Guest Column: The Future of the Jesuits

The beginning of the end for the Society of Jesus, the dawn of a new day, or just more of the same? The announcement in early February by Rev. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, S.J., superior general since 1983, that he would convoke a general congregation of the Jesuits in 2008 to elect his successor raises that question. Falling in numbers (36,000 worldwide in 1966 to around 21,000 now) yet still hugely powerful and corporately wedded to the role of not-too-loyal opposition in the Church, the Society’s place in Catholic life makes the fate of these highly trained activists and scholars a matter of immense importance.

Even today the Jesuits of the United States include many hard-working, orthodox, altogether admirable members. So what’s wrong with the rest? A young Jesuit wrote me last year suggesting an answer. The source of the trouble, he said, is “a great number of men who entered in the ’60s and ’70s [and] who remain very much attached to their notions of activism.” Many of these Jesuits, he declared, haven’t faced “the difficult question: What must I sacrifice to serve as a priest of the Catholic Church? Some still believe they can be well-meaning protestors, without accounting for the people they leave behind in the pews.”

The Society’s recent history hasn’t been happy. After Rev. Pedro Arrupe, S.J., 28th superior general, suffered a devastating stroke in 1981, Pope John Paul II attempted to rein in the Jesuits by putting his own men in charge. The effort failed, and in September 1983 a general congregation elected Father Kolvenbach, a Dutch linguistics specialist, the new general.

Controversy and decline have marked the Kolvenbach years. In Passionate Uncertainty (University of California Press, 2003), a study of American Jesuits, Peter McDonough and Eugene C. Bianchi depict the Society as a disturbingly gay-friendly environment. Not surprisingly, perhaps, several U.S. provincials were openly critical of the new Vatican document barring the ordination of confirmed homosexuals as priests. An anecdote suggests the flavor of Father Kolvenbach’s tenure. A Jesuit in mufti is said to have asked the general, attired in black cassock, why he always dressed like that. “I dress the way I do so that you can dress the way you do,” Father Kolvenbach replied. By being impeccable in word and deed himself, the general provided cover for his men.

The American Jesuits have suffered a particularly sharp fall in numbers since the 1960s, from 8,500 to around 3,300. But the Society still has major assets in this country, among them 28 colleges and universities, 48 secondary schools, and 80 parishes. Georgetown University is representative of what’s happened to the Jesuits in the last half-century. The 1950s Georgetown was a cloistered, conservative school; today it’s a model of academic political correctness, with a lay president, a dwindling Jesuit presence, and an attenuated Catholic identity. The Georgetown Jesuits moved into a lavish new residence overlooking the Potomac a few years ago. On a visit, I heard an elderly Jesuit complaining of the “scandal” of religious living so high on the hog.

The general congregation in January 2008 will be the Society’s 35th since its founding by St. Ignatius Loyola in 1540. About 200 Jesuits from around the world will take part. Announcing the gathering, Father Kolvenbach cited section 680 of the Jesuit Constitutions, on the need for communal discernment about difficult questions facing the Society.

“Some of my brothers have lost their way,” the young Jesuit wrote. “Things did not always go the way they imagined they would, and their heartbreak is something I see. But I also support them and ask them to see the future in new, more honest terms.” We should all pray for that.


  • 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.

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