John Adams and the Jesuits
As you may have discerned from Matt Malone’s posts, a few of us at America are besotted with John Adams: the second president, that is, not the composer.
Last night I watched an advance copy of the final episode of HBO’s stupendous series "John Adams," starring Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney as his wife, Abigail. It was magnificent (don’t worry: I won’t give anything away); by the end I was awash in tears. Incidentally, the seven-part series is not simply a beautiful evocation of the life and times of an almost-forgotten Founding Father, but also a deeply affecting portrayal of the consolations of the married life. Of course I have to go by what others tell me about marriage, but see if you can remember two actors who have portrayed a loving husband and wife so convincingly.
Anyway, this Jesuit is besotted with John Adams. John Adams, however, was definitely not besotted with the Jesuits. One of the many pleasures of the final episode is hearing Paul Giamatti and Stephen Dillane, who plays Thomas Jefferson, read from the Adams-Jefferson correspondence that was taken up at the end of their lives. Their longstanding friendship had ruptured over Jefferson’s political machinations, but was restored in an epistolary fashion after the death of Abigail. In May 1816, Adams wrote to Jefferson about the "restoration" of the Society of Jesus: "I do not like the reappearance of the Jesuits.... Shall we not have regular swarms of them here, in as many disguises as only a king of the gipsies can assume, dressed as printers, publishers, writers and schoolmasters? If ever there was a body of men who merited damnation on earth and in Hell, it is this society of Loyola’s. Nevertheless, we are compelled by our system of religious toleration to offer them an asylum."
It’s not surprising that Adams would despise us. The Society of Jesus was founded on obedience (Adams was an outspoken free thinker who bridled at any suggestion that he hold his tongue) to a foreign power (Adams was deeply suspicious of most things European). And then there’s the whole Catholic thing. "Indeed, Mr. Jefferson," he wrote two years earlier. "What could be invented to debase the ancient Christianism which Greeks, Romans, Hebrews and Christian factions, above all the Catholics, have not fraudulently imposed upon the public?" And in 1821 he asked, "Can a free government possibly exist with the Roman Catholic religion?"
John Adams was a good man--brave, hardworking, loving. Americans owe him a debt that can never be repaid. He was also irascible, hot-tempered and bellicose. And our second president was also very much a man of his times, and so his antipathy to the Society of Jesus is perhaps not surprising. But imagine the lively conversations that John Adams and St. Ignatius of Loyola, another passionate, intelligent and outspoken founder, might have had. Or are having right now.