American Jesuits and the World

How an Embattled Religious Order Made Modern Catholicism Global

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John T. McGreevy
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , May
     328 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


American Jesuits and the World is a superb book, deftly argued and carefully researched. Its thesis—or, arguably closer to the truth, its theses—are twofold: first, after its founding by Ignatius Loyola in the 16th century, the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) made Catholicism the first global religion; and second, in the 19th century waves of European Jesuits, driven from their homelands by revolutions and institutionalized anticlericalism, joined with native-born members of the Order to work beyond its North American borders to effect “Catholic globalization.”  It is the latter, U.S. focus—aided by easy access to archives and the author’s linguistic capabilities—that shapes the biggest part of the book’s narrative, a narrative both well written and surprising.

Author John T. McGreevy’s “embattled” reference in the title refers both to the re-founding of the Order in 1814 in its much-diminished form following its suppression by the papacy in 1773, and to the waves of Jesuits from France, Italy, Germany, and Belgium who emigrated to the U.S. fleeing the 1848 revolutions. Precisely because of their non- (or even anti-) nationalist identity and spirit, members of the Society of Jesus were the special targets of the rising tide of nationalism that swept Europe in the mid-19th century. The highly rationalized corporate structure of the Order—in which annual reports from every missionary around the world were sent to Rome—makes for a wealth of archival detail that is often breathtaking. For anyone familiar with the Jesuits and their history, that mountain of detail is hardly surprising. The surprising element in the story is McGreevy’s carefully-constructed, counter-intuitive, and yet convincing argument: that it was precisely the Order’s emphasis on the miraculous and non-rational parts of their spirituality—their devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, to the miracle accounts that they popularized, and their fondness for the Baroque in building churches—that helped place the history of religion in the United States into a more global frame.  A further surprise uncovered by the author concerns the mid-century revolutions, when leading Jesuits sought refuge in the U.S. from a panoply of European and South American cultures, helping to make their divinity school in Woodstock, Maryland, the “best Jesuit faculty in the world.” Indeed, one might go further and argue that Woodstock College boasted one of the most distinguished faculties of any divinity school in the United States, regardless of denomination. 

Central to McGreevy’s argument is his canny observation that Jesuit opposition to “modernity,” at least in its 19th century form, was selective. While the Order resolutely opposed public (nonsectarian) education, a separation of church and state, and the idea that science and the miraculous were incompatible, its commitment to the construction of a dense network of Catholic institutions to “shelter” the faithful from potentially hostile influences ineluctably required critical engagement with host societies around the world, including the United States. Such critical engagement gave rise to a newer type of modernity—one that we might label “contemporary” in valence—with a profound commitment to transcending nationalistic loyalties in favor of a more global vision; an enduring passion for pursuing scientific knowledge—especially astronomy, the “Jesuit science”—resulting in an understanding of scientific and religious knowledge as harmonious and complementary rather than opposed; and an acute awareness of Christianity’s multicultural reality.

The regular publication of letters and books from missionary Jesuits in China, Southeast Asia, and South America gave school boys in Jesuit institutions such as St. Joseph’s Preparatory School in Philadelphia, and parishioners in the Jesuit church in Westphalia, Missouri, the sense that they were part of a global mission that transcended parochial North American issues.  It was this passionate sharing in the communio sanctorum—correctly translated as both “communion of saints” and “sharing in holy ideas and values”—that offered immigrant Catholics in the United States access to a much larger set of commitments and concerns. Thus, in 1855, Orestes Brownson, the most prominent native-born American Catholic convert at the time, insisted that “in America on American soil, the American nationality, if any, has the right to predominate” in shaping Catholic identity. Francis Weninger, himself a Jesuit exile from Austria, upbraided Brownson for espousing a nationalism that could “hardly be called Catholic”; after all, Weninger observed, “the whole human race is one nation.”   

As McGreevy notes at the very end of his book, the global orientation of 19th century champions of the papacy has an odd ring of familiarity in the 21st century: “that Manila now matters more to the future of Catholicism than Milan, and Kampala more than Cologne, is in part an achievement of nineteenth century Jesuits and their missionary peers” (219). This abiding sense of global vision that informed 19th century Jesuit missionary work was abetted in the course of the 20th century by a new-found interest in and demand for the study of anthropology by members of the Society, as well as the number of Jesuits who confronted the profound challenge of missionary work during the era of decolonization.

In 1948, Jean-Baptiste Janssens, superior general of the Order worldwide, wrote to all the members of the Society asking them to pay special attention to the “push toward independence” undertaken by “people of color” in any works sponsored by the Order (218). It was thus not an accident that a Belgian Jesuit coined the term “inculturate,” a word that became “talismanic” for all missionaries seeking to move away from the model of soul-by-soul conversion and in the direction of a model seeking to “inculturate” Catholicism into the local customs and cultures of indigenous peoples.

From McGreevy’s point of view, Catholicism hardly “backed” into a global identity in the 21st century. A number of individuals and groups, starting in the 19th century, all but guaranteed that this would be the case. And American members of the Society of Jesus—themselves from many cultures and language groups—stood in the forefront of that movement.     

This is an elegantly written and narrated study of an aspect of Jesuit history that scholars of American religion, of the North American foreign mission enterprise, and of Catholic institutional and social history will need to read.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Mark S. Massa, S.J. is Professor of Church History at Boston College.

Date of Review: 
August 22, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John T. McGreevy is dean of the College of Arts and Letters and professor of history at the University of Notre Dame. His books include Catholicism and American Freedom: A History. He lives in South Bend, Indiana.


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