In 1838, Thomas Mulledy, head of the Jesuits in Maryland, and William McSherry, president of Georgetown College, authorized the sale of 272 enslaved men, women, and children. It was a crucial moment in the school’s history. Mulledy had spent the previous ten years expanding the school, attracting more enrollment, and building new infrastructure. The proceeds from the sale went to pay off debts and further invest in the university’s growth. It worked: The sale secured Georgetown’s future. As Matthew Quallen, a student at Georgetown who has done much valuable research on the sale, writes, “The sale helped transform Georgetown and the province from a backwater area focused on plantations to a primarily educational, urban and increasingly well-reputed enterprise. It infused the system with long-awaited cash.”
In September of this year, the president of Georgetown University, John DeGioia, issued a formal apology for the 1838 sale. The statement had been two years in the making. Galvanized by the shooting of Michael Brown and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, the university community began to agitate for dialogue on Georgetown’s relationship to slavery. In September 2015, DeGioia established a sixteen-person working group on “Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation,” consisting of alumni, students, and faculty. A formal apology was the first in the list of recommendations that the working group produced in its report.
The working group’s report is a remarkable document, written with a clarity and moral sensitivity uncharacteristic of institutional academic reports. It is both meticulously researched and broad-minded in its approach, an example of what interdisciplinary collaboration mobilized around high-stakes questions can look like. Searching and transparent, the report also openly acknowledges that it does not possess all of the answers for how to proceed and offers an invitation for further conversation.
Besides issuing the formal apology, the university has already adopted many of the other suggestions in the report. It has renamed the buildings Mulledy and McSherry as Isaac Hall and Anne Marie Becraft Hall, to commemorate Isaac Hawkins, a sixty-five year old whose name appeared first in the 1838 sale, and Anne Marie Becraft, a free woman of color, Catholic religious sister, and founder of a school for black girls in Georgetown in 1827. President DeGioia has further announced that Georgetown will give preferential admission to the descendants of those who were enslaved.
Seeking to explain their actions and recommendations, DeGioia and the working group invoked their identity as a Jesuit institution. There’s something about the Jesuit historical tradition, they explained, which compelled them to pursue racial reconciliation. “The Jesuits beautifully and powerfully espouse a codified system of morality,” Christopher Wadibia, a member of the working group, commented. “If we’re going to grapple with our history regarding slavery as a Jesuit school, then we must do so from a Jesuit moral perspective,” he continued. The writer and academic Roxane Gay, discussing the Georgetown apology on a podcast, agrees that indeed, “Jesuits are different . . . This is the kind of thing that you would only see from Jesuits.”
In one sense, Gay is right: what the Jesuits are doing is unusual. When compared with other universities built on the backs of enslaved persons, Georgetown has so far offered the most wide-ranging reflection on its past, and more than any other university has clearly signaled its commitment to devote the university’s resources to pursuing racial reconciliation. Placed within a broader historical trajectory, the apology signals a dramatic transformation. The Jesuits have gone from one of the most outspoken pro-slavery groups in the United States—Matthew Quallen estimates that the Maryland Jesuits were among the top five percent of slave-holding institutions in the early Republic—to an institution that has emerged as a leader on thinking about racial reconciliation. If indeed there is something within the Jesuit tradition that compels the Jesuits to offer public penance, how would one go about defining the “something”?
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As the pre-eminent historian of the Jesuits John O’Malley has noted, a narrative of Jesuit exceptionality has followed the Society of Jesus from its foundation. “Much reviled and much admired,” the Society attracted both friends and foes, who were drawn to it because it had, in O’Malley’s words, a “profile that was altogether distinctive.” As a result, “Histories written about them have for centuries reﬂected this bifurcation: the Jesuits were saints; the Jesuits were devils.” Only in the past two decades “did an almost seismic shift occur as historians began approaching the Jesuits in a more even-handed way.”
The stimulating essays in The Jesuits and Globalization: Historical Legacies and Contemporary Challenges, edited by Thomas Banchoff and José Casanova, belong to this “seismic shift.” In telling the history of Jesuits, they do not seek to find heroes or villains, but rather, in Casanova’s words, they hope to find “some lessons, both positive and negative, for our contemporary global present.” The Jesuits, the volume argues, adopted a particular character because of their entwined relationship with increasingly globalizing forces. The early Jesuits were beneficiaries of the “first phase” of globalization in the early modern period from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries in ways that older missionary societies like the Dominicans and Franciscans were not. Peter Balleis’s article shows how the founder of the Society of Jesus, Ignatius of Loyola, a Basque nobleman born the year before Columbus sailed to the Americas, employed the new technologies of empire at his disposal to expand the Society’s influence. For instance, he used the printing press to circulate letters, reports, and rules. These new technologies gave the Jesuits an unprecedented ability to standardize education and centralize control.
The possibility of expanding throughout the entire world, in turn, forged a particular Jesuit outlook. Ignatius, while interested in centralizing control and the channels of communication in the Society, also quickly realized that the rapid diffusion of his mission required flexible response to local demands. Thus the Jesuit mission developed different strategies in the various lands that they encountered. In China and Japan, the Jesuits famously adopted a policy of accommodation, but as M. Antoni J. Ucerler shows, the Jesuits pursued cultural accommodation not because they had a “master plan or strategy,” but rather because native converts—such as Japanese warlords—pressured the Jesuits to adapt their mission to the local political and social circumstances in Japan and China. Aliocha Maldavsky shows that in Ibero-America, however, the Jesuits espoused a different logic: They established “a religious boundary between the Spaniards and native converts that, as such, strengthened and legitimated the colonial regime.” While certainly they played the part of ethnolinguists and studied local customs, they bought into Spanish colonial policies and only recruited from descendants of Spaniards, prohibiting indigenous converts from joining the Society. Rather than practicing policies of religious coexistence, as they did in China and Japan, they viewed the indigenous religious practices in the Americas as barbaric and thus in need of replacement with Christianity. In short, Jesuit policies were often inconsistent—even within individual missionary regions.
What was consistent throughout its global mission, however, was the Jesuit commitment to education. In his contribution to the volume, O’Malley argues that the Jesuits sought to merge three traditions of learning: the philosophical-scientific, the humanistic, and the Christian. “The Jesuits’ way of proceeding,” he writes, “created a pastoral, cultural, and intellectual style that to a greater or lesser extent, depending on circumstances, gave the Jesuit schools a distinctive profile.” Reinforcing their conviction in their approach was the smashing success of their schools. By the time of Ignatius’s death, the Jesuits administered thirty-five schools, and by the time of the Jesuit Suppression in 1773, it had 700 schools across the globe. “No such network of schools under a single aegis had ever been known before,” O’Malley notes. Yet as Balleis notes, the Jesuit commitment to education was not without its problems. While they purported to offer a free education to all, certain Jesuit colleges, like Georgetown, drew upon “plantations with slave labor to make their model economically sustainable.” Balleis editorializes: “Thus they let the justice of their ends blind them to the injustice of their means in a way that was standard for the time but that we now recognize as a basic violation of human dignity.”
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Matching the breathtaking spread of the Jesuit mission was the scope of anti-Jesuit sentiment in the early modern age. The essays in The Jesuit Suppression in Global Context: Causes, Events, and Consequences, edited by Jeffrey D. Burson and Jonathan Wright, give a vivid sense of the geographical scope and vehemence in which anti-Jesuitism emerged in the eighteenth century. From Spain to Paraguay, Portugal to China, conspiracy theories of the Jesuits abounded. Jesuits were accused of plotting regicide against Louis XV of France and José I of Portugal. They were also charged with instigating revolutionary ferment and heterodox ideas. When thousands of people were killed by the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755, Jesuits were blamed for bringing God’s wrath down on the city.
What accounts for such suspicion against the Jesuits? In part, as Jeffrey Burson cogently argues, it was the Jesuit propensity towards shape-shifting that ultimately led to their suppression. The same intellectual flexibility that helped them to expand rapidly across the globe ended up costing them in Europe, as they had difficulty defining their friends and their enemies. At times, they appeared to be pro-Enlightenment, while at other times, they seemed to work vigorously against the radical philosophes like Denis Diderot. In a time of heated intellectual battles, shape-shifting was not a virtue. Instead, their opponents—secular and religious alike—accused the Jesuits of intellectual hypocrisy. Burson writes, “In becoming all things to all people ostensibly in order to gain all for Christ, the French Jesuits, in effect and for a season, lost everything.”
The anti-Jesuit sentiment led to the official Jesuit Suppression in 1773, which was one of the dramatic events in modern world history. The repercussions of the suppression were enormous. As Wright and Burson note, “Hundreds of schools closed or passed into the hands of secular clergy, other religious orders, or the state; far-flung mission fields were abandoned; libraries were dispersed; and thousands of men (both priests and brothers) found themselves in anew, discomfiting category: that of the ex-Jesuit.” Many died as a result of the expulsion: Maurice Whitehead shows how hundreds of Jesuits, expelled from Paraguay, died on their voyage back to Europe. But as Louis Capuana argues in his chapter, the suppression of the Jesuits, while undoubtedly devastating to the organization and to individual Jesuits, also led to several unintended positive outcomes. As “cultural outcasts,” Capuana writes, Jesuits became “liberated from structures of approval and promotion. They gained more freedom to argue for the truth as they saw it, come what may.”
It is the aftermath of the suppression, and how the Society transformed itself in its wake, that serves as the subject of John McGreevy’s wonderful book, American Jesuits and the World. McGreevy begins the book by pointing to the dramatic transformation that occupies his narrative: when the Jesuits were restored in 1814, they counted only 600 members, but by a century later, they had 17,000. How were the Jesuits able to rebuild themselves?
Once again, the fate of the Jesuits was strongly linked to broader forces of globalization. In this “second wave” of globalization, the Jesuits benefited from the great migrations of the nineteenth century—sixty million Europeans, of which more than half were Catholics, left Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Catholic population leapt from three million to eighteen million, prompting American Jesuits to appeal to their Superior General for more priests. The Jesuits themselves were also pushed out of Europe: A second wave of anti-Jesuit sentiment began in the 1840s, as European liberal nationalists saw Jesuits as a fifth column, and sought to expel them from their midst. Many migrated to the United States.
Even though they were more welcomed in the United States than they were in Europe, the Jesuits nonetheless encountered a broadly anti-Jesuit sentiment in the country. As McGreevy points out, in an 1816 letter to Thomas Jefferson, John Adams wrote, “This Society has been a greater Calamity to Mankind than the French Revolution or Napoleon’s Despotism or Ideology. It has obstructed the Progress of Reformation and the Improvement of the human mind in society much longer and more fatally.” Throughout the 1850s, the popular press warned of the “Jesuit threat” to American values, and mob violence threatened Catholic churches and Jesuit institutions. McGreevy tells the story, for example, of John Bapst, a Swiss Jesuit who became the first president of Boston College, tarred and feathered by a mob in Ellsworth Maine.
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The memories of suppression and anti-Jesuitism from half a century earlier shaped how the American Jesuits responded to these broader threats. The Suppression had taught them that they needed to rely on the Vatican, rather than alienate it: Jesuits became one of the most ultra-montane societies in the nineteenth century, supporting the Vatican’s strengthening of its authority. The Jesuits also realized that they had to engage in a more conscious act of self-definition and double down on their own Catholic identity. Part of this self-definition included the clear delineation of enemies. As McGreevy shows, Jesuits disparaged the modern world, railing against the Enlightenment and more broadly, the liberal nationalist agendas that most Protestant Americans held. They hated religious freedom, considering it “condoning religious error,” and they rejected freedom of the press.
The Jesuit support of slavery belongs to this broader antagonism towards liberal nationalism. The Maryland Jesuit Joseph Mobberly, for instance, was an experienced plantation manager who, as the historian Thomas Murphy notes, was forced into “involuntary retirement” because of his “overly harsh” treatment of slaves. Mobberly equated his support of slavery with his defense of tradition and morality. “I like old systems, old doctrines, and good morality,” Mobberly wrote. For Mobberly, the abolitionist cause was “nothing less than a compound of Presbyterianism, Baptism, Quakerism, and Methodism.” McGreevy tells the story of a Belgian Jesuit, Ferdinand Helias, who flees Belgium because of revolutionary anti-Jesuitism. Settling in Missouri, Helias encounters the same anti-clericalism he thought he had escaped. Heinrich Bornstein, who had helped to found Vorwarts!, had re-settled in St. Louis and established Anzeiger des Westens, an important German-language newspaper that attacked the Jesuits as religious fanatics. Helias saw Bornstein as an ally of the native-born Protestants, and adopted a critical stance towards liberal nationalism. Accompanying his anti-secularism was a pro-slavery attitude, and during the Civil War, Helias—in spite of later denials—supported the Confederacy. Helias was not the only one. As McGreevy notes, more Jesuits sympathized with the Confederacy because of their fear of Republican radicalism. Only a handful of Jesuits supported the Union.
McGreevy’s book is at its best when teasing out the complicated relationship to the liberal nationalist milieu of the nineteenth century. More broadly, McGreevy is interested in the relationship of the Jesuits to the broader issue of “modernity” writ large. While the Jesuits were in certain ways anti-modern, McGreevy argues that “the Jesuit opposition to modernity was selective, not wholesale.” More importantly, the Jesuits, and American Catholics more broadly, created their own “distinctive version of modernity, askew to dominant currents but immersed in the same river carrying their opponents.” Fostering this version of modernity was a “dense network of Catholic institutions,” encompassing the areas of education, hospitals, and print. This version of “modernity” was hostile to “new notions of nonsectarian education, religious freedom, and the idea that science and the miraculous were incompatible. It valued the community over the individual.”
In other words, the Jesuits were opponents of democracy and religious liberty, which, McGreevy concedes, “did not equip them for the challenges of the twentieth century.” But in other ways, McGreevy argues, the work of the Jesuits in the nineteenth century presaged the global age that we now live in. “Their success as institution builders, along with their linguistic facility and a willingness to travel to all corners of the globe,” McGreevy writes, “seem oddly contemporary.” A Jesuit’s peripatetic career in the nineteenth century “resembles that of a contemporary management consultant or international aid worker. A newly self-aware and global Catholic community bounded his life and work far more than any particular nation-state.”
Jose Casanova follows McGreevy’s line of argument further in his concluding essay to The Jesuits and Globalization. Casanova writes
“Certainly one can easily hear echoes of the old Rites Controversies and of the anti-Jesuit diatribes in the following discourses: contemporary debates between cosmopolitan universalist globalizers and culturalist proponents of multiple modernities and of glocalization; discussions concerning the alleged universality, or the Western particularity, of human rights; calls for the establishment of an effective transnational global authority that enforces the right to humanitarian access to impede genocide; appeals for the transnational right to interfere in the internal affairs of countries to protect individuals and groups from their own regimes to the point of promoting regime change, or tyrannicide; and the assertions of the rights of refugees and immigrants to cross borders and to be guaranteed asylum.”
In other words, both McGreevy and Casanova draw a line—a crooked one, but albeit one that is unbroken—from the early modern and nineteenth century Jesuit experience to the current world that we find today. Almost all of the articles in The Jesuits and Globalization seek to tie the Jesuit turn towards secular social justice a coherent program emerging out of the founding mission of Ignatius.
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But a tension exists in this argument, which the articles address but do not fully probe. Some of the case studies in the volume suggest that radical ruptures, rather than a continuity with the Jesuit founding charisma, account for the Society’s contemporary commitment towards social justice. Maria Clara Lucchetti Bingemer, for instance, writes that the suppression and expulsion of the Jesuits from Latin America in 1773 meant that they were “absent from the process of independence and the formative period of the postcolonial Latin American nations.” The Jesuit adoption of liberation theology, and its adoption of social justice causes in Latin America, stemmed from the decades after the 1960s. David Hollenbach also points to the 1960s as a decisive decade when the Society, through its participation at Vatican II, began to redefine what it meant when it invoked the “more universal good.” The Second Vatican Council “transformed the Church’s self-understanding from that of a primarily European community to that of a genuinely global body.”
The most compelling moments in McGreevy’s book appear when he gives us a glimpse of how radically different the American Jesuits of the nineteenth century were from today’s incarnation. McGreevy’s best chapter tells the story of Mary Wilson, who leaves her Presbyterian family at the age of sixteen to be baptized Catholic by Jesuits. By the age of twenty, she joins the women’s religious order, the Society of the Sacred Heart, moving from St. Louis to enter a convent just north of New Orleans. Yet upon entering the order, Wilson falls deathly ill. As her body goes into shock, the nuns tending to her pray to John Berchmans, a Jesuit beatified a year earlier, to heal Wilson. Wilson sees an apparition of Berchmans, who touches her tongue and tells her, “Your sufferings are over, fear not.” When the nuns return to tend to her, they find Wilson cured, “skin unblemished, sitting upright and ready for a meal.” In the chapter, McGreevy brilliantly places Wilson’s life within the broader global networks of popular piety, showing how the invocation of Berchmans—an otherwise unremarkable figure who, according to McGreevy “happened to be the Jesuit saint of the moment”—reflected the broader circulation of devotional symbols. Wilson herself is catapulted into a brief moment of worldwide celebrity: Sisters of the Sacred Heart in Europe rejoice when they read of the miracle.
But Wilson’s case also illustrates how individual lives were often demolished when dragged into these global networks. “Life as a visionary,” McGreevy writes, “took a toll.” The woman was hounded: she endured intense questioning from church authorities, laypeople, and local Jesuits who repeatedly demanded that she recount her memory of the apparition. Some doubted the veracity of her account, others needed her testimony to advance Berchmans’s further canonization. Surveilled by her mother superior, Wilson destroyed her own journals, afraid that she was too inarticulate and uneducated to explain her spiritual experiences. Less than a year after seeing the apparition of Berchmans, Wilson was dead. One of her contemporaries, skeptical of Wilson’s vision, believed that she had starved herself to death.
Read in conjunction with the 1838 Georgetown sale, Wilson’s story reminds us of the destructive power that this global network of faith wreaked on the lives of individuals, and in particular the disproportionate burden that vulnerable people—the poor, the enslaved, women—had to bear. And perhaps this is another lesson to be learned from the Jesuit story: it crystallizes the double-edged sword of globalization. The histories of the Society of Jesus point to how its deep engagement with global forces helped the Society acquire its distinctive ethos. But that same history points us to the numerous lives that were destroyed in the process.
Thus the Jesuit embrace of social justice was not a “natural” development from the seventeenth century to the present, but one of many twists, turns, and ruptures. As Casanova reminds us, “the open and contingent character of world-historical processes is perhaps the most important theoretical lesson that one can gain from examining the Jesuit experience.” Even a brief overview of different episodes in Jesuit history, such as the battle between Enlightenment philosophes and the Jesuits in the eighteenth century, or the opposition towards liberal nationalists and the Jesuits in the nineteenth, highlight the radically different religious environments that the Jesuits traversed from the eighteenth century to the present. Perhaps what is most extraordinary, or special, is that the current Jesuits came out of these experiences committed even more deeply to social justice, seeking to atone for the sins of the past. For this, the current leadership at Georgetown—rather than its nineteenth century predecessors—should be commended.