Ignatius on Heresy (1554)

In the letter here, Ignatius offers a program to offset Protestant propaganda in German-speaking lands and in France. Ignatius’s program against heresy has three parts: the creation of a “summary theology” to be taught at all educational levels, the spread of Jesuit schools, and the writing of popular tracts to counter the Protestant literature. Although this letter lacks the name of the person for whom it was destined and the date on which it was written, the editors of the Monumenta have judged it to be either a complement to or a further development of the letter to Peter Canisius and therefore assigned it the same name and date.

For more sources from Ignatius, please visit the Letters of Ignatius of Loyola.





Seeing the progress which the heretics have made in a short time, as they spread the poison of their evil teaching throughout so many countries and peoples and seize the initiative to go forward, “their speech creeping daily like a gangrene,” it would seem that our Society, inasmuch as it has been accepted by Divine Providence among the efficacious means to repair this great harm, should be concerned to come up with remedies that are suitable but quick acting and of wide scope, and can be employed as rapidly as possible for the preservation of what is still healthy and the cure of what has fallen sick with the plague of heresy, particularly in the northern nations. The heretics have made their false theology popular and adapted to the capacity of the common people. They preach it to the people and in the schools, and disseminate booklets which can be bought and understood by many, reaching with their writings where they could not through their ministers. And since through the negligence of those who should have done something about it and the bad example and the ignorance of Catholics, especially the clergy, they have wrought such destruction and ruin in the vineyard of the Lord, it would seem that our Society should make use of the following means to oppose and remedy the evils which have come upon the Church through these persons.

In the first place, then, alongside the full-scale theology taught in the universities, which requires a foundation in philosophy and hence a long time to acquire, and is suited only to good and alert minds, weaker ones being confused and little benefited by it, there needs to be another summary theology which quite briefly covers the essential matters not now controverted and treats controversial issues somewhat more fully in a way that is accommodated to the present needs of the people. It should solidly prove dogmas with good arguments from Scripture, tradition, the councils, and the doctors, and refute the contrary teaching. It would not require much time to teach such a theology, since it would not go very deeply into other matters. In this way numbers of theologians could be produced in a short time, and these could take care of the preaching and teaching in many places. Abler students could study the higher and more developed courses, and those who do not succeed in these should be taken out and put in this abbreviated theology.

The main conclusions of this theology, in the form of a short catechism, could be taught to children as Christian doctrine now is; likewise, [it could be taught] to uneducated people who are not too infected and are capable of fine points. This could also be done with our younger pupils in the lower classes, who could learn it by heart.

For those in the higher classes, such as the first and perhaps the second, and those in philosophy and theology, at an hour of the day when they are not at lectures it would be good to teach them this summary theology, as mentioned above, so that all possessing some aptitude will learn the most usual teachings and be able to preach and teach Catholic doctrine and refute its contrary sufficiently for the needs of the people. This would seem appropriate especially for the colleges in upper and lower Germany, in France, and in other places where the same need exists. In the case of persons who have no abilities for serious study or whose age will not permit it, it will be enough if besides the study of languages, they attend the classes of this summary theology and the cases of conscience, so as to be good and useful workers for the common good.

These theological lectures could be attended by the priests of the country as well as by foreign students in the higher institutions, in short, by anyone who wishes. By their means an antidote against the poison of heresy could quickly be provided in many places. Hearing the lectures and having the book in their hands, these persons will be able to preach to the people and teach in schools that will accept Catholic doctrine.

Another excellent means for helping the Church in these travails would be to multiply colleges and schools of the Society in many lands, especially in places where it is thought there would be a large number of students. However, it seems that there should be a dispensation for taking on colleges with fewer personnel than our Institute requires, or else for accepting charge of classes without the foundation of a perpetual college if there is among our men, or among those not belonging to our institute, someone to teach this theology to the students, preach sound doctrine to the people, and promote their spiritual welfare by the administration of the sacraments.

Not only in the towns where we have a residence but also in the nearby places, the better prepared among our students could be sent to teach Christian doctrine on Sundays and feast days. Extern students too, if there are any suitable among them, could be sent by the rector for the same service. By thus giving, besides their teaching, the example of a good life, and by shunning every appearance of greed, they will be able to refute the strongest argument of the heretics: the evil lives and the ignorance of the Catholic clergy.

Since the heretics write booklets and pamphlets aimed at discrediting Catholics, especially the Society, and shoring up their false dogmas, it would seem expedient that in such cases our men should pen short and well-written replies or tracts which can be brought out quickly and widely purchased, and in this way remedy the harm wrought by the pamphlets of the heretics and disseminate sound doctrine. These works should be modest but lively, exposing the evil behavior and deceits of the adversaries. Moreover, where needed, a number of these pamphlets could be gathered in a single volume. It is important, however, that they be written by learned men with a grounding in theology, and adapted to the capacity of the multitude.

With these measures, it would seem that we could do significant service to the Church and in many places quickly counteract the beginnings of the evil before the poison has gone so deep that it would be very difficult to remove it from the heart. We should employ in healing the people the same diligence as the heretics do in infecting them. We will have on our side something they cannot have: solidly founded and therefore enduring doctrine. The most gifted will be able to study more fully in the Roman College and in other colleges of upper and lower Germany, as also in France; sent afterwards to different places where our men reside, they will be the directors and instructors of others.




Original Source (English Translation):

Ignatius of Loyola: Letters and Instructions, ed. John W. Padberg, et al. St. Louis, Mo.: Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1996, “To Peter Canisius, Rome, August 13, 1554,” pg. 504–507.

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