Peace Corps Writers
Jesuit Shenanigans

by Peter McDonough
(East Pakistan/Bangladesh 1961–63)

Passionate Uncertainty: Inside the American Jesuits written by Peter McDonough and Eugene C. Bianchi, a professor emeritus of religion at Emory University, traces the transformation of the Society of Jesus [the Jesuits — an order of Catholic priests] from a fairly unified organization into a smaller, looser community with disparate goals and an elusive corporate identity. The book was reviewed positively by M. Susan Hundt-Bergan (Ethiopia 1966–68) on our site last year. But with many things Jesuit, there’s another story. Here’s the latest from Peter McDonough about his book that is stirring up Jesuits passions.

John Coyne interviewed Peter McDonough in March of 2002

AROUND THIS TIME LAST YEAR, when early copies of Passionate Uncertainty were becoming available, I received an email from Father Tom Widner, SJ, the Director of Communications at the Jesuit Conference. (The Jesuit Conference is the assembly of the 10 provincial superiors in the U.S., with staff headquartered in Washington). Widner wanted an advance copy of the book, which he said he was having trouble getting from the University of California Press. So I asked the press to ship Widner — whom I had never met — a copy, which they did.

The Jesuits issue some “talking points”
A few weeks later an Irish friend, Noel Barber, SJ, emailed me from Dublin about a statement issued by the Jesuit Conference demolishing the book, with a 3-page laundry list of “talking points” — e.g., criticisms of the book that could be used by Jesuit superiors in case they were questioned by the press about it. “This poorly done study,” the statement concluded, “offers us little from which to learn.” Evidently, this “fatwah” (the term used by my colleague Gene Bianchi) was being circulated to Jesuit residences, at least in the English-speaking world, and posted on their bulletin boards.
     I emailed Widner requesting a copy of all this. He responded by denying that the Jesuit Conference had issued such a statement. Within a week or so I managed to obtain copies of the “non-statement” and talking points from some of my moles. Widner evidently felt that the letter and appended talking points didn’t constitute a “statement as such.” I faxed Fr. Frank Case, the American assistant at the Jesuit curia in Rome, about Widner’s behavior and got back the line about this not being a public statement etc. Casuistry on steroids! Mental reservation to the max!

America: "The national Catholic weekly magazine for thinking Catholics" America shops for a negative review
At about the same time, John Coleman, a prominent Jesuit sociologist, emailed me with a copy of a positive review of Passionate Uncertainty that he had written, warning me that a number of Jesuits were “working over-time” to discredit the book. Tom Reese, SJ, the editor of America, had approached John about doing a review, but when John said that he liked the book, Reese spiked the review and solicited one from Sr. Katarina Schuth, whose negative review, coincidentally resembling the “talking points,” soon appeared in America. All this maneuvering outraged John, so he alerted me to what was happening.
     Coleman’s review finally appeared in National Jesuit News — the house organ of the American Society of Jesus — over the objections of Tom Widner, who also happens to be the editor in chief of NJN. He was ordered to publish Coleman’s review by Fr. Brad Schaeffer, the president of the Jesuit Conference. Schaeffer is no friend of mine but apparently the machinations of Widner and others were a bit too much for him.
     It’s important to note that the Jesuit leadership was doing all this at the same time that favorable reviews — including ones by Garry Wills of the New York Review of Books and Jonathan Kirsch of the L.A.Times — were coming out. One of the most laudatory pieces, a two-pager by Charles Morris, author of American Catholic, came out in the Boston College alumni magazine. This surprised the hell out of me, since these publications are usually bland fund-raising operations. Ben Birnbaum, the editor, told me that ever since Don Monan, SJ, became president of BC (he’s now retired), the magazine has been given a free hand.
Commonweal: "an independent journal of opinion edited & managed by lay Catholics." Commonweal enters the fray
Another person who got involved in this soap opera is Peggy Steinfels, the now retired editor of Commonweal. An associate editor at America, James Martin, SJ, published a blistering review of the book in Commonweal, but when Peggy discovered the goings-on at America and the Jesuit Conference she refused to publish his reply to my response to his trashing of the book.
     Fr. Richard Neuhaus, the editor of the neo-conservative monthly First Things, picked up on the orchestrated nature of the reviews in America and Commonweal and chided the Jesuits about this in his column. First Things published a review of the book by Avery Dulles, the only American Jesuit who is a cardinal. Though hardly sympathetic to some of our interpretations, Dulles called the book “a wakeup call.”
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