“But even as the Jesuits brace for near-extinction in this part of the world, their ideals are spreading,” writes a sympathetic Washington Post reporter in Fewer Jesuit priests this Easter, but more people learning Jesuit ideals.
The lack of new priests, they say, must be part of God’s vision for lay people. So rather than mourn, the Jesuits have been busy building an elaborate system for passing along their beliefs and unique meditative rituals, imaginative prayer known as the “spiritual exercises.” . . .
“Some people outside will see this as a crisis, but we inside don’t see it that way. We see it as an invitation to share our tradition with lay men and women,” said the Rev. Kevin O’Brien, executive director of campus ministry at Georgetown University. “It’s no better, no worse; it’s just different.”
This is the decline she’s describing, of an order whose average age is getting close to 70, at least in America:
When John Langan came to Georgetown University in 1975 as a young Jesuit priest, he was one of 112 brothers from the Catholic order on campus. Jesuit Robert Drinan, a Massachusetts Democrat, was in Congress, and Jesuit John McLaughlin had recently been in the West Wing advising Republican President Richard Nixon.
Today there are barely half as many Jesuits at Georgetown, the order’s flagship university. Gonzaga, a Jesuit high school in Northwest Washington, is down to 17, compared with 43 in 1970. There’s talk that St. Aloysius, a Jesuit parish in the District known for its social justice efforts, could close when the last remaining Jesuit leaves. And there are no full-time Jesuit staff members at the Washington Jesuit Academy, where the board chairman is Jewish.
The situation is nearly as bad elsewhere in the country and Europe, though reportedly the Jesuits are doing much better in Africa. A once great religious order is now in the institutional equivalent of a hospice. (Though, let me be clear, I know some wonderful Jesuits.)
One can debate the reasons, but one of them seems obvious. As the author puts it, admiringly: “Jesuits are the archetype of priests with PhDs who protest in the streets or otherwise advocate for causes, often politically liberal ones.”
That is the archetype, but only part of it. They are also the archetype of the priests with PhDs who set themselves in opposition to the Church’s teaching and run institutions notorious for their disregard and abuse of that teaching. Think, for example, of the gay pride celebrations at places like Georgetown.
Some Jesuits will complain that this isn’t fair, that it’s a stereotype created by cranky conservatives and a sensationalist press, but to the extent that it is a stereotype, it is one the Jesuits have brought upon themselves and one they’ve done almost nothing to contradict. Has any official Jesuit body disciplined a member? Have they chided their colleges for their homosexualist events? No.
As archetypes go, this really isn’t one likely to attract many young men to a life of sacrifice. The average Catholic young man, even if he grew up entirely within the Catholic educational system, knows that he has a lot of choices for what he wants to do with his life. The priesthood and the religious life have to draw him in and appeal to him in a way all the other options don’t.
He can get a Ph.D. without being a Jesuit. He can protest in the streets without being a Jesuit. He can be a political advocate without being a Jesuit. He can do all that and have a family and a job.
What he has to want, if he’s going to join the order, is to be what only a Jesuit can be. And that archetype includes fidelity to the Church’s teaching. Such a young man these days will be religiously serious, which almost always means traditional and believing. If he’s going to be a Jesuit, he’s going to be an old-fashioned one.
But the Jesuits, revealingly, at least if the Washington Post story is correct, are happy to let their order decline and disappear, with excuses that sound as if they were made up by a public relations firm, like “Some people outside will see this as a crisis, but we inside don’t see it that way. We see it as an invitation to share our tradition.” That is a counsel of despair, however cheerfully expressed.
It’s like a banker watching the money disappear from the accounts and explaining that he’s helping people learn to do more with less, or a ship’s captain letting the leaks grow till the ship starts sinking, and explaining that even though other people see sinking as a crisis, he sees it as an invitation to learn to swim.