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Jesuits in Disarray

In 1951, I entered a novitiate of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). Our large group of novices set a new record—over sixty of us in just one province (of eight at the time) in America. Buildings were hastily being built to house this influx during the height of post–World War II religiosity. Jesuits were considered the most intellectual order of priests, famous for their long (thirteen-year) lead-up to ordination, followed by an extra year of study after that. I left well before I reached the halfway mark in this course. Those who did get halfway through were given a detour of three years to teach in one of the many (forty-five, nationwide) Jesuit high schools, and their work at this stage was a principal source of “vocations” from those schools. Young idealists still on their way to the priesthood offered stirring models for their students, who wanted to join them in their high calling.

That was half a century ago, and the flow of men into the Society at that point has been reversed and canceled since then by a flood of men out—well over five thousand of them in America alone. The new buildings (and some of the old ones) are now sold off or turned to other uses. As Peter McDonough and Eugene Bianchi write in their important new survey of the order, “Membership in the Society of Jesus in the United States peaked in 1965, at 8,393 men. By 2000 it had been cut by more than half, falling to 3,635.” The Jesuits are not unique in this. The steep decline in their numbers is equaled or surpassed by those in other Catholic ministries. The number of aspirant priests in all Catholic seminaries (mainly diocesan) between 1966 and 1993 dropped by 85 percent.1 Without fresh recruits to the priesthood, the average age of priests has been climbing sharply. The falloff in women’s orders was even more abrupt. In 1955, there were ten times as many nuns as priests in America. Now there are fewer, and they are even older than the aging priests. Approximately fifty thousand nuns left in the decade between 1966 and 1976—a little-heralded achievement of the women’s movement.2 Women can now have meaningful careers that were closed to the young idealists who used to enter convents. Many nuns discovered this while participating in, or watching other women participate in, the civil rights demonstrations of the Sixties.

So the general decline of religious orders is a familiar story. But the book on the Jesuits has a special poignancy, since the order entered the crisis period with extraordinarily high prestige and recruitment. If even the priestly elite has suffered setbacks, the portents for other orders, and for the celibate priesthood in general, are grim. The Jesuits’ loss of numbers has led to a drastic rearrangement of the Society’s demographics, a change described by the authors as “the gaying and the graying of the Jesuits.” There are no longer young seminarians, in any number, to teach in the high schools and recruit new troops. In fact, there are few Jesuit priests left in the colleges, which have largely been turned over to lay administrators and staff. Well over half of the teachers were Jesuits in the high school I attended, most of them young. Now less than a tenth of Jesuit high school faculties are Jesuits, most of them old.

This situation is studied, sympathetically but clinically, by McDonough, a professor of political science at Arizona State University, and Bianchi, a professor emeritus of religion at Emory. The authors conducted long confidential interviews, either in person or by correspondence, with over two hundred Jesuits, with an equal number of ex-Jesuits, and with a hundred or so lay people who work closely with the Jesuits (principally in higher education). The inclusion of those who have left the order was a brilliant idea, and it led to some unexpected results. “Work satisfaction,” for instance, is higher among present Jesuits than among former ones, suggesting that the morale problem in the order may not be as severe as could be expected. Regard for the order is still high among those who left, while criticism of Church authorities is almost as intense among those who stayed as among those who did not. In fact, many Jesuits have a higher regard for their order’s leadership than for Church authority. A spiritual director in his fifties said, “If I could remain a Jesuit while joining the Quakers, I could be tempted!” One Jesuit administrator in his thirties says of the hierarchy under John Paul II’s guidance, “I think the church is being governed by thugs.” No present or former Jesuit in this book, no matter how disaffected, says anything like that about his Jesuit superiors.

To meet the crisis of declining numbers and rising ages, the Jesuits have become more adaptable. The cumbrous long training, never intended by Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the order, has been streamlined. The month-long retreat undergone at the beginning of the novitiate is no longer given to the whole group (for one thing, groups no longer enter) but has returned to Ignatius’ own practice of tailoring these “Spiritual Exercises” to the needs of a single person. Jesuits who complete the flexible new training are given greater choice in their assignments and form of ministry.

Reforms of this sort make it more difficult for the order to superintend its vast educational apparatus, which includes twenty-eight colleges or universities as well as the forty-five high schools already mentioned. Trying to maintain a Jesuit presence or aura at so many institutions involves the order in what one respondent calls “feeding the monster.” Most of the universities have been turned over to lay control, for legal and financial reasons as much as because of reduced Jesuit numbers. This makes it hard for superiors to deploy the dwindling number of Jesuits in an efficient way. The lay faculties have their own priorities, and no longer just accept Jesuits foisted on them, while the Jesuits to be assigned have greater control over their own lives.

Jesuit schools were known for their humanistic studies, based on the classics. At my Jesuit high school I took four years of Latin and two of Greek. The demand for that kind of education has slackened, as has the supply of Jesuits to conduct it. When my son and some friends asked for a course in Greek at the Jesuit high school he attended in the 1970s, he was told there was no longer a market for that. Without the order’s trademark discipline, and with more lay teachers than Jesuits in “Jesuit schools,” an obvious move, one might think, would be to turn over “secular” subjects to the laity and reserve theology classes to the Jesuits. But the order is chary of that move, since so many Jesuits disagree with the teachings of church authority. They know the Society is suspect in Rome, and is being specially targeted for the enforcement of the papal document Ex corde ecclesiae (1990), putting all theology teachers in Catholic schools under the scrutiny of the local bishop. Some Jesuits try to avoid trouble by teaching “spirituality,” often with an emphasis on Eastern religions, rather than Catholic theology.

Another attempt to retain a special sense of mission has been to emphasize social activity under the rubric of “faith and justice.” One attraction of this move is that Rome is generally liberal on social issues, less likely to discipline those engaged in them than in doctrinal matters. But this program just aggravates the manpower problem of superiors, since it spreads the available pool of talent out into separate activities, making them unavailable to “feed the monster” or maintain close community ties. Allies in social work, lay colleagues in the schools, and professional associates of all sorts offer Jesuits alternative communities to that of the order. The few younger members of the Society have a hard time relating to the large residue of older Jesuits. This “decimation of the bridging generation” (as the authors call it) makes real solidarity hard to maintain. One Jesuit says the younger men have the sense of living with their grandfathers, who speak nostalgically of the past. In this “community as minimalist encounter,” communal activities are carried on at the level of “middle-distance pleasantries,” driving some to seek deeper friendship among the laity.

Entering the Jesuits used to take one into a stable world; but that is far from the experience of recent times. A thirty-five-year-old still studying theology says: “My novice master left to marry, my formation director left for a relationship with another man, et cetera. One cannot help but get the sense that we of this generation of Jesuits may be the ‘last of the Shakers.’” One of the striking findings of the authors is that fewer of those entering the order in recent years come from devout Catholic families. They are following an individual quest for faith, not expressing a faith widely shared. The authors note that Jesuits of the mid-twentieth century tended to come from ethnic subcultures—Irish, Italian, German, and Polish, among others—where their families were embedded in Catholic conventions that set them slightly apart from mainstream America. This gave a sense of solidarity, of belonging, with a countercultural edge to it. Many of those entering already had priests in their extended families, and they knew largely what to expect of clerical life in general.

Now, however, Catholics are both more assimilated to the general American culture and more divided among themselves. Jesuits have, in effect, to make up their own identities, working out their own concept of what it means to be a Catholic, a priest, a religious. They still want to be distinctive, to have a mission not shared by the general population. This leads to experimentation in countercultural styles. Examples of this are the faith-and-justice activism already referred to, or the study of Eastern religions. Another social bond is the Catholic version of the gay movement. The authors report a general agreement among present and former Jesuits that a gay subculture flourishes in the Society. Outsiders became aware of this subculture in 2000, when it was reported that Jesuits by the dozens were suffering from or dying of AIDS. From one novitiate alone—in fact, the one I entered in 1951—five men who were novices in the 1960s were dead of AIDS by the 1990s.3 There were attempts to hide this rate—when Thom Savage, the popular former president of Rockhurst College in Kansas City, died in 1999, it was said that he died of respiratory problems, but a reporter for The Kansas City Star found only one cause of death, AIDS, listed on his death certificate.4

It is not surprising that the numbers of heterosexuals have declined, as many left to marry and others were deterred by the celibacy requirement from entering. The remaining or arriving gays have formed protective networks—the authors call it a “lavender Mafia”—to provide the sense of community otherwise so hard to come by in the order. Of course, this works against a larger sense of community, since some of those Jesuits interviewed express resentment at being excluded by the gays. A straight young Jesuit says: “I feel quite alone when Jesuits of my generation talk about sex and sexuality. Straights complain about being in the minority in the ‘younger Society’ and about being held to stricter norms of conduct. Gays want shoulders to cry on as they struggle with coming out and are unduly sensitive to any detail of a response which they can interpret as nonacceptance.” A man in his thirties teaching in a high school also feels stranded: “Several of my former Jesuit friends would mention the large number of gay Jesuits and the impact that had on community life as being a big reason they left. As a relatively young Jesuit who is heterosexual, I believe I am in the minority, and that raises questions.” A priest in his sixties is less tolerant of the younger men: “I get annoyed with those gays who seem stuck on one note—anger.” This man seeks escape from the community room by spending time with women friends outside his institution.

Other Christian denominations have accepted gay ministers, and there is no reason to think Catholics could not do this as well. A poll of Catholics in the Boston area, a home of the traditional religion, found that 51 percent of them disagreed with the Pope on the intrinsic immorality of homosexual acts.5 But that, of course, is the problem—the Jesuits cannot be honest about their sexual life so long as the Vatican is forbidding it. Therefore they quietly ignore papal teaching on homosexuality, just as the laity ignores the ban on contraceptives. There is a collusive secrecy to the whole situation, lay and clerical. That collusion is, paradoxically, confirmed by the presence of a small but determined group of younger Jesuits who are “restorationists,” in total agreement with John Paul II’s attempt to revive the traditional church. Though at odds with most of their fellow Jesuits, these men feel a mission to draw the order back to older patterns.

Yet the price of their intransigence is a willingness to get along with the people they are opposing. In fact, the contemporary Jesuit’s pursuit of meaningful ministry creates a loose federation of countercultural efforts (even neoconservatism is one of these) in which each set’s survival depends on a protectively vague awareness of what the other groups are up to. This is reflected in the attitude of the order’s general in Rome, who must assure the papacy that things are not amiss in the ranks below him. “Peter-Hans Kovenbach, the Dutch general of the Society since 1983, with long experience in the Middle East before coming to Rome, is known for his skill at massaging the grandees of the papal court,” write McDonough and Bianchi. If the general should try to enforce the papal ban on any homosexual activity, the already thin ranks could be considerably reduced—gays might leave in droves, as heterosexuals already have.

The resulting permissiveness is excused by the undoubtedly good work that many Jesuits do in their new quest for meaningful activities—in social work, scholarship, counseling, giving retreats—a quest successful enough to be reflected in the high satisfaction they say they take in their jobs. Since “there are almost no mechanisms for processing conflict,” it is to everybody’s interest not to let conflict arise, at least not openly. But this swarming of separate and self-directed activities looks only to the short term. The loose netting together of different operations does not consider the overall mission of the Society as a single body. No serious thought has been given to what may be necessary steps—like divesting themselves of some if not most of their schools. Jesuits are like most Catholics in thinking that a married priesthood should and will be adopted in time. But only a few of them face the fact that this could seal the fate of their Society—the spouses of priests are unlikely to want to join in community with other married couples, especially if the community still has a remnant of “grandfathers.” The authors put it this way: “Progressive measures, like a married clergy, would almost certainly speed up the decline in the number of candidates for holy orders in celibate groups.”

Though the methods used in this book are those of sociological surveys, including charts and statistics, the sensitive reading of the interviews and a catchy writing style redeem it from the worst features of such work. There are faults here, like a repetitiveness in the commentary on the interviews. The authors also have an annoying habit of using the end notes to mention any and every book connected with a subject treated in the text, not directing attention to particular positions or passages within the books. But otherwise they succeed very well in presenting the struggle of an organization deeply challenged at many levels and coping with what seem almost insurmountable problems.

  1. 1

    Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, The Churching of America, 1776–1990: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy (Rutgers University Press, 1992), pp. 259–261.

  2. 2

    Philip Jenkins, Pedophiles and Priests: Anatomy of a Contemporary Crisis (Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 97. I recently visited the mother house of the nuns who taught me in grade school, the Dominicans of Adrian, Michigan. The nun in her seventies who drove me around Adrian said she must wait to get into the retirement house of the order, since it is overcrowded already.

  3. 3

    Judy L. Thomas, “Seminary Taught Spirituality, Liturgy and Latin—Sexuality Was Taboo,” The Kansas City Star, January 30, 2000.

  4. 4

    Judy L. Thomas, “Those Who Counsel Priests with AIDS Say the Church Must Be More Open,” The Kansas City Star, January 31, 2000.

  5. 5

    Michael Paulson, “Catholics Favoring Priesthood Changes,” The Boston Globe, February 10, 2002, p. A1.

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