difficulties of institutional Catholicism over the past several
decades--the doctrinal yawings of a polarized theological establishment,
the naked power jockeying between pro- and antipapalists, the scandals
and cover-ups--have left the faithful laity struggling amid sorrow
and confusion to reconstruct their spiritual moorings.
The plight of faithful religious--the priests and nuns who have
forsworn so many of the joys and ambitions of everyday life to dedicate
themselves to the work of the Church--is even more poignant, for
their stakes are so much higher. The trauma, one should imagine,
is particularly severe among the Jesuits, perhaps the proudest of
religious orders, organized as the spiritual janissaries of the
Counter-Reformation, the legendary "long black line" of
the Church militant.
Passionate Uncertainty is a sympathetic and probing examination
of the current state of mind of American Jesuits, as represented
by 430 men, evenly split between men who left the priesthood and
men who have remained within the order. (The authors conducted detailed,
multiple interviews with 100 men, and received extended written
contributions from 330 others.) The fact that there are probably
more ex-Jesuits than Jesuits in America today is itself striking
commentary on the Church's plight.
The authors, Peter McDonough and Eugene Bianchi, are uniquely qualified
for their investigation. McDonough, the author of a well-regarded
previous study of the Jesuits, Men Astutely Trained (1992),
is a political scientist who has specialized in the process of democratization
in less developed countries. (Can one think of a more appropriate
perspective for an analysis of modern Catholicism?) Bianchi, an
ex-Jesuit himself, is a professor of religion at Emory University.
the functional roles of the priesthood have shrunk and
as the restriction of sacerdotal status to celibate males
has become less defensible, the ceremonial and symbolic
aura of traditional priesthood has faded as well. The
shriveling of activities that once "belonged to" the priesthood
has produced a crisis of credibility and clerical identity.
Boiled down, two developments have radically altered the
world of the Society of Jesus and have produced demoralization
and conflict within its ranks. One is institutional and
the other ideational, and both have shaken traditional
beliefs about the consecrated life.
The first is the long-term decomposition of incentives
for religious vocations--in particular, the diminishing
functions of and ambivalence about the priesthood. This
change is clearest in the decentralization of the works
and the laicization of ministry. Demographically and organizationally,
the fulcrum has pitched away from the clergy.
The other big shift is the loss of confidence in absolute
truth claims, crystallized by but not confined to the
shake-up in moral theology and beliefs in sexual ethics,
in addition to liberalizing undercurrents in Christology.
Dissent from the magisterium is a fact of life in the
Society of Jesus.
In neither case has the loss of control and conviction
been total. What has come close to disappearing is the
distinctiveness of the priestly role as conceived by Jesuits
and, to a lesser extent, of the moral sanctum of Catholicism.
Much of what Jesuits do remains valuable. Much of what
they believe in and stand for is appreciated and shared
by adherents of neighboring religions and ethical traditions.
But there seems to be less and less that sets the Society
of Jesus apart, at least with respect to an edge on the
truth or expertise in pedagogy, social action, and pastoral
practice. Obliteration by assimilation has become a real
threat. Jesuits have begun to look as flawed and intermittently
heroic as the rest of us.
From Passionate Uncertainty: Inside the American
Jesuits by Peter McDonough and Eugene C. Bianchi. ©2002
Regents of University of California.
continued from above -
The book is beautifully written and richly informed with references
outside the usual purview of "Catholic" studies. A characteristic
reliance on costly practices, such as celibacy, combines with exclusionary
customs, like forbidding the priesthood to women, to exacerbate
divisiveness and drain meaning from [the commitment to religious
life]. Like goulash communism, the system is moderately workable
but only partially legitimate.
The institutional portrait that emerges from the interviews is one
of floundering and disarray. The post-Vatican II defections from
the order have left a U-shaped demographic profile, ripe for polarization
between older traditionalists and newer recruits, the majority of
whom may be gay. A polarization, as the authors put it, between
"the true-grit, hardtack, Vince Lombardi school of tough-guy
religion. . . . men [who] were supposed to take their lumps and
suffer in silence" and "designer Catholicism: self-absorption,
abounding sensitivity, arias of torment and healing, soft-boiled
spirituality, and a ground bass of whining."
The root problem, in the authors' diagnosis, is the radical devaluation
of the priesthood, even in the eyes of many Jesuits. In an age when
parishes are run by laypeople, and spiritual counseling is the province
of professional therapists, the priest is a much-diminished figure.
Celibacy was once a bulwark of the mystical, quasi-shamanistic character
of the priest--the man apart, with the rare self-mastery to travel
in higher spiritual realms--but now it is more often taken as a
sign of sexual confusion. The authors speculate that the "growing
visibility of a gay subculture in the priesthood" is related
to the loss of the camaraderie that stemmed from the communal commitment
to the value of celibacy.
An unforeseen consequence of the leveling "People of God"
theology that was so prominent at Vatican II was to remove many
of the psychic rewards of priestly service. An older Jesuit laments,
"There seems to be no special dignity [accorded to the priesthood]
by society in general, by 'good' Catholic parents, and schools no
longer have religious models." While older Jesuits often report
a complex connectedness between their lives as priests and, say,
their careers as college professors, younger men find the connections
harder to perceive. A 31-year-old Jesuit remarked of his peers as
they neared ordination,
suddenly confronted the fact that they could not articulate for
themselves any fundamental difference between ordained ministry
and lay ministry. Consequently they began to wonder why they were
making the sacrifices that ordained ministry required, and some
concluded that the sacrifices could not be justified so they left.
It is a tribute to the inherent strength of the Jesuit model that
it has managed to survive as well as it has. The introspection and
the open discussion fostered by the Ignatian Exercises give the
order flexibility and surprising resiliency. But the authors are
pessimistic. The Jesuit penchant for nuanced introspection may be
tilting into runaway "psychologization" of the religious
life. One Jesuit commented, [I]t is fair to say that therapy is
an expected part of Jesuit formation these days. Therapists are
accorded a kind of authority that was once reserved for spiritual
directors and superiors.
The order has recently seized on the commitment to "social
justice" as a focus of its institutional identity--deftly sidestepping
neuralgic disagreements with Rome on sexual ethics or theological
curricula. Admirable though the commitment may be, it is yet another
agent of fragmentation. Many Jesuits now "live with the people"
rather than in community, and men reportedly can do pretty much
as they please, as long as it's wrapped in "social justice"
rhetoric. Skeptics within the order fear that the good intentions
of the social justice initiative are deteriorating into mere flabby
No one doubts the Jesuits' resiliency--only a handful of world organizations
have ever lasted for 500 years. And the order has been in eclipse
before, surviving in the 18th century during the years of suppression
in Europe only by the uncertain sufferance of Catherine the Great.
Some Jesuits, in fact, see the present thinning of ranks as a necessary
purification that improves the outlook for the long haul. Perhaps.
But solidarity and commitment are more often strengthened by assaults
from without. Internal loss of focus and certainty may be much more
The authors do not make prognoses or recommendations, although a
long epilogue presents a sophisticated sociological mapping of the
dilemmas facing the order.
None of the alternatives--from rebuilding solidarity around a renewed
commitment to the Vatican to opening the order to ordained women--in
the authors' view, could command a consensus among Jesuits today.
The foreseeable future, therefore, is likely to be one of continued
disintegration and discontent, which gives the book its distinctly
Charles R. Morris
R. Morris is the author of American
Photo: Passionate Uncertainty:Inside the American Jesuits
by Peter McDonough and Eugene C. Bianchi. University of California
Press. 380 pp. $29.95