THE JESUITS: A History by David Mitchell


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An intelligent, richly detailed popular survey. Mitchell's publishers describe him, ingenuously enough, as an ""Anglican agnostic,"" and that paradoxical point of view seems to have been just right for drawing this well-rounded picture of a uniquely Catholic phenomenon. On the other hand, the British critics who have cheered this book for its impartiality were napping on the job: no one who argues that by the early 1600s the Society's ""main characteristic"" was an ""ingenious but stultifying counter-reformation sophistry"" or who judges 20th-century Jesuits by the radical standards of Daniel Berrigan and Archbishop Thomas Roberts, could be safely called impartial. Still, Mitchell's biases are so reasonable and his narrative so agreeable that few readers will grumble. The epic adventures of Jesuit missionaires, from the imperial court in Peking to the ""reductions"" in Paraguay, the complex and colorful involvement of Jesuits in politics, from Louis XIV's Père La Chaise to Richard Nixon's John McLaughlin, the long catalogue of Jesuit achievements in the arts and sciences (even in religion!)--all this makes an irresistible story. There are, to be sure many flaws, mostly minor. Mitchell's account of the Exercises fails to explain their dynamics. He glides over the transition from the reactionary spirit of 19th-century Jesuits to the liberalism of their contemporary descendants. He repeats too many undocumented charges against the Society, e.g., concerning the ""Jesuit thugs"" who supposedly led or collaborated in the Croatian butchery of Serbs under Ante Paveli. Mitchell is not the most careful of historians--his treatment of the Council of Trent, for instance, ignores the far-reaching disciplinary reforms it established. None of this, however, is fatal, and the layman looking for a broad introduction to this diverse and sometimes fascinating ""Company"" will be well served.

Pub Date: March 31st, 1981
Publisher: Watts