Candidates who were wealthy or who came from aristocratic backgrounds were encouraged. The Jesuits paid more attention to training than other religious orders. Novices underwent two years of probation. If a candidate was judged suitable for the priesthood, twelve years of theoretical studies followed. If successful, he was then ordained as a priest and entered a new period of probation, after which the candidate became a Co-adjutores espirituales. The elite could aspire to become the Professi who constituted the actual order. The Professi would take the additional and famous vow of Jesuits to always be prepared for duty in the service of the Pope. In modern times, there has been some modification of the traditional methods of training and inducting Jesuits, but it is still rigorous.
The order imposes rigid control over the actions of its members. At the top is the Father General, elected for life. Jesuits in a certain district constitute a Province under a Provincial. A number of advisers (Consultores) advise him on all important questions and, at the same time, watch his conduct and report on it to Rome. Similar controls operate on every level of the Jesuit hierarchy. Every third year Provincial Congregations are called to elect a representative to be sent to the General Congregation in Rome. They meet in Rome as a Congregatio Procuratorum under the chairmanship of the Father General.
The Jesuits became controversial because they did not confine themselves to monasteries or even to educational, missionary or charitable works. They also sought political power and developed doctrines that permitted them to deceive and to bend moral rules when the ends were deemed to justify the means. The Jesuits combined these doctrines with secrecy and absolute unquestioning obedience to their superiors. Their actions have not always been as clearly beneficial as they were with the Guaraní. This has tarnished and diminished the positive accomplishments of the order, and led many in the church and in society in general to oppose them.
The Jesuits’ interest in political power at times brought them into conflict with local and national political interests. Jesuits have been expelled or excluded from various countries at various times. For example they were expelled from Portugal in 1759, suppressed in France in 1764, and expelled from Spain and its colonies in 1767. In 1773, the order was dissolved by the Pope but it survived informally in Protestant and Orthodox areas such as Germany and Russia in which the Jesuits’ leadership in education was valued. The Society of Jesus was reestablished by the Pope in 1814. But history repeated itself and the society was soon subject to recurrent suppression and expulsion in various countries, including those that had harbored Jesuits during the Papal suppression.
In the United States, the Society of Jesus is protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. However, it has not been immune from criticism. In 1816, two years after the order was reestablished, former President John Adams, wrote to his old friend, former President Thomas Jefferson, that:
I do not like the reappearance of the Jesuits. Shall we not have regular swarms of them here, in as many disguises as only a king of the gypsies can assume, dressed as printers, publishers, writers and schoolmasters? If there ever was a body of men who merited eternal damnation on earth and in hell, it is this Society of Loyola’s. Nevertheless, we are compelled by our system of religious toleration to offer them an asylum ….
Jefferson replied: “Like you, I disapprove of the restoration of the Jesuits, for it means a step backwards from light into darkness ….” In the United States, the Jesuits have largely confined themselves to educational, charitable and missionary activities.
There are presently 90 Jesuit colleges or Universities in 27 countries; 28 of them are in the United States. In the United States, most Jesuit colleges and universities are primarily staffed by lay people and operate in much the same manner as other colleges and universities. There are also 430 Jesuit high schools in 55 countries. In modern times, the Society of Jesus, like many other religious orders, has suffered from a decline in the number of young men seeking a religious vocation. The Jesuits have responded by directing some of their ministry toward social change and by loosening some of the older hierarchical restrictions on young recruits. There are presently between three and four thousand Jesuit Priests, Scholastics and Brothers in the United States.