England Was a Proving Ground for Early Jesuits

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In the first century of the Society of Jesus, when Jesuits took their missionary work into foreign cultures at the far corners of the globe, they faced some of their toughest challenges closer to home—in England.

In Protestant England, Jesuits not only endured legal restrictions that forced them partially underground, but also grappled with political intrigues that threatened the English mission’s future, said Thomas McCoog, S.J., author of a new book on Jesuits in the British Isles around the turn of the 17th century.

“It wasn’t always that clear that the Society of Jesus would continue to work in England,” said Father McCoog, curator of the Avery Cardinal Dulles Archives at Fordham.

The Society of Jesus in Ireland, Scotland, and England, 1598-1606: “Lest Our Lamp be Entirely Extinguished” (Brill Academic Publishers, 2017) is his fourth book about the Jesuits working in Great Britain and Ireland when the young order was expanding rapidly, establishing schools all over Europe and elsewhere, while also undergoing what might be called growing pains.

“There was tension about governance” within the Society of Jesus, with some Jesuits complaining about the superior general’s power and others worrying that rising national sentiment eroded the society’s universal spirit, Father McCoog said.

Some of these worries focused on England. Even as the order was drafting uniform rules and regulations to solidify its distinctive way of life, English Jesuits wanted to have their own houses of formation where new members would learn to operate in England’s hostile, Protestant-dominated environment.

By 1606, however, Spanish and Belgian Jesuits thought their English counterparts were seeking too many exceptions to the order’s constitutions and rules, and wanted changes that would have curtailed the English mission’s influence and possibly subverted its identity, Father McCoog said.

“If their Spanish and Belgian colleagues had their way, they would have exerted almost total control over the English mission,” which might have resulted in demoralizing changes to the mission’s English Catholic traditions, he said.

Pressures came as well from English Catholic clergy, some of whom campaigned to have the Jesuits sidelined or removed from the English Catholic mission because of the Jesuits’ perceived political agenda. Among other complaints, some clergy argued that the Society of Jesus was even responsible for persecution of English Catholics because of its active campaign to replace Queen Elizabeth, a Protestant, with Mary, Queen of Scots, a Catholic. Jesuits were seen as too politically engaged.

Other problems ensued after James took the throne, including the passage in 1606 of an oath of allegiance meant to “distinguish loyal Catholics from traitorous ones,” Father McCoog said.

But the English Jesuits still managed to thrive, growing in number from about 40 in England and Wales in 1606 to nearly 200 by 1640. One reason was their support among the English gentry, some of whom endowed Jesuit colleges on the European continent and provided the Jesuits with income and sanctuary at a time when laws put “severe restraints” on the practice of Catholicism, Father McCoog said.

Sometimes Jesuits would stay in their benefactors’ homes, perhaps masquerading as the tutor—which was troubling for an order whose members swore an oath of poverty, since they would have to dress well enough to blend in, Father McCoog said.

He is intrigued by these kinds of challenges, which he touches on in his new book. At stake in England, he said, was the Jesuits’ approach of adapting their way of life to their work, rather than the other way around.

While he honors and acknowledges people who died for their faith, Father McCoog said, “I was more interested in how people survive for their faith—how did they fly under the radar? How adaptable was the Society of Jesus? How far could Jesuits go to minister to Catholics in a non-Catholic context?”

“I saw England as a proving ground as the Society of Jesus asked that question about itself,” he said.

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