On October 14, 2016, The Sacred Congregation of the Society of Jesus (a.k.a. the Jesuits), the main decision-making body of the order, met at its headquarter in Rome and elected Arturo Sosa Abascal of Venezuela as its head. His title is Superior General—the military association is not accidental. The founder of the order, Ignatius of Loyola, was an aristocrat from the Basque region of Spain, and a professional soldier. From the beginning the order had a martial flavor, and its members were called “soldiers of the Pope.” Wounded in battle, Loyola stayed for a while in a cave in the town of Manresa. There he underwent a profound spiritual crisis. The German church historian Karl Holl in the early 1900s published a very interesting essay in which he compared the spiritual crises of Loyola and Martin Luther. Their life spans overlapped, and both their crises led them into experiences of darkness and doubt. The resolutions were very different. Luther rediscovered the Apostle Paul’s experience of God’s undeserved grace; Loyola pulled himself together in an act of will and dedicated himself to unquestioned service to the Roman Church. In 1534 Loyola wrote the Spiritual Excercises, a sort of basic training for this service. It is a four-week course that is still used to initiate recruits into the order, an arduous disciplining of the mind as well as the body. The authenticity of the following quote has been questioned, but I think it represents Loyola’s mindset as he emerged from Manresa: “We should always be prepared to believe that what I see as white, is black, if the Church defined it thus.” In other words, “Stop indulging your doubts, if the bugle calls you to go into battle against the enemy.”
Soon after publication of the Exercises Loyola and six other men joined together and swore a vow of poverty, chastity, and obedience, to which was later added a special vow of obedience to the Pope. The new order was given papal recognition in 1540. Certainly in the first years, if not always later, the Jesuits lived according to their military spirit (one thinks of the motto of the U.S. Marine Corps—“semper fidelis”—and the Jesuit proto-multinational soon stretched “from the Halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli.” First of all, the Jesuits formed the vanguard of the Counter-Reformation, recapturing a number of countries experiencing the spread of Protestantism—Poland, Lithuania, and most importantly Austria, the heart of the Habsburg empire. The Jesuits fought Protestantism intellectually, preached to the people in the vernacular, and also developed an early form of mass media—putting the Catholic message into popular theater that both educated and entertained. (Luckily for the reputation of the Jesuits, they were not directly involved with the Inquisition, another potent weapon in the Catholic counter-attack—that institution was staffed by Dominicans.) And here the paradox began to appear: Some Jesuits worked as learned and free-wheeling intellectuals, others as necessarily vulgarizing propagandists (often getting drawn to the outlook of marginal groups prone to create unease in elite circles—which were also a constituency of the order, often in alliance with the ecclesiastical hierarchy). The paradox persists today. The Jesuits run an international network of serious universities, colleges, and secondary schools, whose faculties have degrees from the best secular institutions but also regard as intellectual credentials the letters “SJ” following their names and before their academic titles. Yet some of them say and do things that raise eyebrows in Rome. Right now is an interesting moment: The Jesuits have a new head, a Latin American—and the Church also has a new head since 2013, Francis I, also from Latin America and also a Jesuit. It will be interesting to see how the Jesuit paradox of military discipline and intellectual independence will play out in the next few years. Jesuits also run intellectual journals that are widely respected—such as La Civiltà Cattolica in Italy and America in the United States—further occasions for tension between the two features of the Jesuit DNA (if you will, between “semper fidelis” and “Here I stand”).
In addition to their achievements as a Catholic intellectual class, Jesuits were involved in politics, mainly serving the interests of the Catholic Church, and typically close to the relevant political elite. In the 17th and 18th centuries the Jesuits were rumored to engage in secret conspiracies (the term “Jesuitical” was semantically similar to “Machiavellian”). But Jesuits were also active in much broader activities, often defending the interests of marginal or oppressed groups against ruling elites. They defended the Indios in the Americas against exploitation and enslavement by Spanish and Portuguese colonists. The Jesuits organized self-governing Indio city-states (oddly called “reductions”), most famously in Paraguay. Jesuits opposed the trade in African slaves. This naturally annoyed the Spanish and Portuguese governments, who agitated against the order in Rome. A number of Catholic governments curbed Jesuit activities, and in 1773 a papal decree abolished the order (it was only reinstated in 1814). Some Jesuits sympathized with Liberation Theology in the 20th century. But rather than following up on these practical or political concerns, I will go on a little more about the central intellectual concerns of the order.
Francis Xavier (1506-1552), another Basque, was one of the seven young men who first took vows with Ignatius of Loyola. He became known as the ”Apostle of the Indies” for his extensive missionary activities in India, Southeast Asia, and Japan, finally dying in China. Using Goa (then a Portuguese colony, now part of India) as a base, he converted large numbers of people to Christianity. He traveled to Tibet and engaged in dialogue with Buddhist monks. He did not make many converts in India, though a Jesuit mission reached the Moghul court in India in 1580 (some years Francis Xavier’s death). He had much more success in what is now Indonesia, and especially in Japan (where in the following century Christianity was murderously extirpated by the Shoguns).
I think the most interesting Jesuit missionary in Asia was Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), an Italian who settled in Beijing and dazzled the imperial court with his knowledge of astronomy. He steeped himself in Chinese language and culture, and translated religious texts from and to Chinese. He dressed like a Confucian scholar and lived like one. He went beyond this “enculturation” (as Catholic missiology now calls it) and suggested to his Chinese converts that they could engage in ancestor worship—he said that it was, after all, just a way of following the Biblical commandment to honor one’s parents. Rome disagreed. In 1773 Ricci’s position on so-called “Chinese rites” was condemned; the condemnation was only revoked in 1814. (Rome’s mills grind slowly.)
High-profile intellectual participation by Jesuits in more recent times has continued. Two Jesuits were very important in the planning and the conduct of the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s: John Courtney Murray (1904-1967) from the United States and Henri de Lubac (1896-1991) from France (probably significant as representing the two most important mother countries of modern democracy). Both men were key in the drafting of the Declaration on Religious Freedom, which profoundly changed the political role of the Catholic Church. De Lubac had had trouble for a while with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (known in earlier times as the Holy Office of the Inquisition). He had expressed suspect views about Catholic doctrine on contraception and clerical celibacy, but was rehabilitated after the Council. (I was at a conference at the Vatican in 1969. At the conclusion all participants, including de Lubac, were received in an audience by Pope Paul VI. When the Pope reached de Lubac, the latter knelt and kissed the Pope’s ring. The Pope raised him up and embraced him. It was a touching moment. I was touched myself.)
Other Jesuit intellectuals caused problems for the Church by their independence of thought. A friend of de Lubac was Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), a physical scientist who had produced a rather fanciful synthesis of the theory of evolution and Catholic eschatology (he too attracted the attention of the CDF). Joseph Fichter (1909-1994) was a Harvard-trained sociologist. In 1951 he published a book with the puzzling title Southern Parish, Volume I. Fichter showed that many members of a Catholic parish in New Orleans not only did not believe in various Catholic doctrines, but didn’t know what they were. A second volume never appeared, because permission to publish (a bishop’s required “imprimatur”) was not given. This was before Vatican II and the findings were thought to be too disturbing for the faithful. A very curious incident involving an independent-minded Jesuit intellectual was that of Leonard Feeney (1897-1978), who had been on the faculty of Boston College and later set up a center off Harvard Square, intended to convert the local intelligentsia to Feeney’s brand of ultra-conservative Catholicism. In addition to some offensive anti-Semitic comments, he promulgated a very literal interpretation of the old maxim “There is no salvation outside the Church”(extra ecclesiam nulla salus), which according to Feeney meant that nobody who is not baptized in the Catholic Church can have any hope of getting to heaven. Feeney’s Jesuit superiors told him that this was not Catholic doctrine and that he should cease to promulgate this heresy. He resisted all such entreaties. Finally, in 1953 he was excommunicated. I don’t know how one says in Latin “hoist by his own petard,” but of course that was the ultimate paradox: He who would bar millions from the gates of heaven, was in the end so barred himself!
The Jesuit paradox is that a group originally dedicated to a fierce defense against any deemed enemies of the Church has to be well-informed about what these enemies are all about. You have to get real close. What often happens then is what I call “cognitive contamination”—if you keep talking with people, you begin to see their point of view. It happens a lot: The police inspector begins to sympathize with the criminal. The hostage identifies with his captor (the so-called “Stockholm syndrome”). The anthropologist “goes native.” The spy becomes a double agent. There is another maxim (probably not Catholic) which I cannot put into Latin: He who sups with the devil had better have a long spoon.
In conclusion I’ll mention two incidents from my own experience, both involving Jesuit magnanimity. In the 1970s I attended an ecumenical meeting in which the well-known theologian Avery Dulles, SJ said Mass. Before it began he said that everyone would be welcome at the altar. As far as I know, this was very unusual at the time. Also in the 1970s I met an upper-class Italian lady who complained about the provincial narrowness of American clergy. I had been told that the lady had (let us say) a very open-minded view of marital fidelity. She had never had any serious problems at confession. She was visiting New York and went to confession at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. As she told it, she was met by a “fat, uncouth” Irish priest, who berated her for her lifestyle, doubted (correctly, I assume) the sincerity of her repentance, and refused to give her absolution unless she returned for another session. A friend recommended an Italian Jesuit living in New York, who was very broad-minded and “moved in the best circles.” She went to him for confession. Of course he did not approve her lifestyle, but he accepted her expression of regret, imposed a reasonable penance and gave her absolution. Upon leaving she thanked him, but then told him about her experience at the cathedral. He commented: “Ah, St. Patrick’s. What do they know about love?!”