Review: "American Jesuits and the World"

by Michael Sean Winters

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John McGreevy has joined the global history parade with a book on a topic that is long overdue: American Jesuits and the World: How an Embattled Religious Order Made Modern Catholicism Global. This is a very enjoyable book to read as McGreevy paints five historical sketches of nineteenth century Jesuits, about whom too little is known and whose lives were fascinating, conflicted and important.

There is a fine opening chapter that looks at the rebirth of the Society of Jesus in 1814, the subsequent expulsions of Jesuits from various countries mid-century when liberal regimes, correctly, saw Jesuits as their enemies, and the sometimes fertile soil of anti-Catholicism in the U.S. and how the Jesuits epitomized here, as in Europe, a threat to rampant ideas of nation and freedom. These are the issues that will frame the lives he catalogues through the rest of the book.

McGreevy’s first portrait looks at Fr. John Bapst, the Swiss born Jesuit who fled his native country after the army of the Protestant cantons defeated that of the Catholics in 1847. “As Swiss liberals denounced the Jesuits, and mobs looted Jesuit residences, defaced church walls, and destroyed Jesuit libraries,” writes McGreevy, “Jesuits found their suspicions of modernity confirmed.”

Arriving in America to minister to the Penobscot Indians, Babst walked in the footsteps of an earlier Jesuit, Sebastian Rale, who had founded a mission in the late seventeenth century, and was killed by New England militia in 1724. Like his predecessor, and Jesuits around the globe, Pabst dedicated himself to learning the natives’ language.  He tended 33 missions spread throughout Maine. He also ministered to the increasing tide of European immigrants from Ireland, and France. In 1852, Babst completed St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Ellsworth, Maine, and “on the Fourth of July that year, the usual town celebration culminated with a procession up the main street to the church door. Inside, town notables read the Declaration of Independence, the town’s most prominent Protestant minister, Congregationalist Sewell Tenney, offered a blessing, and a local lawyer gave the day’s main address which included an expression of sympathy for ‘oppressed Ireland. Her only crime is proximity to England.’”

Two years later, Fr. Bapst asked the school board in Ellsworth to grant the public school’s Catholic students an exemption from reading the King James Bible then in use. The request was met with a series of threats and attacks, culminating in his being tarred and feathered that autumn. Protestant ministers, ex-Catholics (and especially ex-priests), and other Nativist agitators submitted articles to newspapers, started lecture tours, stirred up trouble: The Know-Nothings were in the ascendant and the idyll of liberty that some Jesuits has discerned in the United States, in contrast to the persecutions they had fled in Europe, vanished in a sea of anti-Catholicism. Within that sea, there emerged in Protestant circles a commitment to religious liberty but its meaning and reach then, as now, were contested. McGreevy writes:

This emphasis on religious liberty – the right of an individual to choose and publicly advocate one’s religious beliefs – meshed with a growing nineteenth-century conviction about the importance of the freely acting self. In such disparate venues as marriage (now viewed as a contract between two independent partners), civic life (where restrictions on suffrage diminished over the course of the century), and the marketplace (where economic actors made or lost their own fortunes), the individual was presumed sovereign. One of the most frequently made accusations against Jesuits (in Maine and elsewhere) was that a Jesuit “loses his individuality” through vows of obedience to his order and to the Pope.

The legal fight over the use of the King James Bible in Ellsworth went all the way to the Maine Supreme Court which ruled against the Catholic position. The Rev. George Cheever, a prominent Calvinist minister, could not be bothered with “the ridiculous pretension of conscience” made by Catholics because, to him, the Bible was “neither Protestant nor Romish.” With the rise of abolitionism, Catholics were tarred as sympathetic to slavery, enemies of freedom, and none more than the Jesuits for whom the tale of Fr. Bapst’s ill treatment became a source of encouragement.

Belgian Jesuit, Fr. Ferdinand Helias, opens the next chapter as he was forced to flee his parish in Taos, Missouri, and flee again from a parish in Westphalia, Missouri, all on suspicions of sympathizing with the Confederates. This is an old American trope: Catholicism and slavery versus Protestantism and freedom, a trope that profoundly shaped the founding fathers and lasted through the Civil War and into our own time. Also in the antebellum era, Lajos Kossuth, who had led the unsuccessful Hungarian revolution of 1848, toured the U.S., including Missouri.  The “tributes to Kossuth’s support of religious liberty frequently morphed into attacks on Catholicism” notes McGreevy. In St Louis, Kossuth warned his audience that in light of the “terrible history of that order [the Jesuits],” they might prove to be “traitors to your republic.”

Not all the attacks on the society came from outside the Church. Orestes Brownson, the most prominent nineteenth century convert to Catholicism, originally warmed to them and denounced their expulsions from Europe’s so-called liberal regimes. But, as McGreevy explains, the nationalism occasioned by the Civil War, which would extend through the rest of the century and beyond, touched Brownson in ways it did not touch the Jesuits:

Jesuit neutrality during the American Civil War seemed to him inexcusable. “The Society boasts,” Brownson observed, “that it has no country, no nationality, is at home nowhere and everywhere.” But did not the Jesuits possess civic duties, along with “all the rights and immunities of American citizens”? He wondered whether “the education of the Catholic youth of the nation should be intrusted to a society so destitute of loyalty to that it could look on with indifference and see the nation rent asunder.” The Jesuits did not seem “adapted to our age, and especially to our country.”

Reading Brownson’s description, we realize that not for nothing was one of the most anti-Catholic books of the century entitled Le Juif Errant. Religious difference was acceptable within Protestantism, and a matter of indifference to secular nationalists, but both groups got a lot of mileage out of the charge that Jews and Catholics never really belonged. In America, a land whose culture had been shaped by the eighteenth century propaganda of Britishness, the fusion of nationalism and Protestantism had been very thorough, and there was no room for others.

There was, after all, truth to the suspicions about us Catholics. The Church, and especially its flagship Roman order, the Jesuits, was a stumbling block to the nationalism of the age, quite practically in Italy, but in the realm of ideas wherever liberal nationalism and Jesuit and Catholic universalism collided. The schools became an issue in Westphalia, Missouri as they had been in Ellsworth, Maine, although at first the overwhelmingly Catholic town paid the salaries of the School Sisters of Notre Dame who taught at the nominally public school, an arrangement that did not last but which presaged the Faribault-Stillwater plan for joint religious and public education proposed by Archbishop John Ireland at the end of the century, a plan that would lead to the condemnation of Americanism in 1899. The concerns about Christian home schooling voiced by some public school advocates today are nothing new in America, just as the concerns of conservative Christians about the public schools go a long way back.

Tomorrow, I shall conclude this review.



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