Barton T. Geger, S.J.January 21, 2021
St. Ignatius and Juana of Austria, one of few female members in the history of the Society of Jesus, and the only woman to die a Jesuit. Portrait by Alonso Sánchez Coello, circa 1557 (Wikimedia Commons)

Friends and colleagues of the Society of Jesus often ask whether Jesuits will permit women to join their ranks. They might be surprised to learn that the question was a hot topic in the early Society, when St. Ignatius Loyola was its superior general. Ignatius was opposed to women Jesuits for reasons that were cultural, practical and canonical, but other Jesuits were not. As a result of the conflict, one of Ignatius’ best friends even sued the Society.

Arguably, some of Ignatius’ reasons no longer apply, although one factor still poses a substantial obstacle. To address the question, some concepts require clarification.

First, to be a Jesuit and to be a priest are separate realities. A man becomes a Jesuit when he makes vows of poverty, chastity and obedience in the Society; a Jesuit becomes a priest when a bishop lays hands on him in the sacrament of holy orders. Not all Jesuits are priests. Those who choose not to be ordained are called Jesuit brothers. For the purposes of this article, I presuppose that the Catholic Church’s understanding that it cannot ordain women, based on divine constitution, will remain unchanged. So the question at hand is whether the Society can admit women as Jesuit sisters.

Some women made private vows to obey Ignatius, and then sent him letters indicating that they were ready to be missioned. They signed their names with “S.J.”

Second, the expression “Jesuits who are women” can mean different things. For instance, numerous congregations modeled themselves on the Society by making apostolic work the primary emphasis of their charism, the Spiritual Exercises central to their spirituality and the Jesuit Constitutions the basis for their own constitutions. A prominent example is the Venerable Mary Ward (1585–1645), who founded two groups: the Congregation of Jesus and the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the latter also known as the Sisters of Loreto. People even called these women Jesuitesses. In spirit, then, female Jesuits have existed for the last four centuries.

In the 16th century, many Catholics believed that they were obliged to obey their spiritual directors under pain of sin, and some even made a vow to that effect. Consequently, some women reasoned, “If I am vowed to obey my Jesuit director, and he is vowed to obey his superior, then am I not a Jesuit?” Still other women made private vows to obey Ignatius, and then sent him letters indicating that they were ready to be missioned. They signed their names with “S.J.”

Since the Middle Ages, some institutes like the Dominicans and Franciscans have had separate branches for men (the so-called first orders) and for women (second orders). They do not live in the same residences. Women have female superiors to whom they vow obedience, who in turn might answer to the major superiors of the first orders, or to bishops or other clerics. For reasons explained later in this article, medieval culture expected second orders to adopt a monastic lifestyle, even if their male counterparts were apostolically oriented. One example was the Poor Clares. Because the nuns could not leave their convents to attend local parishes, church law often obliged their male counterparts to serve their sacramental needs on a regular basis.

Some institutes have a third order of laypeople. Arrangements vary greatly, but generally the institutes agree to make the spiritual care of their third orders a formal part of their ministries, while the laypeople dedicate themselves to prayer and charitable works. A good example is St. Catherine of Siena, a laywoman traditionally depicted in a Dominican habit. Members of a third order might live together in their own communities; but perhaps more often, individuals continue to live at home and fulfill their other duties related to family life and secular employment.

The Society of Jesus has never had a second or third order, although a lay organization called the Sodality of Our Lady functioned effectively as the equivalent of a third order for centuries.

The Society of Jesus has never had a second or third order, although a lay organization called the Sodality of Our Lady functioned effectively as the equivalent of a third order for centuries. After the Second Vatican Council, at the initiative of the Jesuits’ 31st General Congregation in 1965, Jesuits around the world began to experiment with closer ties to lay partners without calling them third orders. In 1992, the Wisconsin Province in the United States started a program called Ignatian Associates. Single and married persons made private promises of simplicity, apostolic availability and fidelity to the Society’s mission. Jesuit provincial superiors missioned individuals, and even couples with children, to Jesuit works in cities other than their own.

Unfortunately, tensions grew between lay partners and the Society’s wider circle of colleagues. The latter resented what they saw as elitism on the part of the former and the preferential treatment given to the former with regard to placements and promotions. With some edifying exceptions, lay partners frequently were unable or unwilling to relocate. Consequently, in 2008, General Congregation 35 ended the Society’s involvement in these experiments, but the Ignatian Associates continue to exist and to accept new members. Some members still serve in Jesuit works.

Finally, the term women Jesuits can denote women who make vows before an authorized member of the Society to obey its superior general, and thus they are affiliated with the Society in a stricter sense. In Ignatius’ lifetime, there were four women who made such vows. To appreciate the significance of their stories, here are four reasons why Ignatius resisted their admission.

Ignatius’ Rationale

The first Jesuits conceived the Society to be highly trained and mobile, ready at a moment’s notice to go wherever the needs of the church were greatest. At a time when the great majority of Europeans lived and died within 20 miles of where they were born, this was a significant innovation. Not even the mendicant orders had placed such a priority on mobility for all their men as a matter of principle.

Nevertheless, stable police forces did not exist, dark roads crawled with bandits, inns were unsafe, and travelers often walked or rode through the midst of clashing armies. On one occasion, a thug ambushed Ignatius on the road and beat him to within an inch of his life. Another time, he was interrogated and strip-searched by soldiers who thought him a spy. Years later, as superior general, Ignatius even received ransom notes from pirates who had abducted Jesuits. He was obliged to refuse, lest his payments encourage more of the same.

In short, Ignatius deemed it impracticable for the Society to expose women to the dangers of regular apostolic travel, all the more because the culture strongly discouraged women from travelling without male escorts. The inquisition once imprisoned Ignatius for five weeks on suspicion that he had encouraged a mother and daughter to make a pilgrimage alone. And he once came to the rescue of two pilgrims, a mother and daughter, whom soldiers were molesting. The mother had dressed her daughter as a boy in a futile attempt to avoid attention.

A second difficulty was Ignatius’ concern to preserve mobility for his priests. He did not want them responsible for the pastoral care of cloistered nuns, Jesuit or otherwise, which would require the priests to remain in one place. For the same reason, Ignatius did not want Jesuits to be bishops or parish pastors, two decisions for which he incurred the ire of many clerics and nobles who believed that he was either elitist or inattentive to the greater good.

Third, Ignatius was highly sensitive to the public reputation of the Society. By refusing to work with a second order, he was minimizing opportunities for accusations of sexual misconduct. Rumors about his close associations with female devotees, benefactors, mystics and beatas (single women renowned for holiness and charitable works) had greatly hampered his own ministry. People accused two early Jesuits, Francis Xavier and Jean Codure, of sleeping with their directees. Indeed, papal approval of the new Society was nearly thwarted altogether when a young man named Miguel Landívar accused Ignatius and his companions of heresy and “immoral behavior,” meaning heterosexual and homosexual unchastity. He was angry that Ignatius had refused to let him join their group. The public uproar in Rome lasted eight months before Ignatius could disprove Landívar’s claims in court.

The religious climate compounded the problem. At a time when fears of heresy were rife, charges of misconduct were an easy and effective means to undercut the labors of mystics and innovators. Rumors swirled around St. Anthony Zaccaria and Countess Luisa Torelli, his spiritual directee, while they were founding the Barnabites and the Angelicas. The Dominican theologian Melchior Cano, a vociferous critic of the Society—he called Jesuits “emissaries of the Antichrist”—asserted that Jesuits and Angelicas regularly slept in the same beds in order to test whether their mutual passions were mortified.

The first Jesuits conceived the Society to be highly trained and mobile, ready at a moment’s notice to go wherever the needs of the church were greatest.

A fourth difficulty was (and still is) that the Society is a particular type of religious order called clerks regular. Other orders of this kind, which first originated in the early 16th century, include Theatines, Barnabites and Somascans. At least in theory, ordained priesthood is essential to the charisms of clerks regular, for which reason people often called them reformed priests. In contrast, monasticism had begun as a lay movement in the ancient church; and among the mendicant founders, St. Francis of Assisi was not a priest.

Yet compared even with other clerks regular, priesthood is vital to the Jesuit charism. As Ignatius explained in the Constitutions, the purpose of the Society is to labor in works that serve the greater glory of God, which he also called the more universal good. That is, when presented with two or more good options in the service of God, Jesuits should endeavor to discern and choose those options that promise a wider or more enduring impact. Ignatius reasoned that, all else being equal, devout, educated priests are useful in more capacities and contexts, and can engage people more profoundly through sacramental ministry—they are more universal, so to speak—than devout persons who are either uneducated or not ordained. In this sense, priesthood is both symbolic of, and the most conducive means to, the proper end of the Society.

Then why does the Society have Jesuit brothers? In 1546, Ignatius asked Pope Paul III for permission to accept both skilled laymen (brothers) and devout but uneducated priests (spiritual coadjutors) into the Society as live-in, temporary workers who could ease the practical and pastoral demands being placed on the fledgling Society. Ignatius intended to dismiss them when he no longer needed their services. In that light, it makes sense that he did not consider them full members of the Society, nor did their presence contradict the Society’s stated option for educated priests. In actual practice, however, and from the beginning, these men spent their entire lives in the Society. It seems that superiors rarely if ever dismissed good brothers and priests, presumably because their services were always needed and because they had formed fraternal bonds with their companions. As a result, as early as Ignatius’ own term as superior general, a brother in the Roman College named Juan of Alba was lamenting that brothers were second-class members of the Society.

To be candid, tensions continue regarding the place of brothers and spiritual coadjutors in the Society. It has been a source of pain for many that brothers cannot be major superiors (provincial or regional superiors who mission Jesuits), or superiors of local communities. Similarly, spiritual coadjutors cannot vote in provincial congregations, nor be elected provincial superiors or voting members of general congregations. Neither grade makes the special fourth vow of obedience to the pope in matters of mission, which Ignatius considered a hallmark of the Jesuit charism. Since the Second Vatican Council, many Jesuits have desired to change the law and practice of the Society in these matters. Other Jesuits, as well as some recent popes and other clerics in the Roman curia, have opposed allowing brothers to make the fourth vow on the grounds that it would be incompatible with the Society’s priestly character as specified in the Formula of the Institute, the charter approved by Paul III in 1539. The Formula is pontifical law, which means that the Society cannot amend it without papal approval.

As Ignatius explained in the Constitutions, the purpose of the Society is to labor in works that serve the greater glory of God, which he also called the more universal good.

The Women

After his conversion, Ignatius depended heavily on wealthy women to finance his education and travel. In Barcelona especially, his devotees formed an Ignatian circle of sorts dedicated to prayer and charitable works. Shortly after the founding of the Society, Ignatius sent two Jesuits to Barcelona, who themselves established friendships with these women.

The center of the circle was Isabel Roser, wife of a cloth merchant, whom Ignatius had met about a year after his conversion experience. The Rosers took Ignatius into their home. They paid for his pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and then for his Latin and philosophy classes in Barcelona. Isabel remained in contact with Ignatius during his subsequent journeys. She sent him funds as needed and recruited other noblewomen for the Barcelona circle. Ignatius later referred to her as “the good and kindly mother that you have so long been to me.”

Isabel’s husband died in 1541, one year after the founding of the Society. She determined to go to Rome and found a congregation of women under obedience to Ignatius. He tried to dissuade her in several letters, but her two Jesuit friends supported the plan, suggesting that he would change his mind if she made her case face-to-face. But when Isabel arrived on Ignatius’ doorstep, he held his ground.

Isabel then wrote a letter to Paul III in which she asked him to order Ignatius to receive her vows and those of her maidservant, Francisca Cruyllas. As an omen of the difficulties to come, she also asked the pope to override Ignatius’ order that her two Jesuit friends leave Barcelona. The pope acceded to the first request, and on Dec. 25, 1544, the two women plus a third, Lucrezia di Brandine, professed simple vows before Ignatius. Isabel donated the remainder of her estate to the Society, and the women moved to the House of St. Martha, a residence for women established by Ignatius.

Juana of Austria has the distinction of being the only woman to die a Jesuit.

Many laywomen and nuns in Spain and Italy watched these developments with excitement. Yet if any real hope existed that Ignatius might change his mind, Isabel did their cause few favors. According to Jesuits in Rome at this time—granted that they might have embellished if they resented her—she required almost daily conversations with Ignatius. During his frequent bouts with illness, she insisted on caring for him while forbidding Jesuits to enter his bedroom. She continued to go over his head to clerics in the papal Curia, she required the best Jesuit spiritual directors in Rome, and she spent the Society’s money without consulting Ignatius. A disgruntled Jesuit brother was assigned to be Isabel’s servant, tending to her horse and cleaning her quarters—although in fairness to Isabel, wealthy women who joined convents often were allowed to have their own servants.

In May 1546, at Ignatius’ request, the pope rescinded his permission. At the time, Isabel’s two nephews were in Rome, angry that she had given their inheritance to the Society. (She was childless.) They convinced her to sue, saying that Ignatius was a hypocrite and a thief who had never been serious about keeping her. But Ignatius had kept careful records of her gifts and expenditures. He produced these in court, demonstrating that if anything, Isabel owed the Society money.

In the end, Isabel Roser and Francisca Cruyllas joined convents in Barcelona, and Lucrezia di Brandine one in Naples. Isabel wrote a touching letter to Ignatius in December 1547, asking forgiveness for the difficulties she had caused him. She died in 1554, two years before Ignatius.

Juana of Austria has the distinction of being the only woman to die a Jesuit. She was sister to King Philip II of Spain and became acting ruler when Philip moved to England to marry Mary Tudor. Juana was only 19 years old. Present in the Spanish court were her spiritual director, Francis Borgia, S.J., and a court preacher, Antonio Araoz, S.J. Shortly after assuming her regency, she informed the two Jesuits of her desire to join the Society.

Fathers Borgia and Araoz were enthusiastic; in fact, Araoz was one of the two Jesuits who had encouraged Isabel a decade earlier. Ignatius was in a tight corner. He needed the princess’ support if the Society was to survive in Spain. To refuse her altogether was not an option. But the conflicts of interest and the inevitable political and ecclesial jealousies made the whole situation rather absurd. Given her political responsibilities, for example, it was impossible for her to live the vows of poverty or obedience in any practical way, and she would have to be dispensed from any vow of chastity as soon as a political marriage was thrust upon her.

In October 1554, Ignatius met with Jesuits in Rome to discuss their options regarding a certain Mateo Sánchez. The name was an alias for Juana, in case anyone intercepted their letters. Ignatius decided to allow her to make simple perpetual vows, the same kind made by Jesuit scholastics. This meant that, as far as Juana was concerned, she was obliged before God to keep her vows for life; but her vows did not bind Ignatius, and he could release her from them at any time.

Afterward, Juana set herself to creating a culture of modesty and religious devotion in the Spanish court, so that unsuspecting observers began to describe the palace as a convent. She donated to the Jesuit colleges in Rome and Valladolid, she oversaw projects for the poor and for the reform of convents, and she defended the Society from its critics, including the aforementioned Melchior Cano. She even protected Borgia from becoming a cardinal, an office that Ignatius wished Jesuits to avoid as much as possible.

There were difficulties. Juana and Borgia associated so closely that her own brother suspected an affair between them. Like Isabel, she became displeased when Ignatius attempted to assign her favorite Jesuits elsewhere. She ordered Borgia and Araoz to remain at the court, and then she wrote to Ignatius, essentially informing him that he could not have them for other missions. She also “asked” him to make her their local religious superior, so that their duty to obey her under holy obedience could augment the political obedience that they already owed her.

Juana lost her regency at age 24, when Philip returned to Spain. She continued to live ascetically and founded several women’s communities. Philip, unaware that his sister was a Jesuit, tried to arrange a marriage. Among the potential husbands were the French king, archdukes and even Juana’s own nephew. Nothing came of it. Juana remained in contact with Borgia after he became the third superior general of the Society, and she died on Sept. 7, 1573, at the age of 38.

What Now?

What are the chances of women Jesuits today? For the sake of charity to those with fervent desires to join the Society, I will state the following points bluntly. I ask readers not to interpret this as an insensitivity to the deep feelings surrounding this matter.

If one understands the term “women Jesuits” to mean women with vows of obedience to the Society’s superior general, then it simply is not going to happen anytime in the foreseeable future. It contradicts the priestly charism of the Society that Ignatius and his first companions had intended, a charism that was approved and cemented by a papal charter. Consequently, nothing short of an extraordinary intervention by a pope will make it possible, let alone feasible.

Considered hypothetically, as a matter for discernment, the determining factor would have to be whether admission of women will better enable the Society to serve the more universal good of souls, as opposed to admitting women for the sake of satisfying their own holy desires. (Ignatius was quite consistent on that point when it came to admission of individual men.) And it is not obvious that this would be the case, in light of the fruitful relationships that the Society already enjoys with its lay colleagues, and in light of the human tensions, logistical hurdles and additional expenses that would arise.

For example, women Jesuits could not be local or provincial superiors, they could not be elected voting members of general congregations and they could not take the fourth vow, all of which would multiply exponentially the unrest that already exists in the Society on these matters. Male and female Jesuits could not live together, but separate houses for women would create a subculture in the Society that Ignatius strenuously sought to avoid. The Society’s recent experiments with lay partners illustrate other aforementioned difficulties that would arise.

Presumably for these reasons, the question of women Jesuits is not on the radar of the universal Society. That is to say, it has not been a subject of serious conversation at any of the six general congregations that have been held since Vatican II.

If one understands “women Jesuits” to mean congregations who model themselves on the Society’s way of proceeding but who answer to their own superiors, then the good news is that numerous such groups already exist, with works all over the globe. In fact, Ignatius expressed support for congregations of this sort. In 1546, he wrote a memorandum to Jesuits in Gandía and Valencia in which he rejected the admission of women into the Society, citing the aforementioned reasons. But then he added, “[I]n order to win more souls, and to serve God our Lord more universally in all things with greater spiritual fruit, we are persuaded that it would be a good and holy work [for you] to create a society of noble ladies [compañía de señoras], and of other women who seem suitable in Our Lord, either according to the guidelines that I am sending along with this memorandum, or however it seems best to you there.”

General Congregation 35 observed that Ignatius recognized the benefits of collaboration with laypeople from the beginning.

The Universal Good of Souls

To that idea, people today often reply with a good-natured sigh: “Oh, it’s not the same thing.” No, admittedly, it is not. But in the interests of a sound discernment, a person must name the difference, and then ask whether it justifies not joining a women’s congregation. Perhaps a person is thinking of her love for the Society, or for individual Jesuits whom she has known. Perhaps she wishes to play her own role in the Society’s storied history. But if a person’s sole purpose is to serve the more universal good of souls, taking into consideration her gifts, limitations and circumstances—Ignatius called this a pure intention—then the other motivations are not really the proper criteria for a vocational discernment.

Let me put that another way. On three occasions, married women with children have said to me that they would have become Jesuits, but because they could not, they got married. I believe that they were sincere. But I also wonder how they would respond, were their daughters to say to them: “I wanted to marry So-and-So, whom I love and who is just perfect for me, but since he said ‘no,’ I will give up on marriage altogether and become a nun.”

The Society of Jesus largely owes its existence to the generosity and friendship of women. Ignatius was hardly unaware of that when he released his old friend Isabel from her vows. It is also true that many of the Society’s works today would not be viable without their lay colleagues and benefactors. Modern Jesuits are highly conscious of that as well. If it is possible for debts to exist between fellow servants when those debts are incurred in the service of the same master (Lk 17: 7-10), then this is a debt that the Society will never be able to repay.

General Congregation 35 observed that Ignatius recognized the benefits of collaboration with laypeople from the beginning. In the service of the more universal good, early Jesuits established numerous organizations that operated in conjunction with the Society but without juridical bonds to it. Today, lay-Jesuit cooperation in mission continues in an even richer variety of ways. G.C. 35 called this collaboration the particular way that the Society responds to the needs of the world, because it “expresses our true identity as members of the Church, the complementarity of our diverse calls to holiness, our mutual responsibility for the mission of Christ, our desire to join people of good will in the service of the human family, and the coming of the Kingdom of God.”

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