THEY DECRIED NATIONALISM as a source of division, materialism, and militarism. They warned that the unfettered pursuit of profit destroyed communities and undermined human dignity. They sued to have the King James Bible removed from public schools. Contemporary progressives? No: 19th-century Jesuits. The same 19th-century American Jesuits who allied themselves with slaveholders, believed that the ideal polity promoted one “true faith,” and considered modernity a bitter, but eventually vanquishable foe. In a deeply learned and delightfully readable new book, John T. McGreevy explains the principles, circumstances, and personalities from which this apparently contradictory set of positions emerged, and outlines the consequences for the nation’s religion and politics. At a moment when we are riveted anew by arguments over the meaning of community and liberty — and reminded that one man’s desired future can be another man’s rejected past — McGreevy’s account of these surprising Jesuits feels like an essential read.

McGreevy begins his story with a glance back to the Society of Jesus’s great collective trauma, their 1773 suppression. Pope Clement XIV had hoped the dramatic action would appease Catholic monarchs who believed that the Society undermined their sovereignty, but nothing could forestall the ongoing encroachment of political authority over religion. One American-born Jesuit, John Carroll, returned to the colonies just in time to cheer on the Revolution; in the new nation, Catholicism would not have the support of the state, but neither would it fear its wrath. By 1814, when the Society was restored, Carroll had created an American Catholic Church that maintained its orthodoxy and fit smoothly into the largely Protestant United States, its schools open to Protestant children, its worship styles unobtrusive, and its clerics more likely to praise the nation’s lack of an established religion than to lament it.

Then everything began to change, and it is there that McGreevy’s real story begins. In the year of its restoration, the Society had dwindled to fewer than 1,000 members; one hundred years later, there were over 16,000. Swelled by immigration, the Catholic Church became in that same century the largest single denomination in the United States. Jesuits — themselves often refugees, expelled from European countries by rulers sharing the suspicion of their predecessors that the order sought to undermine the power of nation states — shaped the immigrant Church into a community proud of its differences from Protestant neighbors and its connections to Catholics across the globe. They were part of a worldwide effort through which, McGreevy explains, Jesuits’ “orientation toward Rome as the focal point of a global Catholic community made daily Catholic life across the world more similar in 1914 than in 1814.”

The story McGreevy tells is known in outlines and fragments, but it is usually told using terms such as “ultramonistism” and “the Americanist controversy,” shorthand that can render it opaque and apparently meaningless to all but historians of Catholicism. In McGreevy’s hands, the Jesuits and their critics are instead shown tangling over allegiances and issues that not only shaped the 19th century but that also continue to roil our own. McGreevy moves gracefully between local, national, and international registers, and ties his arguments to individuals such as John Bapst, a Swiss immigrant who was tarred and feathered in Maine; Bernhard Bruns, a German Catholic immigrant who set his face against both slavery and his local Jesuits; and Mary Wilson, a convert who, though she died not long after entering a St. Louis convent, became a central figure in the canonization of a European Jesuit. So elegantly does his analysis emerge from his storytelling that I found myself rereading paragraphs the way one might rewind video of a magic trick, trying to figure out how on earth the thing was done.

In setting the backdrop of the Jesuits’ labors, McGreevy portrays an American antipathy to Catholicism that had roots in the English past: Catholics had for centuries been portrayed as “prisoners of superstition” and “slaves to Rome,” devoid of the judgment and virtue that a republic required. The power of that mistrust had faded in the earliest years of the nation, and the idea that Catholics could participate in a nonsectarian Christian civic culture had gained ground. But the concept that religious liberty required rather than prohibited restrictions on Catholicism was dormant rather than dead, and the specter of poor immigrant Catholics arriving by the thousands summoned it back to life. Anti-Catholicism surged in Europe as well, inspired not least by former members’ repudiation of the faith. One of the many pleasures of this book is McGreevy’s demolition of the monolithic Catholicism and anti-Catholicism on which historians too often rely. On both sides of the Atlantic, Jesuits were viewed as Catholicism’s radicals, bearers of the faith’s most undemocratic and dangerous strains. Some portrayals of Jesuits were absurdly vitriolic, but McGreevy makes clear that Jesuits did aggressively oppose elements of modern life and culture; their critics may have been overwrought, but most were not delusional. Jesuits turned away from scientific investigation, warned against freedom of the press, and advocated a version of religious liberty that sought to limit persecution while nonetheless discouraging error (the latter defined, of course, by the Jesuits themselves). The Civiltà Cattolica, an opinion journal Jesuits founded in 1850, declared the “idea of a liberal Catholicism ‘bizarre and monstrous,’” and Jesuits helped bring into being the 1864 Syllabus of Errors, which rejected “progress, liberalism and modern civilization.”

Jesuits in the United States held mixed views of the nation’s politics and culture. Many came to believe that American culture — individualistic, improvisational, and at least latently Protestant — posed a threat to their pastoral goals. But they also believed that the Constitution and the American rhetoric of liberty offered them valuable tools, and they did not let irony stand in the way of using them. Father Bapst sued to end the use of the King James Bible (considered a Protestant text) in public school classrooms, deeming it an affront to American Catholic families’ right to educate their children as they saw fit. “The logic of [the] Protestant campaign for religious liberty,” McGreevy explains, “precisely because it focused on autonomy and the sanctity of the individual conscience […] undermined efforts to keep the King James Bible in the public schools.”

This was a double-edged blade: local Protestant parents viewed Bapst’s campaign to remove the King James Bible as an affront to their religious liberty, not to mention an assault on the nation that had graciously taken Bapst in. Maine’s Supreme Court agreed, ruling that the King James Bible, far from infringing on Catholic families’ liberties, helped to turn their children into republican citizens. It was an important legal decision, but the battle over whether the King James was a universal good or a particular preference — a patriotic tool or a sectarian club — was fought on more than legal grounds. In 1854, Bapst was chased by a mob that, after threatening to burn him alive, tarred and feathered him. Embarrassed by the assault, a group of Protestant Maine residents gave the priest a gold watch and an apology. Bapst decided that the “outcome of this incident will be extremely useful for the cause of the Church in Maine.” If one’s persecutors could be shamed by their own logic, the future did not look entirely dark.

American Jesuits themselves, however, were also vulnerable to shaming on questions of liberty: the Church in the United States unabashedly participated in slavery. “Do you know a single Catholic priest that is opposed to slavery[?]” demanded one disgusted critic. The Jesuits had owned slaves since their arrival in the colonies, and although in 1838 they divested themselves from the institution, they did so in the cruelest way possible: rather than freeing slaves, they sold them to pay off their debts. In subsequent years, Jesuits continued to argue that slaves were better off than “the poor Irish in Boston” and dismissed abolitionism as little more than a polite cover for anti-Catholicism. Once again, there was more than a drop of truth in a critique that also coursed with hatred: many members of the American Party (also called the Know Nothings) did consider Jesuits, Catholics, and “the slave power” to be a single tangle of depravity and oppression. And even after the Civil War, Jesuits were in no rush to untangle the knot: Jesuits in Missouri refused to take an oath of allegiance to the newly reconstituted Union. But their reasons had as much to do with the legacy of the French Revolution as they did with the conflict just ended. Although McGreevy makes clear that some Jesuits did retain Confederate sympathies, he also explains that the Jesuit refusal reflected a belief “that religious liberty required freedom to preach and administer the sacraments without prior permission from the state.” This time the Jesuits saw victory; the Supreme Court in a divided decision declared the oath unconstitutional.

A significant number of Missouri’s Protestants agreed with the Jesuits’ opposition to the oath (state control over clergy was, after all, papist). But the same mistrust of state power led Jesuits to argue for the adoption of a doctrine that most Protestants found repugnant: papal infallibility. Believing that the doctrine would “reaffirm the doctrinal and organizational independence of Catholicism,” Jesuits promoted it “as a necessary counterweight to the dangers posed by modern nationalism and a check on liberal Catholics eager for more autonomy from Rome.” Controversial even among Catholics, the doctrine’s promulgation led to the expulsion of the Jesuits from Bismarck’s Germany. Ulysses S. Grant deemed it evidence that Catholicism was an enemy to “patriotism and intelligence.”

Jesuits knew perfectly well that papal infallibility, like the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, which they had helped shepherd into existence in 1854, would be divisive. Such teachings “set Catholics apart, connecting them to other Catholics in ways inaccessible to their Protestant and Jewish neighbors.” And that was in part the point. Jesuits wanted religious community to trump national, and in opposition to prominent clerics such as Bishop John England, they denied that there was a “basic harmony between Catholic and American ideals.” Jesuits warned that patriotism was potentially idolatrous and worked to keep Catholic children in parochial rather than public schools. They criticized what they saw as an American ethos of “individualist market capitalism,” opposed Bishop England’s claim that “church-state separation as practiced in the United States might be a global model,” and greeted with enthusiasm Pope Leo XIII’s apostolic letter Testem Benevolentiae, which warned against “excessive liberty.” At the beginning of the 19th century, John Carroll had commissioned a cathedral for Baltimore in a sober federal style. Now, near the end of the century, Philadelphia’s Jesuits dedicated a massive church modeled on the Gesù, the Society’s church in Rome. A new day had dawned, and it was trying its best to look like an old one.

That’s how McGreevy explains Jesuits’ rejection of modern nationalism. Then, in 1909, things took an unexpected turn: Jesuits in the United States founded a journal entitled America. During World War I, they and their European brethren served and died in national armies. McGreevy nods quickly to anti-Semitism as an ugly trait shared by Jesuits and many European nationalists, but the fact that “Jesuit patriotism became more evident than at any point in the Society’s history” still comes as a surprise to the reader. It’s in the book’s final chapter, in which McGreevy doubles back to the Spanish–American War, that the explanation emerges: Jesuits became nationalists by first becoming imperialists. Mistrusted at home, French Jesuits were lauded for their work in the colonies. American Jesuits, for their part, became trusted partners of the American state during the occupation of the Philippines. Despite the Jesuits’ determination not to confuse imperialism — or “civilizing” — with proselytizing, they came to see their spiritual mission and the professed mission of the American nation as concordant.

Explaining that Jesuits came to participate in a crusading nationalism and to ally themselves with states that pursued order, claimed a collective purpose, and privileged the Catholic Church, McGreevy leads us straight to the interwar era in which Jesuits and the Catholic Church as a whole “welcomed or condoned authoritarian or fascist governments” in Europe and Latin America. He prefers, however, to leave that dark story to others, instead turning in his conclusion to the Jesuit John Courtney Murray, who in 1949 urged American Catholics to move outward from the Catholic culture that Jesuits had so effectively created over the last century, and to “voyage into the heart of all the problems of American democracy.”

That voyage is now undertaken in the company of a Jesuit pope whose discussions of the environment, capitalism, and the family neatly track neither left nor right, instead emerging from contemplation of the teachings, purposes, and traditions to which McGreevy has introduced us. The “problems of American democracy” also continue, as do the necessary tensions between religious and political authority, between particular allegiance and transcendent purpose, and between religious expression and civic tolerance, in which Father Bapst and his companions engaged.

John T. McGreevy’s marvelous book will make us think more about Jesuits than we thought we needed to. And it will also just make us think.

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Catherine O’Donnell is an associate professor of History at Arizona State University.