John T. McGreevy is I.A. O’Shaughnessy Dean of the College of Arts & Letters and Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. This interview is based on his new book, American Jesuits and the World: How an Embattled Religious Order Made Modern Catholicism Global.
JF: What led you to write American Jesuits and the World? (Princeton University Press, 2016).
JM: I first fell in love with the primary source material. I had come across accounts of the tarring and feathering of John Bapst, S.J., in Ellsworth, Maine, in 1854, when researching my second book Catholicism and American Freedom: A History (Norton, 2003). I didn’t think Bapst’s story had been properly told. And so I began mulling over the idea of telling several stories about nineteenth century Catholicism in a a way that would attract general interest readers and still advance an historical argument.
That historical argument was around globalization. The late C.A. Bayly’s The Birth of the Modern World, 1780-1914 (Blackwell, 2004) was an important book for me and his framework and that of others seemed a vital way to better understand that the most local and personal of experiences, religious experience, could be better understood in a global context.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of American Jesuits and the World?
JM: We cannot understand global history without a sharper understanding of Roman Catholicism, the world’s most global and multicultural institution. And the Jesuits are central to any understanding to the development and spread of modern Roman Catholicism.
JF: Why do we need to read American Jesuits and the World?
JM: See question #2. It seems to me crucial that we become better at telling and assessing more global histories . (This is not to say that all histories should become global.) My hope is that American Jesuits and the World informs that historiographical project, even as it helps historians of modern Catholicism better understand their own subject and make contributions to a larger conversation. More modestly the structure of the book — European Jesuits coming to the United States from Turin, Belgium, France etc. and US Jesuits then scattering to the Philippines, South America etc. — may help Catholics in the United States better understand the flux of the current moment.
JF: Why and when did you decide to become an American historian?
JM: I loved studying history as an undergraduate. But I had no idea what to do next. I thought about law school and took the LSAT. But I was also encouraged by professors to think about graduate school. I applied to several (and was rejected by almost all of them probably because I had no real idea of a dissertation topic or research agenda). I was lucky enough to be admitted off the waitlist at Stanford. There I met excellent faculty and graduate students and thoroughly enjoyed learning about and writing about US history. I still wondered if such a career made enough “difference” in the world. I eventually thought it did. And I was then lucky — truly — enough to find a job and go on my way toward a career.
JF: What will you write about next?
JM: I’m not sure. I’ve toyed with the idea of writing a global history of Catholicism but at the moment I’m happily preoccupied with finishing my term as Dean of the College of Arts and Letters at my university. Such a project would need some time.
JF: Thanks, John!