By Russell Shaw - OSV Newsweekly
Say what you will about Jesuits, they aren't all alike. Take Fathers Robert Drinan and Joseph Fessio, two American Jesuits much in the news in the early months of 2007. They seemed to have little in common besides the initials S.J. -- Society of Jesus -- after their names.
Father Drinan, a Bostonian who taught law at Boston College and Georgetown, died Jan. 28 at 86. He was a liberal Democratic member of Congress from Massachusetts' third district from 1971 to 1981, when his religious superior, acting at Vatican insistence, told him to step down.
Known for supporting legalized abortion in Congress, Father Drinan, a few weeks before his death, presided at a special Mass celebrating the ascent to power of of pro-choice Catholic House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
As for Father Fessio, unspecified policy differences led to his March 21 ouster as provost of Ave Maria University, a staunchly conservative Catholic institution in Florida subsidized by Domino's Pizza founder Thomas Monaghan. Following protests by students and admirers, he was rehired the next day as theologian in residence.
Before coming to Ave Maria, the California Jesuit founded the Ignatius Institute at the University of San Francisco and Ignatius Press publishing house. He is a friend and former student of Pope Benedict XVI.
By no stretch of the imagination could either Father Drinan or Father Fessio be seen as typical of the roughly 2,900 American Jesuits. Rather, the yawning gulf separating them in ideology and style suggests the internal conflicts and uncertainties that plague their religious order. Nearly 500 years after its founding by St. Ignatius of Loyola, the Society of Jesus --"the Society," as it's widely known -- may be in the biggest crisis of its history.
The crisis will reach a turning point in January, when 219 Jesuit electors from around the world gather in Rome for the Society's 35th General Congregation. They will choose a successor to Father Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, general superior of the Jesuits since 1983, and set future directions for the order.
Preparatory work has been under way since Father Kolvenbach announced the gathering in 2006. Although Jesuit general superiors are elected for life, the Dutch linguistics specialist said he intended to resign when he turned 80 in 2008.
Jesuit Father Raymond A. Schroth, a professor at St. Peter's College in Jersey City who's written a history of American Jesuits, calls this general congregation "a critical one -- on the scale of the 31st General Congregation, which embraced the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, and the 32nd, which committed the Society to the struggle for faith and justice." General Congregation 35 "will determine our priorities for the next generation," he said.
While speculation about the next superior general is only that -- speculation -- the choice of a non-European for the first time ever is a distinct possibility. The shift in the Society's demographic center of gravity is reflected in the fact that the Jesuits' South Asia Assistancy -- in essence, India -- is now the order's largest, with a little more than 4,000 members, or 29 percent of the world total. U.S. Jesuits were once the most numerous national group.
With about 19,000 members, the Society of Jesus is the Church's most numerous religious order of men. (Franciscans number about 30,000, but they are divided among three Franciscan orders.) Jesuits operate high-visibility institutions like the Gregorian University in Rome, Vatican Radio and an international network of schools, including 28 colleges and universities in the United States. They publish influential periodicals like Civilta Cattolica in Rome and America magazine in the United States
But the last 40 years have witnessed a huge drop in their numbers. The total peaked at more than 65,000 in 1965 and has fallen by 46,000 since then.
U.S. numbers have followed the same downward trend. American Jesuits peaked in 1965 at 8,393. But by 2002 more men had left the Society in the United States since 1960 (5,892) than were members (3,635). By 2007, the number of Jesuits had fallen to 2,991 -- most of them priests. A scant 40 novices joined in 2005 -- a far cry from the days of several hundred a year. One projection suggests a leveling off at about 1,100 American Jesuits starting around 2020.
This dwindling membership currently is divided among 10 U.S. provinces. According to Father Schroth, an idea on the drawing board for possible implementation after the general congregation is to reduce the number to five or six in order to equalize the distribution of manpower.
Even so, the Society maintains a substantial institutional presence in the United States Besides the 28 institutions of higher education, this includes 48 secondary schools and 80 parishes. In "Passionate Uncertainty," a friendly but not uncritical study of U.S. Jesuits published in 2002, Peter McDonough and Eugene Bianchi conclude that, as things stand, the Society in America is "an understaffed conglomerate." McDonough is an emeritus professor of political science at Arizona State University, while Bianchi is an emeritus professor of religion at Emory University who left the Jesuits in 1968 after being a member for 20 years.
A half-century ago, the Society was commonly viewed as sophisticated and ultraconservative. The sophistication persists, but the conservatism is, on the whole, long gone. Change set in even before the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). No figure better reflected that largely subterranean shift than Jesuit Father Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955).
A paleontologist who went on expeditions in Africa and China, Father Teilhard was an ardent evolutionist with a mystical bent who sought to integrate evolutionary theory with Christian faith. Although his superiors, under pressure from the Holy See, forbade the French priest to publish his books, the manuscripts were circulated privately for years.
When Father Teilhard's "The Phenomenon of Man" finally appeared publicly after his death -- the French edition in 1955, an English version in 1959 -- it and its successors became cult objects among Catholic progressives and helped shape the context for the confused reception of the ecumenical council.
At Vatican II itself, the corps of progressive theologians included prominent Jesuits such as church-state theorist Father John Courtney Murray from the United States and Father Karl Rahner, a German generally regarded as the most influential of them all. More recently, Jesuits have been leading figures in the controversial theological movement called liberation theology. Jesuit moralists like Fathers Joseph Fuchs and Richard McCormick played leading roles in promoting relativistic moral systems like consequentialism and proportionalism, which Pope John Paul II rejected in his 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor.
In sum, Jesuits over the years have often resembled a kind of loyal opposition in the Church. McDonough and Bianchi call "tacit dissent" a way of life for many of the 430 present and former American Jesuits they interviewed for their book.
But it wasn't always like that.
Founded in 1534 by St. Ignatius of Loyola and six companions, the Society of Jesus expanded rapidly and was a major force in the Counter-Reformation, which stymied further expansion of Protestantism in Europe. Over the two centuries that followed, the Jesuits were widely admired -- and in some circles feared and disliked -- as apologists, educators, missionaries and martyrs.
By the late 18th century, opposition had grown to such an extent that pressure from Catholic monarchs, freethinkers and enemies within the Church compelled Pope Clement XIV to sup_press the order in 1773.
The exception was Russia, where Empress Catherine the Great refused to promulgate the pope's decree and the Society continued to exist. Elsewhere -- including Maryland, where Jesuits landed with the first colonists in 1634 -- former Jesuits hung together and waited for better days. Father John Carroll, soon to be first bishop of the new United States, was one.
In 1814, Pope Pius VII restored the Society and it was allowed to function again. From then on, it grew and prospered. In the United States, for example, 22 of the Jesuit colleges and universities were established in the 19th century. In the years after the restoration, the Jesuits cultivated a reputation as ultraorthodox, ultra-loyal papal supporters.
Turmoil and a coup
Since Vatican II, however, Jesuit numbers have been in free fall, while the group's self-image has been in frequently tumultuous flux. As early as 1973, a Time cover story called the Society "a microcosm of the tensions and turmoil that are sweeping the Roman Catholic Church as a whole."
"The old certainty that guided the Jesuits for so long has vanished; the new anxieties have arrived," the magazine said.
A key moment was the election in 1965 of Father Pedro Arrupe as 28th superior general. Father Arrupe, the first Basque to head the Society since St. Ignatius, led the order in new directions in pursuit of a social-justice agenda. But in 1981 he suffered a debilitating stroke.
Pope John Paul then staged the equivalent of a peaceful papal coup, installing two Jesuits of his choice to direct the sometimes-unruly order and prepare for a general congregation to select a new general. According to insiders, that episode still rankles with at least some. McDonough and Bianchi quote one who calls Pope John Paul "probably the worst pope of all time." Eventually, nevertheless, a general congregation was held. It chose Father Kolvenbach as 29th general.
He is widely credited with a politically astute performance in a difficult job, of which staying on the right side of the Vatican is a crucial part. At the same time, he has taken a determinedly protective stance toward his men. The story -- perhaps apocryphal -- is told that the general, known for habitually wearing black cassock and Roman collar in public, was confronted one day by a Jesuit in lay clothes who asked why he dressed like that. "I dress the way I do," he is said to have replied, "so that you can dress the way you do."
Clearly, however, Father Kolvenbach is not only a diplomat but also a man of the Church and personally close to Pope Benedict XVI. In a 2004 paper "The Rules For Thinking, Judging, Feeling in the Post-Conciliar Church," he drew on St. Ignatius in criticizing extremists of the left who complain that the Church "does not make as much progress as they wish" and extremists of the right who believe the Church since Vatican II has "abandoned many precious gifts and graces."
Calling people in both camps "dreamers," he said: "The temptation is always strong to emphasize one aspect of ecclesial life to the point that it becomes an absolute".We should heed Ignatius' recommendation in the rules that 'great caution is necessary in our manner of speaking and teaching about all these matters' by striving to present balanced views and to avoid taking Church teaching out of context."
Heroics in the order
The Jesuits unquestionably have produced some heroes and heroic moments in modern times. One notable example is Father Walter Ciszek, an American who entered the Soviet Union on the eve of World War II with the intention of doing underground pastoral work. The priest was soon arrested and tried as a spy. He spent 15 of the next 23 years in Soviet prisons and prison camps until being released in 1963. His cause for beatification and canonization is now under way.
Father Ciszek is not alone in suffering at the hands of ideological enemies. On Nov. 16, 1989, six Jesuits, as well as their housekeeper and her daughter, were killed at the University of Central America in El Salvador by members of the Salvadoran military. As advocates of the poor and oppressed, they had been labeled subversives.
Earlier, in the Vietnam-era United States, peace protests by Father Daniel Berrigan brought him admiration, notoriety and time in jail.
But since Vatican II, some members of the Society have been identified with another sort of protest -- theological -- in opposition to the Church's magisterium.
Among the small number of theologians censured by the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith during Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's years as prefect, three were Jesuits -- Father Anthony de Mello, an Indian, in 1998, Father Roger Haight, an American, in 2000, and Father Jacques Dupuis, a Belgian, in 2001. In 2007, with Cardinal Ratzinger now Pope Benedict XVI, the Spanish-born liberation theologian Father Jon Sobrino was added to the list.
Still, most Jesuits don't openly challenge the teaching of the Church. Many support it, and many others at least go along. According to McDonough and Bianchi, quiet dissent also is common. They quote a 35-year-old theology student who says, "There are many conflicted people in the Society, conflicted in that they don't believe what they are necessarily supposed to teach and preach."
Graying and gaying
The shifting identity of the Society of Jesus is a complex phenomenon that is sometimes simplistically capsulized -- at least in the United States -- as "graying and gaying." Graying refers to the growing proportion of elderly Jesuits, gaying to the allegedly disproportionate incidence of homosexual orientation among younger recruits.
In neither way, of course, is the Society unique: the American priesthood on the whole is get_ting older and the incidence of homosexuality is said to be comparatively high, though solid numbers -- as distinct from projections and guesses -- are lacking.
As the Society's identity has become less clear, McDonough and Bianchi say, several subgroups have worked out their own identities in countercultural terms. They identify four: religious neoconservatism, advocacy of radical social change, cultivation of a gay lifestyle and "involvement with non-Western religions."
To some extent, too, the Jesuits' identity issue may be generational. Recently a journalist who'd written something critical about the Society got an e-mail from a young Jesuit who largely agreed with what he said.
But after linking the problem to fellow Jesuits who joined in the 1960s and 1970s, he added: "Some of my brothers have lost their way. Things did not always go the way they imagined they would, and their heartbreak is something I see. But I also support them and ask them to see the future in new, more honest terms."
Reliance on laity
One thing just about everyone agrees on is that, as the number of Jesuits falls, those who remain will have to collaborate with laypeople, turn formerly Jesuit-run institutions and programs over to them or perhaps do both.
High schools are an example. In the early 1960s, on the eve of Vatican II, about half the teachers in U.S. Jesuit high schools were Jesuits. That fell to a little more than 30 percent by the mid-'70s, around 20 percent by the mid-'80s and single digits early in the new millennium. Lay Catholics, and in some cases non-Catholics, have replaced the Jesuits of years gone by.
Much the same thing has happened in higher education. Control of Jesuit colleges and universities passed to boards of trustees with a majority of lay members several decades ago. St. Peter's College in Jersey City in 2007, became the fourth historically Jesuit institution of higher education in the United States to have a lay president.
Overall, according to the Society's figures, the world's 3,730 Jesuit educational institutions now enroll just over 2.5 million students and are staffed by a little over 4,000 members of the Society and 125,000 "lay, religious and clerical partners."
General Congregation 34, held in 1995, devoted a decree to what an official summary calls "a genuine Ignatian partnership of laity and Jesuits" in "works of the Society" like schools. Said Father Schroth, "We're betting heavily that laypeople trained in Ignatian spirituality will keep the institutions 'Jesuit' as Jesuits fade out." But he acknowledged that there's no knowing how many laity will care to commit themselves to upholding the "Jesuit heritage." Already it's reasonable to ask in what sense a rising number of once-Jesuit schools can realistically be called "Jesuit."
Another approach to the problem of disappearing Jesuits lies in affiliating laymen and laywomen to the order. General Congregation 34 took a positive view of lay affiliation by "personal bond," and some tentative programs along these lines now exist. Potential canonical difficulties aside, there's no telling what success such undertakings will have.
As the Society of Jesus approaches its 500-year mark, profound questions exist regarding mission, membership and survival.
"If the whole Society should come to an end," St. Ignatius remarked, "it would take 15 minutes for me to regain my composure." The order is hardly likely to vanish any time soon, but next year's general congregation does face a grave challenge -- not just to find new leadership for the Jesuits but to give them fresh reasons and renewed will to survive.
Among the petitions in the official prayers for the general congregation is this: "That those attending" may receive the gift of discernment, and serve the good of the whole Society of Jesus." It's a prayer those who wish well to this remarkable ecclesial institution can wholeheartedly join in saying.
By The Numbers
Number of Jesuits in the world as of the start of 2007, which includes 13,491 priests, 3,049 scholastics, 1,810 brothers and 866 novices.
Number of U.S. Jesuits
New members who joined Society of Jesus in 2006
Average age of Jesuits -- 63.4 for priests, 65.54 for brothers and 29.89 for scholastics
Number of U.S. colleges and universities run by Jesuits
After his conversion, Ignatius of Loyola retired to the little town of Manresa and spent 1522-1523 in intense prayer, mortification and vocational discernment. One result was the masterpiece known as the "Spiritual Exercises."
This small volume, the essence of Jesuit spirituality, is a handbook for a retreat master or spiritual director engaged in "giving" the Exercises to an individual or group. The aim is to help those receiving direction to dedicate their lives to God above all else and to discern their particular roles in God's plan.
The Exercises are divided into four "weeks" -- in theory, though not always in practice, the period of time over which they will extend. The famous "First Principle and Foundation," described by St. Ignatius as the basis for everything else, reads in part:
Fifty members of the Society of Jesus have been canonized--formally declared saints--up to this time, and another 146 have been beatified--declared "blessed" as a step toward canonization. Among the best known Jesuit saints and the dates of their liturgical feasts are the following:
The Society of Jesus has produced many prominent individuals who have had an influence on the<[ps]>Church -- some are known for their faithfulness to Church teaching, others for their<[ps]>"loyal opposition." Here is just a small sampling of the theologians, media personalities, educators and Vatican officials from recent years who dedicate their lives "to the greater glory of God."
Since 1548, when Jesuits opened their first school for lay students, the Society of Jesus has been committed to education. Today, the Society runs 3,730 educational institutions throughout the world. In the United States, there are 28 colleges and universities affiliated with the Society, including Georgetown University. Below is a list of Jesuit colleges and universities by province:
New England Province
New Orleans Province
New York Province
Source: Society of Jesus in the United States (www.jesuits.org)
Russell Shaw is a contributing editor to Our Sunday Visitor.
Please note: Comments left online may be considered for publication in the Letters to the Editor section of OSV Newsweekly.
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