Founded by Ignatius Loyola in 1540, the Society of Jesus remains the largest and most controversial religious order of men in Catholicism. Since the 1960s, however, Jesuits in the United States have lost more than half of their members, and they have experienced a massive upheaval in what they believe and how they work and live. In this groundbreaking book, Peter McDonough and Eugene C. Bianchi draw on interviews and statements gathered from more than four hundred Jesuits and former Jesuits to provide an intimate look at turmoil among Catholicism's legendary best-and-brightest.
Priests and former priests speak candidly about their reasons for joining (and leaving) the Jesuits, about their sexual development and orientation, about their spiritual crises and their engagement with other religious traditions. They discuss issues ranging from celibacy to the ordination of women, homosexuality, the rationale of the priesthood, the challenges of community life, and the divinity of Jesus.
Passionate Uncertainty traces the transformation of the Society of Jesus from a fairly unified organization into a smaller, looser community with disparate goals and an elusive corporate identity. From its role as a traditional subculture during the days of immigrant Catholicism, the order has changed into an amalgam of countercultures shaped around social mission, sexual identity, and an eclectic spirituality. The story of the Jesuits reflects the crisis of clerical authority and the deep ambivalence surrounding American Catholicism's encounter with modernity.
Passionate Uncertainty Inside the American Jesuits
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1 Catholicism is a paradoxical holdout. The Second Vatican Council (Vatican II, 1962-65)—the watershed conclave of ecclesiastical leaders held in Rome in the early 1960s—set in motion reforms that led the Roman Catholic church to support democratization in Latin America, East Asia, and Eastern and Central Europe. But on the inside, Catholicism has retained its hierarchical traditions, excluding women from the priesthood and hewing to a conservative line on issues involving what one Jesuit has called "pelvic theology"—celibacy, contraception, divorce, abortion, and the like. While its outreach has tilted leftward, the power structure of Catholicism remains confined to male clerics.
The Jesuits, the fabled group of educators and missionaries whose origins date back to the Renaissance, are caught in these crosscurrents. As the order ages and shrinks in numbers, the Society of Jesus has seen its schools and other operations increasingly staffed and run by laymen and laywomen. By and large, Jesuits have encouraged this transformation. At the same time, the shift impinges on clerical roles and priestly identity and leaves Jesuits searching for corporate purpose.
The sea-change experienced by the Jesuits has been cultural as well as institutional. Since the 1960s, and especially since the papacy made clear that it would not revisit off-limits areas such as birth control and the ordination of women, many Jesuits have lived in tacit dissent. The gap between the official teaching of the church and the practice of its middle managers—nuns as well as priests, including Jesuits—has widened.
The confluence of these organizational and cultural changes has precipitated a crisis not only among the Jesuits but also, more broadly, within the priesthood and by extension within the governing structure of Catholicism. Long-term demographics work against the replenishment of clerical ranks restricted to celibate males. The number of Catholics continues to grow as vocations to the consecrated life decline. Among Jesuits who remain, lack of conviction about once-solid moral verities is at least as common as outright polarization between defenders of a return to the old code and advocates of reform.
The sensible thing would seem to be to expand clerical numbers by relaxing the rules of membership—by abolishing restrictions regarding priestly celibacy and the ordination of women. But problems in Catholicism are rarely settled on the grounds of fairness, efficiency, or public opinion. "Men must be changed by religion," a prominent Counter-Reformation prelate argued in words that would become a rallying cry for upholders of tradition, "not religion by men."1
The Jesuits are in a bind. They cannot go back, insofar as that course would entail a return to clerical dominance in an age of lay ascendancy. But they cannot move forward without placing their clerical identity at risk.
Jesuits have reacted to the threat of evaporating identity by changing from a prominent if rather parochial subcultural presence to a countercultural movement. Attachments to causes and symbols that distance them from the mainstream range from adherence to religious neoconservatism, to the advocacy of radical social change, to the cultivation of a gay lifestyle, to involvement with non-Western religions. The countercultural turn—"strategy" has too purposeful a connotation—has neither boosted numbers nor contributed to the coherence of the Society. But it has kept the order from extinction by way of assimilation, and a semblance of distinctiveness has been maintained.
This is not the whole story. Another factor making for survival is that many Jesuits take genuine pleasure in their work, flying below the radar of the Vatican, and a few actually agree with the direction set by Rome. Finally, and somewhat ironically, the tendency for those in religious life to resolve their problems in personal terms, through recourse to therapy and versions of privatized spirituality, may smack of "modern individualism," but it poses little direct challenge to the Catholic hierarchy.
For all this, the steady depletion of clerical manpower jeopardizes not only the ministerial prowess but also the authority structure of the church. A thunderous contradiction exists between ministerial ambitions and clerical capacity. Something has to give.
Passionate Uncertainty looks at this drama from the perspective of key players: Jesuits who have stayed with the institution and those who have abandoned the clerical enterprise. The troubles facing the Jesuits closely resemble those afflicting the clergy in general. With the ascent of the laity, the crisis of priestly identity and purpose has become a crisis of church leadership. Insofar as the laity look toward the representatives of the church for insight into their spiritual lives, their own sense of identity is also in crisis.
The Society of Jesus stands at the terminus of a long evolution in religious life. In the heyday of the order, the versatility of the Jesuits represented not just the culmination of the priestly ideal joined to worldly activism. In Europe, Jesuits were also the vanguard of papal ambitions for dominance in the political realm. Not until the 1960s, with the reforms of Vatican II, did ecclesiastical authorities relinquish their dream of the union of church and state. Now, having revamped its political goals, the church finds itself with less and less clerical manpower to carry out its ministerial functions. We are left with a landscape, in the words of Wallace Stevens, "like the scenery of a play that has come to an end."2
2 The story of the Jesuits falls into three acts. The first ended abruptly in 1773, when the pope issued an edict to suppress the Society. The Jesuits, celebrated not only for their schools and their missionary work but also for their activities as court advisers, had aroused the hostility of absolutist monarchs and the enmity of rivals within the church.3 Except in Russia, where rulers declined to receive the papal edict, the Jesuits were disbanded, and their property was confiscated. Many became secular priests, and the superior-general of the order died in a papal prison in Rome.
After a forty-year hiatus, a papacy alarmed by upheavals attendant on the French Revolution restored the Society of Jesus. The period from 1814 until Vatican II in the 1960s constitutes the second act in the saga of the Jesuits. Once again on the upswing, the restored Society was associated with conservative, antidemocratic elements through much of the nineteenth and the first part of the twentieth century in Europe. The order was identified with "ultramontane" support for the universal, transnational supremacy of the pope.4
Jesuits in the United States, though growing rapidly, had a lower political profile than their counterparts in Europe. Georgetown University, the country's oldest Catholic institution of higher learning, was inaugurated in 1789 under the auspices of Bishop John Carroll, a former Jesuit who had become a secular priest with the suppression of the order. American Jesuits catered to a burgeoning clientele of Catholic immigrants and their offspring. More than Jesuits elsewhere, the American branch deployed its manpower through a network of high schools, colleges, and universities. The high schools especially became a major source of recruits. By the end of the 1930s, the Society of Jesus in the United States had overtaken Spanish Jesuits to form the largest regional contingent in the worldwide order.5
In the years following World War II, the energy of the Jesuits was expressed not only in their colleges and universities, expanding exponentially under the stimulus of the GI Bill, but also in the emergence of daring intellectuals. Next to the French archaeologist and mystic Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the most celebrated of these was the theologian and political theorist John Courtney Murray, who pushed the boundaries of Catholic orthodoxy. In the late 1950s, Murray's advocacy of religious toleration and political pluralism earned him the opprobrium of reactionaries in the Vatican, and his superiors were compelled to silence him.6
Vatican II touched off the third act of the Jesuit drama, one whose scenario has yet to be completed. The promulgation of Vatican II's decree on religious freedom, drafted by Murray, vindicated his views.7 Pedro Arrupe, the first Basque to head the order since its founding, was elected superior-general and undertook a program of change in line with the reformist shift in Catholicism. The training of Jesuits became less regimented, and greater priority was placed on social justice.8 By 1965, when the council drew to a close, the Jesuits were at their peak, with more than 35,000 men around the world, about 8,500 of whom were Americans.
Even then, however, signs of trouble were detectable. As early as the mid-1950s, the number of entrants had begun to stagnate and then to drift downward in Europe and soon after in the United States. In the wake of Vatican II, which left the identity and the role of the priesthood unclear, the volume of recruits shrank practically everywhere. Jesuits left in droves. Thirty years after the council, global membership had fallen to the low-20,000 mark. Concurrently, with the drop in entrants, the average age of Jesuits soared. The decline in membership was especially sharp in advanced industrial societies. Toward the end of the 1990s, the number of American Jesuits had dropped from above 8,000 to below 4,000, and they were overtaken by the Jesuits of India as the largest regional bloc.
The dwindling and graying of the Society has prompted greater collaboration with laypeople. By the dawn of the new millennium, there were more than a million and a half alumni of Jesuit colleges and universities in the United States, and the scale of these operations surpassed the ability of the Jesuits to control them. Conscious of the secularization of universities such as Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, whose origins were bound up with Protestant denominations, Jesuits and their colleagues struggled to clarify the mission of the institutions of higher education affiliated with the order in the United States.9 The process is not unlike decolonization, with Jesuits withdrawing from positions of leadership while leaving signs of a distinctive ethos in place.10
With the ascent to the papacy of Karol Wojtyla as John Paul II in 1978, the power of the Jesuits waned. The experimentalism and ecumenism of many Jesuits did not sit well with the militant centralism of the new pope.11 In 1981, when Pedro Arrupe was immobilized by a stroke, the pope bypassed the usual rules of the Society and appointed an elderly Jesuit as caretaker.12 Jesuits, some of whom still refer to the event as a minisuppression, were enjoined to get their house in order. In 1983, at a general congregation of the Society in Rome, the Dutch Jesuit Peter-Hans Kolvenbach was elected superior-general.
Jesuits have continued to get caught up in politics. During the 1970s and 1980s, a number of Jesuits were instrumental in the development of liberation theology in Central and South America. In 1989 in El Salvador, six members of the order were assassinated by the military for their criticism of the regime.13 Some Jesuits, such as the peace activist Daniel Berrigan, make political statements and engage in social advocacy.14 In 1997, a Jesuit was slain in India because of his work with untouchables; another Indian Jesuit was shot dead in 2000, probably by religious fundamentalists; and Jesuits have fallen victim to internecine warfare in Africa and Southeast Asia. The Society is a collective presence in a few areas bearing on public policy, most notably in private education. But the greater part of the politics involving Jesuits is intramural, touching on relations with the ecclesiastical hierarchy and on sensitive issues such as the role of women.
Although the Jesuits' commitment to social justice continues to receive rhetorical support, practical means for delivering on this commitment are still being thrashed out. The process is complicated by their long-standing institutional obligations, especially in the schools. Some of the schools serve relatively well-off clienteles, while others care for poor people, many of them non-Catholic, in inner cities.
The onus of redirecting priorities is aggravated by manpower shortages. Only in India does Jesuit membership appear to be growing steadily, and even there the forecast is for decline as the country modernizes.15 The Society of Jesus is an understaffed conglomerate. The scope of its activities makes the corporate direction of the order uncertain, and the continued shortfall in numbers puts its survival in jeopardy.
3 Among Jesuits, change has been massive and deep not only in numbers—the Society has lost over a third of its manpower around the world and more than half its membership in the United States—but also in what Jesuits believe and in what they do. The Jesuits have been transformed from a fairly unified, though far from homogeneous, organization into a much smaller, looser community with disparate goals and a corporate identity that has turned out to be elusive.
The key to understanding this metamorphosis is to recognize, first, what has not happened. The Society of Jesus has not moved from one steady state to a new equilibrium; no overarching paradigm has replaced the theological synthesis that prevailed in the days before the 1960s and Vatican II.16 Aside from the slide in numbers, the upshot has been a proliferation of agendas and lifestyles of borderline coherence within the confines of the ecclesiastical hierarchy. The result, in other words, has been diversity without democracy.
Jesuits are faced with dilemmas of identity, with questions of who they are, in addition to puzzlement about what they do and how they do it. The status of the priesthood has declined as the connection between celibacy and good works has become doubtful. This confusion shows up in sexual ambiguity as well as in conflict over practical, corporate goals. As the old emblems of belonging have become tattered with the erosion of the enclaves of immigrant Catholicism, and as certainty over clerical purpose has given way to an assortment of ideologies and agendas—as, in short, the security of the traditional subculture has faded—some Jesuits have found their moorings in countercultural stances shaped by sexual orientation, social advocacy, and a variety of causes, conservative as well as radical, that in one way or another set them apart from the mainstream.17
The social assimilation of American Catholics and the movement toward a more ecumenical Catholicism, open to the wisdom of other religious traditions, have placed strains on Jesuits long associated with a fortress church. The problem is not inordinate attachment to the past—very few Jesuits are arch-reactionaries—but, rather, indeterminacy over what is to take its place. Mainstreaming threatens to obliterate the identity of groups like the Society of Jesus.
Rather than being absorbed by success, many Jesuits have become profoundly ambivalent about it. They have moved from subcultural certainties toward countercultural agendas. The appeal of the misfit battles with the yearning for conventional acceptance. Sometimes this takes the shape of commitment to the "faith that does justice"; sometimes it entails attachment to an outsider sexuality, as in the case of the cultivation of a gay lifestyle; sometimes the urge to define identity is subsumed in a religious neoconservatism that applauds the restorationist platform of John Paul II; and sometimes it leads to exploration of religious practices outside the Western heritage. These disparate critiques are united in little else except a renunciation of the standardization and complacency of contemporary society.18
This depiction of the countercultural slant of the Jesuits tells us more about the centrifugal forces operating on the Society than about how the order manages to hang together and muddle through. In order to figure this out, we need to understand the flexible nature of the hierarchy in which Jesuits are embedded.
The Society can be visualized as a three-tiered arrangement in which change proceeds faster toward the bottom than at the top. In pursuing reform, Jesuits have followed the path of least resistance. Individually, Jesuits engage in rewarding work and feel that they are doing pretty well, but the collective picture is mixed. Frustration increases the higher up the ecclesiastical ladder Jesuit operations go.19
In their daily lives, Jesuits have experienced significant spiritual renewal, putting new verve into the personalized religious practices associated with the first, creative days of the order. Moreover, Jesuits and former Jesuits have dropped much of the sexual restrictiveness of old-time Catholicism. A good deal of customization of spiritual and moral experience has gone on at some remove from the doctrinal propriety espoused by Rome. Not all these reforms have proceeded smoothly. Nevertheless, on the whole, Jesuits have loosened up. They are not about to go back to being "good monks."20
As we move farther up the line, from their personal to their ministerial activities, Jesuits are less in control, and programmatic rivalries combine with institutional drag and external pressures to produce a less clear-cut, though still significant, measure of creativity. At this intermediate level, proponents of the social justice agenda that came into vogue with Vatican II vie with the advocates of the Society's customary strengths in education and the intellectual trades. Though neither dominates, the faith-and-justice program has gained ground, abetted by the numeric decline of Jesuits in the schools.
In addition, market criteria have made themselves felt in the competition for capital and human resources. Jesuit educational operations that once catered to an almost exclusively Catholic clientele, under clerical supervision, are now more attentive to professional regulations and wider economic pulls. These secular incentives have improved their performance, even if their religious compass has been altered.
Finally, it is at the top, where the power of the Jesuits is severely circumscribed, in relations between the Society of Jesus and the Vatican, that change has been slowest. Ordinary Jesuits embrace, adapt to, finesse, or ignore prescriptions regarding, for example, the ordination of women and married people. At its apex, Catholicism remains a monarchy with few provisions for restraining one-man rule.21 The weakness of institutional checks permits a gifted authoritarian politician like John Paul II to orchestrate a kind of populist autocracy. To classify the papal structure to which the Jesuits are bound as garden-variety conservatism—as "elitism" and the like—is to underestimate its capacity, in the hands of a media-savvy pope, for nondemocratic adaptation to mass politics.22
Put schematically: The politics of Jesuit-Vatican relations are less tractable than the economics of their ministries, which are in turn less malleable than what transpires at the psychosexual level of personal therapy and spiritual direction. Hollowed out though it may be, hierarchy is preserved through the tactical, local autonomy it grants.
Does this add up to anything more than a kind of protracted entropy, a drip-by-drip disintegration? The loose coupling of the bottom, middle, and upper tiers of the system keeps it going longer than might be expected. But several forces have been operating on the hierarchy, rendering it more and more anomalous.
The first of these is therapization. The renewal of the Spiritual Exercises in one-on-one fashion has been accompanied by the application of secular psychology to foster individual adjustment. The process of cura personalis (personal care) is two-edged. The therapeutic turn does not encourage collective mobilization against the ecclesiastical structure, but it does not foster loyalty to institutions either.23
Another big push has been toward marketization. Not only do Jesuits have to compete with laypeople for jobs in the apostolic infrastructure, but the ministerial institutions themselves have become more professional and deliberative in recruitment, fund-raising, asset management, and so on. Decision making by committee is the norm. Jesuits operations are more businesslike than they used to be.
A third, much weaker impulse has been toward democratization. Jesuits can get many of the benefits associated with such a course within a hierarchy that is fairly flexible, if somewhat arbitrary, without going to the trouble of a root-and-branch makeover. Especially in their ministerial activities, self-determination of an ad hoc variety is within reach, while reform conceived as systemwide inclusiveness and an overhaul of the rules seems costly and far off. More than a few Jesuits prefer a personal, face-to-face hierarchy than an impersonal democracy.
4 A major factor contributing to the staying power of the Jesuits, then, is the virtual compartmentalization of the tiers of religious life. The hierarchy holds together because its parts do not mesh tightly. The loose-jointed architecture of the ecclesiastical establishment prevents one level of the organization from getting in the way of another and, by deflecting conflict, helps keep the system from flying apart.
But because their bottom line is typically hard to pin down, Jesuits also need a shared language and a sense of common mission. This rhetoric gives Jesuits the feeling that they are all in the same boat and that the boat is pretty much on course, creaking and pitching though it may be. What is supposed to bind them together and to link the bottom to the top of the religious hierarchy is not rules and regulations, much less the threat of force, but a common culture and set of beliefs.24
This shared culture has come under severe strain. Since Vatican II, a sharp break has developed in the core beliefs of Catholicism, notably in the sexual code. While Jesuits exhibit some disagreement among themselves on these issues, most can be classified as liberals; and, because the sexual code is so closely bound up with the rules governing authority in the church, through an all-male celibate clergy, the progressivism of the Jesuits puts them at odds with the ecclesiastical status quo. The upshot has been enormous tension: not so much outright dissent, though this occurs, as uncertainty about the religious enterprise.25
The problem is aggravated by the increasing numbers of laypeople and especially women working in organizations sponsored by the Society. Even when they find the exclusionary setup distasteful and possibly dysfunctional, most of them do not press for ordination for themselves. Instead, the laicization of the schools and other apostolates works the other way around, calling into question the link between priestly ordination, celibacy, and qualification for ministry. Because the apostolates do fairly well as the clerical presence declines, the functional rationale of the priesthood is undercut. The challenge has as much to do with the need to clarify the symbolic and instrumental roles of the clergy as with virulent anticlericalism or any clamor on the part of women and married men for access to holy orders. This virtual indifference to the priesthood may help explain the lack of outrage with which revelations about this or that sexual transgression on the part of the clergy is received, but its long-term implications for vocations to religious life cannot be sanguine.
The result among Jesuits is demoralization and self-doubt as much as tooth-and-nail confrontation. The rate of departures from the priesthood has settled down from its peak during the late 1960s and early 1970s. But irresolution over the role of the priesthood has limited the attraction of the Society. The inflow of recruits is meager. The order limps along, but fresh blood is scarce.
5 So, the tightly woven subculture of the Society of Jesus has unraveled into a mélange of countercultures. What does this add up to? The ensemble reflects the wobbly situation of the Jesuits. But it does not lay out a master trend about where the Society is headed.
When speculating about where the Jesuits are going, two rules of thumb are worth keeping in mind. One involves a split that divides Jesuits among themselves and that, even more sharply, divides the mostly reform-minded Jesuits from cautious elements in church officialdom. The pattern originates in the gulf between men who long for unchanging principle—the adamantine core of perennial Catholicism—and those shaken by doubt and ambiguity.26
The irony is that although they have the numbers on their side, conflicted Jesuits are more given to equivocation than to concerted behavior. "There are the Americans," one Jesuit quipped about his colleagues, "and there are the Romans—and then there are those who can't make up their mind." A lack of appetite for in-house maneuvering also offsets the disruptive potential of dissent in the Society of Jesus. A disdain for institutions is part of the aftertaste of Vatican II. For some, the institutional church has become a necropolis of dulcet ideals. And in any event, loyal opposition lacks legitimacy in Roman Catholicism. The timorous liberalism of the reformers is not simply a temperamental flaw; it is reinforced by the penalties that vocal criticism elicits.
Their conservative rivals, in contrast, see themselves as assaulted by individualism, relativism, and the like, and they appear to be less squeamish and more focused about the intramural politics of Catholicism. Hard-liners feel besieged, all the more so because of the conviction that eternal truths are subverted as much by pusillanimity as by direct challenge.
How does this imbalance between alienation and institutional leverage affect the options of the Jesuits? Besides losing a large number of men, the Society has undergone a subtle, protective restructuring. The varied and, on the whole, mutually tolerant countercultures within the order combine with an inveterate caginess regarding the larger ecclesiastical scene. There is a compartmentalization of rather than a confrontation between opinion and power. Disaffection is widespread, but it is also diffuse and largely privatized. As a result, the organizational advantage lies with the true believers. The upshot is that the official apparatus of the church and parts of the Society of Jesus persist in a kind of suspended dilapidation.27
A second consideration that complicates forecasts regarding religious life has to do with the fact that Passionate Uncertainty is about Jesuits and former Jesuits in the United States, with only side glances at the Society in other parts of the world. Ours may be a story with a spin that stresses the eclipse of yet another hierarchical anachronism by the spirit of the age. In fact, democratizing tendencies are more evident in the culture and behavior of American Jesuits than traditional images of regimentation and blind obedience suggest, and this liberalization is unlikely to come undone.
The trouble with highlighting developments in this vein is not so much that they are alien to the Jesuit style or to the structure of Catholicism or that they reflect a myopia about political customs outside North America. The problem is that such developments tend to be confined mostly to internal disputes, and they fail to specify how changes in the lines of authority within Catholicism might affect what Jesuits and the clergy in general actually do. The perspective overlooks the resemblance not between the Society and some decrepit hierarchy struggling to change its ways but between the order and nonprofit advocacy groups that have spread around the world in recent decades. Judgments about the work that such organizations do leave open the question of how representative, participatory, or accountable the organizations are. The two dominant themes of the post-Cold War era—globalization and democratization—need not unfold in tandem.28
The Society of Jesus is going through a dual transition. The growing flexibility of the order with regard to the needs of its members, together with a newfound emphasis on consultation, is an important facet of internal change. Another dimension—the struggle to redirect the mission of the Society—is external. The degree to which this ministerial dynamic responds to outside demand and how it flows from or affects changes in the clerical regime on the inside are difficult questions. There is no reason to assume that the various elements of the transition mesh or that they proceed at the same pace. The connection between who Jesuits are and what they do remains unsettled.
6 We draw on a variety of material, from archival sources (planning memos, minutes of meetings, and so on) to analyses and interpretations published by Jesuits themselves.29 However, the data that we use most extensively, and by far the richest source of information, consist of personal interviews and written statements divided about equally between 430 American Jesuits and former Jesuits.30
Why former Jesuits? Mainly because there are so many of them. From 1960, just before Vatican II until the turn of the millennium, more men left the Society of Jesus in the United States (over 5,000) than are presently members of it (less than 4,000). For this reason alone, former Jesuits are as important a part of the story of the postconciliar Society as are Jesuits themselves.
In one instance, the contrast between Jesuits and former Jesuits goes to the heart of the matter. This occurs in chapter 1, where we examine the reasons for sticking with and leaving the order. We start with a look at this comparatively clear-cut choice (and leave the chronologically anterior question of why men become Jesuits in the first place for chapter 2) because the alternatives highlight the clerical/postclerical dynamics that inform much of Passionate Uncertainty.
Elsewhere, however, many of the before-and-after differences turn out to be less prominent. The attitudes of Jesuits and former Jesuits are not all that different, or they differ in rather expected ways. For example, while both have moved to the left on sexual-moral issues, former Jesuits have on the average moved farther. In this respect, the contrast between Jesuits and former Jesuits is rather like one of Alfred Hitchcock's "Macguffins." It stands as a puzzle that rivets attention and acts as an inducement to follow the story rather than a key to the meaning of the story itself.
The underlying organization of our book is not very complicated. We follow Jesuits and former Jesuits from the personal trajectories of individuals through their life and work in common to the upper reaches of church politics or at least to their perceptions of that rarefied zone. The first six chapters are devoted to the micro-level of Jesuit life: to individual Jesuits and former Jesuits as they entered the Society and decided to stay or leave and to their views on sexuality and spirituality.31 With chapter 7, on community life, we enter the intermediate, collective level of the order. Chapters 8 and 9, on aspects of ministry, also look at the mostly corporate, institutionalized work of the Society. It is with chapters 10 and 11 that we reach the explicitly political realm of Jesuit activity, where the Society deals with Rome over questions of religious strategy.
The tiers are not hermetically separated. Chapter 9, for example, touches on the political clashes set off by the efforts of the Vatican to exert top-down control over the colleges and universities affiliated with the order. Nevertheless, the progression from the micro- through the meso- to the macro-levels of Jesuit activities unfolds more or less sequentially from the first to the later chapters.32
As suggested earlier, the sequence corresponds roughly to a gradient of accomplishment and satisfaction. Jesuits are fairly happy with what they have been able to achieve as individuals—in renewing their spiritual lives, for example. They are reasonably satisfied with their collective capacity for coping and innovation, even though progress in corporate ministry and community life has been spotty. They are less content with the overall directions of the institutional church and the strategy of the papacy.
7 The guarantee of confidentiality, combined with the Ignatian habit of periodic self-scrutiny, generates frank conversation. The circumspection for which Jesuits have long been known gives way to an emotional and intellectual outpouring. Jesuits and former Jesuits have been through tremendous changes since Vatican II, and much of the psychological violence and torment of this period comes out in their talk and correspondence.
The transformation of the Jesuits will strike some readers as a colossal shift away from the true-grit, hardtack, Vince Lombardi school of tough-guy religion—an extraordinarily high tolerance for pain, even an appetite for martyrdom, discipline, and zeal so colossal that they seem to drum up their own background music. These men, the salt of the earth, were supposed to take their lumps and suffer in silence. The deepest things were inexpressible, the truest eloquence was taciturn.
On the other side of this piss-and-vinegar religion is designer Catholicism: self-absorption, abounding sensitivity, arias of torment and healing, soft-boiled spirituality, and a ground bass of whining—just the sort of tedious introspection, lugubrious neediness, and bad poetry that cynics expect to gush forth when men talk about their feelings. "These guys sound more Jewish than I am!" a colleague cracked after reading through some of the Woody Allenesque transcripts. The Society of Jesus becomes the country that "may not look like much when you first get there, but once you get to know the people, it's truly awful." There is enough truth in both these stereotypes to sustain comic misunderstanding and righteous indignation for a long time, but they are stereotypes.33
The other impression left by the reflections of Jesuits and former Jesuits is their bluntness. In the land of absolutes, nuance is everything. Well, not everything—that would violate the law of nuance. But anyone with even a passing knowledge of the Society knows that "nuance" is a favorite Jesuit word.34 This predilection goes with a rhetorical style favoring circumlocution or a logic that seeks to split the difference, to find some conciliatory middle ground, as if Jesuits were polite tourists in an alien world. There is plenty of oblique, polished talk here, and there is some quieter, plain-vanilla talk, for example, of prayer as "just being with God, no fireworks or epiphanies," as one Jesuit put it. But there are also many indelicate, unblinking passages, sometimes of rage or of despair or of shame at the realization of having been taken in, unbearable confusion over who to blame, and lacerating expletives. There is also explosive humor: "Remember what ——— of impious memory used to shriek in extremis, which for him was most of the time? 'Oh God, if there is a God, save my soul, if I have a soul!!!'"35
All this brutal intimacy takes getting use to, especially if what the reader has in mind, in what Ignatius called "spiritual conversation," is genteel discourse. Ignatius himself urged his men to write cartas edificantes (edifying letters) about their exploits, not only to document their trials and accomplishments but also with a view to eventual publication, to cast the Society in a favorable light. For every four Jesuits, according to the in-joke, there was a fifth registering their exploits. To their credit, even when composing under such guidelines, Jesuits often seem to have forgotten themselves and been carried away, so that they produced invaluable historical and anthropological records, and a good deal of impolitic gossip, in spite of pious convention.
Still, the eye-level observations of Jesuits and former Jesuits may sound too lacking in propriety, too squalid even, and our commentary may reflect too closely the gaze that Graham Greene traced, in noting the artist's ruthlessness, to "a sliver of ice in the heart."
There is an ampler way to put this, however. "The artist who really loves people loves them so well the way they are he sees no need to disguise their characteristics," the novelist Dawn Powell noted in her diary. "He loves them whole, without retouching. Yet the word always used for this unqualifying affection is 'cynicism.'" She goes on, commenting about different ways of depicting mourners at a funeral:
In my satire . . . I merely add a dimension to character, a dimension which gives the person substance and life but which readers often mistake for malice. . . . Yet in giving this picture, with no malice in mind, no desire to show the grievers up as villains, no wish more than to give people their full statures, one would be accused of "satire," of "cynicism" instead of looking without blinders, blockers, ear mufflers, gags, at life. Satire is people as they are; romanticism, people as they would like to be; realism, people as they seem with their insides left out.36
How common is this bleak wisdom among Jesuits and former Jesuits? Something like it, a kind of rueful sympathy, is more typical than the hurling of epithets. The words of a former Jesuit from the California province, in his mid-sixties, more than three decades away from the Society, come close to being a model of ambivalent bonding and straining for impartiality. They are worth quoting at length:
Not long back a friend back East sent on the St. Ignatius Day letter [which] a former and clearly very embittered New York Jesuit had posted both last year and this. All he had to do was excerpt some choice quotes from Loyola (his rules for thinking with the church, for instance) with appropriate headings to make his point, which was that this was not someone whose ideas most of us would want to claim as our own today. Rereading the texts, I had to remind myself that at the age of eighteen I had completely bought into all this, just as I had bought into the prevailing Catholic world view of 1952. I cringe at the thought.
At the same time I remind myself that I was taken into the Society as a kid without money or family connections, given a top-flight education that has enabled me to pursue my present career [teaching and writing] for over thirty years, and all this without the slightest suggestion that there was a payback somewhere along the line if I left. Even when I did withdraw at the end of regency, my superior insisted that I should not have the feeling that I had ripped the Society off because I was not seeing through the vocation that I had thought I'd had.
I've long since distanced myself from the church (which is not much like the church I grew up in) and yet I do find it hard to distance myself from the Society. It's like the traditional immigrant family with a peculiar outlook and rules that can be downright embarrassing to the next generation, yet it still is the past that can be looked at almost fondly. This is especially true for someone like myself, who really had no other family to speak of. . . . I may yet come up with a cautionary tale about intellectually challenged superiors and morally challenged scholastics . . . and there is a good chance my imaginary events will match up with real things that have happened. But I would not be where I am had it not been for the Society, and that is a debt always real in my mind.37