The Magazine

Are the Jesuits Catholic?

A review of "Passionate Uncertainty."

Jun 3, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 37 • By PAUL SHAUGHNESSY
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Passionate Uncertainty
Inside the American Jesuits
by Peter McDonough and Eugene C. Bianchi
University of California Press, 380 pp., $29.95

"MY DEAR FELLOW, we all see the difficulties that beset any notion of a revealed religion," says an Oxford philosopher in Ronald Knox's "Let Dons Delight." "You draw a blank check, as it were, by assenting beforehand to its doctrines, not knowing whether there will be enough assets to meet it when you come to look into your account."

The Catholic Church understands herself as the legatee of universal and immutable truths about God and man, claiming a divine guarantee that she never has taught, and never will teach, error. As a Basque soldier named Ignatius Loyola came to realize with particular clarity, this position is either true or insane: Only moral cowardice or intellectual muddle could make room for a middle ground. Hence no faith is more radically vulnerable than Catholicism to the shortfall intimated by Knox's skeptical don, no religion more in need of a nimble, adaptable, and ever vigilant defense.

Loyola's companions, given the sarcastic name "Jesuits" by their opponents, organized themselves on military lines with a military love for a clear chain of command, as their founding document attests. The Jesuit is to "serve as a soldier of God beneath the banner of the Cross, and to serve the Lord alone and the Church, his spouse, under the Roman pontiff, the vicar of Christ on earth." The Jesuit's mission is "to strive especially for the defense and propagation of the faith and for the progress of souls in Christian life and doctrine."

It's a risky business. The blood-curdling vows by which the Jesuit binds himself perpetually to poverty, chastity, and obedience are typically made for the first time when the novice is twenty or twenty-five years old--not at the conclusion but at the outset of the ten years of training in which he will learn what precisely he has committed himself to defend. The more intelligent and idealistic the aspirant, the more spiritually precarious his position, as he comes to grips with the full power of the Church's adversaries and the all-too-human frailty of her defenders. Loyola's gamble was that, if a man's own desire for God could be made present to him, he would willingly endure the required sacrifices until he saw the truth "from inside," and was motivated no longer by discipline but by love. For four centuries the gamble worked.

No more. The recently published "Passionate Uncertainty: Inside the American Jesuits" is a quirky yet convincing depiction of the collapse of the renegade Society of Jesus: papists who hate the pope, evangelists who have lost the faith. Deprived of their reason for existence as Jesuits, they respond either by putting an end to their existence as Jesuits (deserters outnumber active members in the United States) or by indulging a willed imbecility in which the explosively divisive questions are never permitted to surface.

The authors of "Passionate Uncertainty, "Peter McDonough and Eugene Bianchi (a political scientist and professor of religion, respectively), portray the Jesuit crack-up most vividly by quotation from the interviews and written statements they took from more than four hundred Jesuits and former Jesuits. Both the spectrum of the speakers presented and the content of their opinions accurately reflect the current situation. Not that the speakers themselves are always balanced, fair, or magnanimous--the resentments run too deep for that--but taken as a whole the voices give us a true picture of the quandary of America's Jesuits: able yet aimless men, hopelessly compromised by perjury.

THE TRAJECTORY of the decline is not hard to trace, and the Jesuit story, though more dramatic, differs little from that of other progressive religious orders in the decades following the Second Vatican Council. Liberalism had been seen to foster tolerance and mutual respect in pluralist secular communities. Yet, being purely negative in content and procedural in application, it proved lethal when imported into an intentional association like the Society of Jesus, one both doctrinally exclusivist and rigidly hierarchical. Almost overnight the pope's light infantry became a battalion in which every man decided for himself which war he was fighting. The result was an institutional nightmare: confusion and cowardice at the top; despair, rage, and disillusionment in the ranks. American Jesuits went from 8,400 members in 1965 to 3,500 today. Entering novices declined from a peak one-year total of 409 to a low of 38. Worse, the number of priests who jump ship each year roughly equals the number of entering novices; the number of Jesuits who die annually is twice as high as either.