The uproar over Georgetown’s commencement ceremony has brought to the surface one especially noisome argument which those who want to engage seriously with the Church’s internal debates would do well to retire. It goes something like this: “oh, religious order x isn’t really Catholic in the usual/boring/repressive sense, they’re different and better.” This doesn’t just apply to the Jesuits, of course, though today they may be its most frequent victim; this non-sequitur has indeed been deployed countless times against other orders with precisely the same intent.
It’s an argument that, of course, lends itself to plenty of insider-churchy jokes about charisms and how God signs his letters. Fr. Neuhaus was particularly fond of sarcastically musing about actions taken “in the Jesuit tradition” both as a way of deriding the contemporary state of the Society of Jesus and questioning those who would reach for this quick, dismissive answer to objectionable behavior. But it would be a funnier line of reasoning were it not meant quite seriously by so many people.
Not that it makes much sense as a formal argument. Singling out a religious order as “Catholic plus” or, to use a more contemporary term, “evolved,” is like saying “Sue’s not an American; she’s a Pennsylvanian.” Both are true, but the latter only and wholly exists as a subset of the former.
But when taken solemnly and deployed rhetorically, this thinking gets to be pernicious, as it emphasizes divisions in the Body of Christ and serves to amplify personal taste (or worse, politics) at the expense of overarching unity. To be fully and authentically Jesuit is of course to be, in the first instance, fully and authentically Catholic. And St. Ignatius of Loyola, whose order was founded to defend the Church and the hierarchy at the height of the Reformation, would never have granted his imprimatur to those who describe the order as a severed branch of the faith. A branch it may be, but the essential character of a branch is that it remains connected to the tree in order to bear fruit (John 15:1-8).
Critics of contemporary universities and religious orders might have greater success if they began with this sometimes-inconvenient connection, reminding their opponents of the unity within the Church’s splendid diversity, rather than resignedly indulging the notion that some seeds have irretrievably become weeds.