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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?

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. There have been Jesuit cardinals since the sixteenth century. The present number, eight, represents an all-time high. The idea of the Jesuits as pioneers of an alternative church has done great harm both to the Society and to the Church.

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. Decisive action on the part of superiors is needed to reverse this trend. The higher administrators, for the most part, are competent managers. While they keep the machinery going rather smoothly, they seem unwilling or unable to correct obvious defects and to project an unambiguous vision of what the Society of Jesus is about.

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. Decked out with all the paraphernalia of scientific sociology, the research is heavily slanted, partly because the authors worked with a definite parti pris. McDonough, a trained sociologist, is the author of Men Astutely Trained, a long book describing the difficulties of American Jesuits as they make the transition “from a rule-governed hierarchy to a role-driven network.” Eugene Bianchi, a former Jesuit priest, has long been a militant proponent of “democratic reform” in the Church-a rubric under which he includes the opening of priesthood to married men and to women and the abandonment of the Church’s code of sexual ethics.

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.

The competitive professionalization of higher education, the authors believe, only adds to the difficulty. It deprives Jesuits of any privileged position in the academic world. Their identity as priests and as religious does nothing to advance them in their own institutions. Conversely, their professional career fails to support their priestly and Jesuit identity. Jesuits are therefore helpless victims of a dysfunctional Church and a secularized educational system.

This thesis, while it clearly dominates the book, is for the most part unstated. Only in the Epilogue does it surface in explicit form. But it influences the data and their interpretation. The method of the book is to present the results of hundreds of questionnaires, essays, and interviews that the authors solicited from pres­ent and former Jesuits. Former Jesuits were important for the authors’ purposes because they were found to be less conservative than Jesuits themselves.

The results are skewed because many Jesuits, suspecting the authors’ bias, refused to answer the questionnaires. “Close to 30 percent,” we are told, responded. The authors “relied as much on personal contacts and recommendations as on random drawings.” They asked friends to suggest persons who might be interested in taking part in the survey. Those who wrote at length were often the ones most interested is supporting the authors’ foregone conclusions. The “silent majority,” who go about their day-to-day business in the universities, schools, and parishes, are vastly underrepresented. But some diversity of opinion shows up because the authors made it a principle “to give the bad guys some of the good lines.”

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 this 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.

In spite of their grim view of the Jesuit situation, the authors report that the morale of Jesuits in all age groups is relatively high. Jesuits see themselves as companions of Jesus, engaged in a mission they share with fellow members of their communities and with colleagues all over the world. They are sustained by an inner life of prayer and by the vision of Christ and his Kingdom set forth in the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius. Although they may suffer from the lack of intimate companionship that could be offered by married life, they are as a group more satisfied in their work than men who have left the Society.

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:

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.

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.

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.

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.

Sociological surveys, even the most excellent, will never tell the whole story. The Society of Jesus is more than the sum of its members today or any day. It exists in the authentic heritage established by St. Ignatius of Loyola and his first companions. It is indelibly inscribed in the Spiritual Exercises and the founding documents of the Society, especially the Constitutions. The true character of the order has been reaffirmed by many popes, most recently by Pope John Paul II in his address to the Thirty-Fourth General Congregation (1995). If some Jesuits, or many Jesuits, fail to live up to these standards, they may be judged to be deviant, not normative.

If there is any danger of Jesuit chauvinism, it is anticipated and discountenanced in the Constitutions, where the new order is referred to as “this least Society.” Ignatius in his correspondence speaks of the order as an unworthy and unprofitable servant. An ardent admirer of the Benedictines, Franciscans, Dominicans, and Carthusians, he shied away from invidious comparisons between Jesuits and other religious orders. In the interests of modesty and humility, he wrote into the Constitutions strict provisions forbidding Jesuits to aspire to any civil, academic, or ecclesiastical dignity (including very emphatically the cardinalate).

The authentic documents leave no room for the Society to be a “church within the Church.” St. Ignatius founded a company of men passionately committed to the defense and propagation of the faith under the direction of the supreme Vicar of Christ on earth, the Roman pontiff. The “Rules for Thinking with the Church” at the end of the Spiritual Exercises inculcate deep reverence for the Magisterium and rule out any public dissent. Ignatius expected Jesuits to be perfectly obedient to religious and ecclesiastical superiors. In discussing the kind of doctrine that ought to be taught to Jesuit students, he wrote in the Constitutions: “The doctrine which they ought to follow in each subject should be that which is safest and most approved, as also the authors who teach it” (no. 358). He wanted professors to steer away from new or suspect authors and opinions.

With regard to certain problems about sexuality that have become prominent in recent years, it is worth noting that Ignatius was very strict in his interpretation of the vow of chastity. He adamantly opposed any manifestations of genital sexuality, whether heterosexual or homosexual. He was deeply concerned to avoid even the least hint of infidelity to the vow of celibacy.

For all that, St. Ignatius cannot be accused of rigi  dity. In the selection of styles of spirituality and ministry, he allows great freedom for individuals to discern what is for the greater glory of God. He requires superiors to listen carefully to their subjects before assigning them to specific duties. Presupposing men who are thoroughly trained in the traditions of the Church and completely loyal to the hierarchy, Ignatius wants Jesuits on the spot to make necessary adaptations rather than simply to go by the book. He expects them to perform a priestly service while immersing themselves fully in the world and its problems.

The Society of Jesus has an exciting history because its members have been bold and imaginative in their tactics. The guiding norm of “the greater glory of God” has aroused in the Society a constant restlessness and a passionate desire to take on new and difficult tasks. In that sense, Jesuits can quite properly experience “passionate uncertainty.” Their uncertainty is not about the truth of the Catholic faith or the authority of ecclesiastical superiors but about what God is asking of the Society and each of its members today. What new Indies are waiting to be conquered? What new fields are ripe for the harvest? What more can I as an individual do for Christ? The Ignatian “Rules for the Discernment of Spirits” have never lost their relevance, and never will.

Because of the undying imprint that St. Ignatius has made upon his order, and the appeal that his personality holds for Jesuits today, the Society of Jesus has extraordinary resources for its own self-renewal. In their enthusiasm to pursue what they think God is calling them to do, Jesuits sometimes err on one side or another-whether it be papalism or laicism, sacralism or secularism, traditionalism or modernism-but they are capable of recovering their balance. Some other orders may be more stable, but for some of us, at least, life in the Jesuits is more challenging and more congenial. There is something special about an order that is always prepared to take risks in the hope of accomplishing greater things for Christ and his Kingdom. The Jesuit enigma never ceases to fascinate and to attract. The particular spirit and style that St. Ignatius bequeathed to his order was never more needed than it is in the rapidly changing and polymorphic world of our day.

Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., holds the Laurence J. McGinley Chair in Religion and Society at Fordham University.

Photo by Nheyob licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.