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New history of the Jesuits is a readable and detailed magnum opus

Markus Friedrich invites the reader to appreciate why the Jesuits have been the objects of both admiration and animosity, and to appreciate how, from the earliest members up to Pope Francis, Jesuits have adapted themselves to fit into the border lines of history.

Saint Ignatius of Loyola giving Pope Paul III the Rule of the Jesuits, in an anonymous 16th-century painting.

In the Prologue of The Jesuits: A History, the author, a recognized authority of Modern European History, advises the reader: “This is a historical book,” written with “nothing to defend or attack.” It is a book of “historical processes, not religious truths.” He amplifies this premise in relatively small type on nearly 900 pages, inviting the reader to appreciate why the Jesuits have been the objects of both admiration and animosity, and to appreciate how, from the earliest members up to Pope Francis, Jesuits have adapted themselves to fit into the border lines of history. Any reader desirous to pick up on further amplification of the author’s assertions has about 2,500 endnotes and more than 70 pages of works cited to aid him in his endeavors.

However scholarly this magnum opus is, it can be read and enjoyed by anyone interested in the topic. The translation from the German original, published in 2016, is exceptionally gratifying, freckled even in places with American-English slang expressions. Then too, the organization of such amount of factual information is one more reason for the book’s attractive appeal.

Doctor Markus Friedrich begins his crafted presentation with a slight sketch of St. Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556), the founder of the Society of Jesus and the hegemonic model of its members and its future apostolic works. After giving a nod to his acknowledged sanctity and somewhat quixotic personality, the author briefly describes the spiritual conversations he had with some younger students (he was then in his 30s) at the University of Paris. He extracted the content of these exchanges from notes about his own spiritual, psychological experiences.

In 1534, he and six of these students climbed up to near-by Montmartre, the Mount of Martyrs – a paradigmatic setting – where they pronounced the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience in no particular organization. Four years later, they settled in Rome, placing themselves at the disposal of the pope, and in 1540, Pope Paul III recognized and approved their group as the Society of Jesus. At that date there were ten members. In 1556, the year of Ignatius’ death, the number was one thousand, and in 1750, the beginning of the Suppression, there were 22,589 Jesuits throughout the world.

The author gives a concentrated description of the essence of the Society in his treatment of the Ignatius’ two works: The Spiritual Exercises and the Constitutions. They are the epitome and distillation of the Ignatian spirit, the mold in which Jesuits have been formed, even prior to the official birth of the Society. The first is a booklet containing Ignatius’s organized jottings, described above, that were eventually put into print. The second, the charter of the Society, containing more than 800 paragraphs, was not completed until 1552, four years before his death.

An aspirant to the Society in 1540 would learn through the Exercises that he should be “indifferent” to whatever assignment he would be given because “the whole world is his home”. He should learn to be “active in contemplation” and to “seek God in all things”, while constantly striving for the “magis” (the more, the greater), that is, constantly raising the bar in his effort to achieve his own spiritual development and to “help the souls” of his neighbors in their search to find God, the primary purpose of the Society. Its motto, Ad maiorem Dei gloriam, AMDG (In all things: “For the greater glory of God”), succinctly captures these principles.

One might view the history of the Society as a triptych — the reviewer’s suggestion. The first panel would highlight what the author terms the First Society, that is, from its beginning in 1540, to its suppression in 1773. The next panel would deal with happenings during the course of the Second Society, from its revival in 1814 to 1945, and the end panel would depict the main features of the Third Society, that is, from the end of World War II to the present time.

Professor Friedrich gives a quick summary of activities of the first companions that seem prophetic of the future Society: in 1541, Ignatius’ roommate at the University of Paris, St. Francis Xavier, opened the Society to a global reach; Diego Lainez and Alfonso Salmeron were noted theologians who participated at all of the sessions of the Council of Trent (1545-63); another roommate, St. Peter Favre, “with simplicity and honesty” just walked around Europe greeting pleasantly all he encountered; Nicholas Bobadilla often clashed with Ignatius, as did another Paris companion, Simon Rodriguez, whom Ignatius finally removed as provincial of Portugal. During its long history, Jesuits would walk in the steps of these men: missionaries in foreign lands; theologians, teachers, men of influence in ecclesiastical, political and social fields. The Society would have many enemies, but none more devastating than those from within its ranks.

Friedrich also demonstrates how, from the beginning, the Jesuits had a less centralized, bureaucratic and complex structure than the older religious orders. This factor gave them greater leverage to accommodate to political, cultural, individual and economic changes of the fast-developing world, enabling them to “help souls” in divergent ways.

Soon after arriving in Rome, Ignatius became convinced the magis way to “help a greater number of souls” was through higher education. The author’s description of the development of Jesuits colleges and the accompanying Ratio studiorum (study plan) is engrossing. In 1556, the year of Ignatius’ death, there were 50 colleges in Europe, and in 1574 there were 163, and in 1710 there were 612 Jesuit colleges world-wide, one of the largest networks in history, a major force in the creation of European civilization that has never been adequately evaluated.

Jesuits committed to “help the souls” of students in the colleges had to be teachers and fund raisers, providers of knowledge, food and lodging for their tuition-room-and-board-free charges. Where could they find better could funds – lands, endowments, cash – than among the ruling class? Result: more than a few Jesuits became spiritual advisers to the local ruler, who was not averse to seeking counsel from his spiritual father on political matters and the appointment of bishops and abbots. This policy had repercussions. Louis XIV of France, once sought and found support from his Jesuit confessor in a grievance with the pope and Jesuit general.

As teachers, Jesuits followed the Ratio studiorum of 1599, an academic plan of studies based on the curriculum of the University of Paris and expanded by the Jesuit ideal. It was not limited to academics. The author gives coverage to Marian Congregations, whose rules plotted out the way for future lay men to grow in Jesuit spirituality. Theatre arts had an important formative roll in the formation of students. Jesuits became specialists in painting, architecture, rhetoric, philosophy and theology, and they integrated new discoveries in astronomy, botany, mechanics and electricity into the curriculum.

Dissemination of information was another feature Jesuits saw was an open door to the magis. Ignatius urged his men to write frequent letters to inform a wide audience of their work in places where they had been assigned to “help souls”. Information tracts was the Society’s “way of proceeding”. Description of native peoples, the fauna and flora of foreign places along with missionary challenges became popular reading material throughout Europe. Result: more vocations to the Society; greater funding for the missions, advancement of scientific knowledge and challenges for trading and colonizing. Some Jesuits became pioneers of scientific studies during the long Enlightenment Age. St. Robert Bellarmine was an advocate of Galileo as well as advocate of restricted power of secular and religious rulers. Also, the connections between Jesuits in various parts of the world encouraged a type of supply and demand economy.

One of Ignatius’ companions, Diego Lainez, is considered “the first military chaplain”. He traveled with the Spanish army in battles against the Muslims in North Africa, and Jeronimo Nadal accompanied the Spanish army from Sicily to North Africa in 1551. Jesuits were chaplains at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571 and in 1588, there were twenty-three Jesuit chaplains aboard ships of the Armada, fifteen of whom lost their lives. Richelieu ordered that six Jesuits were to be assigned to every large French army. They also became traveling catechists, noted preachers, and dispensers of the sacraments to the large body of asserted, but not convinced, Catholics throughout so-called Catholic Europe.

With all of this success, how did the term “jesuitical” come to mean casuistic, clever, but of unsounding reasoning? The author devotes pages to this question about the Jesuits’ system of assessing guilt in moral matters to individual cases (casus). Casuistry was embedded in the ratio as early as 1559, and credited for the rise of confessions throughout western Europe. It was an important item during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in confrontations with rigorists, Jansenists, opposers of the Chinese Rites, and movements that combined religious and political issues together. The solution? Elimination of the Society, an event that occurred in 1773 when Clement XIV suppressed it throughout the world.

If the first Society came into the world like the proverbial lion, the second Society, like an iconic lamb, entered where political, cultural, religious, and social realities were being developed that were far different from those which the First Society had to face. The “new” Jesuits had no historical knowledge how to respond to budding cells that would sprout into modernism, socialism, fascism and communism. In some European countries Jesuits experienced more expulsions, after-shocks that caused their missions outside Europe to expand concomitantly. The generals in Rome stressed the importance of making the Exercises more available. The Ratio studiorum was recalibrated to adapt to the times, while the principles of Thomism were re-enforced.

The author recounts an event that witnesses better than words to the culture that eventually enveloped the Second Society. An important, well-respected Jesuit, who directed General Franco in making the Spiritual Exercises after the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), joined the Communist party in 1943.

The reason was that prior ways of bringing Christ to others were ineffective in dealing with the “neo-pagans”, the urbanized proletariat throughout Europe that had been victimized by capitalism and urbanization. Social injustice hampered the divine plan of divine justice. Such was a partial setting in 1962 for the beginning of Vatican II and of the Third Society of Jesus. The 1960s was the period when the sexual revolution shifted into high gear and interpretations of celibacy and obedience collided among the rank and file Jesuits, adding to tensions that resulted from the transformation of community life.

Pedro Arrupe was elected general of the Society in 1965. His mandate was to reform the Third Society in the light of the aggiornamento; to adapt it to modern times, modern problems. This meant to re-discover the “authentic” Ignatius. High schools were made less “bourgeois”; colleges operated with greater autonomy, eventually becoming no different from secular institutions; the tenets of “liberation theology”, popular in Latin America, and the “preferential option for the poor”, for whom there was to be “total immersion”, became the Jesuit translations of aggiornamento or “inculturation”.

Arrupe was a very enthusiastic, approachable superior, and he attempted painstakingly to guide the Society by trial and error into the modern age, but there was a movement among some Jesuits to remove him by force from office. His legacy is seen today as the basis of the order’s success, particularly in the third world. In 1980, Pope John Paul II was considering replacing him with a personal delegate. In the following year, a stroke both saved him from dishonor while enabling the pope to place the Society, for the first time in history, under papal supervision. Arrupe died in 1991, but his spirit invigorates the Third Society to the present day.

On reaching the end of Friedrich’s history of the Society of Jesus, one might be expected to have similar reaction as one standing in a museum studying the ossified relics of a dinosaur. According to the author this would be wrong. Despite plummeting membership and vocations to the Society in first world countries, the Society thrives in India and Africa and, in the author’s final words, it “can still be a major player in the twenty-first century.”

The Jesuits: A History
By Markus Friedrich
Translated by John Noël Dillon
Princeton University Press, 2022
Hardcover, 872 pages

(Editor’s note: This review was originally posted on March 8, 2022. An earlier version of this review stated that Pope Benedict XIII suppressed the Jesuit order in 1773. It was Pope Clement XIV, who pontificate was from May 19, 1769, to September 22, 1774.)

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About Fr. Cornelius Michael Buckley, S.J. 1 Article
Cornelius Michael Buckley, S.J. graduated from Santa Clara University in 1950, the year he entered the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits). He received a doctorate from Sorbonne University, Paris, in nineteenth-century French history. He is the author of several books, including When Jesuits Were Giants: Louis-Marie Ruellan, S.J. (1846-1885) and Contemporaries and Stephen Larigaudelle Dubuisson, S.J. (1786–1864) and the Reform of the American Jesuits. A professor emeritus of the University of San Francisco, he was chaplain at Thomas Aquinas College, Santa Paula, California for 17 years until his retirement in 2021.


    • Malachi Martin explains how they went off the rails in his book, “The Jesuits.” It seems the author of this book and the reviewer don’t draw the connection between the drop in vocations and the rejection by the Jesuits of orthodox, traditional Catholicism.

  1. Well, no matter what one thinks of “the SJs” everyone can agree that collectively, they seem ti have a psychology thst makes them want to be “a player” in the world.

    The disagreements are about what team they are playing for, besides “Team SJ.”

    Which calls to mind the words of Jesus, which might be summed up like this: “It’s about the Vine fellas, it’s not about the branches.”

  2. All good gifts come from the Lord. Jesuit’s have been blessed with intellect, the most able plumb Holy Scripture to aid all believers.

    Within all denominations or distinctive groups within the Roman Catholic Church (for example) Dominicans, Franciscans, to name two, strong believers are the backbone of the church universal. While some use their intellect to forge a new way however, we must all conform to Christ for He is the head. Christ is a sound guide, for the church is His.

    Without fidelity to Christ our path leads to destruction. God shows the way and gives sound advice to those who ignore the way. When we are in Christ we are given amnesty and are fit proclaim His majesty. By His mercy we are given salvation.

    Matthew 7:21-23 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’

    Revelation 21:8 But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur, which is the second death.”

    2 Peter 3:9 The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.

    Titus 1:16 They profess to know God, but they deny him by their works. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work.

    2 Timothy 4:3-4 For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.

    2 Timothy 3:12 Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted,

    Yes, dire warnings, yet God wishes all to gain salvation through the shed blood of Jesus Christ for forgiveness.

  3. “This meant to re-discover the authentic Ignatius” (Fr Buckley SJ). Arrupe ushered in all the swill of Vatican II modernism, which is why John Paul II intended to replace him.
    Perhaps the turn from the Church’s greatest, most devoted missionaries bringing the truth of Christ to the ends of the earth was lamented by Saint Francis Xavier when in Goa India restoring the faith planted by earlier Portuguese priests that so many Jesuits were in Paris engaged in intellectual pursuits rather than saving souls. For Jesuits their mission has morphed into mind game of presumed intellectual prowess. Despite the few good intellectual contribution the remainder has been an exercise in idolatry of one’s intellectual genius.

  4. It’s interesting that this review appears during the formerly traditional Jesuit Novena of Grace in honor of St. Francis Xavier that ends today. Although I am a product of that formerly traditional Jesuit “ratio studiorum”, I wouldn’t waste more than this minute of notice to them. The Arrupe Vatican II Jesuits are a collection of apostate and heretical sodomites and catamites who usurp the titles of “Catholic” and “Jesuit” while hating and despising their substances.

    • Concur… Jesuit pride in intellectual prowess has led the order into apostasy e.g. James Martin and the enigma in the Vatican

    • There used to be a commenter on another Catholic website that went monologue. Pseudonymously named “Art Deco” and no doubt borrowing from the description of the British Navy he described some orders as subsistent on “single malt scotch and sodomy”.

    • Paul, I agree with you.

      I attended a Jesuitical high school in the late sixties. The principles they espoused were admirable. Unassailable.

      But I came away from those four years convinced that the order was utterly hypocritical and corrupt.

      Today, no desecration or delusion or degradation conceived, advocated or carried out by a Jesuitical institution surprises me.

      I’m talking about you, Georgetown. And you, Fordham. And you, St. Louis, Gonzaga and Santa Clara.

      And, unfortunately, yes, you, present-day papacy.

      A*D!*MG. Not satan.

      We can only hope that the order dies out quickly without doing further damage.

  5. Fr Malachi Martin S.J. Wrote a lengthy expose of the Jesuits and their heresies beginning with George Tyrell and Tielhard de Chardin. It seems that the order has exactly reversed its Ignatian charism and even now their absolute obedience to the Pope leaves us with a pontiff absolutely obedient to himself and in contradiction to the Jesuit prohibition against holding Church office.

  6. Whatever they were, we know what they are-a Pope who is tolerant of everything but tradition and piety, like Light Shoes Martin make a full throated affirmation of the alphabet agenda.

    Perhaps the next or some Pope will put a stake through the heart of the Jesuit cabal.

    Will no one rid us of these turbulent priests?

  7. The Jesuit history I’m interested in is the one recounted in Jesuit at Large, specifically, Fr. Mankowski’s Memorandum on the Drinan Candidancy and the NE Prov. Archives.

  8. I have recently read The Jesuits by Markus Friedrich. What a tremendous force for good they were,as many of them still are. What wonderful good they accomplished, what heroes they produced. As for why one may want to read the history of a dying order (if it is!!), for one thing it is to a great extent the history of the Church from 1540 on. Too, some future Ignatius may read it, catch the living flame, and be to the Jesuits what Armand-Jean de Rance’ was to the Cistercians. Do we not believe in the resurrection of the dead and the restoration of all things in Christ? It is not all over for the Jesuits.

  9. Pedro was a communist. That is all one needs to know his effect was deceptively evil. No evil is to be used to achieve a good end. Communist use evil to effect an evil end.

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