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The prospects for America's jesuits

The 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.

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Excerpt: Identity Crisis

As 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.

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The book is beautifully written and richly informed with references outside the usual purview of "Catholic" studies. A characteristic summing up:

The 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,

[They] 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 trendiness.

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 corrosive.

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 elegiac air.

Charles R. Morris

Charles R. Morris is the author of American Catholic (1997).

Passionate Uncertainty:Inside the American Jesuits by Peter McDonough and Eugene C. Bianchi. University of California Press. 380 pp. $29.95

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