The Rev. John W. O’Malley, a Jesuit scholar whose depth of learning, clarity of prose and analytic prowess regarding topics as divergent as late-medieval rhetoric and the lasting impact of the Second Vatican Council earned him a reputation as the dean of Catholic historians, died on Sept. 11 in Baltimore. He was 95.
The St. Claude de la Colombiére Jesuit community, where he lived after retiring from Georgetown University in 2020, said the cause was lung cancer.
Father O’Malley joined the Jesuits at 18 and later earned a doctorate in history from Harvard, and throughout his 55-year academic career he commanded respect among both the faithful and the secular. Church leaders considered him a go-to authority, as did the Renaissance Society of America, an academic association that elected him president in 1998.
He was prolific, publishing 14 books and editing eight more. He wrote in a breezy, precise fashion that managed to convey deep thoughts in simple terms, and many of his books sold as well among lay audiences as they did among academics. Several were translated into multiple languages.
“This approach is a form of correction to myself,” he said in a 2020 interview with Brill, his Dutch publisher. “I have to be humble enough to acknowledge that if the 10-year-old does not understand, it means that, deep down, I did not understand.”
Father O’Malley wore his learning lightly. Friends called him puckish. His personal page on the website for Georgetown’s Jesuit community lists the Italian composer Giacomo Puccini among his favorite artists, but also the outré filmmaker John Waters. (Father O’Malley was especially partial to Mr. Waters’s movie “Hairspray.”)
He was perhaps best known as a historian of the Jesuit order, which was founded by Ignatius Loyola in 1540 to provide, according to conventional wisdom, the Vatican with a militant defense against the Reformation and to expand its influence through the founding of educational institutions.
Starting with “The First Jesuits” (1993), Father O’Malley showed that neither of those qualities were present at the order’s creation. By wading through thousands of letters written by Loyola and others, he concluded that the Jesuits were in fact designed as a pastoral project, intent on saving souls in the face of the dramatic social upheavals rocking Europe in the late medieval era, and only gradually took on their later reputation.
From early in his career, Father O’Malley distinguished himself through close readings of obscure, difficult texts.
His second book, “Praise and Blame in Renaissance Rome: Rhetoric, Doctrine and Reform in the Sacred Orators of the Papal Court, c. 1450-1521” (1979), won acclaim for its surgical attention to the way subtle changes in the rhetorical style of church leaders illuminated revolutionary changes in how they engaged with the world.
Analyzing style, he argued, was important in deciphering historical change, especially among something as stylized as the rituals of the Roman Catholic Church.
“Style,” he wrote, “is not a mere ornament of thought but an expression of meaning.”
He brought that same approach to his later work on Vatican II, the enormous multiyear conclave in the early 1960s that attempted to bring the Catholic Church into the modern era.
Since then, and especially since the 1980s, conservatives and liberals alike have concluded that the Vatican II reforms were ineffective, at least in the long run.
Father O’Malley strongly disagreed, staking his position in books like “What Happened at Vatican II” (2008). He acknowledged that by the 1980s many of the overt changes wrought by Vatican II had been curtailed. But he also saw nuanced changes in the way the church asserted its authority, becoming less dictatorial and more bent on persuasion.
“Vatican II was unprecedented,” he wrote, “for the notice it took of changes in society at large and for its refusal to see them in globally negative terms as devolutions from an older and happier era.”
In other words, history is rarely about continuity versus change; rather, the challenge is to see them both at the same time. As Father O’Malley liked to say, “Tradition is not inert but dynamic.”
John William O’Malley was born on June 11, 1927, in Tiltonsville, Ohio, a small town opposite West Virginia along the Ohio River. He was the only child of Charles O’Malley, who managed sales for a wholesale confectioner, and Elizabeth (Gallagher) O’Malley, a homemaker.
He grew up among Catholics and Protestants, both in his own family (his father’s side, despite his Irish surname, was largely German) and among the tight-knit Tiltonsville community.
“Long before anyone in our milieu had heard the word ecumenical,” he wrote in The Catholic Historical Review in 2007, “we kids were ecumenical in our social relations.”
By high school he had decided to become a priest, and though he had never met a Jesuit, he was attracted by the order’s commitment to teaching. He entered the novitiate in 1946 and was ordained in 1959.
Intent on receiving a doctorate in German history, he spent the last year of his Jesuit training in rural Austria. It was an isolating experience that nevertheless offered insight into the difficulties of his future profession.
“I realized in a depth no book could ever teach me how difficult it is to empathize with and understand a culture not one’s own, whether those were cultures of the 16th or of the 20th centuries,” he wrote in The Catholic Historical Review.
A vacation to Italy, and a chance encounter with a heavenly scoop of gelato, persuaded him to change focus from German to Italian church history. He took his final vows as a Jesuit in 1963, two years before receiving his Ph.D. from Harvard.
Father O’Malley taught at the University of Detroit for 14 years before transferring to the Weston Jesuit School of Theology, now the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. He transferred to Georgetown in 2006.
No immediate family members survive.