Íñigo López de Loyola, better known to us as Saint Ignatius of Loyola, whose Feast we observe today (in both the traditional and the novel Calendars), was a valiant and gallant soldier. He had more than proved himself in the field, from teenage years through his twenties. Indeed, he owned a reputation for swashbuckle and vainglory; had repeatedly won lethal duels. These Iberians can be mighty proud; Íñigo was the picture of machismo, in his cape and tights, his jewelled boots — the dagger and the sword hanging loosely. It was suicide to provoke him.
But even super-soldiers take unexpected hits, and when the Navarrese stormed the fortress of Pamplona, in May of 1521, Íñigo took a cannonball in the legs.
We are assured that surgical operations in those days, some centuries before modern anaesthesia, were often worse than the original injury, and our heroic Basque gentilhombre, now thirty and no longer in the flush of youth, found himself laid up for a while. And, as luck would have it, starved of his usual reading materials. He preferred the sort of chivalrous tales that Cervantes did such a fine job of mocking. He was stuck, instead, with De Vita Christi, an encyclopaedic devotional work by the (then dated) Ludolph of Saxony. The rest, as we say, is history.
Lounging about like an idler — not his accustomed mode — the future saint conceived an Idea. It was that the Church needs an army, too. Through a rigorous system of prayer and contemplation (seven-plus hours a day), founded on the hints in Ludolph’s book (which could be read as a fourteenth-century Carthusian self-help manual), this Idea was subtly developed. The Ignatian Spiritual Exercises offer a boot-camp approach to Catholic mysticism. The religious order that grew out of them, with the energy, too, of remarkable companions, was “militarist” by nature. But it is a remarkable kind of “hybrid warfare” that Saint Ignatius and his friends “invented” — one in which conventional weapons played, and can play no part.
Enemies of the Jesuits — and from the beginning, they had plenty — might characterize the whole order as a “mind game.” They could never be counted on to do what was expected; they had the tactical genius for surprise. (We all remember the Monty Python skit: “Fear, surprise, ruthless efficiency, and an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope.”) Yet rooted often, as in the case of Saint Ignatius, in a holiness itself inscrutable. God, unquestionably, helped them on their way, into spiritual battle, with an intellectual machinery always state-of-the-art, and a discipline that seemed to pass beyond the human.
That was then, this is now.
There are, in practice, so far as I can see, two Jesuit orders today. I have met “men astutely trained” in both. One is traditional, the other is novel. The traditional “faction” remains loyal to the teaching of the Magisterium under the most intense fire; I could name a few people. The other — but I will not name — thinks it knows better, and is looking cleverly ahead. As one “progressive” Jesuit once told me, “I am loyal to the Church as she will be, and to the Popes of the future.”
Jesuits have provided, for several generations now, perhaps the principal opponents of Church teaching from within, a kind of self-assembled Fifth Column. Where would e.g. “liberation theology” be without Jesuits, who wink at arms running and violent acts? Who purposefully confuse “the poor in spirit” with “the poor in goods”? Who think with their superior expertise they can analyze the most abstruse social and economic questions; and like some of the more advanced Muslims, serve the will of Allah here on Earth, as a revolutionary vanguard.
Perhaps a third group could be identified, a “middle way,” balanced on the knife edge between the two, and sometimes adeptly skating. It has been said that our current Pope — the first Jesuit in that office — is on this edge. From each side he appears to be on the other; but from back or front, entirely on his own. He is certainly not a Marxist, for instance. But he is certainly not an anti-Marxist, either. Nor is he ambiguous. Only a Jesuit could be like that: a whirling dervish of charisma. I had this sense reading Laudato Si’ — in many free-spinning passages I thought, “the exact opposite of what our Church so desperately needs, in a time of terrible doctrinal confusion.” …
But who am I to judge?
Having read something of the Jesuit missions in China, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, I became aware of a “grand strategy.” It was not in any sense a compromise; not an attempt to offer a syncretic version of Christianity to a Chinese court and intellectual milieu of great sophistication. It was rather (to my mind) an exercise in the Socratic. Concede everything that could be conceded to the Chinese mind and high culture; then win the argument on Chinese terms. It was an incredibly brash “strategic vision.” It was conducted, brilliantly. It failed, utterly.
Perhaps Pope Francis has the same brash vision: to concede to the post-modern mind and culture, such as it is, everything it takes for granted; then win the argument on post-modern terms. I hope this is not the plan, however, for still more is now at stake: and there are days when it seems we are down to playing for our last marbles.
The Jesuits were invaluable in the Counter-Reformation. It was often their discipline that held the line, in very unpromising circumstances, at what had suddenly become the Church’s northern frontier. They were Jesuits who conceived ingenious schemes to retrieve the morale of increasingly isolated Catholic communities. Their approach was not, actually, “take no prisoners”; rather it was, “never give an inch”; nor miss an opportunity to move the front line forward; and, count on reinforcements from the rear. For they had an astounding faith, beneath their astounding self-confidence.
Be, and stay, at the forefront of science and of art, of literature and society. Appropriate everything of value and of use, for the Church’s operations. In our contemporary sporting idiom: the best defence is a terrifying offence.
The humble and contrite owed them.
And to my mind (with its monopoly on the thinking at this website), that is rather what we need today, when again our front line is faltering. Not a diplomatic accommodation to defeat, but sudden, shocking, forward thrusts, against an Enemy who has become complacent.
Saint Ignatius of Loyola, pray for us; remind us how it is done.