Writings by Dr. John C. Rao

A View From Rocco’s

What Goes Around Comes Around or Plus Ça Change…

(The Remnant, January 31, 2014)

“A small group of rebellious Jesuits brought the Institute to the edge of destruction.”

(William V. Bangert, S.J., A History of the Society of Jesus, Italian edition, 1990, p. 114)

Rocco and his sisters renovated my local hangout from Monday to Friday last week, forcing me to frequent a small bakery across Bleecker Street for my morning caffeine. Since the space in this shop was much too cramped for studies, it provided only the barest and most uncomfortable refuge until 10:00, when I had to do what I most loathe doing: work in the local public library. Thankfully, I am now back in my normal home, but with the whole disruption having helped me to shape certain thoughts regarding the present theme to which I will return at the end of this article.

The theme in question concerns the Society of Jesus, whose dramatic history from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries I promised to recount and directly relate to present day woes. Recounting the Jesuit saga involves reiterating the central Christian challenge discussed at length in my Black Legends and the Light of the World book: the need to accept the realities of God’s creation in all of its complexity, but also to work to correct the sinful flaws marring its true beauty and to transform it fully through the grace of Christ.

Embrace of this challenge pressed the Jesuits to work for a life-giving Christian change in every aspect of human behavior: individual, social, and political. Their call for a universal correction and transformation in Christ and Christ’s Church, backed by a Faith and a Reason that ultimately taught the same truths everywhere, inevitably evoked irritated reactions on the part of local, national forces. Such forces claimed to understand these universal teachings better than anyone else, even as they altered and emasculated them to fit what amounted to parochial half-truths and the “business as usual” attitude of long-standing custom. All this spelled trouble, and the Society’s troubled Catholic Reformation struggle underlines the unchanging character of the “boat rocking” Christian battle for the practical implementation of the fullness of the Faith against those who want to freeze individuals and society in patterns of thought and behavior hermetically sealed off from transforming truth and grace.

Little if any of that trouble came from the very divided Catholic parts of the Holy Roman Empire. They were much too much in need of immediate help for basic survival against the Protestant assault to look the gift horse of the Society and its universal transformative message in the mouth. The Republic of Venice and the Kingdoms of France and Spain were another story. The Venetian and the long-lived French reaction to the Jesuits is intellectually more important than anything that came out of Spain and will be dealt with at full length in future articles. But Spain indeed did provide the first really serious parochial national opposition to the work of the Society, and in a way that ultimately fits together nicely with my meditation upon my week long exile from Rocco’s.

Despite his tremendous merits, it cannot be denied that Philip II (1556-1598) often placed parochial and emasculating obstacles in the path of the corrective and transforming work of the Catholic Reformation as a whole. He accepted the decrees of the Council of Trent, but only up to the point that they did not infringe upon royal prerogatives. He sought to block papal interference in the missionary territories under Spanish control. And both he and his successor, Philip III (1598-1621), conspired together with rebellious elements in the Society to put pressure upon the Papacy to create some sort of autonomous Jesuit authority in the Iberian Peninsula that would take the “exceptional” Catholic character of its religious experience to heart. That exceptional experience required a bending of the interpretation of the universal Christian message in Spain to the local demands of the Hapsburg Monarchy and its state-controlled Inquisition. Who could think that this would not work for the benefit of the Church? After all, was not Spain the “last, best hope” of the Faith?

Claudio Acquaviva (1543-1615), son of the Duke of Atri from the Abruzzi in central Italy, and Father General of the Society from 1581 until his death in 1615, was the man who had to face these parochial Spanish assaults. A number of the specific tactics that he had to confront reveal an uncanny resemblance to current events regarding the woes of the Franciscans of the Immaculate. And his courageous and astute response to the threats that he faced, however much they might shock neo-Catholics, with their fascist conviction that every whim of The Leader must joyfully be obeyed, illustrate what a truly heroic defender of the Faith must do when he possesses something really substantive to protect.

His travail first began after the happy years of the pro-Jesuit Gregory XIII, during the reign of the hostile Sixtus V (1585-1590). It was at this time that a small group of Spanish Jesuits, led by Antonio de Araoz (1516-1573), worked clandestinely with Philip II and the royal diplomatic service to win the pope over to the cause of limiting the authority of the Father General in Spain, where the Society was said to suffer from serious deficiencies. In response to their machinations, Sixtus named Jeronimo Manrique (1538-1595), Bishop of Cartagena, as visitor to study Spanish Jesuit flaws. One of the conspirators recommended that the visitation be conducted according to the secret procedures of the Inquisition. Another insisted that the visitor himself be given the power to change the constitutions of the Society within Spain on his own. Philip II backed both suggestions.

Rather than taking the neo-Catholic route and enthusiastically inventing reasons why pope and king were absolutely correct in their desire to alter the Society, Acquaviva ordered every provincial in Spain and Portugal to prepare petitions against the visit. This was done in order to demonstrate that the calls for change were coming from a tiny minority of troublemakers alone. Seeing that Sixtus, obviously shaken in his resolve by the General’s argument that the Spanish were tricking him into weakening his own power in Spain, Acquaviva then went in for the kill. He revealed that the Bishop Visitor designated to reform the Society had himself had three illegitimate children in his youth.

Sixtus, a sincere refomer himself, relented, but only to the degree of transferring consideration of the Society’s failings to the Roman Inquisition. Aquaviva responded not only by himself addressing each and every one of the complaints of the rebel minority, but also by enlisting bishops and princes from all over to Europe to testify to the need to keep the Jesuit structure untouched, as it was. Won over by this display of support, the pope still wished to rid the Society of its “arrogant” usurpation of the name of Jesus. The order to do so was made ready and sat in the pontiff’s desk. But the most powerful friend of every victim of a hostile pope---death---then came to Aquaviva’s aid. With an enemy pontiff out of the way, a friendly one mounted the throne and all was once again temporarily well.

Several more attempts to effect the same changes were made in the reign of Clement VIII (1592-1605), who was not backward in his public criticisms of the Society of Jesus. One involved the use of a very fine Jesuit, José de Acosta (1539-1600), who, irritated at not being named a provincial in Spain, convinced the pope that the Spanish flaws of the Society required the convening of a special General Congregation. When the lack of support for his complaints was illustrated by the failure to elect a single one of the rebel minority to send to the meeting in Rome, Acosta had Philip II pressure Clement to name Francisco de Toledo (1532-1596), a personal Jesuit enemy of Aquaviva, as the first Jesuit cardinal, and then have him preside over the General Congregation. While unable to prevent his nomination as a Prince of the Church, the Father General did succeed in blocking his presidency of the Jesuit gathering. More than that, despite open papal blasting of the Society’s current state, the Fifth General Congregation of 1593 totally backed Acquaviva against all accusations, moving on to expel fifty-four “false sons” of St. Ignatius from the order.

Still influenced by the complaints against the Society and its General, Clement pursued a plan for weakening the Order by naming Acquaviva as Archbishop of Naples. This threat was removed when a Portuguese Jesuit convinced Cardinal Toledo that such a position would inevitably lead to Aquaviva’s becoming a second Society Prince of the Church, thereby diminishing his own prestige. Terrified by this possible loss of status, Toledo prevailed upon the pope to change his mind. God drew good from venal pride.

Finally, another member of the Jesuit minority, Fernando de Mendoza (d.1616), a man who had the ear of Philip III, urged the court to “invite” Acquaviva to visit Spain. Irritated by the Father General’s unwillingness to agree to what would surely lead to his imprisonment by the Spanish Inquisition, the king pressured Clement to order Aquaviva to respond favorably to his request. The General then took to his bed, either because he was truly ill, or because he possessed sufficient theatrical skills to satisfy the doctors sent to examine him by the Holy Father that he was actually indisposed. By the time he “recovered”, that best of friends of papal victims had visited Clement as he had Sixtus before him. And the demand for changes in the Society to satisfy Spanish exceptionalism died along with him.

Would that all such exceptionalism fighting the universal corrective and transforming message of Christ had died along with this one! It did not. We, today, fight that very same battle that the Jesuits fought yesterday against the much greater threat posed by American Pluralism: the most dangerous of the parochial forces that have repeatedly through the ages tried to trap and emasculate the Faith, reducing the life-giving Tradition to the demands of stultifying local half-truths and customs, and brazenly claiming that they represent the Church’s “last and best hope” in doing so.

One recent expression of this mentality can be found in an article by John Zmirak, who makes it sound as though that pitifully small number of us who do express criticisms of the American pluralist ideology somehow represent a terrifying threat, under whose blows this beneficent and pro-Catholic idol runs the risk of crumbling into ruin. He propounds this tale of traditionalist terror with a sense of outrage that anyone would even joke about the pluralist dogma of “religious tolerance” and the history of American “freedom”, much less actually call it seriously into question.

Although I myself am one of the blasphemers taken to task in the Zmirak piece for having dared to make fun of the Puritans and their Thanksgiving celebration, I have no intention of answering him here. I have spent half my life doing just that sort of answering, over and over again, only to find that my substantive arguments are dealt with by means of mockery, while the same tired depiction of an idealized Anglo-American system is presented as the only possible alternative to the inevitable flaws of everything that came before its redemptive birth. Anyone who wants to see the many, many words that I have written on this subject can find all that he wants on my website (For the Whole Christ, jcrao.freeshell.org). There is really only one central aspect of the problem, related to the theme discussed above, that I do wish briefly to confront here, and to do so, let me return to my relationship with my favorite café.

Despite the noises and inconveniences surrounding my Stammtisch at Rocco’s, I prefer laboring here because I feel like a human being when I am present. Opportunities come up to have regular interaction with my living neighbors, who actually talk to me about my ideas and their practical implementation. Sometimes these opportunities are more like disturbances because the neighbors irritate me, arguing with me bitterly and making me depressed at the seeming futility of the whole Catholic venture. Sometimes they give me cause for hope, with people listening intently to what I have to say. Sometimes both the irritants and the friendly interlocutors point out mistakes in my argumentation or hypocrisies in my own behavior that I am forced to admit and correct. They offer a “mixed bag” of interruptions at best, with the irritants generally having the edge. But, after all, that’s what life is like.

When I am forced to go to the library, where I must of necessity keep quiet, I admittedly have no depressing irritants to handle, but I never have a serious and hopeful discussion with anyone either. My life and the lives of all of those around me are hermetically sealed; interrupted only with the occasional “excuse me”, “thank you”, and the requisite, accompanying, and highly unthreatening smiles. I have no impact on anyone and no one else has an impact on me. Everything that I do in that kind of environment takes on a rather sterile character in consequence. I have the feeling that I am slaving among the living dead, and I look upon a return to the city streets, with all of their own “mixed bag” of uplifting and revolting experiences, as liberation from a mausoleum. In a mausoleum, nothing happens. On the living streets, anything can take place---for the good as well as for the bad.

The problem with the whole Anglo-American system, from its birth at the time of the Glorious Revolution down to its current, evangelical, worldwide Blitzkrieg, is a related one. It wants to abolish disturbances and it ends by replacing all meaningful and effective intellectual and spiritual life with life among the intellectually and spiritually dead. In other words, it wants to move people into the mausoleum and away from life in a society where things---like Faith, Reason, and all of the manifold stuff of existence---are allowed to disturb the daily routine, permitting men and institutions to confront their ideas, argue, and possibly change their behavior.

It was precisely because the men of past Christian centuries really “lived” and expected that all of the intellectual and spiritual aspects of life were going to have an influence over events that states took an interest in religious questions and the church in political ones. It was precisely because of this that---along with their successful interventions in each other’s primary sphere---State and Church inevitably also marred the work of transforming all of nature for the greater glory of God with their mistakes and their sins.

The Anglo-American system does, indeed, end such interferences and the tragic mistakes and sins accompanying them. But, once again, it creates its Peaceable Kingdom at the price of making the intellect and the spirit socially meaningless. It provides men with a tranquil life in an intellectual and spiritual tomb, leaving the public square open to manipulation by materialist---chiefly property-focused or libidinous---concerns alone. The State does not interfere with the Church because for all intents and purposes it has reduced her to the status of a Bowling Society. Who cares about a bishop who will slavishly praise your system to the skies for reducing him to a cipher? He can shout all the “hosannas” he wants as long he keeps his eyes on the bowling pins and leaves the global community free to make big time bucks.

This intellectual and spiritual reductionism the Society of Jesus, at least at its origins, could never allow. Hence, its early battles with a European world that often sought to flee from its Catholic boat rocking influence. True Traditionalists can never allow such reductionism either. The only people who find hope and joy in this emasculation are those who see the Church’s sole political and social responsibility as that of admitting publically that her “last and best hope” lies in telling Christ to put His sword back into his sheath and butting out of what really matters in life: worshipping America first and Catholicism only insofar as it fits sacred and unquestionable American needs. What goes around comes around.

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