Jesuit General: The Road Ahead


Jesuit spokesmen, both official and unofficial, rallied promptly — and properly — in support of their newly elected superior general, Rev. Adolfo Nicolas, S.J., calling him a holy and highly intelligent man and a natural choice for his new job. What they neglected to say, on the record at least, is that Pope Benedict XVI’s remarkable message to the Jesuit general congregation that elected him contains marching orders that he and his confreres can’t easily ignore.

Father Nicolas’s name wasn’t on the speculative lists of potential new generals appearing in the media before the general congregation began January 7 in Rome. But his selection on the second ballot indicates early, easy consensus among the 217 electors. Were they sending a message — and, if so, what was it? Like the Jesuit general before last, Rev.  Pedro Arrupe, S.J., Father Nicolas – 13th in a line stretching back to St. Ignatius Loyola himself — is a Spaniard who has spent years in Japan. Did the electors see him as someone who will continue the Arrupe program of socio-political activism and intra-Society change? If so, that fails to reckon with Benedict’s agenda.

Papal greetings to meetings of groups are customarily bland and forgettable: "Thanks for the wonderful work you do, please keep it up" — and usually not a whole lot more. But Benedict XVI’s message to the Jesuit electors departed markedly from the cookie-cutter prose. Clearly he wanted them and the rest of the Society to hear his call, in language both fatherly and tough, to heed the spirit of their founder and return without delay to traditional Jesuit loyalty to the pope and the doctrine of the Church.

Some Jesuits have been loyal all along, of course, but in the last four decades many haven’t. In this time, members of the Society have acquired a reputation as a not-so-loyal opposition, with a habit of circumventing or rationalizing away elements of Church teaching they don’t accept. Father Nicolas’s immediate predecessor as general, Rev. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, S.J., restored some stability to this troubled scene, but the phenomenon of Jesuit dissent has persisted.

As has the phenomenon of startling numerical decline. Worldwide, Jesuits have dropped from 35,000 four decades ago to fewer than 20,000 now. In the United States, they’ve gone from a high of 8,400 to 2,900. The median age of American Jesuits in 2006 was 67.6. If current trends persist, the Society will be down to between 1,000 and 1,200 U.S. members by mid-century.

There is no incontrovertible evidence of a cause-effect connection between dissent and falling numbers, but common sense suggests some sort of link. Does it lie in the fact that the habit of dissent reeks of the 1960s and 1970s? Despite its cutting-edge public image, the Society’s problem may be partly that it’s stuck in the past. Few people today, after all, are itching to return to the era of bell-bottoms and shaggy sideburns.

Be that as it may, Benedict skipped the analysis and got directly to the point. Several things stood out in what he said.

One was his liking for Father Kolvenbach, whose decision to resign as general upon reaching the age of 80 led to this congregation’s choosing a successor. Expressing "most heartfelt gratitude," he commended the Dutch Scripture scholar for his "great sense of responsibility" in bearing the burdens of the Jesuits’ top job "at a moment in your order’s history which was not easy."

Another was his determination to recall the Jesuits to their founding principles as reflected in the fourth vow of obedience to the pope that many Jesuits make. Benedict said: "The Church has even more need today of this fidelity of yours, which constitutes a distinctive sign of your order, in this era which warns of the urgency of transmitting in an integral manner to our contemporaries . . . the unique and immutable message of salvation."

(Some Jesuits say the fourth vow is simply a commitment to go wherever the pope sends them. Since the pope does not, directly and immediately, send most Jesuits anywhere — they work out assignments with their Jesuit superiors instead — this renders the fourth vow meaningless in practice.)

Finally, there was Benedict’s willingness to put a direct challenge to the general congregation itself. "It could prove extremely useful," he said, "that the general congregation reaffirm, in the spirit of St. Ignatius, its own total adhesion to Catholic doctrine." Among the "neuralgic points" that require this, he added, are the relationship between Christ as redeemer and non-Christian religions, aspects of liberation theology, and "various points of sexual morality, especially as regards the indissolubility of marriage and the pastoral care of homosexual persons."

The general congregation will remain in session for several more weeks discussing the future of the Society. Pope Benedict is scheduled to receive the delegates in audience February 21. What they do about this clear and specific challenge from Benedict XVI will say a lot about what lies ahead for the Jesuits.


Russell Shaw’s 20th book, Nothing To Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church, is forthcoming from Ignatius Press.

Russell Shaw

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Russell Shaw is the author of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press), Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), and other works.

  • Donato Infante III

    “(Some Jesuits say the fourth vow is simply a commitment to go wherever the pope sends them. Since the pope does not, directly and immediately, send most Jesuits anywhere — they work out assignments with their Jesuit superiors instead — this renders the fourth vow meaningless in practice.)”

    This is, in fact, the standard line told to us here at Boston College, which does not reckon with the rules for thinking with the Church, especially rule 13.

    Ignatius writes, “That we may be altogether of the same mind and in conformity with the Church herself, if she shall have defined anything to be black which to our eyes appears to be white, we ought in like manner to pronounce it to be black. For we must undoubtedly believe, that the Spirit of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the Spirit of the Orthodox Church His Spouse, by which Spirit we are governed and directed to Salvation, is the same”

  • John Walton

    I wish Mr. Shaw had done his research more thoroughly; as any Jesuit with final vows would have told him (is it possible he wrote this story without contacting a single Jesuit?), the text of the final vow formula includes a vow of “special obedience to the sovereign pontiff regarding missions.”

    That vow formula is also available in any number of popular and scholarly works on the Society of Jesus, including John O’Malley’s “The First Jesuits.”

    Sloppy work.

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