Fascinating Company

The American Jesuitsby By Raymond A. Schroth, S.J.New York Univ. Press. 368p $29.95
In 1851, the author of Americans Warned of Jesuitismsought to expose the “Jesuits, who fill the Roman Catholic churches, invade your colleges and educate your children, who are scattered everywhere in the richest cities of the United States.” They were in Oregon and California (“wherever money was made,” apparently) and they were incorrigibly sly and subtle: their megalomaniacal plans were always cloaked beneath modest dress and studied smiles. The American branch of the 19th-century Society of Jesus would suffer many such calumnies, reiterations of familiar tropes in the anti-Jesuit arsenal. The same prejudices would inspire the locals of Ellsworth, Me., to strip, tar and feather the Jesuit John Bapst in October 1854, lead Charles Chiniquy to accuse the Jesuits of assassinating Lincoln and allow Samuel Morse to dream up papal armies poised to invade America. And yet, as the Society had learned from long, hard experience, its enemies had always tended to be most vocal when notable Jesuit achievements were being secured.

The 19th century was no exception. The Society certainly endured its share of tensions and squabbles during these years. Determining precisely what it meant to be an American Jesuit, negotiating the American political landscape with its separation of church and state, hammering out a workable relationship with Rome: these were all difficult labors that provoked serious divisions within the Society’s ranks. But there was progress, too. The work of priests like Pierre-Jean de Smet recalled the earlier exploits in California and Arizona of Eusebio Kino and the French Jesuits who embarked on missions in 17th-century New France. Above all, the Society’s educational institutions began to crop up across the nation, some of them later evolving into famous Jesuit universities. In the wake of the Jesuit order’s worldwide restoration in 1814, John Carroll observed that “many years will be necessary to reproduce such men as formerly adorned the Society by their virtues and talents.” It was a wise remark, but American Jesuits, in consort with colleagues who arrived from across the world, achieved a great deal. The two groups did not always get along, but they certainly inspired their enemies to launch bilious attacks against them—a sure sign of success.

It was only the beginning (in some ways, the continuation) of a fascinating history. In his enthusiastic if uneven new book, Raymond Schroth, S.J., has attempted a systematic survey of the Society’s presence in America from colonial times to the present day. It would be fair to conclude that The American Jesuits improves as it moves forward in time. The earlier parts of the book are less reliable, though they certainly offer interesting accounts of everything from Marquette’s explorations of the Mississippi, to the early stirrings of Jesuit activity in Maryland, to superficial accounts of the Society’s organization and its debates about missionary methods.

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Fuller accounts of the 19th century follow, and we are offered rewarding discussions of Jesuits’ engagement with the abolitionist debate, their role in the Civil War, tales of such Jesuit characters as Arnold Damen and measured reportage of many of the controversies that engulfed the order. The story of Harvard president Charles Eliot’s polemical assaults on the Jesuits’ educational philosophy and methods is particularly informative.

Schroth, a professor of humanities at St. Peter’s College in Jersey City, N.J., is to be applauded for being evenhanded throughout these pages. He is, unsurprisingly, sympathetic to the Jesuit enterprise, but he does not shy away from dispensing criticism when it is warranted. This admirable trend continues in his account of the 20th-century Society. If we encounter the dynamic figures—John Courtney Murray, John LaFarge, the glacier-exploring Bernard Hubbard—we also meet those who might be construed as villains—the anti-Semitic Jesuit poet Leonard Feeney and the Communist-baiting Edmund A. Walsh. Indeed, readers of this book may be especially interested in Schroth’s account of the dire McCarthy years, not least the criticism levelled at the errant senator by America’s editor Robert Hartnett.

There are also enjoyable digressions into the Society’s burgeoning social ministries, poignant accounts of the work of Jesuit chaplains during World War II and some fascinating comments about the portrayal of Catholic priests on the mid-century silver screen. The book concludes with a survey of the Vatican II era, the vibrant but troubled Arrupe years and the dilemmas that face the modern-day Society. Schroth does not deny the obvious crises that today’s Jesuits confront. Generational differences, squabbles about homosexual priests, recent revelations of sexual abuse by priests, the continuing decline in Jesuit numbers (and the fact that, as of 2006, the average age of the American Jesuits was 64.7 years) all hint at a precarious future for the Society. Perhaps, though, as Schroth’s book reveals, there might be an ounce or two of consolation in the fact that the American Jesuits have survived equally troubled times before.

Schroth does have his share of wayward moments. As one example, he repeatedly deploys a narrative strategy in which, at different historical periods, imaginary Jesuits (and, later, a fictional film crew!) take a tour of the Society’s American enterprises and indulge in decidedly odd conversations and observations about the state of Jesuit affairs. This is presumably intended to be charming or quirky or inventive. But in truth, after a sentence or two, and in the context of a work of history, it becomes extremely distracting, even irritating. Such carping aside, this book provides a competent survey of American Jesuit history.

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