David Mitchell’s “The Jesuits: A History”

“ ‘Religion is the most dangerous thing in the world. It is not little girls in their communion frocks and silly holy pictures and the Children of Mary. It is,’ he said, ‘high explosive, dynamite, the,’ he smiled at the conceit, ‘splitting of the atom.’ ”

 Burgess wrote this in his novel “Earthly Powers,” which was published in the same year as David Mitchell’s concise history entitled, simply, “The Jesuits.” It is not difficult to find connections between novels and religious institution—even secular writers are never freed from the spiritual oligarchy of their Muse—and time spent bandying interpretative comparisons between Mitchell’s work and Burgess’s might very well be regarded as time wasted.

Image Be that as it may, there is the uncomfortable reality addressed in the two pieces that many of us tend to gloss over. Religion is controversial, sure, but the most dangerous thing in the world? There is no mention of dwindling resources and a world population of unprecedented acceleration, nothing about global warming or solar flares or imminent asteroid collisions of world-destroying magnitudes. What is to be feared is the man in the cassock, and the guy with the funny hat.

Shortly before he received his death Burgess professed himself as a Manichaeist, which I suspect very few of his readers took seriously. Burgess, after ‘abandoning’ Catholicism, was something of a religious dilettante, cherishing the institution, symbols, and fundamental theology of Catholicism while giving up the Church, and doing very much the same with Islam, having once entertained the idea of conversion. His Manichaeism seems to represent more a religious sampling than it does a true and final belief. Nevertheless, Burgess’s views make an adequate excuse for Don Carlo’s dramatic and rather pessimistic outlook on religion: a profession of destruction and imminent calamity, rather than a focus on the inspired benevolence and sense of community. (I find Burgess a useful citation in addition to the fact that his review of Mitchell’s book in his collected journalism (“Homage To Quert Yuiop”) was what led me to purchase the history.)

 By way of contrast, one can turn to the end of Mitchell’s history of the Jesuits and read an interesting, albeit cautious, note of optimism: “ ‘what agent is more universal, more international in its character, or more adaptable than our Society?’ “ (303).

 What agent indeed? An institution with a name like the Society of Jesus could hardly get any more universal in Christianity. Adaptability is a bit more difficult to approve. Since Ignatius Loyola founded the institution in 1520, the Jesuits has engendered and maintained a distinctive legacy for itself unlike that of any other religious institution. It’s impressive, and also quite frightening. Mitchel’s history abounds with stories of young members eager to receive martyrdom, or who self-flagellate with prideful eagerness. “The essential thing, the Jesuit thing,” a brother said, “is always to confess Christ before men…the blood of the martyrs is the seed of vocations” (298).

 Whether voluntary suffering-as-penance constitutes ultimate humility is not debated (however, an argument could be made that, although Christ humbled himself before the world on the cross, it is something of a perversion to confess Christ’s suffering before men rather than Christ himself). Mitchell does not make it is prerogative to convert readers to Catholicism and he certainly does not go out of his way to flatter the Jesuit image. His history, at 300 pages, is compressed and direct: it mirrors well a story Mitchell quotes about a Jesuit recruiting session from the mid 1930’s:

 “ ‘They didn’t seem to want us,’ ” the sixteen-year old said, “ ‘All the other orders were trying to rope us in with photographs of jazzy swimming pools. But the Jebbies just had a couple of tight little quotes from St Ignatius in a very stark pamphlet. We though that cool scene was revolutionary. (251)’ ”

 Unfortunately, the same cool lack does not serve well for Mitchell. His history, boiled down, is one of the many stories of persecution shared by most every religious organization tacked on with a few good quotes, like John Adams’s correspondence to Thomas Jefferson that “ ‘…if ever any congregation of men could merit eternal perdition on earth and in hell, it is the Company of Loyola.’ ”


Founder and first superior general of the Jesuits, Loyola received a holy vision in 1520 which led him to create the movement

 A reader unfamiliar to religious history may find the book informing, yet curiously enough, Mitchell spares few to no specific details about the institution itself; his writing wavers between either too much historical reporting and not enough analysis, or vice versa. We hear much about Loyola’s Exercises and see much of the residual controversy, but we receive no direct quotes from the text: the book speaks for an interested party, rather than to one.

 This raises the question: what audience was Mitchell writing for? It is difficult to venture a guess: “The Jesuits: A History” is either superfluously informative or hardly informative enough. What’s more, its numbers “27,131 Jesuits” (as of 1978) are hopelessly out of date, with less than 18,000 Jesuits worldwide, according to recent polls.

 A good effort, Mitchell’s book nevertheless fails to serve a significant body of readers, and seems to be meant for a very specific audience: institutionally learned, somewhat historically versed, curious about the Jesuits but not so much as to turn to a more thorough work. Malachi Martin’s “The Jesuits” might serve the reader better, but even that history shares the disadvantage of Mitchell’s of dating (1984). One is tempted just to wait for a whole new history, one that takes recent events: the ascendancy of the Jesuit Pope Francis, the election of the Society’s new Superior General Adolfo Nicolás in 2008, rising membership in Africa and Asia, into its scope. 

 One can only hope that such a history is not too far off.

Mitchell, David. The Jesuits: A History. London: Macdonald Futura Publishers, 1980. Print. 

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1 Response to David Mitchell’s “The Jesuits: A History”

  1. Pingback: Klassisches Jesuitentheater: ‘bad guy’ CIA Chef Jesuit Brandon & ‘good guy Bischof von Rom’ Jesuit Franziskus | Christliche Leidkultur

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