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God's Soldiers

Jonathan Wright

Adventure, Politics, Intrigue and Power - a History of the Jesuits

(Image Books)

Although, as Jonathan Wright takes great pains to illustrate, the Society of Jesus was not founded with the explicit purpose of serving as Catholicism’s first defense against the religious upheavals of the 16th century, it was almost inevitable that the order would become synonymous with its function as a bulwark of traditional Christianity in the face of Reformation. As quoted by Wright, 16th century pontiff Gregory XIII noted that: “there is in this day no single instrument raised up by God against heretics greater than [the Jesuits]. It came into the world at the very moment when the new errors began to spread abroad.”


This pointedly specific reference to “new errors” refers, of course, to the then-controversial heresies of Martin Luther, who had, in the first decades of the 16th century, ended the Catholic Church’s religious monopoly in Europe by casting doubt upon the political and spiritual legitimacy of the Roman church’s theological hegemony. By the time that Ignatius Loyola had been appointed as the Society’s first superior general in 1541, one year following the order’s official founding, the upheavals that convulsed Europe for centuries to come were already 25 years old. Timing is everything: is it any surprise that the formation of a new order with the explicit mandate of achieving “spiritual renewal” across all of Europe, aimed at “purifying souls, at correcting ignorance of doctrine, expunging sin and superstition” could be interpreted as anything but a specific challenge to the stirrings of religious modernity?


But it is always important for modern scholars, when studying an institution such as the Catholic Church, to comprehend the long institutional memory implicit in every action of an establishment four times as old as the establishment of European civilization on North America. In hindsight, of course we see the Reformation as a vital and uniquely powerful challenge to the moribund medieval church, and perhaps the single most important political movement of the last thousand years—but at the time, most in the Church saw the stirrings of Martin Luther and his later contemporaries, Zwingli and Calvin, as merely the latest iterations of a blasphemous tradition as old as the Devil.


With this in mind, it is easy to understand how generations of Loyola’s followers undertook their mission with equal zeal whether serving on the front lines against heresy in Europe’s religious wars or deployed across four continents, proselytizing to the heathen masses. It was all one and the same to the Jesuits. It is one of history’s great ironies that while thousands upon thousands of idealistic priests were deployed across the globe with the purpose of converting the kingdoms of the East to the path of the one true Christ, these combined efforts added up to a monumental failure. Save for a few scattered Christian communities here and there, China, Japan and India quite assiduously resisted the Christian impulse.


But the Society’s long-suffering diligence had other, accidental consequences. The most convincing argument Wright makes in the course of his narrative is that the Jesuits, as an intellectual movement, have long been overlooked as a crucial forerunner of the Enlightenment. The evidence amassed towards this end is quite convincing. In moving towards a far more proactive engagement with the exterior world than the monastic scholars of the Dominican and Franciscan orders, the Jesuits contributed to and—in some cases—practically created the foundations of scientific inquiry which would come to be regarded as the bedrock of rational inquiry in the eighteenth century. Certainly, by the time the Enlightenment hit its full stride, the forces of anti-clericalism and dogmatic rationalism had alienated the Church, actively excluding the Jesuits from any consideration as a progressive organization. But the long catalog of Jesuitical contributions to the sciences of astronomy, geology, geography, chemistry, physiology and physics puts a lie to traditional notions of the Catholic Church as a wholly reactionary institution.


The pursuit of scientific inquiry was seen by many in the early-modern period to be merely a further explication of God’s revealed will, so long as it did not explicitly conflict with scripturally accepted wisdom. This was Galileo’s mistake: many at the time, even within the church, acknowledged the solidity of Galileo’s theories. Wright makes a convincing argument that the papal suppression of Galileo, while regrettable, has unfairly tarnished this era of the Church’s scientific activities in the eyes of history. While there is no denying that with the onset of Voltaire and the high Enlightenment the course of rational inquiry and political reform surely parted ways with Rome, many of the building blocks of modern thought had already been laid by Jesuits.


It is to Wright’s credit that, despite his obvious goal of rehabilitating the order’s historical reputation, he rarely allows his bias to impinge on his otherwise sterling scholarship. Where he does falter, however, is the book’s final chapters. After detailing the order’s first 300 years in engrossing detail, he allows the Society to be folded into the larger story of the Church’s own activities during the last, contentious two-hundred years. We see that Jesuits were present at Vatican I and II; we see that Jesuits were active on both sides of the lines in World War II; we see glimpses of the controversies over Marxism, capitalism and the emergence of the controversial “liberation theology” movement. But these essential conflicts appear to be beyond the pale of Wright’s thesis, which rests on the unexplored importance of the order during the first few hundred years of its existence. Are we to infer from this that the Jesuits effectively ceased to be an autonomous organization for the last 200 years of their existence, and that their recent history, as such, is no more than the history of the Catholic Church itself?


There are indeed hints peppered throughout the final pages of Wright’s narrative that, following 300 years of dizzying activity and never-ending controversy, the society was essentially defanged following its re-establishment in 1814 following 40 years of suppression. No longer would it be an active player in the diplomatic or scientific worlds. While a great deal of this non-activity can no doubt be laid at the feet of the changing nature of the modern world—wherein Catholic kings and popes hold less sway over international relations than irreligious presidents and military dictators—there can be no doubt that the order’s contentious nature was a double-edged sword that Rome felt obliged to blunt. As recently as 1981 Pope John-Paul II personally intervened in a matter of the order’s hierarchical succession, following the tentative ascension of an ailing superior general’s vicar general to the leadership of the order. Since Vatican II, through the reign of John-Paul II and the ascension of Benedict, the Church has spent much organizational energy in attempts to suppress controversy and sideline dissent. Fueled, no doubt, by an institutional memory of the Jesuits as international firebrands, the current order is kept on a short leash.


While the book may falter in its discussion of recent events, there can be no denying that Wright has delivered a potent and valuable volume, delving into an area of early-modern history often ignored by conventional histories. The story of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries is the story of religious war, colonization, the birth of international capitalism and the expansion of scientific inquiry—and the Jesuits are present at every major development in this long and torturous epoch. It is not hard to envision God’s Soldiers, regardless of its flaws, becoming a standard supplementary text for any intermediate study of the early-modern period.

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14 Jun 2011
Author Jonathan Wright shows how heresy and the Church's reaction to it paradoxically helped Christianity define itself and broaden its appeal.
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