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Passionate UncertaintyInside the American Jesuits
By Peter McDonough Eugene C. Bianchi
University of CaliforniaCopyright © 2002 Regents of the University of California
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Chapter OneCatholicism is a paradoxical holdout. The Second Vatican Council (Vatican II, 1962-65)-the watershed conclave of ecclesiastical leaders held in Rome in the early 1960s-set in motion reforms that led the Roman Catholic church to support democratization in Latin America, East Asia, and Eastern and Central Europe. But on the inside, Catholicism has retained its hierarchical traditions, excluding women from the priesthood and hewing to a conservative line on issues involving what one Jesuit has called "pelvic theology"-celibacy, contraception, divorce, abortion, and the like. While its outreach has tilted leftward, the power structure of Catholicism remains confined to male clerics.
The Jesuits, the fabled group of educators and missionaries whose origins date back to the Renaissance, are caught in these crosscurrents. As the order ages and shrinks in numbers, the Society of Jesus has seen its schools and other operations increasingly staffed and run by laymen and laywomen. By and large, Jesuits have encouraged this transformation. At the same time, the shift impinges on clerical roles and priestly identity and leaves Jesuits searching for corporate purpose.
The sea-change experienced by the Jesuits has been cultural as well as institutional. Since the 1960s, and especially since the papacy made clear that it would not revisit off-limits areas such as birth control and the ordination of women, many Jesuits have lived in tacit dissent. The gap between the official teaching of the church and the practice of its middle managers-nuns as well as priests, including Jesuits-has widened.
The confluence of these organizational and cultural changes has precipitated a crisis not only among the Jesuits but also, more broadly, within the priesthood and by extension within the governing structure of Catholicism. Long-term demographics work against the replenishment of clerical ranks restricted to celibate males. The number of Catholics continues to grow as vocations to the consecrated life decline. Among Jesuits who remain, lack of conviction about once-solid moral verities is at least as common as outright polarization between defenders of a return to the old code and advocates of reform.
The sensible thing would seem to be to expand clerical numbers by relaxing the rules of membership-by abolishing restrictions regarding priestly celibacy and the ordination of women. But problems in Catholicism are rarely settled on the grounds of fairness, efficiency, or public opinion. "Men must be changed by religion," a prominent Counter-Reformation prelate argued in words that would become a rallying cry for upholders of tradition, "not religion by men."
The Jesuits are in a bind. They cannot go back, insofar as that course would entail a return to clerical dominance in an age of lay ascendancy. But they cannot move forward without placing their clerical identity at risk.
Jesuits have reacted to the threat of evaporating identity by changing from a prominent if rather parochial subcultural presence to a countercultural movement. Attachments to causes and symbols that distance them from the mainstream range from adherence to religious neoconservatism, to the advocacy of radical social change, to the cultivation of a gay lifestyle, to involvement with non-Western religions. The countercultural turn-"strategy" has too purposeful a connotation-has neither boosted numbers nor contributed to the coherence of the Society. But it has kept the order from extinction by way of assimilation, and a semblance of distinctiveness has been maintained.
This is not the whole story. Another factor making for survival is that many Jesuits take genuine pleasure in their work, flying below the radar of the Vatican, and a few actually agree with the direction set by Rome. Finally, and somewhat ironically, the tendency for those in religious life to resolve their problems in personal terms, through recourse to therapy and versions of privatized spirituality, may smack of "modern individualism," but it poses little direct challenge to the Catholic hierarchy.
For all this, the steady depletion of clerical manpower jeopardizes not only the ministerial prowess but also the authority structure of the church. A thunderous contradiction exists between ministerial ambitions and clerical capacity. Something has to give.
Passionate Uncertainty looks at this drama from the perspective of key players: Jesuits who have stayed with the institution and those who have abandoned the clerical enterprise. The troubles facing the Jesuits closely resemble those afflicting the clergy in general. With the ascent of the laity, the crisis of priestly identity and purpose has become a crisis of church leadership. Insofar as the laity look toward the representatives of the church for insight into their spiritual lives, their own sense of identity is also in crisis.
The Society of Jesus stands at the terminus of a long evolution in religious life. In the heyday of the order, the versatility of the Jesuits represented not just the culmination of the priestly ideal joined to worldly activism. In Europe, Jesuits were also the vanguard of papal ambitions for dominance in the political realm. Not until the 1960s, with the reforms of Vatican II, did ecclesiastical authorities relinquish their dream of the union of church and state. Now, having revamped its political goals, the church finds itself with less and less clerical manpower to carry out its ministerial functions. We are left with a landscape, in the words of Wallace Stevens, "like the scenery of a play that has come to an end."
Chapter TwoThe story of the Jesuits falls into three acts. The first ended abruptly in 1773, when the pope issued an edict to suppress the Society. The Jesuits, celebrated not only for their schools and their missionary work but also for their activities as court advisers, had aroused the hostility of absolutist monarchs and the enmity of rivals within the church. Except in Russia, where rulers declined to receive the papal edict, the Jesuits were disbanded, and their property was confiscated. Many became secular priests, and the superior-general of the order died in a papal prison in Rome.
After a forty-year hiatus, a papacy alarmed by upheavals attendant on the French Revolution restored the Society of Jesus. The period from 1814 until Vatican II in the 1960s constitutes the second act in the saga of the Jesuits. Once again on the upswing, the restored Society was associated with conservative, antidemocratic elements through much of the nineteenth and the first part of the twentieth century in Europe. The order was identified with "ultramontane" support for the universal, transnational supremacy of the pope. Jesuits in the United States, though growing rapidly, had a lower political profile than their counterparts in Europe. Georgetown University, the country's oldest Catholic institution of higher learning, was inaugurated in 1789 under the auspices of Bishop John Carroll, a former Jesuit who had become a secular priest with the suppression of the order. American Jesuits catered to a burgeoning clientele of Catholic immigrants and their offspring. More than Jesuits elsewhere, the American branch deployed its manpower through a network of high schools, colleges, and universities. The high schools especially became a major source of recruits. By the end of the 1930s, the Society of Jesus in the United States had overtaken Spanish Jesuits to form the largest regional contingent in the worldwide order.
In the years following World War II, the energy of the Jesuits was expressed not only in their colleges and universities, expanding exponentially under the stimulus of the GI Bill, but also in the emergence of daring intellectuals. Next to the French archaeologist and mystic Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the most celebrated of these was the theologian and political theorist John Courtney Murray, who pushed the boundaries of Catholic orthodoxy. In the late 1950s, Murray's advocacy of religious toleration and political pluralism earned him the opprobrium of reactionaries in the Vatican, and his superiors were compelled to silence him.
Vatican II touched off the third act of the Jesuit drama, one whose scenario has yet to be completed. The promulgation of Vatican II's decree on religious freedom, drafted by Murray, vindicated his views. Pedro Arrupe, the first Basque to head the order since its founding, was elected superior-general and undertook a program of change in line with the reformist shift in Catholicism. The training of Jesuits became less regimented, and greater priority was placed on social justice. By 1965, when the council drew to a close, the Jesuits were at their peak, with more than 35,000 men around the world, about 8,500 of whom were Americans.
Even then, however, signs of trouble were detectable. As early as the mid-1950s, the number of entrants had begun to stagnate and then to drift downward in Europe and soon after in the United States. In the wake of Vatican II, which left the identity and the role of the priesthood unclear, the volume of recruits shrank practically everywhere. Jesuits left in droves. Thirty years after the council, global membership had fallen to the low-20,000 mark. Concurrently, with the drop in entrants, the average age of Jesuits soared. The decline in membership was especially sharp in advanced industrial societies. Toward the end of the 1990s, the number of American Jesuits had dropped from above 8,000 to below 4,000, and they were overtaken by the Jesuits of India as the largest regional bloc.
The dwindling and graying of the Society has prompted greater collaboration with laypeople. By the dawn of the new millennium, there were more than a million and a half alumni of Jesuit colleges and universities in the United States, and the scale of these operations surpassed the ability of the Jesuits to control them. Conscious of the secularization of universities such as Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, whose origins were bound up with Protestant denominations, Jesuits and their colleagues struggled to clarify the mission of the institutions of higher education affiliated with the order in the United States. The process is not unlike decolonization, with Jesuits withdrawing from positions of leadership while leaving signs of a distinctive ethos in place.
With the ascent to the papacy of Karol Wojtyla as John Paul II in 1978, the power of the Jesuits waned. The experimentalism and ecumenism of many Jesuits did not sit well with the militant centralism of the new pope. In 1981, when Pedro Arrupe was immobilized by a stroke, the pope bypassed the usual rules of the Society and appointed an elderly Jesuit as caretaker. Jesuits, some of whom still refer to the event as a minisuppression, were enjoined to get their house in order. In 1983, at a general congregation of the Society in Rome, the Dutch Jesuit Peter-Hans Kolvenbach was elected superior-general.
Jesuits have continued to get caught up in politics. During the 1970s and 1980s, a number of Jesuits were instrumental in the development of liberation theology in Central and South America. In 1989 in El Salvador, six members of the order were assassinated by the military for their criticism of the regime. Some Jesuits, such as the peace activist Daniel Berrigan, make political statements and engage in social advocacy. In 1997, a Jesuit was slain in India because of his work with untouchables; another Indian Jesuit was shot dead in 2000, probably by religious fundamentalists; and Jesuits have fallen victim to internecine warfare in Africa and Southeast Asia. The Society is a collective presence in a few areas bearing on public policy, most notably in private education. But the greater part of the politics involving Jesuits is intramural, touching on relations with the ecclesiastical hierarchy and on sensitive issues such as the role of women.
Although the Jesuits' commitment to social justice continues to receive rhetorical support, practical means for delivering on this commitment are still being thrashed out. The process is complicated by their long-standing institutional obligations, especially in the schools. Some of the schools serve relatively well-off clienteles, while others care for poor people, many of them non-Catholic, in inner cities.
The onus of redirecting priorities is aggravated by manpower shortages. Only in India does Jesuit membership appear to be growing steadily, and even there the forecast is for decline as the country modernizes. The Society of Jesus is an understaffed conglomerate. The scope of its activities makes the corporate direction of the order uncertain, and the continued shortfall in numbers puts its survival in jeopardy.
Chapter ThreeAmong Jesuits, change has been massive and deep not only in numbers-the Society has lost over a third of its manpower around the world and more than half its membership in the United States-but also in what Jesuits believe and in what they do. The Jesuits have been transformed from a fairly unified, though far from homogeneous, organization into a much smaller, looser community with disparate goals and a corporate identity that has turned out to be elusive.
The key to understanding this metamorphosis is to recognize, first, what has not happened. The Society of Jesus has not moved from one steady state to a new equilibrium; no overarching paradigm has replaced the theological synthesis that prevailed in the days before the 1960s and Vatican II. Aside from the slide in numbers, the upshot has been a proliferation of agendas and lifestyles of borderline coherence within the confines of the ecclesiastical hierarchy. The result, in other words, has been diversity without democracy.
Jesuits are faced with dilemmas of identity, with questions of who they are, in addition to puzzlement about what they do and how they do it. The status of the priesthood has declined as the connection between celibacy and good works has become doubtful. This confusion shows up in sexual ambiguity as well as in conflict over practical, corporate goals. As the old emblems of belonging have become tattered with the erosion of the enclaves of immigrant Catholicism, and as certainty over clerical purpose has given way to an assortment of ideologies and agendas-as, in short, the security of the traditional subculture has faded-some Jesuits have found their moorings in countercultural stances shaped by sexual orientation, social advocacy, and a variety of causes, conservative as well as radical, that in one way or another set them apart from the mainstream.
Excerpted from Passionate Uncertainty by Peter McDonough Eugene C. Bianchi Copyright © 2002 by Regents of the University of California . Excerpted by permission.
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