American Jesuits and the World


American Jesuits and the World
By John T. McGreevy
Princeton University Press – £24.95

The United States is the freest country in the world. You believe yourselves free in France and in Belgium; but be assured that you possess but the shadow of the liberty which we enjoy in America. I can establish here as many schools as I can wish, and no one will interfere with them. What is more, I could preach the doctrines of the Catholic religion in the most Protestant town, before an audience composed entirely of Protestants, and I feel sure that I would not suffer a single interruption.
                                                                                               (‘Education and Religious Liberty’)

Food for prophetic thought? Or prophetic food for fraught food? I guess the wretched Republican Candidate, Donald Trump, would the answer and a whole lot more (prophecy) besides. Still, each of this book’s six chapters (along with an Introduction, Conclusion, Notes, Acknowledgements and a section on Abbreviations Used in the Notes), fundamentally regale many a story of a revealing and/or a controversial Trumpesque persuasion.

That American Jesuits and the World – How An Embattled Religious Order Made Modern Catholicism Global, goes some way in tracking Jesuits who left Europe for America and Jesuits who left the United States for missionary ventures across the Pacific, might, in and of itself, already be (considered) mightily controversial. That assorted stories include the tarring and feathering of an exiled Swiss Jesuit in Maine, the efforts of the French Jesuits in Louisiana to obtain Vatican approval of a miraculous healing, and the educational efforts of American Jesuits in Manila, should punctuate the fact that author John T. McGreevy doesn’t pull any punches. Nor hold any back for that matter.

Indeed, these stories place the Jesuits at the centre of the worldwide clash between Catholics and liberal nationalists, and reveal how the Jesuits not only revived their own order but made modern Catholicism more global.

Hence the rather apt, second part of American Jesuits and the World’s title.
A title (How An Embattled Religious Order Made Modern Catholicism Global) many might readily decree, lends the book a somewhat inflammatory undertone – right from the very start.

In the book’s Introduction for instance, none other than John Adams is quoted in conversation with Thomas Jefferson: ”I do not like the late Resurrection of the Jesuits. They have a General, now in Russia, in correspondence with the Jesuits in the U.S. Who are more numerous than every body knows. Shall we not have Swarms of them here?… If ever any congregation of Men could merit, eternal Perdition on Earth and in Hell… it is this Company of Loiola. Our system however of Religious Liberty must afford them an Asylum. But if they do not put the Purity of our Elections to a severe Tryal, it will be a wonder” (1816).

Hmm, does this not sound somewhat reminiscent of what that ill-led buffoon, and now Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, has been carping on about these last few months? Especially with regards ”swarms” of migrants invading Britain….

Lord Help Us.

What this book does show rather well, is the degree to which history is simply steeped in myopic circularity. The sort of which – every now and then – is augmented with the kind of dire stupidity that is so evidently on display amid much of the UK’s current electorate (debacle).

Like mid-thirties Germany, a despicable line has been drawn in Britain’s sad and solipsistic sand; many an unfortunate kernel of which, can be found throughout these 223 pages. There’s a good example in chapter six (‘Empire’), where John T. McGreevy – who is Dean of the College of Arts and Letters and Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame – quotes Denis O’Connell, the one time Irish cleric: ”It is the question of two civilizations. It is the question of all that is old & vile & mean & rotten & cruel & false in Europe against all this [sic] is free & noble & open & true & humane in America. When Spain is swept of [sic] the seas much of the meanness & narrowness of old Europe goes with it to be replaced by the freedom and openness of America. This is God’s way of developing the world.”

As touched on at the outset of this review, there’s so much detonatory food for thought contained herein, which simply reeks of a certain, shiny, pristine black-kettle ideology.

”This is God’s way of developing the world” (my italics). Oh really? Says who?

As Sven Beckert, author of Empire of Cotton: A Global History has been quoted as saying: ”Global history is all the rage today, yet one of the most global institutions – the Catholic Church – has largely been ignored in this wave of scholarship. In this timely and brilliantly argued book, McGreevy convincingly shows that in order to understand the modern world – and modern America – we need to come to terms with globe-trotting priests with a global vision.”

We do.

On a final note, I do rather like the way the author hasn’t held back so far as the actual tonality of the writing is concerned. McGreevy hasn’t exactly shied away from assorted tough, literary values; as some of the quotes I’ve included I’d like to think exemplify.

David Marx


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