13 April 2017, The Tablet

The cleverest of Jesuits


A Scottish philosopher recalls a period in which the Society of Jesus was at the heart of an English Catholic intellectual and cultural renaissance, and describes the singular contribution of Frederick Copleston, the first principal of Heythrop College

Fr rothschild sj is the first character to appear in Evelyn Waugh’s 1930 novel Vile Bodies. He is an ambiguous figure, secretive and unctuous but learned and clever. Evidently Waugh was invoking a prejudicial stereotype familiar to his non-Catholic readers. Within a few months, however, he began to discover the Jesuits at first hand, beginning with Fr Martin D’Arcy SJ who provided instruction and received him into the Church before the year was out.

Thereafter such phrases as “a very clever Jesuit” appear in Waugh’s letters and diaries without a sense of irony, often recommending D’Arcy or Philip Caraman SJ to some would-be convert. The latter was editor of the Jesuit magazine The Month from 1948 to 1964 and, like D’Arcy, attracted a collection of brilliant writers and cultural figures including Graham Greene, Muriel Spark, Alec Guinness and Edith Sitwell. “Caramanserai” was coined to refer to Caraman’s company of converts, just as “objets D’Arcy” had been given to the sacred artworks acquired by D’Arcy for the adornment of Campion Hall, Oxford, of which he was Master from 1933 to 1945.

Very quickly the image of the English Jesuits changed from one of agents of intrigue to participants in, and contributors to, an intellectual, cultural and spiritual renaissance centred on Campion Hall, and Farm Street Church, London. Other figures in this vein included Cyril Martindale and Peter Levi.

Apart from associations of time and place, and of intellectual and cultural interests, a thread linking these figures was their study of philosophy. That was and remains a part of all Jesuit formation, but D’Arcy and Martindale excelled in their studies and the former lectured and published as a philosopher. By far the best-known Jesuit figure in that field, however, whose reputation became international, was Frederick Copleston.

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