Skip to Content
Search Icon

Two Cheers for the Jesuits

On the charism of the Society of Jesus.

No person of good will, certainly no Catholic, should be able to consider the present situation faced by the the Church in Nicaragua with anything but a sense of loathing. To the surprise (I hope) of no one, the odious Daniel Ortega, has re-invented himself as a dictator of the center-right, one who appears to have changed his mind about a great many things—the role of capitalism in “human development,” the appropriate scope of government services, even the legality of abortion—but not about the Church, which can never be anything but the enemy of totalitarianism and its adherents. As I write this, Bishop Rolando Alvarez of the Diocese of Matagalpa finds himself released from prison after receiving a sentence of twenty-six years on the charge of treason; the choice he seems to face is between exile and a life behind bars. (There is, of course, another, grimmer possibility.)

Meanwhile the Society of Jesus has been officially suppressed. Jesuit property, including the Central American University in Managua, has been seized and priests are being expelled from their residences. (The government claims that the Jesuits have failed to follow tax law applicable to non-governmental organizations, a pretext not even worthy of Claude Rains in Casablanca, who at least had the welcome excuse of hypocrisy.) Things will almost certainly get worse from here.

Now I am in no position to wag my finger (students of modern Central American ecclesiastical history will get the joke), but I am sure that few of my readers will be surprised to learn that not everyone is equally distressed by recent events. To put it bluntly, some Catholic observers have suggested that the Jesuits had it coming, that this is simply “what happens when you support liberation theology”; they seem to regard what has taken place in Nicaragua as a case of certain hand-picked chickens coming home to a very familiar roost.

These sorts of arguments are not unfamiliar. For decades, virtually up to the moment of his canonization (and, indeed, afterward at least in some circles), the martyrdom of Saint Oscar Romero was discussed in more or less exactly these terms. It is possible even now to meet with Catholics of a certain age who, while acknowledging that Romero’s death was unfortunate, consider the murder of the sainted archbishop acceptable collateral damage in the Reagan administration’s war against communism. I have even heard this argument made by a supernumerary of Opus Dei, a supremely ridiculous position given Romero’s biography.

Ah well. The Church has been here before. Rome herself acquiesced in the suppression of the Jesuits at the behest of secular authorities from 1773 until 1814, surely one of the most shameful and squalid acts in the annals of modern ecclesiastical diplomacy. We will never know how many souls went unshriven, how many Masses went unsaid, how many poor children went uncatechized, how many souls went went to their graves without the consolation of the Last Rites because worldly and venal courtiers had the ear of Clement XIV.

Here I hope I may be permitted a rather lengthy quotation from the prince of English essayists:

With what vehemence, with what policy, with what exact discipline, with what dauntless courage, with what self-denial, with what forgetfulness of the dearest private ties, with what intense and stubborn devotion to a single end, with what unscrupulous laxity and versatility in the choice of means, the Jesuits fought the battle of their Church, is written in every page of the annals of Europe during several generations. In the order of Jesus was concentrated the quintessence of the Catholic spirit; and the history of the order of Jesus is the history of the great Catholic reaction. That order possessed itself at once of all the strongholds which command the public mind, of the pulpit, of the press, of the confessional, of the academies. Wherever the Jesuit preached, the church was too small for the audience. The name of Jesuit on a title-page secured the circulation of a book. It was in the ears of the Jesuit that the powerful, the noble, and the beautiful, breathed the secret history of their lives. It was at the feet of the Jesuit that the youth of the higher and middle classes were brought up from childhood to manhood, from the first rudiments to the courses of rhetoric and philosophy. Literature and science, lately associated with infidelity or with heresy, now became the allies of orthodoxy. Dominant in the South of Europe, the great order soon went forth conquering and to conquer. In spite of oceans and deserts, of hunger and pestilence, of spies and penal laws, of dungeons and racks, of gibbets and quartering-blocks, Jesuits were to be found under every disguise, and in every country; scholars, physicians, merchants, serving-men; in the hostile Court of Sweden, in the old manor-houses of Cheshire, among the hovels of Connaught; arguing, instructing, consoling, stealing away the hearts of the young, animating the courage of the timid, holding up the crucifix before the eyes of the dying. Nor was it less their office to plot against the thrones and lives of apostate kings, to spread evil rumours, to raise tumults, to inflame civil wars, to arm the hand of the assassin. Inflexible in nothing but in their fidelity to the Church, they were equally ready to appeal in her cause to the spirit of loyalty and to the spirit of freedom. Extreme doctrines of obedience and extreme doctrines of liberty, the right of rulers to misgovern the people, the right of every one of the people to plunge his knife in the heart of a bad ruler, were inculcated by the same man, according as he addressed himself to the subject of Philip or to the subject of Elizabeth. Some described these divines as the most rigid, others as the most indulgent of spiritual directors; and both descriptions were correct. The truly devout listened with awe to the high and saintly morality of the Jesuit. The gay cavalier who had run his rival through the body, the frail beauty who had forgotten her marriage-vow, found in the Jesuit an easy well-bred man of the world, who knew how to make allowance for the little irregularities of people of fashion. The confessor was strict or lax, according to the temper of the penitent. The first object was to drive no person out of the pale of the Church. Since there were bad people, it was better that they should be bad Catholics than bad Protestants. If a person was so unfortunate as to be a bravo, a libertine, or a gambler, that was no reason for making him a heretic too.

The Old World was not wide enough for this strange activity. The Jesuits invaded all the countries which the great maritime discoveries of the preceding age had laid open to European enterprise. They were to be found in the depths of the Peruvian mines, at the marts of the African slave-caravans, on the shores of the Spice Islands, in the observatories of China. They made converts in regions which neither avarice nor curiosity had tempted any of their countrymen to enter; and preached and disputed in tongues of which no other native of the West understood a word.

The spirit which appeared so eminently in this order animated the whole Catholic world. The Court of Rome itself was purified.

That turned out to be a very long block quote. But every time I thought I had reached a good place to stop, I found myself nodding along (in fact, you should probably just close this tab and read his essay on Ranke, even if it is for the third or thirtieth time). It is from Macaulay’s vantage point that I think we should attempt to understand the Jesuits, whose charism, rightly understood, is one that transcends the political context of post-war Latin America every bit as much as it does that of Counter-Reformation Europe. There is a reason that science fiction writers from Arthur C. Clarke to the present day have cast them as the missionaries of the known universe. For my own part I have no doubt that two thousand years hence there will be polyglot Jesuit fathers reconstructing the English language from intact hotel copies of The Book of Mormon and transcripts of The Simpsons; they will educate the impoverished schoolchildren of a post-nuclear disaster Washington, D.C., and offer cooly detached spiritual advice to the elegant society ladies of Pirrit Hills, Antarctica. What Our Lord said in His (frequently misunderstood) words about the poor is, I think, likely to be true of the society founded by Saint Ignatius nearly half a millennium ago—for ye have the Jesuits with you always.

At the risk of sounding frivolous, I should say that every Jesuit I have ever met or corresponded with, including those with whom I disagree about an enormous number of consequential issues (especially those related to the liturgy), has been unworthy of the calumnies to which the order is frequently subjected in this country, which are frequently the stuff of Elizabeth pamphleteers. (If only they were really this cunning and this powerful!) Many who cheered at the call for “a visitation on the Jesuit Order” in the infamous memo of Demos (later revealed to be the late Cardinal Pell) circulated last year have failed to mention what the author wrote in the next paragraph: “The Jesuit charism and contribution have been and are so important to the Church that they should not be allowed to pass away into history.”

I for one pray that they do not.

This column was originally published in The Lamp's Tuesday newsletter, which you can subscribe to here.