Dear Dr. Reno:
Your First Things article “A Stubborn Givenness” (April 12, 2016) sought to explain Pope Francis and Amoris Laetitia in terms of his being a Jesuit, following the trajectory you began in the article “Francis, Our Jesuit Pope” (September 23, 2013). “Stubborn,” in a more explicit way, identifies problematic elements of Pope Francis’s governance of the universal Church with problems that you understand to be inherent to the Jesuit charism. Thus, while you use Francis’s identity as a Jesuit as a way to explain his pontificate, you simultaneously use his pontificate, in this case, Amoris Laetitia, as a point of a departure to critique the Jesuit charism.
You identify three main dimensions wherein Francis’s behavior converges with Jesuit characteristics. The first two are clericalism and a bourgeois mindset. In regard to both of these, you do not make an argument for how these ills are particularly linked to or manifested in the Society of Jesus, but you simply identify them with the Society. We ask if these characteristics, rather than being somehow connected in a particular way to Jesuits, are not rather widespread ills of priestly and religious life in this age, to which the Society of Jesus, like many other orders, is not immune.
The charge that you develop at some length, tracing the problem all the way back to the order’s founder, is that Jesuits instrumentalize the sacramental life of the Church. You see us performing the same instrumentalization in regard to the intellectual life. With respect to the latter point, it is true that St. Ignatius conceives the intellectual life as being subordinated to the higher end of saving souls. The charge of pragmatism may be justified insofar as Jesuits are inclined to adopt what is true or valuable in the thought patterns of their context as an entry point for the Church’s mission of evangelization. We recognize that this approach carries with it certain dangers, particularly that of accommodationism, and yet it is also true that it has brought about considerable success, from Japan to Paraguay; whether the risk is worth the reward is a point we could debate. But it should also be noted that it is not uniformly a Jesuit approach—witness the work of La Civiltà Cattolica in the nineteenth century to systematically oppose liberalism while proposing an alternative Catholic worldview.
We wholeheartedly reject the claim that Jesuits, least of all St. Ignatius, are inherently prone to instrumentalize the Church’s sacramental system. As St. Thomas held, “a sacrament in causing grace works after the manner of an instrument” (ST III, q. 62, a. 5), and it is only in this sense that the Society understands the “instrumentality” of the sacraments. You suggest that the Jesuit approach, as seen in Pope Francis, manifests scant regard for the Church’s sacramental law. This thinking is foreign to St. Ignatius. According to what he calls the “first degree of humility, ” which is the lowest degree necessary to attain salvation, it is incumbent upon the Christian “to obey the law of God our Lord in all things, so that not even were I made lord of all creation, or to save my life here on earth, would I consent to violate a commandment, whether divine or human, that binds me under pain of mortal sin” (Spiritual Exercises #165). Whereas you suggest that it is the Jesuit tendency, as demonstrated in Pope Francis, to subordinate human and divine law to a missionary end, St. Ignatius understands the subversion of divine law as leading not to salvation, but to damnation.
Later on in the Spiritual Exercises, when writing of the choice of a state of life, Ignatius says that “all matters of which we wish to make a choice [must] be indifferent or good in themselves, and such that they are lawful within our Holy Mother, the hierarchical Church, and not bad or opposed to her.” He goes on to say that there are some things that fall under an unchangeable choice, such as the priesthood, marriage, etc. (#170-71, 189). In your discussion of his Jesuit identity, you write that Pope Francis is impatient with the limitations imposed by objective situations. Ignatius, by contrast, understood these objective situations as the parameters within which our discernment can unfold. In his “Rules for Thinking with the Church,” Ignatius recommends sacramental confession and regular (no more than weekly) reception of Holy Communion, “provided requisite and proper dispositions are present” (Spiritual Exercises #354). The entire tone of these rules, in fact, is to praise not only the Church’s unchanging faith, but also her established discipline and devotional practices that were in many places under attack in the sixteenth century. This contrasts markedly with what you see in Francis’s acting “as if Christ instituted nothing permanent on earth.”
As an example of the tendency toward instrumentalization present in the mind of Ignatius himself, you say that he “famously allowed that an individual Jesuit might, in certain circumstances, be released from the obligation to say the daily office.” We are uncertain to what this refers. The most famous points regarding the Divine Office in the Society are its exemption from choir, which did not absolve individual Jesuits from our obligation to the Breviary, and Ignatius’s personal dispensation from said obligation, which was granted in view of the fact that the flood of tears that ensued when Ignatius recited the Office was harming his eyesight.
In conclusion, we do not think that the elements you find troubling in Francis’s vision and pontificate, expressed in a particular way in Amoris Laetitia, can be traced inexorably to perennial problems intrinsic to the Society of Jesus itself. Indeed, as we have tried to suggest in a limited fashion, there may be reasons to conclude that elements of Amoris Laetitia are better explained by reference to Pope Francis’s personal characteristics than to the spiritual tradition to which he belongs.
Vincent L. Strand, S.J.
Sam Zeno Conedera, S.J.