Are the Jesuits Militaristic?

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

9 Responses to Are the Jesuits Militaristic?

  1. Thank you for this post. Right wing Catholic bloggers and organizations (like Donald as well as Catholics in the Military) have been using Ignatius as an example of a “military saint” for years, conveniently overlooking the fact that he left the military. I’ve reminded Donald of this fact, as well as his misinterpretation of the so-called “militaristic” language of the Society, but my comments are swiftly deleted. The continued use of Ignatius’ story in the service of proto-fascist political views is a scandal.

  2. Metaphor is a tricky thing for people to get their heads around, as is the historically contextual nature of language. People get confused with these when they read Ignatius I think.

  3. Nathan (or should it be Fr. Nathan?),

    Thank you for the solid post.

    Another element which might come into play here, which would be of less appear now, is that in Ignatius’ time there was a very clear hierarchy of vocations in the mind of most of the faithful. In this regard, St. Ignatius’ vocation as a priest was obviously much higher than his abandoned life as a soldier. Of course, in the same worldview, your vocation as a priest would be seen as much higher than the vocations of the lay faithful, etc. So while I don’t think there’s any question that St. Ignatius’ life as a religious was seen as much higher than his previous life, it’s not necessarily because of pacifism in the modern sense.

    I suppose an interesting question would be the implications of Ignatius (and various other saints who used the imagery of chivalry to talk about the religious life) using martial imagery. Does that indicate an acceptance that chivalry did in fact represent a worthwhile vocation (though a lower one than the religious life) embodying martial virtues such as bravery and loyalty, or was it seen as a concession to the values of a corrupt culture? I would think the former, though I suppose if one was an absolute pacifist one would have to take the latter.


    The reason that your comments were deleted over at American Catholic was not because you were arguing against the idea of Ignatius being a “military saint”, but because you kept insulting the author of the post and various other commenters. Low level stuff like calling people “you twit” was tolerated, but when you started calling everyone fascists and cowards and more, I can’t blame Donald for deciding to keep order in the comment boxes.

    You are certainly always welcome to enter into discussion there if you are open to maintaining a polite tone.

  4. bill bannon says:

    And yet the Roman centurion had the most faith that Christ had found in all Israel according to Christ Himself… so we need to watch that our emphasis on separate and juxtaposing states does not get out of hand when discussing the military.
    Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologica has an interesting section which distinguishes the state of perfection (religious life and that of vows) from a person actually having perfection. Catholicism tends to emphasize states without discussing what Aquinas was driving at.
    Aquinas states (2nd Pt. of the 2nd Pt./question 184/article 4):
    ” Wherefore nothing hinders some from being perfect without being in the state of perfection, and some in the state of perfection without being perfect.”
    Hence Christ notes the poor widow’s mite and the Roman centurion having more faith than the professionally religious of his time. He noted that… perhaps partly so that we never exaggerate about the holiness nor sinfulness of justaposed but legitimage states. Pope Alexander VI had less objective chastity
    than most of the people in most of our families…having had 6 children while a Cardinal and several mistresses while Pope (one of whom was a young married girl). Borders books has “The Pope’s Daughter” which is about one of the daughters of Pope Julius II…Felice… whom he acknowledged in public.
    Let us remember all these people…the widow, the Roman centurion, Alexander VI, Julius II…whenever we are on the verge of missing Christ’s point as to not placing too much stock in actual states.

  5. DarwinCatholic,

    I hope I didn’t imply that I think Ignatius was a pacifist. That was not my intention, since I have no expertise to make a claim of that sort.

    As to your point about chivalry, that is an interesting question. Ignatius quite clearly abandoned his former life of chivalry as empty and dishonorable, but whether he would have distinguished between his romantic stories that hew as reading and a virtuous knight I’m not sure. I’m inclined with you to think that by employing martial imagery, Ignatius was conceding something in language while also subverting it. As I wrote in my post about poverty, what mattered most to Ignatius was that a.) one was free from all inordinate attachments and b.)one had brought one’s desires into comformity with the desires of Christ. He using knightly language to explain these two points to his audience.


    I presume you are speaking to DarwinCatholic since I did not write about states. But I agree with what you say.

  6. And it should only be Nathan. None of us are Fathers yet.

  7. Darwin – I also agree that there is no evidence that Ignatius was a pacifist but it is wrong to invoke him as a military saint in the way Donald and “Catholics in the Military” do.

  8. This is a translation of the collect from the 1962 Missal on the occasion of St. Ignatius’ Memorial:

    “O God, who to spread the greater glory of Thy name, didst, by means of blessed Ignatius, strengthen the church militant with a new army: grant that with his help and through his example we may so fight on earth as to become worthy to be crowned with him in heaven.”

    St. Ignatius Loyola was a man for others who marched under the Cross of Christ the King. The above prayer does not applaud some sort of militarism that counts “souls won for the Lord” like so many notches on a soldier’s belt. Rather, the militaristic language of this prayer points to what is at stake: our very lives! A soldier is willing to die in the King’s service: “whosoever would save his life will lose it, but whosoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

    Yet, the Gospel goes beyond and perfects such militarism. Our enemies are not non-believers. Rather, persons who have not heard or accepted the Gospel are the very ones we’re working for, striving for, fighting for. Our weapons do not consist of bayonets or bullets, but the Sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God (cf. Eph. 6). Our strengths lie not merely in our gifts, but in those places in ourselves where we are weak, that God’s power may be made manifest in our weaknesses (cf. 2 Cor. 12:9).

    This is a different militarism altogether. This is the militarism of the childlike heart that seeks only the triumph of the good and the defeat of the Evil One, the Enemy of our human nature (as St. Ignatius called him). This is the militarism of God: “The LORD is a warrior; LORD is His name!” (Ex. 15:3). GK Chesterton describes this childlike militarism that perhaps Ignatius would generously embrace:

    “A child’s instinct is almost perfect in the matter of fighting; a child always stands for the good militarism as against the bad. The child’s hero is always the man or boy who defends himself suddenly and splendidly against aggression. The child’s hero is never the man or boy who attempts by his mere personal force to extend his mere personal influence. In all boys’ books, in all boys’ conversation, the hero is one person and the bully the other.

    But really to talk of this small human creature, who never picks up an umbrella without trying to use it as a sword, who will hardly read a book in which there is no fighting, who out of the Bible itself generally remembers the “bluggy” [bloody] parts, who never walks down the garden without imagining himself to be stuck all over with swords and daggers–to take this human creature and talk about the wickedness of teaching him to be military, seems rather a wild piece of humour. He has already not only the tradition of fighting, but a far manlier and more genial tradition of fighting than our own. No; I am not in favour of the child being taught militarism. I am in favour of the child teaching it.”

  9. You know what I love so much? His Lady Mistress. This is the historical romance that got me into Elizabeth Rolls, and I simply adored it it. The romance was mind blowing and very sensual, the characters are believably flawed (sometimes this is difficult for romance novelists to accomplish) and while it is (as always) frustrating to see how their problems could be resolved with an honest conversation about their misunderstandings, it is easy to see how the misunderstandings come to be and why each character stays within themselves instead of becoming vulnerable. Max’s difficult family life is further explained in “A Compromised Lady,” which is the story of Richard’s romance. I have read and reread this book – LOVE IT.

    Historical Romance Novels

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