My first brush with the Society of Jesus was not a positive one. I was in eighth grade, my first year in a Catholic school. One of the parish’s associate pastors was a Jesuit, and he visited our class one day to talk about Genesis. To put it charitably, our class was a tad skeptical when he told us the story of Adam and Eve was a myth.
Fortunately, not all my experiences with Jesuits were negative. In college, I knew two extraordinary Jesuits, Thomas McGovern and Gerard Steckler. They had rare gifts seldom found together: brilliance and clarity. They were witty, each in his own way. I recall Fr. Steckler praying for vocations at Mass, but “only to seminaries that teach the truth.” He in particular seemed to relish the outlaw-in-exile aspect of his life as a faithful Jesuit. I thought about these two great priests when I read that Fr. James Schall had passed away during Holy Week, for he was another brilliant, clear, and witty Jesuit.
I never met Fr. Schall, but have long admired his writing. Two books on my shelf show his depth and humor. One is Remembering Belloc, a collection of essays he wrote on Hilaire Belloc. The other, a more recent offering from Ignatius Press, spans what he refers to as The Order of Things. Schall’s numerous essays show his interests were as catholic as his convictions.
We are blessed to find good Jesuits at a time when mocking the Society of Jesus comes so easy. You know how it goes: A man once asked a Franciscan and a Jesuit whether it was moral to pray a novena for a Ferrari. “What’s a Ferrari?” asked the Franciscan. “What’s a novena?” asked the Jesuit. Truth often lurks within these jokes. Aside from Pope Francis, the most famous Jesuit today is Fr. James Martin, who is famous for swimming against the traditional Christian current—especially on gender issues.
Francis and Martin get all the good press when it comes to Jesuits, but it should have been Schall. Or perhaps Fr. Joseph Fessio, who founded the Ignatius Press empire and has fought the good fight for years behind enemy lines in San Francisco. Another Jesuit publisher, Fr. Kenneth Baker, edited the Homiletic and Pastoral Review for over 30 years. Now, HPR is part of the Ignatius Press family, and is edited by another smart Jesuit: Fr. David Meconi at St. Louis University. The Jesuit intellectual tradition has been carried on well by these formidable fathers, and St. Ignatius must take some consolation therein.
An old blue hardcover published in 1952 also sits on my bookshelf. The Catholic Mind Through Fifty Years was published to celebrate the half-century mark of The Catholic Mind, a monthly magazine published by America Press, the Jesuit-owned publishing house. Remarkably, this book captures the Catholic mind in the first half of the twentieth century. At the same time, it also shows how much things have deteriorated in recent years. America Press, after all, publishes America magazine, which has been printed every week since 1909. Fr. Martin pens pieces for it often, as the magazine’s “editor at large.”
The first essay in the collection, written in 1945 by Thomas F. Woodlock, makes the concept of the Catholic mind clear: “The ‘Catholic mind’ is a sort of Ariadne-thread which enables a man to find his way through the labyrinth of confusion which characterizes the thought of the modern world upon the life of man on this earth.” Woodlock was a Wall Street Journal editor and was awarded the prestigious Laetare Medal from the University of Notre Dame in 1943. He posited that there is a “categorical question concerning the most important fact in all history” that we all must answer: “What think ye of Christ? Is he God and man, or only man?” When he wrote this, as World War II lurched toward its inexorable conclusion, Woodlock knew true peace could only be attained with a positive response.
This 1952 collection is astounding, considering what now passes for Jesuit journalism. The book includes writings from nearly every major figure in the Catholic literary and theological world. Maisie Ward, Arnold Lunn, Christopher Dawson, and Belloc himself are contributors. Then-prominent Church leaders such as Cardinals John Glennon, Francis Bourne, Francis Spellman, and William O’Connell are also present. Many priests and laity are featured who should be known more widely than they are.
The topics are diverse and the opinions are orthodox. Homosexuality and related issues are not present, but abortion and contraception are covered, with a Jesuit priest referring to proponents of the latter as bloodsuckers. “The ostensible purpose of these vampires of society is to improve the human race,” writes Fr. Paul L. Blakely, S.J. “This they will do by popularizing a practice which directly and primarily makes the continuance of the human race impossible.” Blakely was associate editor of America for nearly three decades before passing away in 1943. Not many Jesuits write like that anymore.
In his long life, Fr. Schall seems to have been published in every medium of import to the thinking Catholic. He would have been at home in The Catholic Mind. While my dusty collection does not include any pieces from him—he had only joined the Jesuits in 1948—in 2008 he published a collection titled The Mind That Is Catholic. He concludes the eponymous essay contained therein with these words:
In the end, this is the Catholic mind, to hold the truth because it knows that it is itself mind open to what is, to what is true from whatever source its evidence might arise, even from common sense, even from reason, yes, even from the revelation handed down to us.
This truth is the “Ariadne-thread” of which Woodlock spoke, guiding us back to our real home amid the confusion of the world—a world so many of Schall’s confreres in Christ may have succumbed to. Despite our concerns about the Jesuits’ orthodoxy today, we must not forget the great Jesuits that deserve to be praised and remembered.
K. E. Colombini writes from St. Louis.