To Father Peter Canisius

On the Society's Duty to Oppose Heresy  

Rome, August 13, 1554

summary | text of letter

          During the late spring of 1554, Ferdinand I, King of the Romans, wrote to Ignatius telling him of the mayhem that Protestant catechisms and epitomes of theology were doing in his lands, and he urged on Ignatius the need of providing a theological manual that could serve for the instruction of theological students, university students, and country priests who needed help in preparing their weekly sermons. As early as 1550 Peter Canisius saw the need for such a compendium, and Claude Jay began to prepare one but his death in August 1552 ended the project. This compendium had been envisaged as a text to replace the Sentences of Peter Lombard, but Canisius felt there was a greater and more immediate need, namely, a catechism to be placed in the hands of the students of college and high-school age, as well as in those of children. Thus he turned his full attention to this task, and by the time the instruction below was sent him, he had already completed the first draft of his catechism.

          In his instruction, Ignatius lists several ways that the Society could fulfill its obligation to stop the spread of Protestantism in northern Europe. He suggests that the Jesuits prepare a textbook for an abbreviated theology course for the less capable students, a catechism for children, and pamphlets that could easily be distributed among the faithful. Also, their students, if capable, could go into the suburbs and teach Christian doctrine, and finally the Society could open more colleges and schools. By the end of 1554 Canisius' catechism was at the press and it appeared in March 1555 with the title Summary of Christian Doctrine. It was intended for college students and, thus, it was in Latin. Canisius then translated it into German in 1556 and worked on an adaptation for secondary school students, which he called Shorter Catechism, and finally a version for younger children which he called Catholic Catechism. Canisius' catechisms quickly gained general acceptance; they went through countless editions during the author's own lifetime. This instruction was written in Italian [Ep. 12:259-262].


          Seeing the progress that the heretics have made in so short a time, spreading the poison of their evil teaching throughout so many countries and peoples, and making use of the verse of the Apostle to describe their progress, and their speech will eat its way like gangrene [2 Tim. 2:17], it would seem that our Society, having been accepted by Divine Providence among the efficacious means to repair such great damage, should not only be solicitous in preparing the proper remedies but should be ready to apply them, exerting itself to the utmost of its powers to preserve what is still sound and to restore what has fallen sick of the plague of heresy, especially in the northern countries.

          The heretics have made their false theology popular and presented it in a way that is within the capacity of the common people. They preach it to the people and teach it in the schools, and scatter pamphlets that can be bought and understood by many; they influence people by their writings when they cannot reach them by preaching. Their success is largely due to the negligence of those who should have shown some interest, and the bad example and the ignorance of Catholics, especially the clergy, have made such ravages in the vineyard of the Lord. Hence it would seem that our Society should use the following means to end and cure the evils which the Church has suffered through these heretics.

          In the first place, sound theology, which is taught in the universities and must have its foundation in philosophy and which requires a long time to acquire, is adapted only to alert and agile minds; because the weaker ones, who lack a proper foundation, can become confused and collapse, it would be good to prepare a summary of theology dealing briefly with topics that are essential but not controversial. In matters controversial there could be more detail, but it should be accommodated to the present needs of the people. It should solidly prove dogmas with appropriate arguments from Scripture, tradition, the councils, doctors, and refute the contrary teaching. It would not require too much time to teach such theology since it would not go very deeply into other matters. In this way, many theologians could be prepared in a short time, who could attend to preaching and teaching in various places. The abler students could be given advanced courses which include greater detail. Those who do not succeed in these advanced courses should be removed from them and placed in the shorter course of theology.

          The principal conclusions of this theology could be taught to children from a short catechism, as Christian doctrine is now taught, and also to the common people who are not yet too corrupted by heresy and are incapable of subtleties. This could also be done with the younger students in the lower classes, where they could learn it by heart.

          It would be good to teach, at an hour of the day when they are not attending lectures, the above-mentioned summary of theology to students in the higher classes, such as the first and perhaps the second, and those in philosophy and theology, so that all who have some aptitude will learn the loci communes, and will be able to preach and teach Catholic doctrine, and refute the contrary, at least sufficiently enough to satisfy the needs of the people. This would seem to be especially the case in the colleges of upper and lower Germany and in France, and in other places where there is the same need. As for those who have no talent 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 abridged theology course and the cases of conscience. They will thus become good and useful workers for the common good.

          The local priests and the foreign students of the higher division, and any others so wishing, could be admitted to these theological classes; because of these classes it would not take long to provide many places with an antidote against the poison of heresy. Listening to the lectures with the textbook in their hands, they will be able to preach to the people and to teach in the schools what Catholic doctrine demands.

          Another excellent means for helping the Church in this trial would be to increase the colleges and schools of the Society in many lands, especially where a good attendance could be expected. There might possibly be need of a dispensation to accept colleges with fewer students than our Institute demands, or to begin classes without undertaking perpetual charge of a college, if indeed someone of Ours, or from elsewhere, can teach the said theology to the students and preach sound doctrine to the people; these measures, with the administration of the sacraments, will promote their spiritual welfare.

          Not only in the places where we have a residence, but even in the surrounding neighborhood, our better students could be sent to teach Christian doctrine on Sundays and feast days. Even the extern students, should there be suitable individuals among them, could be sent by the rector of the same purpose. Thus, besides teaching correct doctrine, they will be giving the example of a good life, and by removing every appearance of greed they will be able to refute the strongest argument of the heretics—a bad life, namely and the ignorance of the Catholic clergy.

          The heretics write a good many pamphlets and booklets, by which they aim to remove all authority from the Catholics, and especially from the Society, and set up their false dogmas. It would seem imperative, therefore, that Ours also write answers in pamphlet form, short and well written, so that they can be produced without delay and purchased by many. In this way the harm done by the pamphlets of the heretics can be set aright and sound teaching spread. These works should be modest, but stimulating; they should point out the evil that is abroad and uncover the deceits and evil purposes of the adversaries. Many of these pamphlets could then be gathered in a single volume. Care should be taken, however, that this be carried out by learned men well grounded in theology, who will adapt the content to the capacity of the multitude.

          With these measures it would seem that we could bring great relief to the Church, and in many places quickly apply a remedy at the outset of the evil and before the poison has had a chance to go so deep that it would be most difficult to remove it from the heart. We should use the same diligence in healing that the heretics use in infecting the people. We will have the advantage over them in that we possess a solidly founded, and therefore an enduring, doctrine. The most gifted students will then be able to follow a course of study in the Roman College and in other colleges of upper and lower Germany, also in France. Later, when they are sent to different places where Ours have residences, they will become the directors and instructors of others.