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Jesuits caught in crosscurrents of modern church


By Peter McDonough and Eugene C. Bianchi
University of California Press, 380 pages, $29.95


This will be a widely read book -- a must read for ex-Jesuits, a should read for Jesuits, a need-to-know for religious and priests everywhere, fascinating reading for anyone curious. The University of California Press has published it in sturdy hard covers because the reader won’t believe what he or she just read, and will page back and forth -- not to mention trips to the world of footnotes at the back. In the good old days, those same footnotes used to be at the bottom of the page.

Those good old days are gone forever, my friend. You thought they’d never end? You’ll realize they’re over as you listen to these 430 impassioned voices speaking anonymously, as if in a darkened conference room. Two-hundred-twenty-four of them are present-day U.S. Jesuits, 206 of them are ex-Jesuits. One hundred of the interviews were taken in person, the rest via essays answering dozens of questions, such as: Why did you join the society? Why did you leave? Why did you stay? Where are you now, spiritually?

Often the answers are unexpected. I wore out my eyes pouring over these 380 pages of amazingly honest, burning words. “Passionate uncertainty” was indeed the overall feeling among the respondents, like people living near a simmering volcano. Nobody really knows what is happening, but it is scary.

Jesuit membership in the United States peaked in 1965 at 8,395 men. By 2000 the number had slipped to 3,635. My brother Tom and I found ourselves among the olims, a Latin adverb meaning “once upon a time,” now a euphemism for what has become a “brotherhood of broken dreams” -- those men who left the order.

Olims gather for retreat days, meet some of the old, still-in friends for lunch, even hunker around melancholy listservs and talk a lot of the old talk. But it’s all different. We are 5,000-plus, this poor man’s “society,” more thousands than remain inside. We have often wondered out loud: “Will the order ever listen to us?” We need wonder no more. Our ideas, our suggestions, our feelings are now public alongside the words of our brothers who stayed -- an ideal arrangement.

The authors are a couple of pros. Eugene Bianchi, a former Jesuit, has eight books to his credit. Peter McDonough is a political scientist who wowed us in 1992 with the 600-page Men Astutely Trained: A History of the Jesuits in the American Century. The new book is another treat for anyone who loves language and a permanent contribution to religious sociology.

The content is, well, edifying -- if the edifice you care about is a church for tomorrow and not for yesterday. The church for yesterday made priests into heroes, and Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra were honored to play them in the movies. Those were the days! Young men flocked to seminaries, young women filled up the novitiates. Now almost no one wants to be a priest or a nun. The unthinkable is happening.

The church body, while still burgeoning, wants a married clergy, a sexually enlightened catechism, a servant hierarchy. However, the church hierarchy, the authors point out, still hews a conservative line on matters of “pelvic theology.” 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 number, its schools and other operations are increasingly staffed and run by laypeople, leaving Jesuits searching for “corporate purpose.” They are in a bind, unable to go back to the past, 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.”

As for the Jesuits in the book? Read all about it in Passionate Uncertainty. It’s decidedly edifying reading -- because the Jesuits of tomorrow will be a new quantity, dedicated first to justice, not institutions, and benefiting more from the “epistemological privilege of the oppressed” (in ethicist Sharon Welch’s phrase) that comes with heartening force especially from gays, a lot of them in the book both “out” and unapologetic. Their honesty is sometimes arresting.

Said one Jesuit: “I entered as a way to cope with being gay, although that would not have been the way I put it then.” Said another: “A major problem is our inability to come to terms with the fact that a majority of Jesuits under 40 are not heterosexual.” The many testimonials about this are inconclusive, but it may be that gays are drawn to religious life simply because they are caring individuals who make excellent priests and teachers and, with their frequent charism for relationality, are naturals for ministry of every kind.

In fact, to this outside observer, the “gaying of religious life” (as the authors put it) suggests that little would be lost and much gained by making the order coed altogether. If gays and straights can learn to live in the same monastery, why not women and men? Zen monasteries and college dorms seem to have accepted these challenges and absorbed the costs. The Jesuit’s founder himself admitted two women to the order, and at the request of the pope. So what else is new?

But inclusive monasteries will never happen. Rome won’t even allow inclusive language.

The olims in the book -- who are religiously and spiritually all over the lot -- often speak prophetically too, and with bracing loyalty to the Ignatian spirit, which was from the beginning innovational and politically incorrect.

The popular song, “Those were the days, my friend,” ends with a kind of lament, drifting into neutral syllables the last time through. But it’s probably too early to lament the demise of the Jesuit order -- too much passionate uncertainty.

William Cleary, a former assistant editor at America magazine, has authored 12 books on prayer.

National Catholic Reporter, May 3, 2002