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American Jesuits

To the Editors:

In his otherwise fair and balanced review of Passionate Uncertainty: Inside the American Jesuits, by Peter McDonough and Eugene C. Bianchi [NYR, March 28], Garry Wills makes three serious errors.

The first is his uncritical acceptance of the book’s deeply flawed methodology. Mr. Wills terms the inclusion of former Jesuits in the survey “brilliant.” But in a study of the current Society of Jesus, the fact that almost half of those interviewed were former Jesuits (206 out of 430) renders any conclusions based on the data largely useless. In fact, McDonough and Bianchi note that many of the former Jesuits interviewed departed the order in the 1960s and 1970s. Their observations about Jesuit life, therefore, are confined to experiences from thirty or forty years ago. And while these experiences may be of interest as a historical backdrop, they cannot be used to draw accurate conclusions about the Society of Jesus today. Also, in their “Notes on Methodology,” the authors admit to using “snowball” sampling, that is, relying on interviewees to recommend others for the survey. This method guarantees a biased sample of like-minded individuals—for example, disgruntled former Jesuits. It is, in short, about as far as one can get from a “random” or “representative” sample.

Second, when discussing the presence of gay men in the Society of Jesus in the United States, Mr. Wills writes: “If the general [that is, the superior general of the Jesuits] should try to enforce the papal ban on any homosexual activity, the already thin ranks could be considerably reduced—gays might leave in droves….” Certainly there are gay Jesuits; no one disputes this. But Mr. Wills’s statement assumes, wrongly, that being a gay Jesuit means, ipso facto, that one is sexually active. This is false: the vast majority of gay Jesuits—priests, scholastics, and brothers—keep their vow of chastity. McDonough and Bianchi simply do not provide any reliable data to support Mr. Wills’s speculative claim.

Third, when discussing the future activities of a religious order faced with declining numbers, Mr. Wills states, “No serious thought has been given to what may be necessary steps—like divesting themselves of some if not most of their schools.” This is perhaps the easiest error to refute. The Jesuit General Congregations, Jesuit superiors and rectors, Jesuit provincials, and probably every Jesuit in this country have done almost nothing but offer themselves to “serious thought” about what the future will hold, or to use a more religious image, how we should respond to the “signs of the times.” Reflecting on the current situation in light of the gospel in order to plan for the future is a hallmark of Jesuit spirituality. Whether or not Mr. Wills agrees with these plans is another matter. But at the very least, as a former Jesuit, Mr. Wills should know that serious thought is one thing of which we have not divested ourselves.

(Rev.) James Martin, S.J.
Associate Editor
America,New York City

Garry Wills replies:

Father Martin says that I make three “serious errors” when I simply relay the findings of the authors whose book I was reviewing. What exactly are my (our) errors?

(1) It is said I rely on the views of “disgruntled former Jesuits.” Father Martin must not have read the interviews. Most of the former Jesuits express continuing respect for the order (as do I). In fact, they seem generally as gruntled as priests still in the order. If the former Jesuits’ views come from “thirty or forty years ago,” that makes all the more striking their general congruence with the views of those still in the order. As I said in the review, this shows the wisdom of canvassing both groups of men.

(2) It is said that the general of the order is satisfied that his gay priests are sexually inactive. But: The papal position, recently voiced by the pope’s press secretary, is that gays do not belong in the priesthood. And: Even if gays are sexually quiescent, many interviewed in the book say that the gays’ subculture makes heterosexual Jesuits uncomfortable and has caused some to leave. And: If the gays are sexually abstinent, why have so many died from or suffered from AIDS?

(3) I hope Father Martin is right about the order’s long-term planning, but few of those interviewed in the book are aware of this. Father Martin says that I (i.e., the book’s authors) commit “the easiest error to refute.” But he does not refute it. He might do so if he could point to a single document by Jesuit officials that seriously proposes (for instance) divesting themselves of their schools. Can he?

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