Understanding the Jesuits
At a press conference one day last summer, a newspaper correspondent asked me how I could combine being a Jesuit with being a cardinal. I at first imagined that she might be alluding to the fact that as a cardinal I might have to compromise on my vows of poverty and obedience to my Jesuit superiors, but then the true meaning of her question became clear. She explained that cardinals are supposed to support the teaching of the Pope, while Jesuits belong to the intellectual opposition, secretly if not publicly contesting the official doctrine of the Church. Are they not cleverer and wiser than the hierarchical Church, the subversive vanguard of the future Church?It is, of course, the younger group that holds out the hope for a vital Catholicism among the Jesuits.
I replied that she had been guided by the chauvinist myth about the Society of Jesus, but not by the reality. The Jesuit order, I explained, has been from its origins at the service and disposal of the papacy. With its headquarters in Rome, it has a long and distinguished record of collaborating with the Holy See and of rendering assistance in the preparation of papal and conciliar documents....
Many of the works of the Jesuit order are prospering. Its universities in the United States have larger enrollments and more academic prestige than ever before, Jesuit high schools are attracting large numbers of excellent students, and some Jesuit publications and parishes are very successful. The quality of young men joining the Society is as high as ever, but the number of new recruits is dramatically down, and the decline is bound to have a negative impact on traditionally Jesuit apostolates.
Many blame the dominant “consumerist” culture for the downturn in vocations, which has in fact affected most religious orders and diocesan churches in Europe, North America, and Australia. But some religious orders, even in the United States, are increasing rapidly, and some dioceses are attracting large numbers of seminarians. The vocations seem to be there, but the Jesuits, at the moment, are getting too few of them....
If a wake-up call is needed, we have it in Passionate Uncertainty: Inside the American Jesuits, a new book by Peter McDonough and Eugene C. Bianchi. It contains an abundance of useful information, even though it is in many respects a flawed study.
The thesis of the book may be summarized roughly as follows. The Society of Jesus is caught in a bind. The hierarchical Church is a rigid institution striving in vain to bring the behavior and ideas of its members into line with traditional orthodoxy. Especially under the “restorationist” regime of Pope John Paul II the Church has stubbornly rejected the democratic reforms that are needed. The bishops are impotent creatures of the Vatican. Jesuits, for the most part, are to be praised for deploring the repressive structures but at the same time pitied for their inability to change the situation. As a religious order, the Society is bound to preserve at least the appearance of conformity. Even among Jesuits, therefore, dissent has for the most part gone underground.
For my part, I can say that I recognize among Jesuits, as among other priests and religious in the United States, the various trends reported in [the book’s] survey. The opinions of traditionalists, moderates, liberals, and radical reformers are dutifully recorded-even to the point of tedium. Some distinctions are made between older and younger Jesuits. But little light is thrown on the inner dynamics of recent decades, which have affected not only Jesuits but other religious orders, diocesan clergy, and laity.
The distinction, I believe, is not between older and younger Jesuits-the categories most often used by the authors-but rather between those whose attitudes were shaped by the ideological revolutions of the 1960s and the rest of the Society. For the most part, the Jesuits who had completed their formation before Vatican II have remained faithful to their previous vision of the Church and the Society, and were able to integrate Vatican II into that vision. But then came a group who belonged to the restless “baby-boom” generation. Like many of their contemporaries, they became wildly optimistic about secularization in the early 1960s, and then in the early 1970s deeply involved in protests against the Vietnam War and in fighting for various social causes. They interpreted Vatican II as a kind of “palace revolution” in which the bishops put limits on the papacy, decentralized the Church, and transferred to the laity many powers formerly reserved to priests. The Council, some believe, renounced the high claims previously made for the Church and put Catholic Christianity on a plane of equality with other churches and religions. It also ostensibly embraced the modern world and the process of secularization.
Armed with their “progressive” reading of Vatican II, American Jesuits of this transitional generation became more committed to the struggle for social reform than to the propagation of Christian faith. They saw little but evil in pre-conciliar Catholicism. Drifting from historical consciousness into historical relativism, some of this generation questioned the current validity of the accepted creeds and dogmas of the Church. At the present moment members of this intermediate age group hold positions of greatest power and influence in the Society, but they no longer represent the cutting edge. A younger group is arising, much more committed to the Church and its traditions.
But it’s the “baby-boom” generation that has power today, especially in supposedly Jesuit universities like Marquette.
A few Jesuits in their fifties and sixties believe that the Church “as we know it” is destined soon to collapse. This group tends to be critical of Pope John Paul II and his alleged attempts to silence dissent. Some express perplexity about the sacerdotal aspects of the Jesuit calling. Especially in the theological schools, which have a large enrollment of women students, Jesuit faculty members are reluctant to bring up the topic of priestly ordination. Some formation directors seem to have been infected with a critical attitude toward hierarchy and priesthood. One is quoted as saying:You may wish to read the remainder of the essay, and Dulles’ rather optimistic conclusion.I see the hierarchical Church’s direction today as different from but not antithetical to that of the Society. The hierarchical Church is often concerned with orthodoxy, clerical advancement, maintenance of church power, univocal thinking, and being right. I think these concerns hurt the whole Church.Ignatius might indeed want to restrain the craving for clerical advancement, but he could hardly be imagined making light of orthodoxy. He would have swiftly removed any formation director who showed hostility to the “hierarchical Church.”
A new generation of seminarians and religious is arising, not only in the Jesuits but in the nation at large. This generation is not interested in denigrating the past or in liberating itself from the shackles of orthodoxy. On the contrary, it consists of young men eager to retrieve the tradition of former centuries and to serve the hierarchical Church as it exists today. This generation receives little recognition in the McDonough-Bianchi study, but some indications are nevertheless given.
The testimonies of Jesuits under forty are encouraging. A thirty-seven-year-old Jesuit says, for instance, that “our order, by its very constitution, cannot ever separate itself from the Catholic Church.” It must always be in union with Rome. We cannot be a “church within the Church” or an “alternative church.” A thirty-six-year-old theology student has this to say: “I entered to help support the direction that Pope John Paul II has given the Church. The Society has a mixed response to this direction, and the confusion it causes will ultimately hurt the effectiveness of the Society.”
In the same vein a thirty-year-old student of theology is quoted as saying, very perceptively: “If the stance of the Society is widely perceived as anti-institutional hierarchy, anti-Vatican, anti-pope, and if political and politically correct norms are used to select candidates for the Society, most of those who wish to serve Christ’s Church will go elsewhere.” On reflection it should be evident that it makes little sense to take vows and seek ordination in a religious order unless one is committed to support and serve the hierarchical Church.
Besides the cancer of opposition to hierarchical authority, another disease that needs to be cured is the ambivalence about priesthood. A thirty-one-year-old Jesuit complains: “In the two theologates that I attended . . . I didn’t find anyone providing a cogent explanation of ordained ministry and its relation to lay ministry.” Still another, aged thirty-five and already ordained, writes:I find much of our energy is spent in fighting the battles of the immediate fallout of Vatican II (battles which have left deep scars on many professors but which are not the pressing issues for Jesuits of my generation) or preparing for life in an idealized, politically correct church that does not exist now and is not likely to exist in my lifetime.The authors of Passionate Uncertainty themselves recognize that “the gravest problem is almost certainly disarray over the role of the priesthood as it pertains to ministry. This is particularly worrisome for an activist, apostolic order.” Worry as they may, McDonough and Bianchi do not help to solve the problem.
Tellingly, the word “priesthood” is rarely mentioned in our classes. In fact, this year when the third-year theologians . . . gathered in Boston, most men from all three centers reported that they had spent the last two years either ignoring or apologizing for the fact that they were preparing for ordination. Such is life in the ideologically insulated and trendy city-states on the self-proclaimed cutting edge of theology.
In addition to the difficulties of some Jesuits with hierarchy and priesthood, a third problem is prominent. Jesuits are conscious of a displacement of religion by psychology and of a move from the apostolic to the therapeutic understanding of the religious life. At least some of the younger Jesuits seem to be more interested in personal fulfillment than in service to the Society and its mission. “Therapists,” one young Jesuit reports, “are accorded the kind of authority and deference that was once reserved for spiritual directors and superiors.” The recent turn toward human affectivity and personal fulfillment may be connected with the alleged increase of homosexual tendencies among younger members in the Society of Jesus as well as in other religious orders and diocesan seminaries.
Clearly, Dulles’ observations about the “baby-boom” generation of Jesuits explains a lot about Jesuit higher education today. A generation of largely-liberal priests, regardless of their rhetoric, is fundamentally more comfortable with secular norms about things like sexuality than with traditional Christian norms.