Take a tinderbox and go steady with your canoe

John Bossy

  • The Jesuits: Missions, Myths and Histories by Jonathan Wright
    HarperCollins, 334 pp, £20.00, February 2004, ISBN 0 00 257180 3

Why is it so hard to write a decent history of the Jesuits? Perhaps the subject is too large; but people manage with other worldwide institutions, such as the British Empire or the Roman Church in general. Why would the Society of Jesus prove more tricky? Well, there is the long history of self-advertisement, which has sometimes seemed to be one of its special characteristics, and the equally long history of hostility and denigration; picking your way between the two is probably not the ideal method of getting hold of the real and substantial thing.

No problem, nowadays, concerning the archives: it is a long time since the Society ceased to make difficulties about access to them, and Fr Edmond Lamalle, who ran its Roman archives into very old age, was something like a saint. Archives are not everything, but where we have them they are our best hold on reality. And no one is required to start from scratch: a century or so ago, the Society launched a series of national histories of the order with the purpose of defeating malicious myth-making by expounding the substance of its archives and so revealing, in a Rankean frame of mind, what had actually happened. Nothing wrong with that, even if it made for a fairly plodding historical mode. Of those I know, the German (Bernhard Duhr) and the French (Henri Fouqueray) did a good job: they fed something gritty into their national histories and were honest about confusion and infighting among Jesuits. By contrast, the Italian history became entangled in the history of the Society in general, and has got stuck at 1565. The English had an excellent historian, J.H. Pollen, at their disposal, but sidelined him into documenting the cause of the English martyrs.

The adoption of Rankean principles in corporate self-defence was a step which did not disguise a Jesuit conviction, at the time, that the only people who could be trusted with their history were themselves. This encouraged outsiders, including Catholic outsiders, to be sceptical, and scepticism might be unfair and destructive (or it might not). But it does seem to evoke something about Jesuits and not simply about members of religious orders: Benedictines do not seem to suffer from it. David Knowles wrote a history of the monks and friars in medieval England that was instantly recognised as a masterpiece, but I can’t quite see a Jesuit pulling off something similar – though on a smaller scale John O’Malley’s The First Jesuits (1993) isn’t a bad shot. I’m struck by the fact that the most powerful contribution made by an English historian to Jesuit history, Outram Evennett’s Spirit of the Counter-Reformation (1968) was written by a person who had been through Downside and was a close friend and perhaps a sort of pupil of Knowles. There is something about the Jesuit ethos that is impatient of history as it is impatient of attachment to place.

Jonathan Wright is a young historian and seemingly an outsider, and his attitude to his subject is placid but sympathetic: notably sympathetic to contemporary Jesuits pursuing social and political justice, but unfussed by reactionaries, and agreeably complimentary to those who simply soldier on. I doubt if he was wise to launch his book on the proposition that ‘the myth and counter-myth, the competing caricatures of Jesuits as priestly thugs and Jesuits as saintly heroes . . . represent the marrow of the Society’s story.’ It leads him to spend too much time on long quotations from silly anti-Jesuit polemics which, unlike Pascal’s, don’t get anywhere near the bone, let alone the marrow.

This feels like padding, but Wright has put in plenty of honest toil. He is not an archive-man, and on this scale he couldn’t conceivably be one, but he is well and widely read, and has something to offer, even if it isn’t something of the highest quality, or anything that will refloat the subject in the historical mainstream. About the Jesuits’ missions in distant places, he says: ‘The one thing Jesuits almost always did in an alien environment was describe.’ This sounds right, and it is what he does, too: you might think of his book as a Jesuit treatment of the Jesuits. He starts, not with Ignatius, where visual description has nothing much to contribute, but with the glamorous Francis Xavier, or rather with his allegedly incorrupt body arriving back in Goa a year or so after his death in sight of China in 1552. Alive, he ‘stands on the waterfront bare-footed, black-cassocked and haloed, behind him a calm sea, busy with ships trimming towards the horizon’. This is an account of a 17th-century engraving and Wright offers it, I think, in a satirical spirit, but what we take away is not the implied commentary but the picture of a canonised Marlon Brando.

With Ignatius we get inward description, bold but risky: the vision of the Spiritual Exercises is ‘optimistic, rooted in notions of magnanimity and fraternity’. Optimistic? Yes, I suppose. Fraternal? I don’t think so. Magnanimous? It depends what Wright means. In the 16th century, magnanimity meant the impulse to achieve great things, and by implication things greater than those achieved by others, which has been a standing temptation to Jesuits, and one discountenanced by their more sensitive superiors, one of whom he quotes.

When he recounts Jesuits’ observations of North America we get some unmixed blessings: one expresses delight in ‘the sacred awe of the forests’; another, the explorer of the Mississippi Jacques Marquette, records a greeting from the Illinois which evokes not Brando but Rodgers and Hammerstein: ‘How beautiful is the sun, O Frenchman, when thou comest to visit us! . . . Never has the earth been so beautiful, nor the sun so bright, as today; never has our river been so calm, nor so free from rocks . . . nor our corn appeared so beautiful as we behold it today.’

Wright’s descriptive vein achieves something solid when he surveys Jesuit methods of accommodation to native civilisations. We knew about Matteo Ricci among the mandarins, and Roberto de Nobili among the Brahmins, but not perhaps about Jean de Brébeuf’s advice on behaviour towards the Hurons: be on time for your appointments, take a tinderbox to light their smokes, don’t talk too much, paddle your canoe at a steady rate. Such aperçus make you regret the Louisiana Purchase.

I don’t want to write Wright’s system down as anecdotalism, since that would imply that I had up my sleeve a key that would unlock the ultimate story. But ‘journalism’ would not be unfair. There is the spurious verbal vitality; the pompous flipness; the American system, now, it seems, compulsory among our own reporters, of beginning a story with the vécu of some individual who is weighing fruit in his greengrocer’s as the cruise missile sails up the road; and the tiresome practice of putting in everyone’s first name, good for web-searches but bad for sentences. If you’re looking for journalism, Jean Lacouture’s ‘multibiography’ Jésuites (1991-93) will give you a better deal from an old hand.

To get beyond journalism we need to go to places that Wright does not reach. A real history of the Society will incorporate contingency and turn-ups, and feeding these into the story of a body so self-conscious and so enveloped in its own ethos calls for a taking of risks. To a 16th-century historian, the case for contingency lies mainly in the distance between the original apostolate of Ignatius and his friends in Paris in the 1530s, and the theory and practice of the massive international corporation of fifty years later. There are various signs of a rift between the two, and it is not a new discovery. On the death of Ignatius in 1556, some of his early companions protested that what had been a collegial community had turned into a despotism that was partly the effect of ambition on Ignatius’s part but mainly the work of bureaucratic sidekicks. The idea has been discounted because its chief proponent, Bobadilla, was a bit of an ass; but it is given some credence by the very sane John O’Malley.

Another fault was detected by the eminent historian of the spiritual life, Henri Bremond, who noted with dismay the compulsory restriction of Jesuits around 1580 to the meditative techniques of self-examination expounded in the Spiritual Exercises, and the consequent suppression of contemplative or mystical prayer practised by Ignatius himself and many of his Spanish followers. O’Malley is crisp about this: the then authorities of the Society, terrified of accusations of spiritual libertarianism, ‘adopted . . . a cautious policy that tended to reduce the devout life to moralising calculation and safe asceticism’.

A string of other shifts may be mooted: the emergence as a distinctive Jesuit characteristic of systematic hostility to all forms of Protestantism, which had not been in the original brief; the passage from the intellectual anti-humanism promoted by Ignatius in Paris to the classical curriculum of Jesuit schools; from Ignatius’s model of conversion by immediate personal intercourse and arm-twisting (‘spiritual conversation’) to a grand or grandiose institutional activism; from the poverty of the early members and the Society’s rules, to a comfortable and endowed mediocritas.

How did this happen? Institutional drift? Of course. Too much snuggling up to the popes? Yes and no: the famous fourth vow to obey the pope ‘concerning missions’ proved a dead letter, but the subordination was pretty tight. Too much investment in colleges? Far too much. The effect of a man who was probably the second most important member of the growing Society, Jerónimo Nadal? I think so. Nadal, who might have succeeded Ignatius as general, instead became for decades a one-man Ofsted for Jesuit institutions. Like all such he had a theory, which was partly a good thing and partly not; Nadal was a radical activist.

For the upshot of all this, I quote O’Malley again: ‘In important particulars’ the Society ‘moved almost inexorably and ever more definitely into modalities characteristic of the Counter-Reformation as such.’ One of the consequences comes near to home. A generation of Jesuits came to maturity which may have accepted accommodation with the Chinese but would not have any such thing with European Protestants; they refused to distinguish between one sort of Protestant and another at a time when divisions between Protestants were becoming acute; and they denounced any adoption by Catholics of practices which might be thought Protestant. In Germany, Peter Canisius wrecked the proposal to introduce Catholics to communion in both kinds which had been asked for by Catholic emperors and princes and approved by Pope Pius IV. In Sweden, Antonio Possevino thwarted the attempt of King John III to bring in a liturgically traditional form of Lutheranism, for which he looked for sympathy from Rome. In England, Robert Persons and Edmund Campion dished Queen Elizabeth’s notion of constructing, under the umbrella of her intended marriage to the French king’s brother, a coalition between the conservative constituency in her own church and a body of loyalist and occasionally conforming Catholics, which would enable her to keep under control the forces of Protestant zeal.

Twenty years ago, Jack Scarisbrick said that ‘there was no obvious pastoral or missionary reason’ why the Jesuits should have been in England at all. I was shocked by this at the time, but have come to sympathise with it. His line was not the one I am pursuing here, which is that there were positive reasons for their keeping away, and that to call them political is not to dismiss them.