IT is the historic custom of the Church of Rome to enlist in its service monastic or quasi-monastic bodies in addition to the ordinary clergy. In its hour of greatest need, at the very outbreak of the Reformation, the Society of Jesus was formed as one of these auxiliary regiments, and in the war which the Church of Rome has waged since that date the Jesuits have rendered the most spirited and conspicuous service. Yet the procedure of this Society has differed in many important respects from that of the other regiments of the Church, and a vast and unceasing controversy has gathered about it. It is probable that a thousand times, or several thousand times, more books and pamphlets and articles have been written about the Jesuits than about even the oldest and most powerful or learned of the monastic bodies. Not a work of history can be opened, in any language, but it will contain more references to the Jesuits than to all the other religious orders collectively. But opinions differ as much to-day as they did a hundred or two hundred years ago about the character of the Jesuits, and the warmest eulogies are chilled by the most bitter and withering indictments.
What is a Jesuit? The question is asked still in every civilised land, and the answer is a confusing mass of contradictions. The most learned historians read the facts of their career so differently, that one comes to a verdict expressing deep and criminal guilt, and another acquits them with honour. Since the foundation of the Society these drastically opposed views of its action have been taken, and the praise and homage of admirers have been balanced by the intense hatred of an equal number of Catholic opponents. It would seem that some impenetrable veil lies over the history and present life of the Society, yet on both sides its judges refuse to recognise obscurity. Catholic monarchs and peoples have, time after time, driven the Jesuits ignominiously over their frontiers; Popes have sternly condemned them. But they are as active, and nearly as numerous, in the twentieth century as in the last days of the old political world.
No marshalling of historical facts will change the feeling of the pronounced admirers and opponents of the Jesuits, and it would be idle to suppose that, because the present writer is neither Roman Catholic nor Protestant, he will be awarded the virtue of impartiality. There seems, however, some need for an historical study of the Jesuits which will aim at impartiality and candour. On one side we have large and important works like Crétineau-Joly’s Histoire religieuse, politique, et littéraire de la Compagnie de Jésus, and a number of smaller works, written by Catholics of England or America, from the material, and in the spirit, of the French historian’s work. Such works as these cannot for a moment be regarded as serious history. They are panegyrics or apologies: pleasant reading for the man or woman who wishes to admire, but mere untruth to the man or woman who wishes to know. Indeed, the work of M. Crétineau-Joly, written in conjunction with the Jesuits, which is at times recommended as the classical authority on the Society, has worse defects than the genial omission of unedifying episodes. He makes the most inflated general statements on the scantiest of material, is seriously and frequently inaccurate, makes a very generous use of the “mental reserve” which his friends advocate, and sometimes embodies notoriously forged documents without even intimating that they are questioned.