I take a break to answer this question since it was a matter of some debate at The American Catholic following a few posts on Jesuits in the military. The articles have been written by one Donald R. McClarey. In response to a comment about Ignatius leaving the military, one commentator (Rick) states: “Seems the Company of Jesus is related to the military in its very makeup and its founder’s roots and vision.” Donald chimes in a couple of posts later, agreeing: “And Saint Ignatius was the General of the Order, required military style obedience, used military imagery throughout his writings and had no qualms about Jesuits serving as military chaplains. Rick nails it.” Well, most of that is not quite right. Actually, it is quite wrong, but is a prevalent myth that circulates. So I thought it high time to clear up a few questions.
Easy ones first. It is a common misconception that the title “Superior General” for the top boss in the Society of Jesus is a military term. Not true. It simply is meant as a category apart from superiors “particular” who are in charge in local houses and communities. ”General” here is simply meant to mean the opposite of “particular,” not to have military meaning. The Latin here is praepositus generalis. The word is an adjective, not a noun.
Next, the slightly more unruly question of the Society of Jesus being “related to the military” or using “military imagery.” The first is not true, unless one wishes to point out that Ignatius left the military. Even so, the second is more accurate, but only if understood in the proper sense. The most obvious place where Ignatius used “military” language is in the quote from the Formula of the Institute on our home page: “as a soldier of God beneath the banner of the cross.” The Latin is: “militare Deo sub vexillo crucis.” O’Malley points out that militare Deo was a medieval synonym for a member of a religious order. Thus, Ignatius was simply borrowing from a common heritage rather than coining something particularly militaristic for his new company.
One must go back to the Spiritual Exercises to find a fuller explanation of “military” imagery in Ignatius. If Ignatius borrowed the language of “soldier of Christ” from other religious orders, was there anything unique about his usage of “military” metaphor? Yes, but not as is often thought. It is important to distinguish carefully Prussian style soldiering with the knighthood with which Ignatius was used to. To think of Jesuit obedience, for instance, as militaristic in the modern sense is anachronistic. Rather, the metaphor that Ignatius uses in the Exercises is borrowed from his books of knights errant that he grew up reading. Amadis de Gaul was his favorite. These knights were models for Ignatius precisely insofar as they made particular elections for the sake of particular personal ideals when drawn by particular charismatic figures. Whether this was for a lady or a king, there was a profoundly vocational and personal dimension to the decision of a knight to go on a quest, rather than any nationalistic one. These quests had goals and were responses to persons. The imperative came from inside the knight in response to a perceived value found in someone.
It is from this heritage that Ignatius borrowed. In the meditations of the Kingdom of Christ and The Two Standards, Ignatius uses the language of knighthood to explain the kind of thing that happens when someone decides to follow Christ. Christ challenges that those who follow him must be content with the “same food, drink, clothing, etc. as mine.” Remember that this clothing is the pilgrim cloak of Ignatius, not his weapons that he turned over to Our Lady at Montserrat. All military language in the Exercises has been employed purely on behalf of the kind of election that a knight would make when personally drawn to a heroic figure. That is light years away from modern nationalistic warfare.
Finally, the thorny question of Jesuit obedience being “militaristic.” It should be remembered that the first companions were very reluctant about taking a vow of obedience, since they had little confidence in human ability. One early companion said in the deliberations that “the weakness and inconstancy of men is such that many seek selfish ends and their own will, rather than the desires of Jesus Christ and their own total self-abnegation.” Eventually they decided though that for the sake of mobility, obedience was required. Possibly the best early explanation comes from a letter of Ignatius to the Jesuits at Gandia. He commended obedience for the Society of Jesus
which is made up of highly educated men, some of whom are sent on important missions by the pope and other prelates, others scattered in remote places, far from any superior, associating with great personages — and for many other reasons. Now, if their obedience is not of a very high quality, such men could hardly be governed at all.
It was realized that for practical reasons, obedience was necessary, and it was only later that Jesuits realized that their own specific form of mortification and self-abnegation was in the submission of their wills. Once again, this was a discerned election rather than a command. The famous letter on obedience sent to Simon Rodrigues never once mentions a military metaphor. The metaphor of a Jesuit being like a dead corpse in a river is borrowed not from military language but from St. Bonaventure. For more on the nature of Jesuit obedience, see what I wrote here.
Jesuits have always thought of themselves as being engaged in a battle. But this battle as Paul says in Ephesians 6 is “not against flesh and blood.” We must be careful to distinguish the particular meaning of Jesuit “military” language, or we can end up doing much harm to the charism.
Nathan O’Halloran, SJ