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…
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