Talking with Peter McDonough

an interview by John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962–64)

    YEARS AGO WHEN I WAS A STUDENT at Saint Louis University, one of the really smart undergraduates was a kid from Brooklyn, Peter McDonough. Peter, along with his brother, Tom, were the Irish literary geniuses on campus. Peter then became, if not the first, then one of the first graduates of that urban Jesuit university to join the Peace Corps. Over the years, we have kept in touch, lately mostly by emails, but our interests still have ways of connecting because we are both Irish, were in the Peace Corps, and most importantly, Jesuit educated.
         For those unfamiliar with the Jesuits — the Society of Jesus —, the order was founded by Ignatius Loyola in 1540. Today it is the largest and most controversial religious order of men in Catholicism. Since the time when Peter and I were undergraduates, the Jesuits in the United States have lost more than half of their members, and they have experienced a massive upheaval in what they believe and how they work and live.
              Today, Peter is a professor of political science at Arizona State University, and among the books that he has written, are two about the Jesuits. Just published is Passionate Uncertainty: Inside the American Jesuits. Co-authored with Eugene C. Bianchi, a Professor Emeritus of Religion at Emory University, Passionate Uncertainty traces the transformation of the Society of Jesus from a fairly unified organization into a smaller, looser community with disparate goals and an elusive corporate identity. From its role as a traditional subculture during the days of immigrant Catholicism, the order has changed into an amalgam of countercultures shaped around social mission, sexual identity, and an eclectic spirituality. The story of the Jesuits reflects the crisis of clerical authority and the deep ambivalence surrounding American Catholicism’s encounter with modernity.
         When the book came out, I emailed Peter and asked about the book and how he went from the campus of Saint Louis to Passionate Uncertainty.

    Where were you a Peace Corps Volunteer and when?

      I was in Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) from mid-1961 to mid-1963. Ours was the second group of PCVs; the first was sent to Ghana. I was stationed at the Comilla Academy for Rural Development.

    What was your job?

      I was an audio-visual specialist. My job involved setting up a darkroom and other photo facilities at the Academy. I also worked on some training films about tractor driving, how to raise chickens — a big step for a Brooklyn boy.

    When you returned from the Peace Corps, what did you do next?

      I returned to New York and worked for about a year as a staff photographer and house-organ writer for Johns-Manville Corporation. Then I got funding to attend Georgetown University grad school, where I studied politics for a year. Next I got a National Defense Foreign Language Fellowship (in Hindi), which took me to Ann Arbor in the fall of 1965. There I enrolled in the graduate program in political science.
           I received my doctorate in 1969 for a dissertation entitled “Electoral Competition and Political Participation in India.” It was based on statistical data deposited in the University of Michigan. I didn’t return to the subcontinent after my Peace Corps stint until a brief visit during a sabbatical in 1996.

    You've published two books about Brazil. Why the interest in Brazil?

      The afternoon after defending my dissertation, my wife and I and our baby daughter were on a plane to Rio de Janeiro, where we stayed for four years, until 1973. The Ford Foundation had awarded a large grant to the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, and I became Michigan's “man in Rio.” So it was mainly adventitious. The fact that my wife Josefina is Portuguese did help in learning the language.

    Why have you written two books on the Jesuits?

      The project grew out of my interest in the decay of authoritarian regimes, combined with a curiosity about similar changes in Catholicism. By the early ’80s, I had written one book on the erosion of military rule in Brazil and was embarked on another about the transition from Francoism in Spain. The cultural factor in all this, not just the Latin ambience but also the role of the church, fascinated me.
           So I thought I would do something about Catholicism in the aftermath of Vatican II, with a focus on the U.S., because our girls were growing up and I wanted to be at home as much as possible. Besides, I had attended Jesuit schools for a total of nine years, and the workings of the order were at least superficially familiar to me. As it turned out, my first book on the Jesuits (Men Astutely Trained) was about the decades leading up to Vatican II. The recent book covers the period since then.
           By the way, the title of the new book (Passionate Uncertainty) is a garbled version of a phrase from Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming.” Remember that last line from first stanza: “The best lack all conviction, while the best are full of passionate intensity.”
           My reasons for writing about the Jesuits have shifted. I’ve rediscovered something from the days when I dreamed of becoming a writer. Empirical analysis is at the core of social science; many of us would also like to see the results of such analysis used to change the world in one way or another. Both these things matter in ways that differ from what poetry or fiction — “creative writing” — is supposed to do. But you can also reach people emotionally by telling stories about spiritual experience. I get letters and phone calls from readers of the Jesuit books. By contrast, publishing something about, say, democratization can be like dropping a pebble down a bottomless pit. It’s gratifying to get a response. And the Jesuit books sell.

    How have the Jesuits operated in countries where you have lived and studied?

      Well, in most of Latin America, including Brazil, Jesuit numbers have fallen, as they have in the U.S. In South Asia (mostly India), Jesuit numbers have grown, and that’s just about the only region where growth is the norm. By the end of the ’90s, the number of Indian Jesuits surpassed the American contingent, who had been the largest group since the end of the ’30s (having overtaken the Spaniards). We are witnessing the end of the American era in the Society of Jesus.
           The distinctiveness of the American Jesuits has consisted in their work in education. There are 28 Jesuit colleges and universities and 45 Jesuit secondary schools in the U.S. This commitment is diminishing, because numbers are shrinking; it reflects the agenda of immigrant Catholicism. Elsewhere, the investment of Jesuits in institutional education, though significant, hasn’t been so high.

    You have met some amazing men in the order. Looking back, who were the men of genius, sainthood, and character that influenced or impressed you?

      Several stand out. I knew Dan Berrigan before he became Dan Berrigan the activist. He taught me Latin and French at Brooklyn Prep, and I still have an inscribed copy of his first book of poetry, that won the Lamont Poetry Award.
           John Culkin was a scholastic (Jesuit in training) who taught me Greek at Brooklyn Prep and went on after ordination to Fordham University, where he arranged for a one-year stay on the part of Marshall McLuhan. He left the Jesuits in the ’70s and continued his media activities in New York; he died of cancer in the ’80s. He is one of three men to whose memory the book is dedicated.
           Walter Ong, former president of the Modern Language Association, taught me English at Saint Louis University. “Nine out of ten of Walter’s ideas are crap,” his colleagues used to say about him, “but the tenth is a humdinger.” An extremely imaginative scholar who set very high standards.
           Finally, there’s Joe Fichter, the pioneer Jesuit sociologist who passed away about five years ago. We never met, but we corresponded a bit. He had to confront a good deal of censorship from Jesuit and other church authorities, but he persisted, paving the way for another priest-sociologist (not a Jesuit) Andy Greeley.

    What's the future for the order in the United States, and in the world?

      There are fewer than 4,000 Jesuits left in the U.S., down from over 8,500, and their average age is in the low 60s. The projection is for American membership in the order to fall to about 2,000 in ten years. Globally, the Jesuits are down from their peak of over 35,000 in the late ’60s to a little over 20,000.
           The big transition is toward lay-leadership of the schools and other operations, with an attempt to preserve the Catholic identity of “the works.” Even in India, where the Society is growing, the long-term forecast is for decline. There, most recruits to the order come from tribal areas, rural zones, and marginal regions (somewhat as happened in the U.S. during the first part of the 20th century, with applicants to the priesthood coming from poorer Catholic enclaves.) As countries modernize, recruits to “the vowed life” tend to fall off.
           Still, there’s a serious gap between the authority structure of Catholicism, run by clerics, and the “apostolic” structure, that is, the various ministries, run and staffed largely by lay people. This creates tensions, though it doesn’t dictate the utter collapse of the priesthood.

    How do you see the Catholic Church changing over the next 100 years? Will the Church be dominated by Latin American politics, for example? Will it become more active, or retreat? Will it survive? And who will be the next Pope?

      The internationalization of Catholicism, its spread in countries outside Europe and the U.S., including religious vocations from these former mission territories, is the most significant trend since Vatican II. But the programmatic and ideological implications of this sea change are not self-evident. It’s not clear, for example, whether it will help promote some of the positions favored by American Catholics, such as the ordination of women. The variety of Catholicism prevalent in advanced industrial societies tends to be more progressive than the “third world church”on intramural issues like these.
           Another thing to watch out for is the importance of concentrated funding in a sprawling hierarchy like the Catholic Church. While progressives, including progressive Jesuits, outnumber conservatives on many issues, neo-conservative resources are often more focused, supporting the restorationist program of the papacy. Tight organization has a way of offsetting individualized dissent.
           The next pope? If there’s any smart money on such a bet, it would be on a conservative candidate from outside Europe (and certainly outside the U.S.) To complicate things further, there’s the Nixon or John XXIII factor. It was the conservative Nixon who initiated the grand opening to China. Similarly, it was the presumably doddering John XXIII who inaugurated Vatican II. Given the highly orthodox composition of the College of Cardinals, we’re likely to get a pope with conservative credentials. But once he assumes power, who knows?

    Do you see the Catholic Church having a role in the struggle between the Arab world and Israel? Should the Pope use his position to help find peace?

      Catholicism is said to be the oldest multinational corporation. The church is one of the few truly transnational organizations, and it has experience in brokering agreements. This makes it a valuable resource. What precisely it has to offer in the Middle East I’m not sure. It carries a certain crusading baggage that hasn’t been forgotten. “Evangelism,” which can be read as an updated crusade, has been a priority of John Paul II, and this offends some non-Catholics.

    You're aware that President Bush is seeking to send Peace Corps Volunteers into Afghanistan? Having been a Peace Corps Volunteer in Bangladesh, having been an interested observer over the years, what do you think Peace Corps Volunteers can do to spread peace?

      I suppose the basic thing is to be competent at what they do and pass on skills, without condescension. If peace comes out of this, somehow, so much the better. At its best, the Corps represents a genuine innovation in humanitarian aid. The “Peace” in Peace Corps can also be used for political hype, as the good guy side of a good cop/bad cop Realpolitik. It’s hard to think straight about Peace Corps strategy without falling into the extremes of piety or cynicism.

    What's next in the way of publishing for you?

      Maybe a series of articles or a book about Ireland, where I spent the first half of last year. It’s odd that traditional religious attachments have declined in Ireland but that they, or causes invoking denominational identity, continue to fuel sectarian conflict in the North.
           Another project would involve looking at the future of institutional Catholicism. My first book on the Jesuits examined the recent past of the order, and the second scrutinizes the present. By now I’ve overdosed on Jesuits, so I want to take a break. But the larger question of what will happen with Catholicism as a clerical enterprise and a religious movement remains. The multifaceted nature of the topic requires collegial work. An edited volume may be the way to go. Some observers of the religious scene are awaiting a “charismatic” or “prophetic” breakthrough to restore the promise of Vatican II. But for the moment anyway, I’m convinced that what’s needed is a series of town hall meetings on Catholicism, perhaps leading up to Vatican III. What we have now is a lumpy mishmash of interest groups and dissidents petitioning or ignoring Rome — in effect, a proliferation of mini-regimes and subcultures engaged in a sort of parallel play.

    A final question and one about writing with another author. How did you “write” the book with a co-author? Did you rewrite each other or divide the chapters?

      There are many mysteries in Catholicism, and this will remain one of them.