Jesuits in the Shining City

On the Georgetown University campus, over the entrance to White-Gravenor Hall, two dates are chiseled into the stone: 1634 and 1789. The second marks the date when Georgetown was established in its present location. The first, according to former president W. Coleman Nevils, S.J., was the date of the school’s original founding. Don’t miss the message here. Harvard was founded in 1636. In carving these dates over an iconic campus archway, Nevils was quietly suggesting that Georgetown might truly be America’s oldest university.

This is something of a stretch. Nevils based his claim on a manor school in 17th-century Maryland, which he identified as the embryonic Georgetown. Though the Jesuits were ever great champions of education, it would probably be more reasonable to view the one-farmhouse operation in question as a forerunner to the great university on the Potomac. Still, Georgetown’s little taunt contains more than an element of truth. No other group of colonists quite matched the English Catholics in their ardor for founding schools, and the Jesuits in particular embraced the challenges right from the start. Their network of colleges and universities had a deep impact on higher education in this country, which is frequently underestimated even by Catholics. Michael T. Rizzi has kindly reminded us in his new book, Jesuit Colleges and Universities in the United States.

For this American Catholic reader, Rizzi’s book was simultaneously uplifting and melancholy. It is pleasant to be reminded of the enduring and stalwart role Catholic educators have played in the history of this nation. The Jesuits especially made an astonishing impact, founding 54 American colleges and universities, 27 of which are still in operation today. That cheerful reflection may be paired, however, with a sense of regret and loss. Conservatives often reflect on how fine it would be to build our own network of universities, enabling us to pursue wisdom and educate our young without constantly parrying attacks on our personal integrity. The Jesuits had such a network. Unfortunately, it has preserved very little of its once-distinctive Catholic character. 

Americans have heard of Georgetown, Fordham, Marquette, and others, but they may not know that these are Jesuit schools, or even that they claim to be Catholic. Reading over this history, it is impossible for a conservative not to wonder: could things have been different? What would it have taken to maintain a higher level of institutional integrity, as our university system moved further and further away from the vaunted principles of the Ratio Studiorum that had defined Jesuit education since 1599? What lessons can traditionalists (Catholic or otherwise) learn today, as we consider the best path forward in a culture that has become increasingly hostile to our beliefs and way of life?

The Achievement

Each November, Americans roast turkeys while our children color pictures of people in tall black hats. No poultry is prepared to commemorate another landing, just fourteen years later, of hundreds more English refugees, likewise fleeing from the wars of religion. These were not Puritans. They were Catholics. Their company included three Jesuits, who had ministered to the dwindling Catholic faithful across years of intense religious persecution, in the tradition of St. Edmund Campion. When they were not being martyred, the Jesuits were champion university-builders, so it is unsurprising that they began forming schools almost the moment they set foot on American soil. The details of these earliest schools are somewhat obscure, in part because (still being English colonists) the Marylanders had to keep a low profile to avoid attention from Cromwell’s government. Still, we know that these schools were in operation from a very early date, because they sent some of their best students back to the continent to complete their university education. Among many others, these Jesuits educated the influential Carroll family, which produced John Carroll, America’s first bishop, and also Charles Carroll, the only Catholic signatory to the Declaration of Independence. 

As Americans grew into their own, became a nation, and spread westward, the Jesuits always seemed to be there. It is both amusing and charming to revisit this free-wheeling age, when a bishop might start a new college simply by sending a letter to a Jesuit superior somewhere in Europe, inviting two or three fathers to come spearhead the effort. The great Protestant schools, in their early histories, seem to place great significance on impressive public charters and generous donations of books and lands; the Jesuit schools, by contrast, were built on the backs (and brains) of Jesuits. New colleges might begin in someone’s living room, or in the out-buildings of a local Catholic’s manor. 

St. Louis University, the oldest college west of the Mississippi, held its first classes in 1818 in the home of Mrs. Alvarez, a local widow of Spanish descent. Fordham University got its start from a pair of French Jesuits, who left a turbulent post-Revolution France at the invitation of a bishop in Bardstown, Kentucky. By the time they found their bluer pastures, the invitation had largely been forgotten, and the desired college had already been organized by more local priests. Accordingly, the French fathers ended up in New York City, taking charge of a nationally recognized university that endures today. In an age of government meddling and administrative bloat, the energy and drive of these early Jesuits are truly astonishing to contemplate. What they brought to America, first and foremost, was themselves: highly educated men from the Old World, with a zeal for forming young minds. 

The Jesuit trailblazers represented everything Americans most distrusted about Catholicism, as black-robed, foreign-accented, celibate men who were personally sworn to the service of the Roman Pontiff.

If the impact of these Jesuit educators is underestimated today, that may be partly because they tended to focus on quantity more than prestige, building as many schools as they reasonably could with an eye to increasing access. Their success partly reflected the fact that in many ways, Jesuit education was ideally suited for a young, diverse, and entrepreneurial nation. The Jesuit curriculum offers serious formation in the liberal arts, but natural sciences were also taught at a level that was unusual in the early modern period. Rizzi notes how the American Jesuits laid much of the groundwork for ongoing research in several scientific fields, especially astronomy and seismology. 

Jesuit schools strove to form well-rounded graduates, giving attention to public speaking and athletics, and deliberately fostering a meritocratic ethos by awarding prizes to high achievers (and sometimes publicly shaming poor students). Their principled egalitarianism was nicely compatible with the ideals of the young republic. Jesuit education, according to the dictates of the order, was meant to be free and available to all, and American Jesuits tried very hard to honor this principle, even though this sometimes required them to devise some workarounds, such as the practice of operating tonier “boarding schools” in close proximity with less-lavish day schools. Inflated “room-and-board fees” for the prosperous helped to keep both institutions afloat. This arrangement was perhaps less than ideal, but students consigned to the hoi polloi were still educated seriously, according to the Ratio Studiorum, with Jesuit faculty moving frequently among schools. 

In one important way, of course, the Jesuits were very much at odds with American culture. They were Catholics. The Jesuit trailblazers represented everything Americans most distrusted about Catholicism, as black-robed, foreign-accented, celibate men who were personally sworn to the service of the Roman Pontiff. Though its intensity waxed and waned, hostility to Catholicism was basically a fixture of American culture until the mid-twentieth century, so it is really fairly remarkable that these stereotypical representatives of “papism” managed to do any institution-building, to say nothing of 52 colleges. 

Rizzi discusses some interesting Jesuit strategies for dealing with anti-Catholic prejudice, relating for instance how the College of Holy Cross represents a rare example of a rural Jesuit school, mainly because it was intended to provide a refuge for Catholic students in the Know-Nothing period, when anti-Catholic nativism was particularly intense. In general though, the American Jesuits simply soldiered ahead despite the discrimination, welcoming a diverse range of students that included Protestants and Jews, indigenous people and immigrants, and students from Mexico, Cuba, and the West Indies. Southern Jesuit institutions did rely on slavery, and Rizzi details some of the controversies this caused within the order. However, the Jesuit schools can justly boast that at least some of their institutions were significantly ahead of their time in welcoming students who were not welcomed elsewhere. The Jesuit professional schools began admitting women in the early 1900s, and Georgetown hired its first biracial professor in 1866. That man, Patrick Healy, would go on to become president of the university in 1873, where he won a reputation as one of the institution’s most visionary and effective historical leaders. 

The Decline

The greatest of the Jesuit institutions still exist today, and some still hold national prominence. Regrettably, not a single one is noteworthy for its strong Catholic identity. It’s true of course that religious traditionalism has declined in America generally, and in the universities especially. Even so, the hollowing out of the Jesuit schools is especially noteworthy.

My own alma mater, Notre Dame, regularly stirs controversy in the Catholic world as it struggles to balance Catholic tradition against the demands of maintaining an elite university. Conservative Catholics sometimes moan that the Golden Dome is entirely lost, but when I compare my experiences visiting Jesuit schools to life under the Golden Dome, the latter seems very Catholic indeed. The Catholic University of America (once a major competitor of Georgetown’s) likewise seems to have retained a vibrant and distinctively Catholic community in a way that no Jesuit school has done. Catholics often point to the Land O’Lakes statement of 1967 as the terrible turning point for Catholic higher education. At a gathering in Wisconsin, organized especially by Notre Dame’s president Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, multiple American Catholic universities formally declared themselves to be independent of Rome (or any other religious authority). This was perhaps not a proud moment for the Fighting Irish, but Rizzi’s history highlights an interesting truth: whatever Notre Dame’s failures as a Catholic university, it has kept the faith more successfully than many of its peers. The story of Catholic education in America is complex.

The early Jesuits’ eagerness to educate a diverse population was immensely admirable, but it seems to have left them vulnerable to anti-traditional strains of thought that ultimately undercut their Catholic foundation. 

What happened in Jesuit universities in the 20th century? Importantly, they were always adaptable and open to a diverse range of students. After World War I, however, the pressure to imitate the mainstream became far more intense. As America fell in love with collegiate life, it became increasingly necessary to meet professional and cultural expectations in order to attract students. Accrediting boards sniffed at the Jesuit schools’ pitiful endowments, and at creative arrangements (such as the combining of high schools and colleges) that had once served local populations well, but that now seemed anachronistic and awkward. 

Both before and immediately after World War II, the Jesuits started to accept that they would have to send more of their professors to secular graduate programs if they hoped to remain accredited. They had long argued that the lengthy and well-developed Jesuit formation process was equivalent to a doctoral program. but the Academy at large was not impressed. In 1955, Monsignor John Tracy Ellis wrote a scathing critique of the Jesuit schools, in which he shamed them for punching well below their weight in American intellectual life. Partly in response to Ellis, the Society of Jesus decided that it was time to move beyond neoscholasticism, and start engaging more with a wider intellectual world. Some good fruit came of this effort, as for instance in the theorizing of John Courtney Murray, S.J. But the character of the schools rapidly changed. The next wave of Jesuit-university professors reliably claimed the title “doctor,” with fewer answering to “father.” 

It should also be said that the mid-20th-century Jesuits were not, as a group, particularly conservative or traditional. That was true for many reasons, but in the context of the present discussion, one particularly stands out: having always served a diverse and less-advantaged population of students, the Jesuits were naturally sympathetic to the early strains of diversity-and-inclusion rhetoric. This is fairly understandable. Jesuit schools were publishing promotional literature in Spanish in the 19th century, long before any of the Ivies would have considered this. Indeed, the Jesuit obsession with “special options for the poor” grew so intense that in the 1970s, they briefly engaged in a moment of soul-searching as they wondered whether they should continue to operate universities at all. They could not really bear to walk away from such a hard-won legacy, so they brought the social justice message into their own campuses. This has carried obvious costs. The early Jesuits’ eagerness to educate a diverse population was immensely admirable, but it seems to have left them vulnerable to anti-traditional strains of thought that ultimately undercut their Catholic foundation. 

The Future

Hope springs eternal, but it seems unlikely at this point that Georgetown can be recovered as a robustly Catholic institution. Even so, the story of Georgetown, and the entire Jesuit network, may hold some worthwhile lessons.

A countercultural university system must be comfortable adhering to its own mission, even at the cost of wider temporal prestige. Universities need students, so a countercultural mission is only compatible with general excellence if there is a sizable group that feels sufficiently alienated from the surrounding culture that they will send talented young people to less-prestigious institutions. On this front, conservative reformers can take heart! That condition clearly obtains in our time. 

It is not enough to be resentful, however. An alternative university system needs its own interior logic and set of goals. The Jesuits had that, in their order and its Ratio Studiorum. Some smaller colleges and universities are experimenting with educational models outside the academic mainstream, but none have the deep roots and internal cohesion of the seventeenth and eighteenth-century Jesuits. Efforts like the new University of Austin are certainly interesting, but their mission as yet seems a bit underdeveloped. It may be difficult to find secular goals that can offer the same motivation and direction that the Jesuits found in their commitment to working ad majorem Dei gloriam. It’s not enough to want separation from a wider culture; successful universities must have a positive vision that they wish to achieve, even in a culture hostile to them.

To maintain a period of university-building, it is essential to find a pool of talented people, and to connect them with one another. Small numbers of people may accomplish great things with sufficient drive and teamwork, as the Jesuits did, but they were able to build their tremendous network of institutions in part because they had a vast global network of “human resources” on which to draw. Their order, at the time, held some of the planet’s most educated human beings. Though conservatives may not be quite so obviously advantaged in this regard, there may be a real sense in which widespread ignorance (of history, literature, philosophy, and tradition generally) can be our strength. These disciplines contain perennial truths, which will ever have appeal for humans hungry for meaning. With such potent tools in hand, creative minorities can do tremendous good.

Sometimes it is necessary, however, to do this work precisely as a creative minority. This may be the most inspiring thing about the American Jesuit story. Though they arrived almost in lockstep with the pilgrims, the Jesuits never ascended to a culturally prominent position, and their names are mostly unknown, even by American Catholic children. Nevertheless, their impact was great. Thanks to them, millions of American Catholics, along with other minority groups, had access to a high-quality education that would otherwise have been entirely beyond their reach. At Georgetown, Fordham, St. Louis University, Santa Clara, Marquette, the Loyolas, and more, otherwise-disadvantaged young people got their chance to build a thriving American life. For American conservatives today, this story should be more inspirational than tragic. We can build the institutions our communities need. With God all things are possible.