Tuesday, November 10, 2009

On the Founding of the Jesuits

I wrote earlier that accords, historically, are the documents produced by people deciding to agree in different ways. From this perspective, it was something like inevitable that the Roman Catholic church would eventually respond to the challenge of the Reformation by becoming, in effect, both more Catholic and more Roman. No doubt, Ignatius Loyola and his six companions would essentially carry what Luther would have called Popery not only throughout Europe but to the broader world. That they would have all agreed that the Catholic Church had problems would perhaps not have much mollified Luther; it certainly did not soothe later Protestants.

But, by the direct wishes of the current Pope, the Jesuits carried humility, mortification, and abnegation to the world nonetheless. Of course, that they also carried education through catechism and that they did so zealously is to their credit. Considering the current ostensible collapse of Christendom, one might wonder at the parallels between their service to the world and our own. They carried heartfelt faith to a Europe often only, from their perspective, nominally Christian. Both emergent and missional churches require missionary zeal.

But, to return to the time at hand, the Jesuits were not the sole reformers of the Catholic Church anymore than Luther was the sole proto-Protestant; they were rather one embodiment of a larger reforming impulse. The Capuchins, in a move not entirely dissimilar from the first monastic movements, took the ideals of Christian poverty into ‘small, hermitlike settlements.’ The shoeless Carmelites gave us the height, perhaps, of Iberian mysticism in the fervently pious Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, in their own parallel monastic orders.

In light of the scandalous excesses of the late Middle Ages, the ancient monastic values of poverty, chastity and obedience must not have seemed nearly so arcane. Prayer, meditation and service might even have come naturally.

But of course all of this could not have happened within the Catholic Church without a similar honest impulse among the cardinals and the office of the pope itself. The greater power of the pope only came as a form of greater spiritual power; to be gone, or at least reduced, were the days of intense involvement in the secular affairs of this world. Bishops were sent back to pastoral care of their dioceses, and the sale of church offices was finally addressed. And, whatever greater tensions there might have been, the theologians of the Commission for reforming the church did agree on God as the only source of salvation and the necessity of good deeds as the human response to that salvation, a note that later Protestants such as John Wesley would eventually take up.

But there would for the most part be no middle ground, as the zeal of the reforming zeal of Catholics and Protestants alike served mostly to deepen the convictions of both. The Council of Trent through its systematic rebuttals of Protestant claims came eventually to simply expand its own dogmatic base. And it is no coincidence that Catholicism would essentially remain unchanged after this until Vatican II; in deciding how to respond to Protestantism, Catholicism decided how it would respond to the emerging modern world.

The answer came in catechism, missal, and breviary. A matrix of factors such as the absence of external threat and its own increasing wealth had allowed the Catholic Church to sprawl somewhat in its relation to the powers and principalities of states and within its own orders and clergy and noble members. The founding of the Jesuits and the Council of Trent brought a sharp reversal of all and any of these wandering courses. All the sacraments were standardized; this and many other similar developments equipped the vast vehicle of Catholicism to go out into the world.

As the Catholic Church had once ‘sent’ Luther out of its comfortable environs, so now also it sent Augustinians, Dominicans and Jesuits out to make disciples throughout the increasingly known world. It was perhaps because they were so standardized that they were subsequently able to flexibly meet and engage the alien cultures of distant lands much more readily than Protestants, who would take some time catching up.

As the founder of the Jesuits had once been a soldier, so the evangelical movement that he began carried the routine, energy, adaptability and discipline of Christian soldiers (in armor and in robe) to encounter the world and subdue it – for the glory of Our Lord and Savoir Jesus Christ. And just as they had done among the barbarians of the German forests, so now the Jesuits and the like shifted the understanding of their gospel so that those whom they preached to and taught would have the ears to hear it.

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