Why Read The Jesuits: A History by Markus Friedrich?

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Why Read The Jesuits: A History by Markus Friedrich?

Edited: Oct 8, 2022, 8:14pm

This book was a challenge for me. I had expected something more chronological, a clearer narrative, I guess. I had also expected that it would be more critical of the Jesuits. The Reformation: A History by Diarmaid MacCulloch gave me the idea that the Jesuits were provocative and incited Catholics to violence against Protestants in contested places like Poland. This book was not a diatribe or a catalog of wrongs. Instead, I found it to be a carefully balanced topical history of the Jesuit order. Actually, I think the author went out of his way to show that the Jesuits, made up of individuals after all, entertained a multiplicity of views, counter to the notion that they were a monolith of one thing or the other. The author explicitly defended the notion that the order, despite its hierarchical structure, was often loosely organized and incapable of some of the conspiracies and plots attributed to it. He also mentions misinformation and even paranoia as possible factors for the disbandment of the Society of Jesus in 1773. As I say, this was not what I expected of the book, but it was not therefore unbeneficial.

Although the author at the beginning of the book claimed objectivity, there seemed to be a positive bias in favor of the Jesuits. That said, even given that the book presents the Jesuit order in a rather positive light, there are plenty of reasons to go ahead and read the book. Here’s four:

1) to understand better the place of the Jesuits in European intellectual history - the Jesuits were important in the early propagation of science, humanism, and philosophy. Their schools did much to educate Europe, when Europe did not have nearly enough quality schools and colleges;

2) to get some idea of Jesuit spirituality - how the early founders created an apostolic order, their core values, how they balanced, or tried to balance, action and contemplation, what their attitude was to the idea of self-annihilation, their attitudes toward mysticism and asceticism, etc.;

3) to understand the Jesuits’ place in colonial New World treatment of indigenous peoples - even though they did not have an explicit policy against the institution of slavery often the Jesuits took the side of indigenous peoples against forced labor, and they were critical in the early documentation of indigenous languages; and,

4) to understand the reasons for the order’s downfall - whether you believe that was a good thing or brought about through misunderstanding and misinformation - the controversies are all here - the charges of cultural relativism in missions, their pattern of being too close to the inner workings of power, and, in their later history, their opposition (not unanimous even then) to the European Enlightenment. Often the greatest opponents of the Society came from other Catholic groups and institutions, religious rivals, not society at large.

Regrettably, throughout its history, the Society seemed to ally itself most with traditional power. They needed the approval of monarchs to establish themselves in certain countries and certain mission fields, and those alliances carried over during the centuries of revolution. When the 20th century came (obviously, well after the order was reinstated in 1814), they sometimes sided with the fascists, viewing the fascists as being more conservative, and viewing the liberals as representing a more anti-religious spiritual drift. But even then, there were Jesuits who were in tune with the dangers of fascism.

There was a lot more to this book. Not being a historian, I feel so unsure of what I’m writing here. I took copious notes, read slowly, but I still have the feeling that I’ve barely scratched the surface of this book. There is still a lot to absorb even after setting the book down. I would never advise anyone not to read a book of this rigor. It was a smorgasbord of information. I believe it had a pro-Jesuit bias to an extent, but it also included and entertained a balance of perspectives.

This book was a backgrounder for me, a foray into Counter-Reformation religion. I would recommend it to anyone interested in a thorough treatment of the Jesuits, especially to Catholics, but also to anyone sympathetic to learning about the history of the church.