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For the greater glory of God: The political ascendancy of the Jesuits

Sam Murray looks at right-leaning politicians educated by the left-leaning Church

Image: Lucy Watson
Image: Lucy Watson
Image: Lucy Watson


What do the Prime Minister, the prospective leader of the Labor Party and the Deputy Leader of the Nationals have in common with the Pope?

Tony Abbott, Bill Shorten and Barnaby Joyce, as well as Joe Hockey and Christopher Pyne, were educated at elite private high schools run by the Society of Jesus, or the Jesuits – the same Catholic order to which the recently appointed Pope Francis I belongs. The representation of Jesuit-educated politicians in the Australian political scene is disproportionately high, given that there are only four such schools, all male only, in the country. Even Malcolm Turnbull was apparently received into the Catholic faith by a Jesuit priest.

Founded by the Spanish soldier St Ignatius of Loyola in 1540 with the motto ‘ad maiorem Dei gloriam’ (‘for the greater glory of God’), it was initially created as an order of ‘soldiers for God’ with a focus on theological meditation. It grew, developing a focus on both missionary evangelism and education by grooming its students for intellectual thought and civic duty.The omnipresence of Jesuit-educated right-leaning politicians in Australia is particularly notable if only for the fact that the Jesuits have always been considered one of the more progressive factions within the Catholic Church, having been at the forefront of Church support for scientific research. The Jesuit priest Georges LeMaitre, for instance, was one of the originators of the Big Bang theory. Even more curiously, the Jesuits have pushed to reform the Catholic Church, playing a large role in the 16th century Counter Reformation and the more recent Vatican II. It is perhaps this zeal for reform that is behind Pope Francis’ more unorthodox statements, such as his apparently relaxed stance towards homosexuals and atheists, and their chances of salvation.

Jesuit education in particular is emblematic of these progressive impulses with a focus on teaching their students to be “men for others” and to recognise the role of critical thought in addition to faith in the formation of one’s belief system. A Jesuit education also has a very strong social justice focus. The Society calls upon dozens of examples of admirable Jesuit saints, from the missionary St Francis Xavier, to the Elizabethan martyr St Robert Southwell, to the plague worker St Aloysius, to inspire its students.

It is perhaps this focus on rational thought, social justice, and a long tradition of theological reform that gives the Jesuits and their philosophy of the Magis (finding God in all things) an enduring relevance to students, which is increasingly difficult to find with other forms of Catholic education.

However, to see the Jesuits as a radical force preaching a new progressive form of Catholicism that, in an apparent contradiction, produces right-wing politicians is a simplistic way of seeing how the Society and the schools’ alumni see themselves. Although the Society places an enormous focus on social justice and civic responsibility, it is actually one of the less prescriptive institutions in the Catholic Church. Through a series of theological meditations designed by the founder himself, called the Spiritual Exercises, it encourages individual engagement with what justice and responsibility mean, leaving the believer to grapple with their core beliefs and values. This may explain why its students leave the school with such varied notions of what to do with their lives, aptly illustrated a few months ago when St Ignatius College students wrote to Tony Abbott  asking him to change his position on asylum seekers and appealing to his Jesuit education, thus revealing how a Jesuit education can inspire radically different notions of what it means to be a “man for others” in society.

Given the recent ascendancy of Jesuit-affiliated personalities to the halls of power, it leaves the rest of us to see whether the Jesuit schools’ more reformist and progressive tendencies have left any effect on their former alumni.