Jesuit History: A New Hot Topic
Historians are a cautious lot and do not use the word revolution lightly. But that is the right word to describe what has been happening in the study of the history of the Society of Jesus. The scene is so different now from what it was as recently as a dozen years ago that it is hardly recognizable. All at once the Jesuits have become a hot topic—indeed, one of the hottest—in the field of early modern history. Of course revolutions do not spring up out of nowhere. A century ago, a group of Spanish Jesuits launched publication of critical editions of documents from the early years of the Society, a project that has now reached some 135 volumes. These texts provided a solid and easily accessible base for scholars. Meanwhile other Jesuits, especially in Spain, France and Italy, began approaching the history of their order and its spirituality with a new critical acumen. Ignacio Iparraguirre, Joseph de Guibert, Michel de Certeau, Mario Scaduto—these are just a few of the notable names. In North America, George Ganss, William V. Bangert, Robert Bireley, John Witek and John Patrick Donnelly, among others, moved the enterprise along in significant ways. But nobody anticipated that from this foundation would erupt what we are currently experiencing.
What is happening? First of all, the number of scholars publishing on the history of the Society of Jesus has expanded almost exponentially. Books—good books—are rolling off the presses, with France, Italy and North America leading the pack. The Institute of Jesuit Sources in St. Louis, under John Padberg’s direction, continues to publish fine translations of important texts, but now the most prestigious university presses—Princeton, Harvard, Stanford and Toronto, for example—also publish on Jesuit history, a venture almost unheard of before. When I was in Italy two years ago, four different scholarly conferences were being held on the Society, none of them sponsored by the Italian Jesuits. Germany, Spain and parts of Spanish America are beginning to show signs of a great awakening. The Jesuits are in vogue.
Second, the status of scholars has changed radically. Until a few years ago, Jesuits wrote about the Jesuits, with all the advantages and disadvantages that in-house scholarship entails. Today the vast majority of those writing about the Society are not Jesuits. Indeed many, or maybe most, of them are not Roman Catholics or even Christians. Yet departing from the anti-Jesuit polemic that traditionally marked writing on the Society by non-Jesuits, these scholars tend to be fair-minded and even appreciative, willing to give the Jesuits at least an even break. This does not mean, I am sure, that we are entering a golden age when old legends and prejudices will once and for all be laid to rest, but there is no denying the new openness. I am speaking, of course, about serious history, not the sometimes vicious drivel about the Jesuits (some of it written by Jesuits themselves or former Jesuits) to be found in abundance on the Internet and in bookstores.
The reasons for this change are difficult to pinpoint. Surely one factor has been a growing awareness that the Jesuits, in their manifold activities, provide windows onto extremely important though often neglected aspects of Western history. And because the network of the Society’s institutions is international, these are windows onto the relationship of the West to the rest of the globe. This has resulted in a tendency to move the Jesuits as a topic of study beyond the confines of “church history” into broader perspectives. The inadequacy of categories like Counter Reformation and Catholic Reform traditionally applied to the Jesuits has thereby become increasingly apparent and has made the Jesuits more intriguing to scholars.
Third, scholars are asking new questions. Instead of “How were the Jesuits agents of the Counter Reformation” (still not a bad question), they are asking “What were the Jesuits like?” This question further moves the Jesuits out of the sometimes stale categories in which they were once confined.
Questions like that have thrown wide the gates onto areas of the Jesuit enterprise of which some of us were aware but about which we knew precious little. We knew Jesuits were sought-after teachers, esteemed theologians, guides for a devout life, tireless missionaries and, of course, defenders of the Catholic faith. It was along these lines that scholarship (favorable and unfavorable) tended to move. What a change today! Transcending the specter of the “Galileo case,” scholarship on the Jesuits’ relationship to the sciences and mathematics, for instance, is pouring from the presses, most of it favorable. Exciting articles and books keep appearing on the Jesuits and the theater, the Jesuits and dance, the Jesuits as poets, the Jesuits as patrons of Rubens and Bernini, the Jesuits as impresarios for civic celebrations, the Jesuits as managers of great estates, the Jesuits and women. Those are just samples. Whereas 10 years ago not a single CD of Jesuit music was on the market, today there are a number.
Finally, a shift has taken place from an almost exclusively European perspective to a multicultural approach. “Mission history” was practically an airtight category, isolated from the broader picture and segregated from it. Post-colonialism is thus finally bearing fruit in scholarship on the Jesuits, just as postmodernism is making us more appreciative of the different ways Jesuits interacted with cultures formerly considered exotic. Scholarship on the Jesuit experiment in China, for example, has become a booming industry, whose areas of study include the impact of Europe on the experiment, of the experiment on Europe, of the Jesuits on China and, perhaps most interesting, of China on the Jesuits.
The upshot of this revolution is that the Jesuits of the old Society (that is, before the suppression of the order in 1773) are emerging with a new profile. We still see them, of course, as religious figures for whom their religious commitment remained fundamental. But they were something more. They were “learned clerics,” like many others of their day, but their learning was somehow broader, their enterprise less traditionally clerical. They had a systemic commitment to culture that was more expansive than that of any other cohesive religious group, Catholic or Protestant. I would go so far as to say that integrated into their pastoral, ecclesial and religious mission was a cultural and civic mission. That latter mission was never articulated in their normative documents, which is one reason why it has never been systematically addressed, but it is not for that reason less important. That mission, I propose, has implications for Jesuit spirituality and how we study it.
The original 10 companions founded the order in 1540 as essentially a band of preachers of the Gospel, ready to be sent anywhere in the world. That definition was modified later to include “defense of the faith,” as in 1550 the bull of Pope Julius III expressed it—that is, the order became more self-consciously an agent to counter the Reformation. These self-definitions were explicit and done with full awareness.
But another self-definition was already in the making when the Jesuits began to operate schools, a decision that changed almost every aspect of their life and work, though they took little account of it explicitly. They acquired huge properties, for instance, and engaged in sometimes frantic fundraising to keep their academic institutions afloat.
But perhaps most fundamentally, they engaged in a relationship with culture that was new for clerics. They spent many more hours in the classroom than in the sacristy. Furthermore, in those classrooms they were not teaching clerics, nor were they for the most part teaching the traditional clerical subjects of “philosophy” and theology. They were teaching poetry, history, oratory, drama and other works of literature.
They taught this program not as a preparation for theology, the traditional clerical rationale for such study, but as a program complete in itself that would provide laymen with the learning and skills they needed to be successful in this world. Aside from a few hours of catechism per week, the Jesuit “colleges,” roughly the equivalent of our high schools, taught no “religion.” Yet, according to the philosophy of education to which the Jesuits subscribed, the most basic purpose of the schools was to instill the virtue of pietas—that is, to help the students develop into upright Christians with a commitment to the common good. As Juan Alfonso de Polanco, Ignatius’s secretary, put it in 1551: “Those who are now only students will grow up to be pastors, civic officials, administrators of justice, and will fill other important posts to everybody’s profit and advantage.”
How was this goal to be accomplished? It was accomplished in part by what we would call extracurriculars— school plays, sports, production of religious spectacles. Activities like these helped lead Jesuits into new and important relationships to music, dance and art. But the classroom was as always the center of the school, and there the pagans reigned. Demosthenes, Sophocles, Livy, Virgil and their beloved Cicero—these were the authors at the center of the curriculum. The Jesuits taught these authors not simply as models of eloquence but as thinkers with ethical and spiritual relevance. They believed these texts embodied a philosophy of upright living especially appropriate for young laymen headed for leadership roles.
The upright living that the texts held forth as an ideal had a strong civic orientation, especially notable in Cicero. The virtuous person was virtuous especially by contributing to the common good, which was not something abstract but the moral and cultural good of the city in which the person lived. This orientation in fact corresponded to the reality of the Jesuit schools, which were founded, as Polanco implied, to perform a civic function. They were usually established at the request of the city, in some form or other paid for by the city and established to serve the families of the city, which, as recent scholarship has shown, entailed listening to the expectations of those families and trying to meet them. We can call them confessional schools, but we perhaps do better to call them civic institutions.
But they were also cultural institutions. How otherwise can we explain their promotion of six or seven choirs and a corresponding number of musicians at purely academic functions in some of their colleges? Is it not easier to see ballet at the Jesuit college in Paris, which King Louis XIV sometimes attended, as more a cultural function than a religious one? Why is it that most books produced at that time on the history and theory of dance were by Jesuits? The plays produced at the Jesuit schools drew large audiences from the local population; and in an era before there were public libraries, the often magnificent libraries of the Jesuit schools sometimes performed precisely that function. True, all this was done under a religious aegis, but with religion integrated into culture and not standing apart from it.
What does this have to do with Jesuit spirituality? I find it hard to believe that this cultural aspect of the Jesuits’ lives did not have an impact on the way they thought, felt and viewed their vocation, even though they may not have been able clearly to articulate it. Most Jesuits taught the classical texts (almost no matter where they were in the world) for at least a few years of their lives, sometimes for their whole lives. They knew their Cicero better than they knew their Bible. Most of them, even when engaged in other ministries, lived in the school communities and from there often helped orchestrate great civic celebrations that entailed music, dance, poetry, plays and elaborate parades. Did this not get into their souls?
Usually, when we study spirituality, we turn to “spiritual” texts—writings about prayer, union with God, devotions and similar matters. To study Jesuit spirituality we go to the Spiritual Exercises, to Ignatius’ so-called autobiography, and to his other writings. Then we might go to the writings of other “great masters of the spiritual life.” Well and good, but does not this method need to be expanded? What about taking into account also what the recent scholarship is making so vivid for us? Do we not need to add, for instance, a civic and cultural dimension to Jesuit spirituality?
Part IX of the Jesuit Constitutions, composed principally by St. Ignatius, lists virtues that the superior general of the Society of Jesus should possess, which is really a profile of the ideal Jesuit. These are the virtues, the text implies, that every Jesuit should strive for and that are thus constitutive elements of Jesuit spirituality. Among the virtues is “magnanimity and fortitude of soul.” The paragraph about these virtues that Ignatius wrote turns out to be a loose paraphrase of a passage by Cicero (“On Duty,” De Officiis, I.20.66). I know of no similar phenomenon in the foundational documents of any other religious group, and I find it congruous with what I have been saying. Even if you do not agree with me about the congruity, you might at least find it is interesting that in describing an important aspect of Jesuit spirituality, Ignatius had recourse not to the Bible but to Cicero.