For the Greater Glory of God

A story (surely apocryphal) has a student asking his teacher about the difference between the Dominicans and the Jesuits. “The Dominicans,” replied the teacher, “were founded in the thirteenth century to reconvert the Albigensians; the Jesuits in the sixteenth, to reconvert the Protestants.” “Is that the only difference?” the student asked. “Well,” came the reply, “when is the last time you met an Albigensian?” 

For anyone who laughed at the joke and now feels a need to make amends, or for anyone wondering whether the joke is quite fair (or its premise even accurate), Markus Friedrich, professor of early modern history at the University of Hamburg, provides the opportunity for atonement (or self-education) with The Jesuits: A History.

Originally published in 2016 (and only this year published in English translation by John Noël Dillon, lightly revised and with a new epilogue), the book provides insight into the Jesuits’ unique charism, and explores the order’s impact on the Church and on the world. It is, Friedrich emphasizes, “a historian’s book.” What does that mean? It is detailed and well-grounded both in primary sources and in the secondary literature. It is, however, free of the jargon that seems more and more to infect current scholarship. 

What would make the history of the Society of Jesus (as the Jesuits are formally called) of particular interest to the general reader? Those too familiar with current Catholic events and only superficially knowledgeable about Catholic history might be surprised to learn that the Jesuits have always been controversial. 

Pero Sardinha, the first bishop of Bahía, accused their missionaries of excessive tolerance of pagan customs in sixteenth-century Brazil. Blaise Pascal, in his Provincial Letters (placed by Mortimer Adler among the Great Books of the Western World), accused them of promoting a laxist moral theology in seventeenth-century France. The Marquis de Pombal accused them of undermining the political order in eighteenth-century Portugal. They were disliked in Carmelite circles for their scholarly critique of the order’s claim to have been founded by the Prophet Elijah, resented for being too close to the court in France and Spain and suspected of treason in England, and thought too conservative in the late nineteenth century and too liberal in the late twentieth. Friedrich aptly remarks that  “With the exception of the Inquisition, probably no other ecclesiastical institution attracted as much aversion as the Society of Jesus.” By the nineteenth century, he added, “The Jesuit order served as a blank canvas onto which hostile authors could project everything they feared or abhorred for political, religious, or cultural reasons.”

There are surely shorter histories of the Jesuits. John O’Malley’s The Jesuits: A History from Ignatius to the Present or Friedrich’s own as-yet untranslated Die Jesuiten: Von Ignatius von Loyola bis zur Gegenwart, both well under two hundred pages, may satisfy the less curious reader, but there is a lot in Friedrich’s longer work that such a reader would miss, as I will make clear in a moment.

I should, however, begin with a caution. The book’s title may be a bit misleading; a careful look at the table of contents gives a better picture of the book. Friedrich’s shorter, more recent, book shows what one might expect in a “history”—chapter titles providing a general timeline of the Society’s history  This book is different in two ways. 

First, the first four of its five chapters (574 of 671 pages) are devoted to the first two centuries of the Society’s history—from its foundation in 1540 to its suppression in 1773. That is followed by a chapter on the suppression and a 50-page “epilogue” on the re-established Society (from 1814 until today), a period which Friedrich, not unreasonably, divides at 1965 (the Second Vatican Council). Because of the book’s many strengths, I don’t want to say that readers primarily interested in the Jesuits’ place in the contemporary Church will be disappointed, so let me just say that they will find the book to be an excellent opportunity to expand their range of interests.

Second, even for the period that is its focus, the book’s organization is not as chronological as one might expect a work of history to be. After a brief account of St. Ignatius Loyola—his motives, his intent, and his struggles in establishing the Society of Jesus in the first place—the book takes a strikingly topical approach, more descriptive than narrative. It does not present Jesuit history as a series of challenges and responses, or as the evolution of a seminal idea, or as a succession of superior-generals. So what are the topics that structure this account of the Society’s history? 

The book’s first chapter discusses the “inner life” of the Society—who joined, how they were recruited, and how they were trained for the life which they were about to undertake. The next chapters situate the Jesuits in larger contexts, first the Church, and then the world.

Their approach to religious life, St. Ignatius thought, would make the Jesuits more effective at satisfying the religious needs of the laity.

It is easy for today’s Catholic to fail to notice just how great are the historical differences between, say, Benedictines, Dominicans, and Jesuits, or for that matter the differences between the Jesuits and other orders formed during the Catholic Reformation. Friedrich makes the differences clear. The Jesuits were not monks whose association with a particular monastery implemented a principle of stability of place, or even just friars, with regular habits and a practice of choral prayer. They were rather, like the members of other orders founded during the Catholic Reformation, clerks regular, though differing somewhat from other new orders in ways ranging from their interest in developing a new form of spirituality (Ignatius’ Exercises), an interest not shared with the Theatines, or to priorities in their active ministries, where the Piarists’ interest in elementary education for the poor to some extent complemented the Jesuits’ greater interest in higher education. Their approach to religious life, St. Ignatius thought, would make the Jesuits more effective at satisfying the religious needs of the laity.

Another part of the chapter introduces the reader to the theological controversies in which the Jesuits played a major rôle—over the sufficiency of imperfect contrition, over grace and free-will, and over laxity and rigor in moral matters. A section on the rôle of the Jesuits in promoting now-widespread popular devotions—to one’s guardian angel, to the Sacred Heart, Forty Hours—that, for most Catholics, no longer seem to have any particular association with the Jesuits highlights an aspect of the Society’s work very different from the more familiar idea of Jesuit as intellectual and scholar. A section on Jesuit work with “prostitutes, paupers, soldiers, and criminals” serves as a good corrective for those who imagine the Jesuits associating more with courtiers and kings than with the least advantaged members of society, or more focused on education than on any other form of service.

The Jesuits did also, of course, find a place for themselves at courts and at universities, and the third chapter, “Saeculum and the Kingdom of God,” describes Jesuit thought and work on economics, politics, education, and scholarship, and the arts and literature. 

A history of the Jesuits would hardly be complete without a discussion of the Jesuits’ “globalized world,” saliently missionary efforts extending from Paraguay to Japan.

Jesuit involvement in politics, for example, occurred at both the practical and the theoretical levels. Jesuits served political rulers as confessors, as ambassadors, and as advisers, and thus had to face the problem of avoiding improper entanglement in politics. They contributed to political theory in a number of ways, opposing, of course, Machiavelli’s attempt to separate politics from ethics, but at the same time themselves separating secular from spiritual authority. They denied both universal political authority to the pope and religious authority to kings, though still giving the pope an indirect power in cases where a king’s acts might affect the consciences of his subjects. Jesuits also challenged the divine right of kings; some even, despite the reservations of General Claudio Acquaviva, defended at least the theoretical permissibility of tyrannicide. 

Friedrich turns next to larger themes of the sixteenth-century intellectual culture, where the Jesuits attempted to build on two foundations. The humanist concern for historical-critical textual analysis (e.g., Lorenzo Valla’s demonstration that the Donation of Constantine was a forgery) led seventeenth-century Jesuits Heribert Rosweyde and then Jean Bollande to a scholarly examination of the legends of the saints, a project that continues to this day. Francisco Suárez and many others continued the development of Scholasticism already underway among the Dominicans. Without abandoning the logical rigor and careful distinction characteristic of that approach to philosophy and theology, the humanist interests of the age led them to a more philologically attentive reading of Biblical passages, one relying on a knowledge of Hebrew and Greek, and to give greater prominence to early Christian sources.

The discussion of the range of Jesuit science—from Giovanni Battista Riccioli’s map of the moon to the introduction of quinine (“Jesuit powder”) into European medicine—helps to dispel the notion that science and religion are inevitably at war, even while showing how the challenge of integrating the new scientific ideas of the seventeenth century with older, theologically useful, philosophical ideas complicated (without preventing) the Jesuit reception of the new science. The discussion of Jesuit contributions to the fine arts includes sections on literature, on music, and on architecture and painting.

A history of the Jesuits would hardly be complete without a discussion of the Jesuits’ “globalized world,” saliently missionary efforts extending from Paraguay to Japan, and that is the subject of the next chapter. Like so much else that the Jesuits undertook, these too sometimes created controversy. Jesuit missionaries’ attempt to accommodate Chinese cultural practices (such as the veneration of ancestors, and of Confucius himself) led to a long-running dispute with their fellow Catholics in what came to be called the Chinese-rites controversy. That controversy not only served as an instantiation of the more general, and more abstract, question of distinguishing the universal truths of the Gospel from culturally specific language and practice, but had historical implications with respect to the propagation of the faith. The suppression of the rites in question (effected at the beginning of the eighteenth century and lifted only early in the 20th) surely did much to make more difficult the conversion of the Chinese.

All of these features of Jesuit work are illustrated by reference to examples, though the sheer range of activities in which the Society was involved often forces the author to keep the illustrations brief. Despite the book’s nearly 2500 footnotes and 78-page bibliography, it is not a very direct guide to further reading on particular topics. Nevertheless, the reader who wants to know more about, say, Jesuit epic poetry can now at least start with an author and title (Laurent Le Brun’s Ignatiad of 1661) and similarly for every other topic, ranging from science to popular devotion.

This topical approach to the history of the Society during the first two centuries of its existence allows the author to take up interesting topics that might have been hard to place in a more chronologically structured book, and does so in a way that allows a more unified presentation of Jesuit scholarship, missions, spirituality, etc., than would have been possible with a more determinedly chronological presentation.

These chapters are followed by a more chronological final chapter on how the Society’s enemies succeeded, starting in 1759, in expelling it from one country after another until finally, in 1773, they persuaded Pope Clement XIV to abolish it altogether. 

Surviving institutionally only in Russia, where Empress Catherine II refused to promulgate the bull of suppression, it was resurrected by Pope Pius VII in 1814. An “epilogue” presents a comparatively brief account of the last two centuries of the Society’s existence—how the resurrection was effected, the very conservative, “ultramontane,” character which it then maintained for 150 years, and finally its rapid transformation after the Second Vatican Council into the markedly less conservative organization of today. Many readers might want more detail about, for example, the Jesuits’ involvement with, reaction to, and persecution by twentieth-century totalitarianism—both fascist and communist—or more about the transformation of the pre-Vatican Society into the Society of today. Perhaps, however, that is just to ask for a different book, or a book of 1000 pages instead of the 650-page book that the author wrote.

One might come to a history of the Society hoping to read about the great Jesuits of the past—about Francis Xavier and Matteo Ricci, about Jean de Brebeuf and Edmund Campion. Although all of those are mentioned, this book focuses, not so much on biographical details, valuable as those also are, as on two other things. First, it provides, not the Chinese or English, but precisely the Jesuit context of those lives and deaths. Second, its repeated reference to examples in illustration of its various points reminds us (by name) of the many lesser-known Jesuits—Ignaz Parhammer caring for the orphans of Maria-Theresa’s Vienna or Vincent Huby adapting Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises for groups of lay retreatants in seventeenth-century Brittany, among many others, who also lived and worked “for the greater glory of God.”

The translation itself is generally fluent, but unfortunately not entirely free of problems. Occasionally it is inaccurate. St. Charles Borromeo, as archbishop of Milan, Friedrich wrote, was concerned that Jesuits were luring his seminarians away from the diocesan priesthood; in the translation this becomes simply “from the priesthood.” Canon law, Friedrich pointed out, did not require parental consent for young men wanting to become a novice; the translation says that “the consent of an adult novice was no longer necessary after the age of eighteen or twenty.” The translator’s word choices do not always conform to well-established Catholic usage. So, he talks about Jesuits promoting the worship, rather than the veneration, of guardian angels and the Virgin Mary; about someone “giving” confession (he means the penitent, not the priest); and about “unsurpassable,” rather than “invincible” ignorance. These errors and infelicities, more often annoying than positively misleading—like having coffee spilled on one’s nice new book—should not keep prospective readers from appreciating the book’s many strengths.

The book is clearly, in the first instance, a work for scholars, but it offers much of interest for other readers as well. An organization as large and influential as the Society of Jesus cannot help but appear again and again in our general reading. It educated Descartes and Molière in seventeenth-century France and cosmologist Georges Lemaître, one of the inventors of the Big-Bang Theory, in twentieth-century Belgium; it evangelized the Hurons and the Iroquois in French Canada and served the needs of the underground Church in the England of Bloody Queen Bess; it made contributions to seventeenth-century astronomy (Christopher Clavius) and to twentieth-century paleoanthropology (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin). Friedrich’s book makes it possible to see connections among those various, otherwise disparate, accomplishments. They are all grounded in the work of the Society of Jesus, the product of the vision of convalescent soldier Ignatius Loyola.