Reform Catholicism and the International Suppression of the Jesuits in Enlightenment Europe

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Dale K. van Kley
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , June
     384 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Dale Van Kley’s Reform Catholicism and the International Suppression of the Jesuits in Enlightenment Europe represents the culmination of a career of study of 18th-century French religious history, especially in relation to the conflict between Jansenism and the Jesuits. It builds off his previous works, especially The Jansenists and the Expulsion of the Jesuits from France (Yale University Press, 1975), The Damiens Affair and the Unraveling of the Old Regime (Princeton University Press, 1984), and The Religious Origins of the French Revolution (Yale University Press, 1996). As such, it makes some arguments made in these previous works in a more nuanced and, therefore, convincing manner. For example, in The Religious Origins of the French Revolution, Van Kley did not fully distinguish, for the late 18th century, between Jansenism and Gallicanism and the way in which supporters of both movements joined together. In this text, on the other hand, he clearly illustrates the way in which the French parlements united Jansenists and Gallicans against the Jesuits.

Van Kley, in this book, traces what he calls a conspiracy to suppress the Jesuits in 18th-century Europe. As he notes in the preface, “historians are exceptionally averse to conspiracy theories, and this one is no exception. Something strongly conspiratorial nonetheless haunts the story of the international suppression of the Jesuits” (xi). Based on the way he illustrates this conspiracy, through letters written by the key figures in each nation—and positioned strategically in Rome—the reader cannot help but to see such a conspiracy in his narration of the history of the suppression of the Jesuits.

This book represents the way in which Van Kley’s career took a comparative turn in European religious history, expanding the story of the suppression of the Jesuits beyond France. It is divided into three parts. The first part provides the theological background to the concepts, first defining what Van Kley terms “Reform” or sometimes “Reformist” Catholicism, a combination of anti-Jesuitism, Gallicanism, and Jansenism. Although Van Kley uses “Reform Catholicism” as his primary descriptor, I prefer his use of Reformist Catholicism, as Reform Catholicism recalls too much the discussion of terminology in relation to the Catholic Reformation by John O’Malley in Trent and All That (Harvard University Press, 2000). This part of the text also traces the history of anti-Jesuitism in Europe, considering the case of France in particular. The second part of the text recounts the history of the conspiracy to—successfully—suppress the Society of Jesus. This section is divided into three units, by locations: France, Portugal and Spain, Naples and Parma. In this, Van Kley highlights what made the events in France different from the rest of Europe, namely the effects of the Jansenist controversy that made certain players more reluctant to revive discussions of morality and grace. The final part examines the after-effects of the suppression of the Jesuits in Catholic Europe in the 18th century, especially the way in which members of the suppressed Society spread an ultramontanist ecclesiology as ex-Jesuits. However, in this section Van Kley also goes beyond the methods of history to speculate what would have been or what should have been done. He seems to be asserting that the reform of Catholicism would necessitate a “Protestantization” of the church, not recognizing that these aspects—like the appeal to the model of the early church—are also part of the Catholic tradition and some of them were ultimately implemented by Vatican II.

The target audience of this text primarily includes specialists in European history, especially religious history. The text assumes a knowledge of certain events—like the Day of Dupes in 1630. The text as a whole is a dizzying collection of names of conspirators across Europe of which it is very difficult to keep track if you do not already have a foundation in this period of history. Because Van Kley needed to introduce so many different players, each new introduction remains somewhat superficial. For example, he introduces Pavie de Fourquevaux in the context of a discussion of anti-Jesuitism as a “Jansenist deacon” (78) but does not provide any evidence of that assertion. Given that those accused of Jansenism denied the existence of such a heresy, this reader, at least, would have wanted more substance for such examples.

Finally, this book would have benefited from closer editorial work, as there are frequent mistakes and typos, including the mis-numbering of an endnote (note 126 for 129 on p. 147). Some of his more verbose sentences are difficult to read, necessitating careful attention to discern his meaning. The endnotes themselves show clearly where he dialogues with and disagrees with previous scholarship, but—alas—these are endnotes and not footnotes so one would need to want to see his sources to find this out. Finally, the lack of a bibliography is particularly concerning. Despite the use of endnotes, it would have been nice to be able to clearly see all the primary and secondary sources that he consulted for this work in a clearly scannable list, even if only to highlight the impressive archival research done throughout Europe to support his argument and narrative of the conspiracy.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Elissa Cutter is a Postdoctoral Faculty Fellow in Theological Studies at Loyola Marymount University.

Date of Review: 
November 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Dale K. Van Kley is Professor Emeritus of Early Modern European History at the Ohio State University.


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