The Jesuits: A History 
by Markus Friedrich, translated by John Noël Dillon.
Princeton, 854 pp., £22, October 2023, 978 0 691 22620 0
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In the mid-18th century​ an exceptionally adventurous European traveller might have got as far as a desert region in what is now Arizona, to be rewarded with hospitality from the presiding priest in the stately local mission church. There was likely to have been chocolate to drink, transported from Yucatán some two thousand miles to the south, served in Fr Philipp Segesser von Brunegg’s choice of cups: would he select his Chinese porcelain or his stoneware from Europe? Fr Segesser had called on his family in Switzerland to send over a steady supply of useful tools for the local Indigenous people – knives, spoons and waffle-irons, maybe an occasional discreetly packaged weapon or two. In return he intrigued his Swiss friends by posting them gifts of buffalo-hide paintings: battle-scenes between Europeans and a variety of local peoples, now a window for us on a society long vanished.

All this was thanks to the Society of Jesus, for Fr Philipp was a Jesuit. His life in America symbolised the astonishing range of this distinctive creation of the 16th-century Counter-Reformation, formed from the fertile imagination of a man from the Basque country: Iñigo López de Oñaz y Loyola, whose first name was later universalised into Ignatius, possibly by a tidy-minded clerk at the University of Paris. The Society was the world’s first global corporation; its hierarchical organisation headed by its superior general in Rome thought nothing of sending a Swiss priest across the world to drink chocolate in a desert and please Indigenous Americans with waffle-irons. Thanks to their startling achievements, the Jesuits quickly attracted suspicion and hostility, including from the occasional pope, and after a quarter-millennium an accumulation of their enemies bullied Pope Clement XIV into dissolving the entire enterprise in 1773. Yet the Society was not that easily undone: it survived in what it would be indecorous to style a zombie-like state till a later pope resurrected it in 1814. It flourishes still, and among its members is Francis, the present pope, the first Jesuit to have held that office. Now a non-Jesuit historian has monumentalised the Society’s history in more than six hundred pages, ably translated from German by John Noël Dillon. Markus Friedrich’s volume could be described as relentless, but its barrage of information is a trustworthy basis from which to begin to understand one of the most remarkable products of Counter-Reformation energy.

The Jesuits have always been past masters at self-presentation – an aspect of their mission to communicate the Christian message as effectively as possible. Not least is the hagiographical narrative shaping the life of Loyola himself, a central moment of which was a personal disaster in 1521, when he was thirty. In a bold but impractical move during the French invasion of northern Spain, he nerved the little Spanish garrison in the citadel of Pamplona to defy the vastly superior army surrounding it. In the resulting fight, he was badly wounded by a French cannonball, and in long convalescence both physical and mental was electrified by devotional reading into a quest for how best to serve the crucified Christ, just like the saints in his books with their heroic exploits. Tangled up in his enthusiasm was an earlier staple in his reading, the deeds of bold knights of chivalry. Our Lady the Mother of God became the object of his chivalric devotion, and once he was able to limp along the roads of Spain, he sought her in prayer during a whole night spent before her image in her shrine at Montserrat, outside Barcelona. So far not much else was clear about his destination, and it was more than a decade and many false starts before the Society of Jesus began to take shape.

If you subtract Mary and the saints, the story sounds like many of the conversion narratives galvanising the Protestant Reformation in Northern Europe at the same time. It is important to detach these early stages of Loyola’s progress towards sainthood from a later era when Jesuits did become the arch-antagonists of Protestantism, for the Society was not born with any sense of mission against the Reformation. Like Martin Luther, Loyola wished to transform and inspire the Latin Western Church, but their conversion experiences took them on opposite trajectories, respectively rebellion and obedience (of a sort). We should also dispense with the common idea that Loyola was a soldier – if he had possessed an ounce of military practicality, he would have had more sense than to encourage the Pamplona citadel garrison in a pointless act of defiance against the French. He was caught up in that debacle because he was an aspiring courtier, eager to win honour and wealth not available in the Basque country by service in the king of Spain’s entourage. Once Loyola’s plans for the Society of Jesus took shape, they were made possible by his courtier’s sense of how to charm and persuade the powerful to look favourably on his vision: not least his skill in influencing noble ladies who could use soft power on their husbands and relatives to get what he wanted. His plans also flourished thanks to his deftness in protecting his fledgling organisation from outside interference through a careful structuring of its constitution.

Friedrich does not convey the strangeness of how quickly the Society gained official endorsement and a legal identity from Pope Paul III in 1540. Here was a proposed corporation that proclaimed no special purpose beyond being ‘beneficial to souls’; some of its efforts had already petered out in fiasco, one being the launch of a mission of Christian evangelism to Ottoman-ruled Jerusalem. Another was an even more ill-judged initiative to convince the prostitutes of Rome to renounce their trade, a self-allotted task for charismatic celibate males that raised the likelihood of disaster, duly pointed out by sceptics. Moreover, Loyola and his groups of devout proto-Jesuits had already aroused considerable worries in the Spanish Inquisition because of their undoubted links to some of the most dangerously original Christian thinkers in Southern Europe: the Alumbrados in Spain and the Spirituali in Italy. The Spanish Inquisition’s increasing interest in Loyola had been the main reason for his removing himself beyond its jurisdiction in 1528 to enrol in the University of Paris.

How did he overcome these formidable problems? He had one or two significant friends of similar Spirituale sympathies among higher clergy in Rome, but also some major and implacable enemies. Far more important was his sure-footedness in the highest political circles: a coterie of noblewomen in the courts of Europe helped to bring his infant Society in from the cold. Crucial was Loyola’s pastoral care for Margaret of Austria, illegitimate daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who had the misfortune to be married to one of the loutish grandsons of Pope Paul III. Loyola’s concern for Margaret in her misery saved her marriage, and indeed the surviving son after the marriage reconciliation was destined to be the Habsburgs’ longest serving and most effective functionary in the Low Countries, Alexander Farnese, Duke of Parma. A more immediate success was that otherwise inexplicable papal readiness to grant the untried Society its generous Bull of Foundation in 1540.

There was back-up. Leonor de Mascarenhas, a strong-minded, cultured and celibate Portuguese noblewoman, was the much loved governess to Charles V’s two legitimate daughters and the future Philip II of Spain: she served as a counterweight to the emperor’s understandable suspicion of the early Jesuits, and did much to promote the Society’s early moves into Spain at the beginning of the 1540s. Leonor’s kinswoman by marriage Elena, wife of the celebrated Portuguese diplomat and statesman Pedro de Mascarenhas, simultaneously helped her husband to complete the Jesuits’ pincer movement on Iberia thanks to her own influence in Portugal. When the city corporation of Lisbon put up a strong fight against furnishing the Jesuits with an enviably placed headquarters at St Roch’s church, she bullied the city authorities into falling into line, so that she could have convenient access to Jesuit ministry near her own house. It was the Society’s first major church building. The Jesuits’ acquisition of a base in Lisbon predated their headquarters in Rome, with good reason: they were already seeing the Portuguese maritime empire as the chief vehicle for a worldwide mission that would eclipse their earlier quixotic plans for Jerusalem.

Over the next decade, two other purposes for the Society emerged, effectively by accident. First was the work of education that over the next two centuries became a main selling point for the Jesuits. Their first ‘colleges’ in certain university towns were simply intended as lodging places for student members of the Society; Loyola was determined that his Jesuits would enjoy a de luxe education. However, potential lay benefactors were not excited by the inward-looking reference of such projects, and the Society was very sensitive to what excited donors. In 1548 yet another enthusiastic great lady, Leonora Osorio, wife of the Spanish viceroy in Naples, encouraged the endowment of a school in the Sicilian city of Messina to be staffed by local Jesuits: the talented group quickly caught the attention of other urban elites, who demanded their own Jesuit schools. On principle Jesuit schooling was free, which was a major attraction, but to make the best use of Jesuit manpower it operated only at advanced or secondary level; a poor boy would find it hard to gain the necessary Latinity for admittance.

In this way, without any single policy decision, a Jesuit educational mission emerged to secure the minds of the next generation of prosperous merchants, gentry and nobility – in other words, the people who mattered in guiding Catholic Europe. Jesuit education was a sprightly application of Renaissance humanism to inspiring the young. Loyola began by forbidding Jesuits to beat their students, though when this proved a problem in maintaining the standards of discipline that parents expected, the Society evolved an appropriately Jesuit compromise: they would hire a non-Jesuit to do the chastising. Even so, while Jesuit schools were academically rigorous and intensely supervised, the Society was determined that the pupils should find learning fun. There were gardens, expressing the Jesuits’ fascination with the natural world, but also showcasing the exotic plants that they were able to gather from their global missions. Pupils could enjoy packs of playing cards with highlights from the history curriculum on the back, and a Jesuit speciality was the termly school play, lavishly staged and showcasing the pupils’ grasp of elegant Latin as well as their skill in scene-shifting. The school prizegiving day (with more lapidary Latin oratory) was the culmination of examinations and competitive essay-writing: another perfect opportunity for proud parents to appreciate what they were getting for free, and encourage them in thoughts of adding generously to the Society’s endowments.

Education went hand in hand with another accidental Jesuit vocation: fighting Protestantism. Back in the 1530s, when Loyola and his friends were still in Paris and began to meet real live specimens of the Protestant beast, they had initially followed the opinion of Loyola’s close colleague Pierre Favre that dealing with Protestants should be a matter of Christian witness, ‘speaking with them familiarly on those topics which we have in common and avoiding all contentious arguments in which one party might seem to beat the other’. By 1550 the Society had revised its statement of purpose, adding the idea of ‘defence’ to ‘propagation of the faith’. The implied programme accelerated after Loyola’s Majorcan assistant Jerónimo Nadal visited Germany in 1555: he was shocked at the extent of the Lutheran triumph. Nadal, who did much to remould the image of the Society after Loyola’s death, deliberately promoted the inaccurate idea that the Jesuits had been founded to combat the Reformation. The Jesuit school system proved a huge help: Northern European noblemen appreciated the combination of no school fees and high-quality instruction for their offspring, and over the next two centuries a good many aristocratic waverers returned to the Catholic option. Poland-Lithuania, in the mid-16th century the Northern European kingdom perhaps most likely to go Protestant, is the outstanding example of where this happened.

All this flexibility and adaptation owed much to the driving energy of Loyola, crystallised in a literary work that he began as jottings amid his spiritual turbulence in the 1520s, and which he built up into a systematically organised guide to prayer, self-examination and surrender to the divine power. Loyola soon began showing his compilation to other people, and with additions and suggestions from his inner circle of friends, it reached a papally approved final form in print in 1548 as the Spiritual Exercises, in the universal language of Latin. It has become one of the most influential books in the history of the Western Church, even though Loyola did not design it for literary enjoyment any more than one would a technical manual of engineering or computing. It’s there to be used by clerical spiritual directors to guide others as Loyola did himself, to be adapted at whatever level might be appropriate for those who sought to benefit from it, in what came to be known as ‘making the Exercises’. The Society looked on the text as central to ‘our way of proceeding’: a characteristic phrase for all Jesuit activities that adroitly avoided defining for outsiders exactly what this way of proceeding was.

That was allied to another characteristic of the Society: discretion about its original inspiration, amid some very risky politics in the Counter-Reformation Church. Since the Jesuits had emerged out of that multiform Italian movement of spiritual energy, the Spirituali, their work could easily have been destroyed when conservative churchmen rallied by the Neapolitan cardinal Giampietro Carafa systematically crushed the Spirituali and drove many of them into Protestant exile in the 1540s. In 1542 Carafa went on to head a new central instrument of repression and uniformity, the Roman Inquisition, and, even more disastrously for the Society, he became Pope Paul IV in 1555. He was a good hater, Jesuits, Spaniards and Jews being at the top of his list. Even after he died in 1559 (to widespread relief), his admirers continued the hostility, particularly through the Roman Inquisition. Massimo Firpo, scholar par excellence of religious dissidence in 16th-century Italy, once pointed me to a curious feature of Ignatius’s voluminous surviving correspondence: almost exclusively it concerns matters of business. One would find it difficult to see from the contents what spiritual qualities singled out as a saint the author of that key text of Catholic spirituality, the Exercises. The silence indicates a huge missing body of letters. Evidently an efficiently comprehensive hand, probably in the 1560s, refashioned the early years of the Society by deleting large portions of the story.

What​ was this Society for which Pope Paul III provided a charter? It was not a religious order, though it is often styled as such, including by the translator of Friedrich’s book. Its members were neither monks nor friars. Its self-descriptor as a Societas aligned it with the ‘companies’ or devotional confraternities of priests and laity in late medieval Italy, a specialist form of guild whose members gathered to pray and undertake charitable works (frequently to help victims of that late medieval scourge, syphilis). The Jesuits’ central activity of preaching imitated the chief work of the orders of friars and, like the friars, they targeted urban centres and universities: two good reasons for Dominicans, Franciscans and Carmelites to resent them and feud with them for more than two centuries. Yet unlike religious orders, Jesuits were not bound to any daily sequence of corporate worship; they had no distinctive form of dress or habit, and they could be either priests or laity. There were significant areas of the Church’s life from which they stayed aloof: for instance, they generally left the work of the inquisitions to the friars (perhaps understandably) and Loyola strongly discouraged his fellow Jesuits from taking major clerical office as a bishop or cardinal. That’s why there was no Jesuit pope till the 21st century.

The Constitutions crafted by Ignatius and his circle shaped the Society’s carefully bounded ‘way of proceeding’ in its government: regional provinces across the world all reported to the superior general, who was elected for life by the superiors of the provinces and delegates or ‘procurators’ from across the Society. The reports were regular and detailed, and were systematically and lovingly archived. The Society was a network of communication, which did not merely inform the superior about the peripheries but instructed other parts of the global organisation as to how things were done elsewhere. It was a peculiar combination of meticulous centralisation and individual freedom of action, not least because a report from Colombia or the Indian coast or China or Japan might take more than a year to reach Rome.

The pope was not included on the circulation list. The Society spoke much about its obedience to the supreme pontiff, and the fourth and final vow of full members is of loyalty to the papacy, but really that loyalty was to the Catholicism that he represented by his office rather than to any individual pope, who might well detest the Society. As Friedrich observes, the papacy was an elective monarchy in which the cardinal electors did not include Jesuits; after all, so few of them became cardinals. In Jesuit eyes, the new era of papal regulation that began in the Catholic Church when the Council of Trent ended in 1563 applied to everyone but themselves; it would restrict their freedom and flexibility in promoting the Counter-Reformation across the world. Their Constitutions gave them an enviable freedom from other Church authorities, which on one occasion of particular episcopal exasperation in 1649 provoked the diocesan bishop of Asunción in Paraguay into burning down the city’s Jesuit college. Jesuits did not enhance their popularity by condescension towards monks, friars and secular priests who lacked their level of academic training or access to palaces and great houses.

Protestants across Europe also detested and feared Jesuit success. Tudor and early Stuart England led the way in inflicting barbarous deaths on Jesuit missionaries; the archetypal martyr was the spirited and multitalented former Oxford don Edmund Campion. Before he converted from Protestantism, he had mightily impressed Queen Elizabeth with his rhetorical performance on her visit to the university, but after his well-publicised return to England on mission he was hanged, drawn and quartered on Elizabeth’s authority in 1581, having refused all compromises or offers of preferment. Campion showed a steely determination to die that was a model for Jesuit students in the English College in Rome. As they came to worship in the college chapel, they were surrounded by murals depicting the horrible sufferings of British martyrs culminating in Campion’s protracted torture and death; the paintings were an agenda, laying out their own possible fate. Around the world, stories of savagery meekly endured multiplied, from Japan to Quebec. In Japan, before Jesuit missionaries died by means even more brutal than those of Elizabethan England, they carefully schooled their Japanese converts in how to survive without the Society’s presence. As a result, secret Christians were still there to emerge when Japan opened up to the world in the mid-19th century, sustained not by any priest, but by the memories of Jesuit instruction long before.

The Jesuit missions in Asia were among their most remarkable enterprises, not so much because of the outcomes, which were patchy, or even because of individual heroism, but thanks to the Society’s ‘way of proceeding’ that resulted in Christian Europe’s most creative pioneering encounters with contemporary cultures. In that respect, the Jesuits may be said to have prepared the ground for the 18th-century Enlightenment through their intellectual adventurousness and their frank admiration for the societies they met in India, China and Japan. They lacked in these countries the military backing of European powers that laid waste to the civilisations of the Americas (and the even more devastating effect of European diseases did not operate in Asia): they were thrown on their own resources. Japan was perhaps their most intimidating experience, after Francis Xavier and his companions arrived in 1549. At first none of them spoke more than a few words of Japanese and they found it dauntingly difficult to enter a thought-world and language system on which European culture had no purchase. They virtually invented the science of linguistics to solve the problem. Yet just as unexpected for Europeans was their admiration for Japanese culture: they quickly esteemed it the equal of classical civilisation in the ancient Mediterranean. Most early Jesuit missionaries were from a gentry background like Loyola’s; now they were speaking to gentlemen as cultivated as themselves.

Japan therefore provided a pleasurable new problem. What did Christianity mean in this alien world? The Jesuit answers came from first-class minds with an equally first-class humanist education and training in classical rhetoric. Just as the first followers of Jesus had taken a Gospel message to Greco-Roman society constructed on very different philosophical assumptions from those of Judaism, so Jesuits had to find ways of making their message newly urgent and effective in Japan. The effort was repeated in Confucian China and in India with Muslims and Hindus. In China, Matteo Ricci translated into Mandarin the Greek teachings of the Stoic Epictetus, because he saw that the Stoic advocacy of moderation in all things might appeal to Confucian bureaucrats; he omitted to translate passages in which Epictetus praised Stoics who kept their sexual exploits with teenage boys within moderation, though Confucians might have found them congenial. Ricci took up the practice of being carried in a litter, just like a scholarly Confucian, so that potential converts would respect the Christian message. Roberto de Nobili did the same in India to gain the public deference afforded to Brahmins, and he likewise adopted Brahmin dress and ritual bathing.

Other​ Western Christians distrusted this cultural adaptation, and when in the 18th century Dominican and Franciscan friars enlisted the pope in condemning Jesuit toleration of Chinese ancestor veneration, it was a major defeat for both the Society and cultural dialogue in the age of Enlightenment. Now the Jesuits faced their nemesis. Dissolution and property confiscation suited European monarchs, and after the pope suppressed the whole Society in 1773, it survived only in places beyond papal control: paradoxically in those parts of Counter-Reformation Poland recently annexed by Orthodox Russia, and in the Protestant setting of North America. Uniquely among the thirteen colonies, Maryland had always maintained a precarious toleration for Catholics, and the resulting quirk of history now makes a Jesuit church in Maryland – St Thomas Manor (founded in 1741) – the oldest place of worship continuously in Jesuit hands anywhere in the world. What’s more, one of the United States’ oldest universities, Georgetown, was a Maryland foundation of the Society in 1791, a time when the Jesuits officially did not exist. Among Georgetown’s endowments were African enslaved people and their descendants, a fact of American and Jesuit history onto which the Society has belatedly turned its formidable expertise in moral theology. St Thomas Manor actually preserves the building that served as its slave housing.

The trauma of the French Revolution and the papacy’s painful revival in its wake nerved Pope Pius VII to gather together the remnants of the Society, and he completed its restoration in 1814. Friedrich’s book is really about what is now known as the ‘Old Society’ as it was before 1773; his account of the revival to the present day is a fifty-page appendix to the previous six hundred, but his brevity here makes for a clearer and more focused narrative. It is a two-part story. The renewed Society lacked its previous wide-ranging curiosity and openness to intellectual exploration, and that remained the case for a century and a half. After the French Revolution and the Napoleonic period, the Catholic Church was much more strongly centred on the authority of the papacy than the dispersed Catholicism of the Ancien Régime; the Jesuits’ gratitude to the pope for their restoration turned them into a bastion of conservative Vatican Catholicism. The sense of flexibility and discreetly independent initiative that had characterised the Society before its dissolution faded away. Layfolk in the 19th and 20th centuries experienced Jesuit conservatism in the confessional of their parish church right across the Catholic world. The moral counsel and penances that clergy handed out to penitents were modelled on what was said in official manuals of penitential advice, and the most influential was from a Jesuit source, the widely plagiarised manual of a 19th-century French moral theologian, Jean-Pierre Gury. Following a steady development in penitential manuals over the previous century, it showed a particular rigidity and punitive precision in what it had to say about sexual pleasure, even in marriage.

Something more traditionally Jesuit re-emerged amid the wider changes of Catholicism leading up to the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. The devastation of Europe in the Second World War was a trauma equal to that of the French Revolution; it galvanised many Jesuits into thinking anew about the Catholic Church’s long-standing alliance with the political right. Despite misgivings from senior leaders, Jesuit pastoral work led many to conclude that social reform was not a left-wing or socialist cause but a Christian imperative, and the call to renewal should be heard as much within the Church as without. By the time the Second Vatican Council began in 1962, the Society was becoming identified with the forces impatient for change that unexpectedly became dominant in the Council. In the subsequent internal Catholic culture wars over what the Council signified – no change or great change? – the Jesuits have mostly stayed on the side of reform and further reform. That made their relations with Pope John Paul II (1978-2005) especially difficult, as he tried to do what hostile popes had tried before and deprive the Society of its freedom of action.

Then in 2013 came the election of the Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as pope, taking the papal name Francis – apparently not from the respectable Counter-Reformation Jesuit saint Francis Borgia, but the maverick friar Francis of Assisi. Old enemies of the Society would have scented a dastardly Jesuit conspiracy in this first ever election of a Jesuit pope. Others might have echoed the conspiratorial theme more charitably, seeing the Society stepping in after half a millennium to save a troubled Church in its hour of need. As so often, the historical reality is more enjoyably complex. Cardinal Bergoglio was not especially popular among his Jesuit confrères; he had sustained a complex and perhaps over-cosy relationship with the right-wing dictatorship in Argentina in the 1970s and 1980s, and after that John Paul II had seemed to support him against the Society leadership.

Francis’s papacy has therefore been something of a surprise: a systematic turn away from the conservatism of John Paul and his successor, Benedict XVI. It would have been premature for Friedrich to investigate how that has happened from the unlikely beginning of Francis’s election; the story is still unfolding. As events take shape, I remember words from a sermon last year at Campion Hall in Oxford; the preacher was the current superior general of the Jesuits worldwide, the Venezuelan Fr Arturo Sosa. ‘Do our contemporaries not fear that Christians and indeed believers of all faiths are just … an uncontained movement of reaction and resentment, furious at the freedoms and liberations of the modern age? … the Gospel is no spectre of retribution. It is flesh and bones.’ That announces not only confidence, charity and openness in the Christian message, but also confidence that the Society of Jesus will proclaim it. The ‘Old Society’ has returned.

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