e-mail us

Religious Life

A future for the Jesuits


I once told Fr. Walter Burghardt, an eminent member of the Jesuits’ New York Province, that I was going to give a talk about the future of the Society of Jesus. He chuckled and said, “Short talk, huh?” It was gallows humor. Burghardt knows the Jesuits in this country are dying. It hurts so much all he can do is laugh.

Fact is recruits are few; dropouts and the dying are many. In 1965, there were 8,393 U.S. Jesuits. As of Jan. 1, 1997, there were 3,928. In 32 years, 5,764 Jesuits have left the Society. Some of those have undoubtedly died. Even so, today, there are probably more ex-Jesuits in the United States than Jesuits.

The good news is that we still live in an age of miracles. If the Jesuits would dare to be as different today as they were 450 years ago, if they would have the guts to do the practical things they need to do to meet the new challenges of the 21st century, then the order could survive and thrive in the United States. (It is, curiously, surviving and thriving in places like India, but that’s another story.)

My authority to say such a thing comes from my Jesuit roots. I was a Jesuit for 10 years. Then I left the order -- but not really. From the time I left, more than 40 years ago, until now, I have been a Jesuit at heart, still impelled to dare greater things than I could have done had I stayed in the order. I am also a self-appointed spokesman for more than a million Jesuit alumni in the United States.

Today’s Jesuits like to think the order is theirs. It’s not. It is ours. The Jesuits belong to us and to the church. We can’t let them die, these trustees of a great tradition. If they were to die, then something of value would be taken from us and from our children and our children’s children.

And what is that something of value? Perspective. The Jesuits have always helped us see the big picture. They’ve helped us see God in all things and all things in God, so that nothing in the universe is merely secular or profane. They’ve helped us listen to the Spirit and discern what to do with our lives. They’ve helped us be loyal, intelligent Catholics, even when we must take a critical stance toward authority and the pretensions of authority. In a word, they’ve helped us grow, and grow up.

In a brilliant new book, Impelling Spirit, Jesuit Fr. Joseph Conwell tells about his discovery in the Jesuit archives in Rome of a radical new paradigm for the Society of Jesus. He found this new paradigm in a seminal document, written by Ignatius Loyola and his original nine companions, for the signature of Pope Paul III, then laid aside and lost in the archives for centuries. That document, says Conwell, erases our old view of Ignatius as the soldier-saint, a man of steely will, a coldly rational, orderly administrator. Conwell says that view “betrayed Ignatius and his first companions and has long pervaded both the practical application of the Spiritual Exercises and the practical living out of the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus.”

The new paradigm gives the rationale for an impelling spirit that has long been the hallmark of the creative, pioneering Jesuit. “That impelling spirit,” according to Conwell, “is the Holy Spirit, passionate, creative, innovative, wildly beyond the rational, propelling, driving, pushing, blowing like an untamed hurricane with no predictable path.”

I do not think the order has officially begun to cope with the implications of Conwell’s discovery. That, and a more careful reading of the order’s history (which revisionist historians inside the society are now writing) should prompt the Society of Jesus to act in radical ways to save the Ignatian vision, Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam, which I translate as “the greater good of the people of God.”

I would like Jesuit alumni all over the world to ask the order to make some radical changes. But I do not think these changes are any more radical today than the changes Ignatius made in the church of his day, more than 450 years ago.

In order to get the job done and still remain obedient to the pope who had limited the number of professed priests in the order to 50, Loyola instituted a new grade in the society, the non-professed Jesuit called “spiritual coadjutor.”

And he even signed up a woman, as a perpetual scholastic, who would never live in a Jesuit community, but work from her position of great influence in Spain. That woman was a 20-year-old widow who happened to be Princess Juana, regent of Spain, daughter of Charles V and sister of Philip II. Juana was a secret Jesuit, whom Ignatius had given a code name, Matteo Sanchez. She took her vows on Oct. 26, 1554. She wasn’t headed for the priesthood. But she was, and would be, a Jesuit, to her dying day.

I submit that the Ignatius-Juana model may be the way of the future for the modern society. The Jesuits taught us a theorem in minor logic: Esse ad posse valet illatio. “If it has been done, it can be done.”

The Jesuits should put shoes on that theorem and walk it into the 21st century. They should open up their membership to men and women, yes, even married couples, who would not join old-fashioned Jesuit communities, or become ordained as priests, but continue to live as they have been living, and working, in the real world, in academe (either in Jesuit universities or in other private universities or state universities), in the world of government and business, in social work, in the media, in law and medicine and science and engineering, while they find spiritual sustenance and the occasional companionship and moral support of men and women with like minds and the same willing hearts.

The Jesuits could make these bold moves if they let themselves be led by the Spirit -- by the creative, innovative, propelling, driving, pushing spirit that Conwell has identified at the core of the society’s original vision.

Worldwide, there are several million Jesuit alumni out there. We have power. More power than we realize. I would hope that our power -- the power of reason, not the power of power -- could propel the Jesuits to make bolder moves. In 1995, the Jesuits’ 34th General Congregation encouraged some experiments in what the Fathers of the Congregation called “lay collaboration,” but they stopped short of saying these collaborators should become a new kind of Jesuit. In fact, they said explicitly these collaborators “will not be admitted into the body of the society.”

Why not? One of the fathers who was there tells me five members of the General Congregation wanted to do just that. But they were ignored by others who said specifically that they did not want to “blur the line between lay and religious.” I told my source that I wondered how helpful that distinction was to the mission of this General Congregation -- “to meet the challenges and opportunities of the modern world.” I told him I didn’t think the society could meet its challenges as long as it kept drawing that line between “lay” and “religious” -- which I suspect are code words for “celibate” and “non-celibate.” “Who drew that line?” I asked him. “God? Or men? And if men drew it, then why can’t men undraw it?”

This man -- he was then an American provincial from the Midwest -- was amazed at me. But he seemed to enjoy my frankness.

In the conclusion to his book, Conwell says the Spirit must impel the society even today. “We must set aside fear,” he writes, “fear of the future, fear of change. The call is to listen, listen to the Spirit within, listen to one another, listen to events outside, listen to the sights and sounds of the times, listen to the needs of God’s people and God’s world.”

I will continue to insist that the society listen in new ways to the new needs of God’s people. We can push for this, in the court of public opinion. If this reform makes any sense, then public opinion will grow, and, in the end, the general and his advisers will take up the proposition -- that the Society of Jesus should start recruiting men and women -- new kinds of Jesuits -- for the momentous times ahead.

If the society fails to do this, I believe the society will die or become a living fossil.

I am sure that any reform of the society along the lines I am proposing will meet with opposition, from traditionalists in the society who fear change and so do nothing, and from some in the Roman curia whose fear of change leads them to fight it with all their might. But these are political problems. Politics is people, and, as the biography of Ignatius Loyola tells us, and the history of church demonstrates, almost anything is possible for those who have the political skills and the patience.

I am also betting that the Holy Spirit will have some say in this. At the next conclave, I pray she will give us a pope who is ready to approve new kinds of Jesuits, men and women who are “passionate, creative, innovative, propelling, driving, pushing, blowing like an untamed hurricane” -- for the greater good of the people of God.

This essay is adapted from a speech Robert Kaiser delivered to the Triennial Convention of Alpha Sigma Nu, the national Jesuit honor society, at Loyola College in Baltimore on Oct. 18, 1997. Kaiser is currently living in Rome and working on a book about the church.

National Catholic Reporter, February 18, 2000