Can the Jesuits Be Saved?

A friend of mine tells of attending a showing at a Jesuit university of a video produced to mark the centenary of the birth in 1907 of Rev. Pedro Arrupe, S.J., “the Basque Jesuit,” who as a missionary in Japan tended the wounded and dying after the atom-bombing of Hiroshima, and was superior general of the Society of Jesus from 1965 to 1983. He is revered by contemporary Jesuits as the man who not only presided over but initiated many of the changes in the Society after Vatican II.

Questions and discussion followed the video. Someone asked if Father Arrupe would be canonized a saint. According to my friend, the answer was: Not as long as the people currently in charge in Rome are calling the shots.

That strikes the authentic Jesuit note of the last 30 years: a little paranoid, more than a little petulant, quick to blame others — preferably the Vatican — for the Society’s troubles. Members of a healthy-minded group with a sense of being in charge of their own destiny don’t express themselves like that.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

Email subscribe inline (#4)

As a product of Jesuit education, I’ve known many Jesuits and counted them as friends and admirable priests making notable contributions to the Church. Yet the Jesuits as a body are in serious trouble today. That is why the order’s 35th General Congregation, which opened Monday in Rome, is a matter of the highest urgency. The Society’s very survival could be at stake.

Two items on the assembly’s agenda are electing a successor to Rev. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, S.J., superior general since 1983, and making policy decisions for the years ahead. The new general may have been chosen by the time this appears, but few except Jesuits — and perhaps not even many of them — will know at once what the choice really means. Nor will the General Congregation’s policy statements shed much light. Only time will tell what the future holds for the Jesuits.

Numbers illustrate the Society’s long-running crisis but don’t explain it. Forty years ago, there were 35,000 Jesuits in the world. Now, though they remain the Church’s largest religious order of men, there are 19,000. More important than numerical decline, however, has been the group’s sometimes troubled relationship with the Magisterium of the Church.

Clearly, today’s Jesuits aren’t the same as yesterday’s — and that isn’t all bad. The Society of 50 or 60 years ago had plenty of faults, though you would never get a Jesuit to admit that to an outsider. But the really big difference between then and now is that Jesuits then were a band of ultra-orthodox papal loyalists, while Jesuits now and for several decades have collectively cast themselves in the role of a shakily loyal opposition. In their disturbing 2002 report on the Society in the United States, Passionate Uncertainty, Peter McDonough and Eugene C. Bianchi, himself an ex-Jesuit, conclude that “tacit dissent” was a virtual way of life for many of those they interviewed.{mospagebreak}

In fairness, though, many regard — or anyway at one time regarded — themselves as blazing new paths for the Church out of the swamps of ignorance and obscurantism. One thinks of emblematic figures like Rev. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J. (1881-1955), paleontologist and theologian, whose quasi-mystical, quasi-scientific, quasi-poetical books attempting to synthesize evolutionism and Christianity were all the rage with Catholic liberals in the hysterical 1960s and 1970s, and — considerably less exotic — of Rev. Karl Rahner, S.J. (1904-1984), the most influential theologian at the Second Vatican Council, whose impact on Catholic thinking in the last four decades has been both powerful and unsettling. Significantly, his younger colleague at Vatican II, Rev. Joseph Ratzinger — now Pope Benedict XVI — had begun to cool on Rahner even before the Council ended.

In the United States, the Society reached its numerical high point in 1965, when American Jesuits totaled 8,393. Then the great exodus began. By 2002, more men had left since 1960 (5,892) than were then members (3,635). As of 2007, the number of Jesuits in the United States had fallen to 2,991.

In his new history, The American Jesuits, Rev. Raymond A. Schroth, S.J., contends that the rigors of traditional Jesuit formation became counterproductive in modern times. That may well be true. But it leaves unconsidered the possibility that the Society might have undertaken moderate, measured renewal after Vatican II instead of plunging into a pell-mell rush to change.

A glaring instance of the craziness of those years was the shift in 1970 of famous Woodstock College from its rural Maryland site, where members of the Society had been educated and formed for a century, to a set of comfortably appointed apartments on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Woodstock-New York lasted all of two years. (Practically speaking, of course, it may not have mattered much, since the Society of Jesus in the entire United States now attracts only a few dozen novices a year.)

This is a sad state of affairs for a group with a history as glorious as the Jesuits’. In the nearly 500 years since its founding by St. Ignatius Loyola, the Society has produced 50 canonized saints, with hundreds more in the pipeline as “blessed.” Modern Jesuit heroes include such striking figures as Blessed Miguel Pro, S.J., a martyr of the Mexican revolution executed in 1927, whose story inspired Graham Greene’s novel The Power and the Glory, and Rev. Walter Ciszek, S.J., a Polish-American who entered the Soviet Union incognito at the start of World War II intending to do underground pastoral work, was quickly arrested, and spent 15 of the next 23 years in Soviet prisons and prison camps. He reflected on his experiences in two remarkable books, With God in Russia (1964) and He Leadeth Me (1973).

Can a new general and new policy papers help the Jesuits recapture the spiritual heroism of men like these? Typically, the Society’s American assistancy in its planning for the General Congregation assigned priority to “people suffering from structurally entrenched poverty.” Concern for the poor is undoubtedly commendable, but here and now the Society probably needs to give still more attention to strategies for surviving and renewing itself.

Jesuits like to quote St. Ignatius, who said, “If the whole Society should come to an end, it would take fifteen minutes for me to regain my composure.” Detachment like that was praiseworthy in the founder, but it could be a copout for his problem-plagued sons. Instead of regarding the possible disappearance of the Society with fatalistic composure, they should be working like mad to preserve and enhance the precious legacy they’ve received. Let us pray the General Congregation can kindle some new fires of faith among Ignatius’s men.


  • Russell Shaw

    Russell Shaw is the author of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press), Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), and other works.

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

With so much happening in the Church right now, we are hard at work drawing out the battle plans so we can keep the faithful informed—but we need to know who we have on our side. Do you stand with Crisis Magazine?

Support the Spring Crisis Campaign today to help us meet our crucial $100,000 goal. All monthly gifts count x 12!

Share to...