Inside the American Jesuits
by Peter McDonough (East Pakistan/Bangladesh 196163)
and Eugene C. Bianchi
University of California Press, $29.95
Reviewed by M. Susan Hundt-Bergan (Ethiopia 196668)
ON THE DAY I FINISHED READING this book, the first scriptural reading at Mass was from the Second Letter of Paul to Timothy. St. Paul charges Timothy to . . .
. . . preach the word, to stay with this task whether convenient or inconvenient . . .constantly teaching and never losing patience. For the time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine, but, following their own desires, will surround themselves with teachers who tickle their ears. They will stop listening to the truth and will wander off to fables. As for you, be steady and self-possessed; put up with hardship, perform your work as an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.
St. Pauls unflinching words struck me as a touchstone for the testimony of the Jesuit priests who were interviewed for Peter McDonough and Eugene Bianchis book. In Passionate Uncertainty: Inside the American Jesuits, the authors evaluate the last forty years of the orders history through personal interviews and written statements from 430 men, divided equally between active Jesuits and former Jesuits. The interviews reveal the lack of a common mission, purpose and identity and reveal ambivalence about essential theological and doctrinal beliefs. The American Jesuits are in a steep decline. One wants to place St. Pauls bracing words before them and say, Straighten up! Love God, pray, serve his Church and his people faithfully and the rest will take care of itself! Membership in the order is less than half what it was in 1965. What has happened to the Jesuits in America and what are the prospects for their future? To try to answer that question and understand whats at stake, its useful to step back and a get a broader picture.
The broader picture
The Jesuits are an order, which in the Christian tradition can be defined as an association of men or women who seek to lead a life of prayer and pious practices and who are often devoted to some specific form of service. In the Catholic Church there are several types of these associations, including monastic orders such as the Benedictines and mendicant orders or friars, such as the Franciscans or Dominicans. The Jesuits are an example of clerks regular, a society of priests who make vows and are joined together for the purpose of priestly ministry. Some orders, such as the Franciscans, Dominicans and Jesuits, have a worldwide presence. The majority of priests in the United States diocesan, answer to the local bishop and generally spend their years of ministry serving the Catholics of a specific diocese, usually in a parish setting. (As of the year 2000, in the United States there were 30,940 diocesan priests and 15,465 order/religious priests.) Most nuns or sisters belong to an order.
All of the great orders of the Church were born of a passionate love of Christ and the desire to serve him and his people. St. Benedict, St. Francis, St. Clare, St. Dominic and Mother Teresa all started orders that met the needs of the Church, the people of God, at a specific time and place in human history.
Ignatius Loyola founds the Jesuits the Society of Jesus
Ignatius Loyola, a Spaniard born the 12th and final child of a noble Basque family, founded the Society of Jesus in 1540. Ignatius youthful military career came to an end when a French cannon ball smashed into his legs. During his long convalescence the only reading material available to him was a life of Christ and a book on the saints. Reading and rereading these, he experienced a profound change of heart that called him to a course of prayer, pilgrimage, and years of study that opened both the spiritual and material world to him. During this period he began writing what would become his great work, The Spiritual Exercises. This transformative period culminated in his founding, with ten companions, the Company of Jesus. Ignatius and his friends took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience obedience to the superior general (Ignatius was the first elected to this office.) and to the Holy Father. They vowed to go wherever the Pope should send them for the salvation of souls. Ignatius, who was elected the first Superior General of the order, told his followers, Be all things to all men . . . Go and set the world ablaze.
Ignatius and his company went out into the world Ad majorem dei Gloria for the greater glory of God. The Jesuits were a new breed of congregation. They were fully engaged in evangelizing and teaching, not set apart in the quiet of a monastery. Their history has often been a tumultuous and dramatic one. The Society of Jesus grew quickly into a significant force within the church, sending their members to Japan and China and the New World, establishing schools and advising kings. Their influence within and without the Church grew until 1773, when in response to the demands of vexed rulers and jealous churchmen the pope suppressed the Society of Jesus. Forty years later, in 1814, the suppression was lifted so that the Jesuits could help the papacy counteract the aftershock of the French Revolution. In the decades between 1814 and Vatican Council II (196265), the Jesuits thrived, mostly associated with conservative heads of state in Europe.
The Jesuits in the U.S.
In the New World, Jesuits in the United States flourished as they ministered to Catholic immigrants and their children. Much of their effort in this country was devoted to establishing and staffing a network of high schools, colleges and universities, including Saint Louis University, Georgetown University, and Loyola University in Chicago. By 1940, the American Jesuits, confident and successful, were the largest national contingent in the order. The American Jesuits peaked in 1965 with about 8,500 members out of about 35,000 worldwide. Since then, the order has declined in numbers, until today there are about 16,500 worldwide, with about 3,000 in the U.S.
The decline in Jesuit numbers began as Vatican Council II, the twenty-first ecumenical council of the Catholic Church, came to an end. The Council, which began in the early 1960s, initiated profound changes in the Roman Catholic Church that are still reverberating. The sixteen documents produced by the council redefined the nature of the church, gave bishops greater influence in church affairs, and increased lay participation in the liturgy and parish life. Changes in the liturgy included replacing Latin with the vernacular as the language of liturgy; having the priest face the congregation during the Mass; and introducing new styles of music. It was an exhilarating and tumultuous time in the Church. In America, it coincided with a period of widespread social and moral experimentation. In the ferment of the time, many priests and religious in America reexamined their lives and chose to leave their vows for the secular world.
Addressing the decline of the Jesuits
What has caused the precipitous decline in the American Jesuits, both in attracting new members and in retention of the old? The authors offer various possibilities gleaned from the interviews:
- the priesthood is not as prestigious as it once was;
- the immigrant Catholic culture that produced large numbers of priests has become upper middle class and worldly;
- the ascent of the laity within the Church obscures priestly identity;
- the Jesuit educational mission no longer has the panache it once enjoyed;
- celibacy is a stumbling block for many.
The men in the order today are living a life much different from that of Jesuits of previous generations. In many cases, American Jesuits no longer have the sense of a common mission, lived in common for the greater glory of God. Jesuits generally live much more individualistic lives and worry about their careers, about fulfillment, about human relationships, etc. The apparently high percentage of homosexuals in the order brings with it a set of issues and problems that are profoundly troubling. Many Jesuits interviewed espoused views that are contrary to Church teaching. Many of those interviewed seem to have lost their way in life, and perhaps their faith in God.
A current perspective
The story of the American Jesuits makes no sense unless read in the context of the international Society of Jesus and ultimately, the context of the Roman Catholic Church.
In recent months Americans have been bombarded by stories of sexual abuse of children and young people by Catholic priests, who, when complaints surfaced, were waved on to a new assignments by their Bishops. The scandal has lacerated the Church over these last months and generated a demand that priests who abuse be removed. At the same time, all indications are that American Catholics still love their Church and they love their priests but that they would like to see more lay involvement at the diocesan level. Statements from the recent Conference of American Bishops, led by Bishop Wilton Gregory, indicate a deep sense of remorse and responsibility and a resolve to better serve Gods people. Many Catholics, clerics, religious and lay people, see the scandal as a penitential fire that will purify the Church and usher in a new period of holiness and justice.
Worldwide, the number of Catholics continues to grow and it reached 1.45 billion at the end of 2000 (although the general population is growing faster than the Church), with the most dramatic increases occurring in Africa. However, while membership is up, numbers of men and women in religious groups continue to decline, although more slowly than in recent years, and the numbers of men studying for the priesthood has begun to increase. (The increase in religious vocations is for the most part occurring in orders and in dioceses that adhere to the teachings of the Magisterium, that is, to the official, orthodox, teachings of the Church.) In short, the Church desperately needs more workers in the vineyard.
The work to be done
Who will minister to the Churchs billions? The entire liturgical life of the Catholic Church revolves around the Eucharistic sacrifice of the Mass and the sacraments. All the assembly celebrates the eucharistic liturgy with the ordained priest representing Christ. Similarly, several of the seven sacraments can only be celebrated by a priest. To compensate for the declining numbers of priests, many American dioceses are reinstating the ancient order of deacon for men, single or married, who can celebrate some of the sacraments. Lay people, men and women, are filling many essential roles in Churches and parishes, including presiding at prayer services. In addition, some dioceses are inviting foreign priests to minister here, a rich example of the Churchs universality. For example, the Diocese of Madison, Wisconsin, has a formal relationship with the Diocese of Owerri, Nigeria, and ten Nigerian priests now serve in various Wisconsin parishes. It goes without saying that there is no shortage of priestly work for the Jesuits to do in this country and in the rest of the world. Many of the American Jesuits quoted in this book seem self-indulgently focused on themselves rather than on Christ and his Church. A return to Ignatius of Loyolas passionate love of Christ and passionate sense of mission to the Church is imperative. The Church, an institution founded by Christ, will endure, as it has for over 2000 years, despite this books view of it as an authoritarian regime. Will the Jesuits continue to be part of the Churchs third millennium? One scenario would see the Jesuits fading from the American scene but continuing to thrive in other parts of the world such as India. That would be a sad finale to the saga of the Jesuits in America. St. Paul offers sound advice that should forestall that unhappy end: . . . . be steady and self-possessed; put up with hardship, perform your work as an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.
Although a useful book for any American Catholic, Passionate Uncertainty reads like sociology textbook. Finally, unless one reads to the very end of the final section of the book, entitled Notes on Methodology, you would not know the relevant information that both authors have personal experience with the Jesuits. Eugene Bianchi was a member of the California province of the Society of Jesus for twenty years but left in 1968. He is a founding member of CORPUS, an advocacy association of ex-priests. Professionally, he is Professor Emeritus of Religion at Emory University. Peter McDonough was never a Jesuit but spent nine years in Jesuit schools. He is a political scientist at Arizona State University where his work has focused on the study of authoritarian regimes and the transition to democracy in Brazil and Spain. This is his second book on the Jesuits.
M. Susan Hundt-Bergan lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her family. Recently retired from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, she is now a part-time environmental consultant and a student at the Diocesan Institute of the Diocese of Madison. Upon completion of the course of studies, she will be certified as a Lay Minister for her diocese. She is currently active in various ministries at her parish. Susan grew up in large German Catholic family in Wisconsin, on a dairy farm still owned by the family. Her oldest brother is a priest for the Diocese of LaCrosse.