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How Francis can save the Jesuits

Pope Francis celebrates Mass with 300 of his Jesuit confreres at the Church of the Gesu in Rome (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

The election of Pope Francis in 2013 gave the Catholic Church its first Jesuit pope and has sparked interest in the order that formed him. Yet this is not a boom time for the Society of Jesus. Like most other religious orders, it is experiencing declining numbers and a serious problem in attracting new vocations. It has also, since the 1960s, been dealing with an identity crisis that has weakened the intellectual self-confidence that the Jesuits used to be famous for.

The election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio SJ came as a surprise not least because Jesuits have historically served popes rather than become popes. In this sense, having a Jesuit pope is rather like having a civil servant as prime minister.

Francis himself has a complicated relationship with his order, dating back to his time as provincial superior in Argentina in the 1970s. Perhaps a sign of this was that he chose his papal name after St Francis of Assisi, and not after the Jesuit co-founder St Francis Xavier, as many at first assumed.

His election also came at a time of declining Jesuit influence. There are currently only three Jesuit cardinals, all of whom are aged over 80, so it is unlikely that we will see another Jesuit pope in the near future. In its traditional heartland of Spain, the Society long ago lost much of its former influence. In the longer term, since the Second Vatican Council it has been difficult to see a distinctively Jesuit position on the future of the Church: while the late Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini of Milan was a figurehead for liberal Catholics, figures such as Henri de Lubac provided serious intellectual heft for theological conservatives.

This situation is a long way from the one that prevailed when St Ignatius Loyola founded the order in 1534. The Society quickly gained a reputation for being fiercely disciplined and militant in its defence of Catholic orthodoxy. Ignatius had carried over his soldier’s background into his new religious life. Central to his method were an absolute loyalty to the papacy (though the Society’s relations with individual popes could be spiky), a reforming zeal that opposed the corruption then widespread in the Church, and a strong missionary approach in both Europe and the New World.

Within a century of its foundation, the Society had made an enormous impact, becoming in many ways the driving force of the Catholic Reformation. This was the time of extraordinary figures such as Francis Xavier; Matteo Ricci, who led the original mission to China; and the Hungarian primate Cardinal Péter Pázmány, who not only led the Catholic revival in his country but also established himself as a theologian, philosopher and creator of the modern Hungarian literary language.

This was also when the Society gained its reputation as a serious intellectual force. Ricci and Pázmány were certainly formidable scholars, and to take just one example, the modern science of linguistics would be very much impoverished without the Jesuit missionaries who studied the languages of Mexico and Brazil.

More recently, one associates the order with major thinkers such as de Lubac and Cardinal Avery Dulles. On the level of popular culture, it is no accident that when Jesuit-educated William Peter Blatty wrote The Exorcist, the two scholar-priest heroes of his novel should have been Jesuits.

As an order, the Jesuits have also been dogged by controversy since their early years. Their intellectual tradition has often been interpreted, and not always wrongly, as a tendency to deviousness and intrigue. The Society was banned as a subversive body in post-Reformation England, officially suppressed in Bismarck’s German Empire and persecuted by the Nazis. They were suppressed by the Spanish Republic and regarded with suspicion by General Franco’s regime due to their Basque roots.

Every anti-Catholic conspiracy theory seems to feature the Jesuits in a starring role. Ulster unionists used to worry about Jesuit influence in a future united Ireland, despite the fact that most Irish Jesuits went abroad to the missions. But today the idea of the Jesuits trying to take over the world is scarcely credible.

In common with many other parts of the Catholic Church, the order’s declining numbers mean that it is increasingly having to live off the credit – material and intellectual – built up by previous generations. To take one Jesuit institution, the University of Deusto in Bilbao is today perhaps better known for its engineering faculty than its theology faculty, and as a centre of Basque nationalism rather than Jesuit thought. Perhaps it is significant that, these days, conspiracy theories are more likely to revolve around Opus Dei than the Jesuits.

The Society has long been the largest male religious order in the Catholic Church, and remains so today. But there were more than 30,000 Jesuits worldwide in the 1960s, while currently there are barely 16,000. The Jesuits have retained a great deal of weight mainly because the other orders have also been in long-term, and often steeper, decline.

The one thing that above all else has prevented the Society’s membership collapsing is that it continues to generate vocations on a large scale in South Asia, and it undoubtedly does a huge amount of good work in India through its involvement in healthcare and education. But its presence in India is not necessarily without its problems.

Since Matteo Ricci’s mission to China in the 16th century, the Jesuits have pioneered the practice of “inculturation” in their mission work. Ricci himself gained a deep knowledge of Chinese culture, and was willing to make adaptations to the style and language of worship to make the Catholic message more comprehensible to the Chinese people, while remaining within the bounds of orthodoxy.

But as far back as the 1960s, the Holy See was expressing concerns that the Indian Jesuits had taken inculturation too far, and were integrating aspects of Hindu worship such as the Om mantra, or building churches modelled on Hindu mandirs, to the point where they were running the risk of becoming functionally Hindu and only nominally Christian. The same concerns have been raised on a regular basis ever since.

While many of the issues facing the Jesuits are common to the Church as a whole over the past 50 or so years, the Society has experienced some controversies in particularly sharp form. Key to this was the dynamic leadership of Fr Pedro Arrupe, superior general between 1965 and 1983, who had little patience for the distinctive traditions of the Society. At the 1975 General Congregation, a worldwide gathering of Jesuits, Fr Arrupe managed to refashion the Society’s identity so that it was dominated by social justice concerns.

Even at the time, the Arrupe doctrine had its detractors. It wasn’t so much that the critics objected to a focus on social justice – the preferential option for the poor was well established in Catholic social teaching – but that it seemed to have been articulated in political rather than religious terms. The danger was that, if what the Jesuits were saying was barely distinguishable from what secular humanists would say, this would undermine their identity as a Catholic order, rather than as a left-leaning social justice movement.

This, of course, dovetailed with the growing controversy over the liberation theology movement in Latin America, and it was no surprise that the Jesuits, given their intellectualism and their historic strength in the region, would be more affected than other orders.

This was a murky and violent period in South America, but it was more complicated than is often assumed. As Jesuit provincial in Argentina, Jorge Mario Bergoglio had opposed those in the order who had essentially gone over to Marxism. But in the 1980s he himself would clash with the Society’s leadership, as his populist pastoral style did not find favour with the then superior general Fr Peter Hans Kolvenbach.

In some ways, Pope Francis is a traditional Jesuit, notably in that he isn’t particularly interested in liturgical questions; but he is very unusual in preferring popular devotion to sociology.

The most solid evidence of the old Jesuit intellectual tradition is the worldwide network of educational institutions founded by the Society. In the United States, historically Jesuit universities such as Georgetown, Fordham and Marquette still have healthy enrolments and enjoy a good reputation as solid research institutions.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Britain, where Heythrop College is currently facing closure, having relied for many years on the Society to bail it out of its financial difficulties.

But Jesuit institutions have not been immune to the pressures facing other sectors of Catholic education, with a long-term question mark over how well they can maintain their Catholic identity. In particular, colleges run by the religious orders used to rely on having a substantial intake of students following a vocation. With a steadily declining number of vocations, the risk is that these colleges become virtually indistinguishable from secular institutions, with their Catholic heritage just becoming a piece of window dressing, as unimportant as the historically Protestant heritage of most Ivy League universities.

Much of this will depend on the activity of university theology departments, but in the absence of students training for the religious life, many theology departments have gone over to intellectual fashions that rely more on the secular zeitgeist than on Christian tradition. It is not clear whether some Jesuit institutions are providing much more than a veneer of Ignatian jargon.

Yet the outlook may not be entirely bleak. The order has sufficient resources that it will probably be a going concern for the foreseeable future. There is anecdotal evidence that, in the United States at least, the Francis papacy has sparked some interest in Jesuit vocations. (But given the very long formation period for Jesuits, even a modest rise in vocations now is not going to provide a quick fix for a rapidly ageing order.)

Ultimately, the question facing the Society of Jesus is the same as that for other Catholic institutions in decline: how can it assert its relevance in a secularising society without losing its Catholic identity?

The Jesuit intellectual tradition should be a fundamental resource, and Pope Francis has certainly given the order a new prominence. But whether the order can revive is really a matter of whether it can generate a coherent sense of mission.

Jon Anderson is a freelance writer

This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (13/11/15)

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