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The Soul’s Entrepreneurs

The First Jesuits

by John O’Malley
Harvard University Press, 457 pp., $35.00

Ignatius of Loyola: The Psychology of a Saint

by W.W. Meissner S.J., M.D.
Yale University Press, 480 pp., $35.00

Jésuites: Une Multibiographie, Vol. 1: Les conquérants, Vol. 2: Les revenants from Pantheon/Bessie Books, winter 1995)

by Jean Lacouture
Le Seuil, Vol. 2, 569 pp., each volume 149 FF (forthcoming in a revised one-volume translation

Deep in Peru, late in the sixteenth century, a Jesuit missionary wrote of his experiences during an expedition to the Chunchos. As he surveyed the jungles of the Amazon from a mountain-top, he felt that he could see as far as the Caribbean. His greatest desire was to visit the unknown peoples between, supported only by the hand of God and a companion, and bring them to Christianity. Clearly, he thought that a faithful Jesuit could penetrate any society, however strange. At the same time, at another border of the Christian world, another Jesuit was in fact moving steadily toward the heart of the greatest of all gentile kingdoms. Dressed in Chinese silks and reading the Chinese classics, Matteo Ricci would soon be the first Christian mandarin. His legendary mastery of Western cartography and written and spoken Chinese would win him imperial favor, enabling him to spend his last years in Peking itself. There he explored the rich and virtuous classics of Chinese philosophy and tried with occasional success to convince literati that the Christianity he taught represented not a rejection but the completion of their grand tradition.1

At the margins of the expanding Christian universe, in other words, some Jesuits showed a startling openness to other peoples and forms of society and belief. True, their passionate interest in Andean religion was motivated by a crusading zeal to stamp out its vestiges, and they rejected Buddhism as forcefully as they embraced Confucianism. But their undeniable faith in the unique value of a single Western message should not obscure their equally undeniable intellectual courage. They underwent transformations and felt their way over distances then unknown and now probably unimaginable.

Other Jesuits inhabited the center rather than the peripheries of the Catholic world, and dreamed less of finding common ground with the best pagans than of cleansing the earth of the worst heretics, inside and outside Europe. The influential Jesuit Antonio Possevino was almost as cosmopolitan as Ricci; his career as a diplomat and polemicist took him as far from Italy as the Russia of Ivan Grozny and the Poland of Stephan Bathory, between whom he tried to make peace. Though his efforts as an ambassador failed, he became one of the first Westerners to describe Muscovite Russia from first-hand knowledge. But he saw the new worlds that Europeans had discovered in 1492 and after as a haunt of devils and their worshipers.

Even worse, they had become a source of corruption for Christendom. True, the conquistadors had destroyed the natives’ temples and codices, and missionaries now preached the word of God in new lands. But Satan had responded by attacking Christian worship in its European home. One of his chief tools took the form of high Renaissance scholarship and art. The tempting nude bodies portrayed by the pagan sculptors whose works were recovered and collected in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and, worse still, by the Christian painters who imitated them defiled the walls of the churches they decorated. The new Italian idolatry of white skin and straining limbs had to be rooted out as brutally as the old American idolatry of monstrous beings who demanded human flesh. Cooperation and extermination, respect and revulsion—Jesuits felt and showed every reaction human beings can muster for the victims and beneficiaries of their preaching and polemics.2

The diversity of Jesuit thought and action was only natural, for the order was as cosmopolitan as the new European colonial empires that it both served and resisted. By 1600, only sixty years after the official foundation of the Society of Jesus, Jesuits and their institutions could be found everywhere from Prague to the Philippines. They wrote long theological polemics and short scatological pamphlets; gave exquisitely sensitive counseling to troubled spirits and provoked Catholic crowds to massacre Protestants; walked a knife edge between orthodoxy and heterodoxy and helped impose censorship on publishers and philosophers. They hid in the country houses of the English Catholic gentry and educated (and converted) the children of Protestant squires in grand schools in Austria and Bohemia. They ran schools and set up printing presses, staged plays and held revivals, taught Latin rhetoric and demonstrated the rules of ballistics.

By the end of the eighteenth century, when the Society of Jesus was suppressed by papal decree, it controlled a worldwide network of more than eight hundred colleges and seminaries. Some of its members were engaged participants in the philosophical controversies of the late Enlightenment. Others had only recently been forced to give up their role as the priests and patrons of the famous Utopian “reductions,” or agricultural communes, in regions that now belong to Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay. Jesuits, in short, were everywhere—especially under the beds of zealous Calvinists and skeptical philosophers. They were pervasively feared and loathed as no single group of priests and thinkers had ever been before—and as none would be again until the Bolshevik Commissars of the 1920s.

Readers’ long-established curiosity about the magnificence and malevolence of the order has not, as yet, been gratified by the production of a full-scale history worthy of the subject. No counterpart to David Knowles’s magnificent study of the monastic orders of medieval England traces the development of the Society of Jesus from its formal foundation in 1540 to the present. The plentiful monographs naturally do not offer universal coverage of uniform quality. Hence the order itself is to this day misrepresented and misunderstood—as often, perhaps, by historians as by lay readers.

This sad situation has many causes. The Jesuits themselves have published profusely about their past. More than 125 volumes of primary sources, a long-running and excellent historical journal, biographies, and bibliographies attest to their industry and devotion. But from the late Renaissance to the mid-twentieth century, much of their work adopted the method and tone of a traditional genre of Catholic scholarship: ecclesiastical history. Writers in this vein meant to edify as well as inform and tended to be saccharine rather than analytical. Vast blocks of quotation from contemporary letters and pious biographies, interspersed with criticism of all opponents and adorned with the imprimi potest and imprimatur, marked their books as suitable only for Catholic consumption.

In the last few decades, admittedly, Jesuit archivists, historians, and archaeologists have explored the history of the predecessors with insight, sophistication, and objectivity in addition to their traditional craftsmanship and erudition. They have become increasingly open to new questions and frank about old problems. Many of them—like François de Dainville and Walter Ong, who revolutionized the study of education in early modern Europe—rank with the most distinguished humanistic scholars anywhere. An imaginative exhibit held in the Vatican Library in 1990 summed up some of the results of this work for a larger public, setting Jesuit architecture and spirituality back into the streets where they were formed.3

But the path these scholars followed has not always been very straight. Even as the old political correctness of the Index faded away in Rome, a new one of liberal right-mindedness arose to replace it. When the seventeenth-century chapel containing the tomb of Ignatius Loyola was restored and opened to the public, the bold black inscriptions showing that some of the sculptures found there were intended to condemn paganism and heresy seemed embarrassing. On orders, they were discreetly filled in with white wax, in the hope that gullible visitors would fail to notice that early Jesuits did not always share the ecumenism of their modern counterparts. (Since then Jesuit and secular scholars have done their best, by discreet fingernail scraping, to restore the inscriptions to visibility.)

In American universities, moreover, the results of Jesuit scholarship—and even the periods they studied—long remained accessible mostly to professional scholars. Historians of art and music naturally introduced their pupils to Mannerism and the Baroque as well as the Renaissance. But most introductory history courses have skipped blithely from Renaissance to Reformation to absolutism and the Scientific Revolution, and literature courses have rarely paused to consider Catholic classics like the moral writings of Gracián or the autobiographies of saints Teresa and John of the Cross. The Catholic Reformation never established the right to a place in the curriculum like the one long enjoyed by the Protestant one.

In America, after all, Jesuits—like postmedieval Catholicism itself—have rarely if ever seemed a proper object of study for scholars in elite universities. The small proportion of time and energy undergraduates devote to studying has often gone to the colorful, remote, and elevating history and literature of the (Catholic) Middle Ages. By contrast modern Catholic culture—like most Catholics—was usually disdained, as the province of lesser breeds fit only for the legendary parochial schools where nuns told their charges never to order ravioli on a date, lest their boy friends be reminded of pillows. Stereotypes and prejudices of this kind, as nasty as anything fastened upon Jews, persisted in American universities until an uncomfortably recent date.

In the 1970s and 1980s, scholars both in the United States and in Europe turned with new interest to the study of past forms of religious life. But they concentrated, for the most part, on the popular rather than the official: in the lost forms of thought and feeling of the anonymous many who built the great schools and churches rather than the well-preserved views and emotions of the established few who lived and preached in them. Even those who examined the experience of the Jesuits tended to treat it in a schematic way. They provided one more clear example of the pervasive effort to establish social and cultural discipline that characterized sixteenth-and seventeenth-century Europe—the same social discipline which confined beggars in the name of virtue and madmen in the name of sanity, and put an end to traditional carnivals and forms of conjuring in the name of uniformity and orthodoxy. The gloomy, hierarchical religion that the Jesuits brought to city slums and country villages restricted—and largely replaced—the creatively anarchical religious forms of the Middle Ages. The schools and churches, the revival meetings and missions of the Jesuits mattered—but only as part of an effort to impose the hegemony of the written over the oral, the disciplined over the spontaneous, and the modern over the archaic.

More recently still, however, the Jesuits have at last begun to attract historians’ attention without being reduced to mere symptoms. Many students of the history of Christianity have begun to insist on taking Catholic devotion and spiritual counseling seriously—as part of a coherent enterprise to change the feelings of individuals, not simply a repressive plot. Historians of science and of the expansion of the West have come to realize just how tenaciously and originally Jesuit intellectuals grappled with the philosophical and anthropological discoveries of their time. Brilliant monographs in these fields—like Pietro Redondi’s wrong-headed but wonderfully stimulating study of Galileo’s trial and the complementary (and in part contradictory) books of Jacques Gernet and Jonathan Spence on Ricci and the Jesuit China mission—have dramatized the interest of Jesuit history for a large public. The need for an up-to-date and openminded synthesis has become almost palpable.

  1. 1

    The Peruvian document comes from Antonio de Egaña, S.J., editor, Monumenta Peruana II (1576–1580) (Rome: Monumenta Historica Soc. Iesu, 1958), p. 250; see more generally the masterly study by Sabine MacCormack, Religion in the Andes: Vision and Imagination in Early Colonial Peru (Princeton University Press, 1992). On Ricci see Jonathan Spence, The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci (Viking Penguin, 1984) and Jacques Gernet, China and the Christian Impact: A Conflict of Cultures, translated by Janet Lloyd (Cambridge University Press, 1985), as well as the essays and bibliography collected in Charles E. Ronan, S.J. and Bonnie B.C. Oh, editors, East Meets West: The Jesuits in China, 1582–1773 (Loyola University Press, 1988).

  2. 2

    Albano Biondi, “La Bibliotheca selecta di Antonio Possevino. Un progetto di egemonia culturale,” in Gian Paolo Brizzi, editor, La ‘Ratio studiorum’: Modelli culturali e pratiche educative dei Gesuiti in Italia tra Cinque e Seicento (Rome: Bulzoni, 1981).

  3. 3

    The catalog is very informative: Thomas M. Lucas, S.J., editor, Saint, Site and Sacred Strategy: Ignatius, Rome and Jesuit Urbanism (Rome: Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, 1990).

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