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Men Astutely Trained:
A History of the Jesuits in the American Century
by Peter McDonough 
Free Press, 616 pages, $24.95

In his witty and affectionate autobiography, Ours: The Making and Unmaking of a Jesuit, the Islamicist F. E. Peters has this to say about his Jesuit training: “It was a marvelous nineteenth century English university education of the type that Arnold Toynbee believed he was among the last generation to receive. It was as if we had been transported in spirit to the Oxford or Cambridge of seventy-five years ago, when gentlemen ‘read Classics’ in an atmosphere immune to the blight of German scholarship or the pricks of social anxiety . . . I regret none of it. On balance, I still prefer to understand rhetoric rather than sociology, and the diagramming of sentences still ranks higher in my pantheon of the practical sciences than rat-running or macro-economics.” 

Peters entered the Society of Jesus in 1945 and I entered in 1966, but I sometimes think that the gulf of scarcely twenty years that separates our training is more abysmal than that which divides him from, say, Petrarch or Shakespeare. When I entered, Latin was no longer spoken throughout the ordinary working day (one hour of English had always been permitted at recreation); numbers of entering novices had dropped precipitously; and the secluded institutions of classical training (called “juniorates”) so redolent of the river Cam had either been abolished altogether or had moved into an urban setting and emerged as just one more niche in a complex university. 

Peter McDonough has taken as his subject the story of this remarkable sea change in the Society of Jesus, and his book is as remarkable as the story he has to tell. Of course, as a Jesuit, I have a certain intrinsic interest in such a story, and at certain points I felt that I was reading a map of my soul. But McDonough has not chosen to weave his tale merely to chronicle the fortunes of a particular religious order during one of its most difficult periods. However fascinating that story is on its own, it also serves as a prism through which one can glimpse the wider encounter of Catholicism with the American experiment:

This book is not so much about the contrast between European and American Catholicism as it is about the interaction between Catholicism and the American way, as seen through the eyes of the Jesuits in the United States. My concern is with the curious encounter between two cultures that have much in common, made up as they are of layers of the pragmatic and the transcendental, but that also represent rival ways of life. My theme is the ambiguous meeting between a “nation with the soul of a church” and a religious organization with a commitment to the mundane.

This wider focus adds an especially piquant urgency to the volume, for at its close, McDonough notices an eerie parallel between the decline of both the Society of Jesus and American society. “The schools [of the Jesuits] worked to deliver the prize of assimilation without the loss of faith. Jesuits were proud of this educational achievement, but they worried about the forces their success unleashed. [It] smacked of an emancipation of the instincts that controverted Jesuit ideals of self-discipline and social continuity. Similarly, the American phantom of unfettered masculinity was lost in Vietnam, and the technological and economic prowess of the United States has receded, even as its political culture has spread.”

This juxtaposition of these two societies explains what might otherwise be a misleading title: this is not a history of twentieth-century American Jesuits but a history that terminates rather loosely around 1965, just as Vatican II was winding down and the war in Vietnam was gearing up (this presumably marks for the author the conclusion of “the American century”). After that, the Society hit a severe air pocket—and how much it will recover from the ensuing nosedive is anyone’s guess—while the United States was faced for the first time with the postwar pathologies of inflation and stagnation and the ensuing disintegration of its cities and their schools. McDonough, however, refrains from facile predictions about the fate of either society and focuses his study of the Jesuits more on the quiet before the storm:

I concentrate on the decades from around the turn of the century to the verge of the Second Vatican Council. This period was the fulcrum-time between past and present. Analysis of these deceptively quiet years reveals, as if in slow motion, the accumulation of tensions inherited not only from the Counter-Reformation but also conflicts that had been building up since the French Revolution and the onset of industrialization in the nineteenth century.

The book is vast and contains many shrewd analyses of the work of individual Jesuits (primarily writers), but in the plethora of fascinating details that McDonough has brought to light, two features of the story stand out from the rest and go far to explain the later decline in numbers and influence of American Jesuits: the suburbanization of the American adolescent and the internal transformation of the American Society of Jesus “from a rule-governed hierarchy to an organization that looks more like a role-driven network in which Jesuits search for, rather than being assigned to, jobs and tasks.” McDonough is quite clear that the social forces resulting in these changes are inexorable, so much so that captious laments about a lack of stoicism in younger Jesuits or their reluctance to move from one mission to the other will either be shrugged off or will momentarily increase guilt without offering an avenue for a change of behavior (for guilt always becomes pathological without that avenue). And in any case, the mere resort to exhortation would imply that Jesuits now have a purchase on forces that in fact continue to victimize them.

In one particularly insightful chapter (amusingly titled “From Aquinas to the Age of Aquarius”), McDonough explains that feature of younger Jesuits that has always tended to baffle their elders: their almost obsessive concern with affectivity and personal well-being. While to an outsider this might seem like a deplorable capitulation to the worst excesses of baby-boom narcissism, it is really a symptom of something that came to a boil earlier:

From the 50s to the 60s, traditional understandings of what constituted emotional support and psychic satisfaction lost plausibility. The standards by which authority was judged became more demanding, and expectations regarding personal fulfillment shifted upward. By the end of the 50s the heroism of stoic understatement and the norm of emotional distance began to seem less bearable and even less noble in principle.

The roots of this psychic shift occurred in two phases. First, as more and more Catholic families moved to the suburbs and bought those newly invented televisions, their children’s emotional lives became atomized. Often raised in separate bedrooms and cathected directly to the TV set (virtually a robotic baby sitter), they often grew up without that intense backyard socialization of alley games and tree houses so essential to the formation of childhood friendships. And suddenly American youngsters became more familiar with the names of the Mouseketeers than of the kids who lived two—by now, large—blocks away.

This suburbanization completely altered the experience of Jesuit formation for new entrants, and this constitutes the second phase. Here, for example, is one Jesuit’s account of what it was like to go through the training earlier, before the invention of TV:

It was shared, like boot camp. It was part of your fiber. Everybody did it. And people who were thirty years our senior had done it. And you could talk about it. You could make parenthetical references to snippets of rules that everybody recognized. You might do it in jest. But it was all part of the fabric, of the fiber [of our lives].

In other words, group cohesion was so regular a part of not only childhood socialization but also of the Jesuit training that implicit emotional support suffused the very atmosphere of the times. But the search for emotional sustenance has lately become so exaggerated precisely because it no longer seems so pervasively available (it was the earlier atmosphere of easy camaraderie that made all the other more specific acts of asceticism bearable).

The other issue, that of the transformation of the Jesuits from rule-governed hierarchy to role-driven network, is much more intractable, for behind that metamorphosis is the inevitable transformation of Jesuit schools, those all-hungry maws that absorb about 80 percent of Jesuit manpower. Once more, the forces that led to this change were well in place before Vatican II or the professional ambitions of younger Jesuits came into play. One fascinating indication of this emerges from the report of an official visitor to the U.S. from the General of the Jesuits in Rome. Writing in 1949, he told of how disturbed he was at what he saw:

[Traveling from Rome] I crossed the ocean with a graduate of one of our schools . . . . He recalled two outstanding professors of his time: one was a professed atheist, the other decidedly red in the color of his social theories. The head of one of our Schools of Business Administration was quoted to me as saying, “Don’t talk to me about [papal social encyclicals]. They have no place in this school while I am here.” Some professors in a School of Education are admittedly of the philosophical tribe of John Dewey and the shelves of the library offer a large assortment of books propagating his errors. In the Department of Philosophy a lay professor insists that a scientific study of psychology must be divorced from a Catholic viewpoint. An infiltration of Freudianism has been noted in the psychiatry section of a School of Social Service. And then one may ask if it is not very difficult to maintain a Catholic environment in a school where more than 50 percent of the students are non-Catholics and many of the professors are the same.

Of course, one may either knowingly smile at the charming naiveté of the Roman visitor and congratulate the Jesuits on how far they have come on the road to modernity, or one may nod in sad agreement that these early trends have now come back to haunt the premier work of the Society of Jesus, co-opting their flagship institutions and robbing them of their reason for being. But for McDonough, both reactions would be beside the point. For if these trends are really as deplorable as the Roman Admonitor would have it, then only one response was possible: a complete ghettoization of higher education and the uprooting and transformation of urban universities into small, self-contained liberal arts colleges of about two hundred students staffed almost entirely by Jesuits. But such an option refutes itself even at its first mention, for it was precisely the mission of Jesuit education to train Catholics out of the ghetto, which in 1949 they were on the verge of succeeding in doing. At this juncture a complete reversal of course was not just impractical but impossible.

But the other option, the one in fact the Jesuits did take, had to take (letting enrollment balloon with the GI bill and making the various departments judge their own direction by norms internal to the debate with their peers throughout the world of higher education), has its own costs as well. For now the impact of Jesuits on their schools must be measured by something rather vaguely referred to as “influence” (whatever that might mean). Ministry in education has always been a work with what McDonough calls a “notoriously soft bottom line,” but new that softness has turned into something about as measurable as fog. The talk now is all about preserving a Jesuit “ethos.” For an order renowned for its pragmatic bent, this shift to measuring effects by “ethos” has not been an easy one.

But the real impact of this option has been to transform the nature of the internal governance of the Society as well. Mobility has always been a hallmark of the Society of Jesus; where other orders in the Church such as the Benedictines centered their whole spirituality around the stability of the monastery (their vows even include one of stability), the Jesuits prided themselves on their ability to pick up and go at a moment’s notice. This is no longer true, indeed can no longer be true, and again for structural reasons. Hiring in Jesuit colleges and universities is by and large now department-determined, and the norms for employment and promotion are exclusively academic (although, oddly enough—and this is a painful story to tell—because of past history, some departments are actively hostile to hiring a Jesuit).

The impact of this professionalization of ministry on Jesuit mobility could not be more direct: to get hired, one must first establish oneself in a field by writing a dissertation that will be unlikely to have any bearing on Catholic doctrine or for which Catholic doctrine will itself have anything to say; then after being hired, one must steadily accumulate a record of academic productivity to qualify for tenure, the granting of which virtually guarantees that one will remain locked into that position for life.

Part of the fascination of this book is the way the author explains how this dilemma is, as he says, part of “the general challenge to top-down control posed by professionalization and organizational complexity” everywhere. Indeed, it was the very inexorability of this challenge that recently brought about the collapse of the Soviet Union and the implosion of Communist ideologies throughout the world (Lenin taught himself Spanish so he could read Ignatius in the original).

The Society of Jesus is clearly being swept along by these same immensely powerful social forces as everyone else, and not just in America. But in the United States, the situation is particularly rich in pathos, because the earlier successes of the Society in America have been so stellar and because the story of its decline bears such an uncanny resemblance to the decline of the country it has served with such distinction. Both societies now know what it means to be a victim of one’s own success: both the Society of Jesus and the American government have been forced to look on while their clients (whether they be students or the client-democracies of Japan and Germany) have gone their own way, having learned their lessons all too well and bettering their masters in the very skills that made them what they are.

I confess that I have inherited from the Peters generation at least one legacy that links my generation with his: like him, my humanistic training has led me to entertain a rather sneering disdain, a certain hauteur, for the social sciences, which I always took to be a body of rather obvious insights encased in a needlessly arcane jargon, all in a vain effort to parade before its betters decked out as science and knowledge. McDonough has taught me otherwise. Indeed, not since the last time I read a book by Peter Berger have I seen a work of social science so penetrating, so teeming with insights on every page, so rich in pathos and nobility of purpose, so flashingly illuminating . . . and so devastating.

Edward T. Oakes, S.J., teaches in the Religious Studies Program (Department of Near Eastern Languages) at New York University.