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Issue Date:  February 11, 2005

By Jonathan Wright
Doubleday, 337 pages, $27.95
By Ronald Modras
Loyola Press, 346 pages, $6.95
Men for others

Two books tell the history, trials and successes of the Jesuits


A student in my graduate journalism class at New York University asked me if Jesuits were Catholics.

At St. Peter’s College, I have my theology class interview the Jesuits in the community, but in the secular atmosphere of NYU, I wear my priesthood lightly and wait for an opportunity to say more about my other life.

God’s Soldiers, by British historian Jonathan Wright, is welcome as a fresh look at the Society of Jesus by a non-Jesuit who puts the crises of the Jesuits in the broader context of world history.

We witness the battle of Pamplona (1521), where the Basque minor knight Inigo Loyola was hit by the cannonball that shattered his leg and forced him to reconsider his life. We launch the ships that send young Jesuits to the Far East and South America in the wake of Spanish and Portuguese trade routes, and to North America after the French, to die as martyrs in their zeal to save multitudes from the hell into which the unbaptized were doomed to fall.

We endure the calumnies of history -- like the story of the English stable boy who, under Jesuit influence, poisoned the saddle of Elizabeth I to kill the heretic queen.

We view the Jansenists’ campaign against what they called Jesuit laxity and the jealous resentments of the European nobility who pressured Pope Clement XIV -- in what Mr. Wright calls a “naked act of 18th-century statecraft” -- to abolish the Society in 1773 once and for all, only to see it resurrected in 1814.

A few years ago, American Jesuits used to joke about the standard America magazine editorial structured by “On the one hand this … and on the other hand that” phrases, and which concluded: “This bears watching.” In a similar structure, Mr. Wright’s often-used word is “some.”

During the great missionary expeditions to India, China, Japan, Africa and the New World during the Society’s first century, some Jesuit reports exaggerated the impact of their efforts and romanticized their martyrdoms to boost Catholic morale. Mr. Wright tells of the French Huguenot ship that in 1570 caught an expedition of 40 Jesuits en route to Brazil, slaughtered them all and tossed their leader Ignatius de Azedvedo overboard, still clutching a picture of the Virgin as he fell. But we know this only from the testimony of the one crewman who survived, whom the French employed as a cook for the homeward trip. Perhaps some martyr stories compensated for missionary failures.

On the one hand, says Mr. Wright, the Jesuit dream of Christianizing continents may have been a “pipe dream,” but, on the other hand, it was “a pipe dream with consequences,” a historical legacy where cultures met.

Respect for truth

In Ignatian Humanism, Ronald Modras, a theology professor at St. Louis University, focuses on six lives and one idea.

He sees the Society of Jesus as a product of the Renaissance, a time when it was assumed that good literature produced good persons. It was an intellectual climate that was more Christian than secular, mined Greek and Latin classical texts like Cicero for moral inspiration and inculcated other “humanistic” ideals such as developing the well-rounded person, dedication to public life and a respect for truth wherever it may be found.

Mr. Modras traces Ignatius’ conversion -- through reading the lives of saints while convalescing from his wound, to the spiritual self-examination at Manresa and Monserrat, through his clashes with the Inquisition, his years of study at Salamanca and Paris and the formation of his friends into a “company of Jesus” to serve the church. Furthermore, Ignatius was a “humanist” because he studied human psychology, particularly his own, applied it scientifically to the spiritual life and adapted his strategies to meet every new apostolic situation.

Then Mr. Modras profiles Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), the missionary to China who almost reconciled Christianity and Confucian customs; Frederick Spee (1591-1635), who defended witches who were to be burned to death; Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), who reconciled Christianity and evolution; Karl Rahner (1904-84), who joined Thomism, Heideggerean existentialism and pastoral concern to revolutionize modern theology; and Pedro Arrupe (1907-91), a Basque like Ignatius, who called Jesuits -- and their students -- in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s borrowed phrase, “men for others.”

Both books extol the Jesuit scientists, linguists, explorers and mathematicians and the astronomers for whom craters on the moon are named. But on political issues, Mr. Wright shows caution. “Some” say the commitment to justice goes “too far.” Alas, he concludes, this “bears watching.”

While both admire the Society, both see less admirable forces at work within its ranks. While Fr. Spee defended witches, another Jesuit, Martin Delrio, argued that someone who criticized witch trials could well be guilty of witchcraft. While Teilhard struggled to publish his discoveries, fellow Jesuits had him silenced. Among Fr. Arrupe’s enemies, a minority of conservative Jesuits grumbled that just as one Basque founded the Society of Jesus, another was destroying it.

When Fr. Arrupe suffered a stroke, rather than allow the Society immediately to elect his successor, John Paul II “handcuffed” the Society for three years.

In Mr. Modras’ view, Ignatian humanism offers a spirituality for the 21st century that can restore the credibility of the church, an alternative to the traditional image of the string-pulling God who operates outside of creation and is thus blamed for the Lisbon earthquake (1755), Auschwitz and, in a recent New York Daily News editorial cartoon, for the earthquake and ocean waves that wiped out more than 150,000 lives in the Indian Ocean.

In Ignatian Humanism’s most moving scenes, the author’s exemplars, “seeing God in all things,” lovingly touch fellow humans. Ignatius and friends scrub floors, empty slop buckets, dig graves and clean corpses in a Rome hospital. Fr. Ricci wins over the Chinese mandarins by writing a treatise on friendship. Fr. Spee writes that “it is better to let 30 or more guilty men go than to punish one innocent” -- an idea lost on a contemporary attorney general. Teilhard posthumously tells us that nothing we do is devoid of spiritual significance. Two weeks before he dies, Fr. Rahner writes to the bishops of Peru: “The voice of the poor must be heard.”

At the 32nd General Congregation, before the passage of Decree Four on the “service of faith” and “promotion of justice,” Fr. Arrupe warns the delegates that their decision will have “ultimate consequences.” He means their brother Jesuits will be killed -- and 40 were.

Which brings me back to NYU. In our last class we studied Mark Danner’s The Massacre at El Mozote, the story of how in 1981 the Salvadoran army, which our government armed, massacred a whole village of innocent natives and how our government denied it until the press exposed the crime. Danner concludes his account with the same army’s murder of the six Jesuits and their two women coworkers at the University of Central America in 1989.

I reminded the class that the troops blew out the Jesuits’ brains -- a symbolic attempt to kill the ideas, their intellectual support of the rights of the poor, for which they died.

Both Mr. Wright and Mr. Modras end their books with the same story. And many Jesuits and journalists have died for the same reasons.

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is professor of humanities at St. Peter’s College. His e-mail address is raymondschroth@aol.com.

National Catholic Reporter, February 11, 2005

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