On making the world safe for Jesuits

A new book explores the Jesuit connection to world Catholicism and world problems in the 19th and 20th centuries.

“When your venerable rector pressed me into service and informed me in his masterful way that I was to speak this morning on the 400th anniversary of the Jesuits, I got down the dictionary to see just what they were. I had known a few in my time, but it is difficult merely by knowing thousands of Jesuits to discover their mysterious individuating notes. It is even true that I have been one myself for twenty-seven years, come Michaelmas, not a mere blue apron, mind you, but a thirty-third degree, right in on all plots—and yet, I feel that something must have eluded me.”

—Robert I. Gannon, SJ, “The Jesuit Enigma,” 1940 [1]

“The triumph of this outward vision (found in Gaudium et Spes) is well-known. With it came obscurity for the subjects of this book. After all, Jesuits focused on the building of Catholic institutions, promoting devotion to the Sacred Heart, defending papal infallibility, and writing miracle accounts seemed out of step with the conciliar ethos—a detour from the theological road leading to 1960. Now (2016) they seem in some ways less alien. The Catholic challenge as understood by the nineteenth-century Jesuits—how to sustain religious faith in a diasporic community—is acute in the twenty-first century not just for Catholics but also for Muslims and other members of global religions.”

—John T. McGreevy, American Jesuits and the World, 2016. [2]


The title of these reflections, “On Making the World Safe for Jesuits,” about John T. McGreevy’s fine book on Jesuits and the world, is playful. The title might well have been, with equal amusement: “On Making Jesuits Safe for the World” or “On the World’s Making Jesuits Safe for Itself.” The sub-title of the book—“Making Catholicism Global”—does not necessarily imply that Catholicism was not “global” in an earlier era. McGreevy mentions 16th- and 17th-century Jesuits like Francis Xavier, John de Britto, and the Paraguay reductions. Even earlier were the medieval Franciscan and Nestorian missions across the plains and deserts of Central Asia to Samarkand, the Silk Road, China, and India. St. Thomas the Apostle is said to have made it to India. Kerala is still the most Catholic of the Indian states.

All of this “global talk” is, in some sense, a response to the admonition, at the end of Matthew and Mark, evidently intended for Christians of all time, to “go forth and teach all nations, baptizing them….” It also has much to do with the Jesuit understanding of “the poor old liberal arts,” as Father Gannon once called them,[3] with their Greek and Roman philosophical and literary origins. These classics implied, as did Scripture, that a universal culture, one based on truth, did exist. It was addressed to men in all the nations in all ages. But it did not replace everything local as if it contained nothing worthwhile in the varied experiences of men. Still, reason and revelation were not a major concern of this book. Neither John Paul II nor Benedict is mentioned, though interestingly, Francis is noted, as we might expect in a book on world-oriented Jesuits.

One senses that the word “global” increasingly has come to cast more ominous shadows. Apocalyptic concerns about global tyranny increasingly arise in different ways from modern ecological, scientific, liberal, and Muslim ideologies. Religion in any form is increasingly seen by politicians, judges, academics, and bureaucrats as something to be controlled by state power and world government. Suddenly, we find that the religious liberty, once famously advocated by Jesuits, is now more and more restricted and denied by regimes once considered “democratic.” This was a possibility, for those still fortunate enough to read him, already envisioned by Aristotle. Religion itself, particularly Catholicism, is seen as an enemy of world order. This order is thought to be complete without religion. Or if it must be tolerated, with all religion subject wholly to civil laws and force. The Europe that was founded on the basis of classical and Christian culture is now organized against it, all in the name of human “rights” and “dignity.” Ironically, religious freedom less and less protects Catholicism to be itself.


In 1999, Father Cornelius Michael Buckley, SJ published a book entitled, When Jesuits Were Giants. The thesis of this memorable book recalled the remarkable work of French Jesuits in the 19th century in almost every field of endeavor and country, including the United States. Professor McGreevy, the chairman of the history department at the University of Notre Dame, takes up this same theme only now as it directly affects the United States in the 19th and early 20th centuries. McGreevy’s book is a thorough work of historical reflection, a delight to read. His approach is, as it were, from the particular to the universal. That is, he selects some five places and individual Jesuits associated with each to illustrate his overall thesis about the world coming to Jesuits and Jesuits going out into the world. One place that McGreevy describes is in Maine, another in Missouri, one in Louisiana, one in Philadelphia, and, finally, one in Manila.

In the context of the history of these places, McGreevy supports and illustrates his observations about the Jesuit connection to world Catholicism and world problems. He is also mindful of the universal academic tradition that Jesuits brought with them wherever they went. They considered that such basic education in language, rhetoric, logic, style, and philosophy belonged wherever they went. It reflected human nature as such. We still call this tradition, albeit with fading voices, “liberal arts” or “liberal learning.” Such is the education that frees us from or enables us to rule our own passions so that we might know what is, reality, without the deviations that our private wants often impose upon us.

The story-line in this book is not, mainly, about how the American Jesuits go out to the world. Rather it is about how and why the world initially came to them. They did not, because of these exiles, become merely backwoods preachers and school teachers. They became familiar with the vast world because they found themselves among men from that very world beyond America’s frontiers. Almost invariably the Jesuits who did come to the New World did so because of political or anti-Catholic situations in one or another European location. They found themselves to be exiled, often more than once, from Germany, Italy, France, Ireland, Portugal, Poland, Belgium, or Spain—all places, be it noted, with a common cultural and Christian background. Clerics, often well-educated and enterprising, came from these places in a steady stream. They in turn needed to understand America, not always easy for them. Without this anti-Catholic or anti-Jesuit antagonism in Europe in the 19th century, the face of American Catholic and Jesuit presence would be entirely different, if it would have existed at all.

McGreevy’s acute analysis of what seems at first sight to be out-of-the-way places like Ellsworth, Maine, where a Jesuit had the dubious distinction of being tarred and feathered, or Westphalia, Missouri, is set against the international and national situation of Jesuits in Europe and in the United States. Probably the most glaring thing the book did not cover, though it begins a bit later, is the ill-fated mission of the New England Jesuits in Baghdad. A college was founded there in 1932 and, with considerable success, lasted, with much fame, until finally taken over by the Iraqi government in 1969. Probably, looking back from our current time, no Jesuit project in the world gives more food for thought than this honorable effort to deal with Islam though education. But the sites that McGreevy does choose are vivid instances of his general thesis—Jesuits learn about the world because the world first came to them.


The United States, as we know, was initially settled by successive waves of immigrants, first from England, then from Europe. Only later did many come from the orient, Latin America, or Eastern Europe. Texas and the Southwest were once Mexican, a fact that prefigured the presence of Mexican and Latin American interest of Jesuits in recent decades. McGreevy often cites a 19th-century Jesuit journal in New Mexico called Revista Catolica. Until current persecutions and civil unrest there, aside from some Lebanese immigrants, few non-Jews came from the Middle East. The slave economy had assured that we would have people from Africa as part of our national experience from early years. The Jesuits’ relation to this issue, which McGreevy touches on, remains a lively controversy even today.

From the time of the French Jesuit missions in Canada and the northern United States, Jesuit relations with the American Indians have been and still are an abiding concern in Jesuit missionary activity and thinking.[4] McGreevy pays a good deal of attention to the various Indian tribes and issues. He even notes the tension that arouse at times in the Order over its most important goals. Were they education or missionary work among the Indians? McGreevy’s book was, I presume, written before recent incidents at St. Louis University with regard to the most famous Belgian Jesuit missionary, Pierre de Smet, when dogmatic multiculturalism and mission work came to be seen in conflict. This issue concerns the very thesis of this book—when one goes to the world, what does he give up, what does he take on?

Except for Maryland, the Colonies had few Catholics. This book concerns itself with events in the 19th and 20th centuries. It is filled with accounts of anti-Catholic opposition, especially against Jesuits, almost from the beginning of Catholic immigration into the United States in the 19th century. Many foreign Jesuits often did approve the new experiment of religious liberty of the First Amendment compared to the legal situations in their lands of origin. McGreevy recounts the saga of American and foreign-born American Jesuits as they try to assimilate and eventually justify this new doctrine that, in effect, mostly aided them in their work in spite of the bigotry they often encountered.

America was an empty land in the minds of the Europeans. The turmoils from the French Revolution on, with their persecutions and expelling of Catholics, and especially Jesuits, provided the arena from which European Jesuits fled to this country. They brought with them their various traditions and languages. They settled in and established American parishes and schools. If it might be put that way, one of the amusing parts of this book is how foreign and evil these good Jesuits were seen to be by many Americans, not just by radical Protestants and Know-Nothing Americans. At one time or another Jesuits were accused of almost every crime in the books from treason, to adultery, to corrupting, á la Socrates, the minds of innocent American youth with their strange teaching of classical languages and thought.


In the beginning of these comments, I cited a passage from Robert Gannon and another from John McGreevy. I should like to return to them in conclusion, Gannon’s lecture was given in 1940, on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of the Jesuits’ founding in Rome. Gannon references the oft-cited dictionary definition of “Jesuitism” as cunning, wily, and plotting. They sought, it was said, to take over the nations of the world. For someone like Gannon, who, as president of Fordham University, was one of them, this view of Jesuits seemed, well, “mysterious.” Gannon himself recorded the declining fate of the liberal arts tradition in Jesuit schools, though he hoped some remnant might survive somewhere in them. The whole drama of why Catholics decided to build their own private school system at such cost and effort is part of the drama of this book. The many Jesuit colleges and high schools that have flourished in America even till today are less and less staffed and taught by actual Jesuits. While still important, education, especially higher education, no longer seems to command the same energy it once did.

McGreevy notes that numbers-wise Jesuits in Europe and America, along with the respective declining demographics in these countries, are now much reduced. There are new men in India and Africa. Whether this relative decline is ironically due to Jesuits’ becoming open to what is called a “global Church” can be discussed. The cosmopolitan, global figure, whether he be Euro-bureaucrat, international businessman, media reporter, or Jesuit volunteer, remains rather like the “wandering Jew” of Eugene Sue’s famous novel, so much used, as McGreevy points out, against the “cunning” Jesuits in the 19th century. The globalists, it turns out, are men without a definite country, at home nowhere and anywhere.

In a sense, as McGreevy notes, Jesuit education with its universalist outlook provided by the classics did appear to make Jesuits seem to be men without a country, or better, men with a country closer to Plato’s Republic that only existed in speech wherever they went to present a humanistic education. In my own 12 years of teaching in Rome, it often seemed that Rome was filled with people, clerics and otherwise, who could not go home again because they had lost the sense of their own country. Yet they were not in Rome to become Italians and did not do so. I suspect many large cities have become this way in more recent years.

In McGreevy’s view, the type of education and work that the Jesuits did in founding schools, running parishes, and fostering devotions became out-of-date after Vatican II. Emphasis shifted from dogmatic and sacramental Catholicism to a more political and social agenda, from the next world to this, if it might be put that way. “Causes” for the poor or oppressed, not science, economics, and doctrine, became more central to Jesuit training and missionary outlooks. This understanding seems to be the import of the sub-title of the book. I think McGreevy is probably right in this interpretation. All the careful spiritual and philosophic works of the past seem irrelevant in comparison of the drama of ever-changing world issues—“the theological road leading to the 1960s,” as McGreevy put it.

But I am also impressed that McGreevy sensed, though fleetingly, that suddenly all the work comprising the “global Church” notion is back-firing in the light of more current events. Abortion continues unabated. Religious freedom is more and more denied by the absolute democratic and relativist state. Catholics are, step by step, required to conform to this relativism or be excluded from schools, hospitals, professions, government, and even business. “Hate-language” legislation, a situation more pronounced for now in Canada and Europe, is used to prevent Catholics from publicly even stating their view of a moral order based on Scripture and reason. Instead of preparing Catholics to be active in a world closing itself off from them, it looks like Catholics had best ready themselves for rejection by the world, at least if they do not simply conform to it, which many do.

Catholicism now faces a form of politicized religion or humanitarianism that does not contain notions of original sin, sexual and family ethics, or the limited nation as opposed to the bureaucrats that often run it, a theme that Pierre Manent has so carefully stressed.[5] The issue now is, as McGreevy hints, how to “sustain the faith” in a hostile community, not unlike the experience of the Poles under the yokes of both the Nazis and the communists. Only now the enemy is more insidious, more “scientific,” more soul-demanding. McGreevy does not develop these last points. But his noting them in the light of his own thesis is both welcome and insightful.

American Jesuits and the World started out to explain how the world came to Jesuits in the United States. It ends with the question of what “world” the Jesuits, and the rest of our people, see in front of them to work for. Will it be a fully man-made world or a world in which revelation remains the best indication of what man is, of what is reasonable?

Probably the best brief guide we have through all of these conflicting currents is still Benedict XVI’s “Regensburg Lecture.” It is the briefest explanation for both Jesuits and the world of what is at stake in our time. It begins with why Paul first went to Macedonia and not to the Orient or the barbarians. It ends with why modern thought, through voluntarism, is a systematic declination from the good first in thought, then in deed—something we are seeing before our very eyes if would but look. It is this latter world that McGreevy hints might show us the value of what earlier Jesuits thought that they were doing in teaching, building institutions, administering the sacraments, the Spiritual Exercises, in knowing what does and what does not help the poor, in what is and what is not the truth.

So is the world now “safe” for Jesuits? As long as we have free will, nothing is really “safe.” In John’s Epistle, we read: “Do not love the world or the things of the world.” The same John told us that the Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us. McGreevy’s good book, I think, gives us ample occasion to reflect on the meanings of the world and of our place in it.



[1] Robert I. Gannon, S. J., “’The Jesuit Enigma’: Address to the Annual Communion Breakfast of the Sons of Xavier, March 10, 1940,: After Black Coffee (New York: Declan X. McMullen, 1946), 161.

[2] John T. McGreevy, American Jesuits  and the World: How an Embattled Religious Order Made Modern Catholicism Global (Princeton: Princeton University Press 2016). 216.

[3] Robert I. Gannon, S. J., The Poor Old Liberal Arts (New York: Farrar 1961).

[4] See Francis Paul Prucha, S. J., The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indians (Lincoln: University  of Nebraska Press 1986).

[5] See Pierre Manent, Seeing Things Politically (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press 2016).

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About James V. Schall, S.J. 180 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019) taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until retiring in 2012. He was the author of over thirty books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His of his last books included On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018) and The Politics of Heaven and Hell: Christian Themes from Classical, Medieval, and Modern Political Philosophy (Ignatius, 2020).