Review: "American Jesuits and the World" Part 2

by Michael Sean Winters

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Yesterday, I began my review of John McGreevy's American Jesuits and the World: How an Embattled Religious Order Made Modern Catholicism Global. I looked at the first two historical accounts with which McGreevy sketches his narrative, noting how these touched on issues of nationalism and Nativism, patriotism and education, religious liberty and religious submission, issues that are still with us and always will be. Today, I should like to briefly mention the remaining vignettes and then ask if McGreevy's effort achieves what it promises.

The story surrounding the miracle cure of Mary Wilson in Grand Couteau, Louisiana, after the Sacred Heart nuns began a novena for the intercession of Blessed John Berchmans in December 1866, is one of the more fascinating in the book. McGreevy shows how the Jesuit network was quite successful at getting its own would-be saints through the canonization process, right down to the prayer spoken at Wilson's sickbed, a prayer obviously meant to convince Roman officials of the putative saint's intervention:

Oh God! Glorify They Servant John Berchmans by relieving our Sister, and if it
Be to the glory of the Sacred Heart of Jesus that she recover, let it be through
The intercession of Blessed John Berchmans, that hereby his canonization may be forwarded. 

McGreevy notes, "Berchmans happened to be the Jesuit saint of the moment, but the communal Catholic response to Wilson's illness, the sense that an entire religious community must rally around an ill member, was unexceptional."He mentions other times that religious men and women were at the forefront of fights against epidemics and illness.

Still, McGreevy, following previous Catholic historians, overstates the degree to which nineteenth-century spirituality represented a break from that of the eighteenth. He argues that nineteenth century spirituality was at once more populist and more sectarian:

The focus on Mary was especially divisive. Nothing more alarmed American Protestants than what they saw as idolatrous worship of Christ's mother, and nothing so marked nineteenth-century Catholicism. Interest in the rosary, the dedication of the month of May to Mary, and the endless stream of devotions, paintings and churches named in Mary's honor made her presence inescapable in ways that would have surprised many eighteenth-century Catholics.

I submit that this is not true. The late historian Fr. Charles O'Neill, S.J., who interestingly was born in the same Grand Couteau where Wilson's miracle occurred, led a graduate seminar at Catholic University that examined this very issue and which resulted in a useful book Preaching and Piety in the Time of John Carroll, edited by Rev. Msgr. Raymond Kupke. I attended that seminar and contributed a chapter to the book. There were plenty of devotions to the Blessed Mother in the eighteenth century, Corpus Christi devotions too. The myth of an "enlightened" eighteenth century set between a Puritanical seventeenth and a devotional nineteenth never added up, and this specific Catholic angle is just another part of that myth. It is true some of the founders were Deists, and that the language of the Deists transcended sectarian differences and allowed then, and still allows, the founding to be understood as a religious event. But the myth of an enlightened Catholic Church in the eighteenth century obscures, but does not destroy, McGreevy's critical thesis, that spirituality is "a subject usually treated in isolation from debates over community formation and national identity, but [is] in fact complementary to both." 

The account of Jesuit Fr. Burchard Villiger, a Swiss born Jesuit, and the construction of the Gesu church in Philadelphia and concurrent founding of St. Joseph's College illustrates the degree to which architecture and relics and the Jesuit style of education were all trans-national. The objections to "commercial courses"by advocates of the Ratio Studiorum mirror debates on college campuses today: Why do we have required philosophy or theology courses? Answer: So people can be truly educated. The Jesuits' fight with Archbishop John Ireland, the "consecrated blizzard of the Northwest,"never gets old and seems perennial.

The final story, about the role of the Society in the Catholic Church of the Philippines when that nation switched from the Spanish crown to a U.S. colony, is the most fascinating in the entire book. There the American itch to acquire an empire forced the Society to re-examine its opposition to nationalism if it wanted to stay friendly with the new regime, and the age old indictment against the Society, that some of its members put access to power before piety, appears as well. If you wish to know more, buy the book, something I strongly recommend.

As should be obvious, I think this is a wonderful book. However, the book does not deliver on the promise in its subtitle. It is not clear that the Jesuits, uniquely, "made"modern Catholicism global. How did the Franciscans and the Dominicans change with the development of the telegraph and the steam engine. two powerful rungs in the globalization ladder? The "conclusions"in the final chapter may be accurate, but they are not causally related to all that preceded. Instead of adopting a more liberal outlook and embracing ideas thought horrific only a couple of generations prior, the twentieth-century Jesuits could have launched a new fundamentalism and, indeed, Jesuits can be found not only among those who led the charge for modernization but among those who resisted. John Courtney Murray was a Jesuit; so, was Leonard Feeney.

This book put me in mind of the great John Boswell's last book, The Marriage of Likeness: Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe, which similarly delivered a fascinating historical sketch of an area too little studied, but it did not add up to an argument that anything like gay marriage existed in medieval Europe. Boswell did not have what he claimed to have. In McGreevy's case, the all-important "how"is not met and the "made"is not proven. In both cases, the shame is that the authors made such grand claims in their subtitles because the books are immensely worthwhile per se and the history surveyed does not need to add up to a tight conclusion or proof. The lesson I drew from McGreevy's accounts of the nineteenth century Jesuits is that life does not always add up into a tidy whole, that there are conflicting pressures and multiple loyalties, sound arguments on both sides of a dispute, and we poor humans, even those who have been ontologically changed and schooled in the ways of Loyola, all of us, as Paul said, see through a glass, darkly. Conclusions may or may not be available, but if history helps us to see how others grappled with the problems of their day, problems that attend Catholicism in every age in one way or another, it has done its job. McGreevy's book is a splendidly informative text, even if it does not yield all that it promises.   

[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]

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