Jesuits, Come Home

Editor’s note: The following remarks were originally delivered in April on the occasion of a Jesuit Day of Renewal, a gathering of several Jesuit groups in the Cincinnati area. We print them here with the kind and indulgent permission of the Jesuits of Cincinnati.

While I was flattered by the invitation to share some of my thoughts with you today, I must confess to a large degree of discomfort. I am frankly uneasy with the prospect of attempting to instruct those who instructed me so well. Although most of three decades have passed since that day when I proudly received a degree from one of your universities, few days now pass when I do not recall the profound debt I owe to the Society of Jesus. My Jesuit education marked a watershed in my life. For good or ill, much of what I am today, what I believe, the way I believe it and the values which animate those beliefs can be traced to those formative and exquisitely rich years I spent with you. So don’t become too upset with what I say: You only have yourselves to blame!

Seriously, I come before you as someone with a vested interest. I care passionately about the Society of Jesus. I reverence its history. I am fascinated, albeit sometimes disturbed, by its contemporary unfolding. And I pray for its future because in many ways I believe its future is the future of the church which unites us with our God.

So I speak with fraternal concern in the spirit of St. Paul, who said we have a Christian obligation to admonish one another. If some of what I have to say seems critical, please realize it comes from the heart and is born of a profound respect and—yes—a certain love.

I have been asked to discuss how I see the Society fitting into the future needs of the Cincinnati area. I intend to do that but in order to address the specific point, it becomes necessary to comment on the larger mosaic, how Jesuits seem to be fitting into the world around us. It is axiomatic to say the world is shrinking and that our everyday lives are touched by events from afar. So how you fit here is, of course, influenced by how you fit in the world.

Perhaps two decades ago I started hearing disturbing things about the Jesuits. That’s ancient and familiar history now, but it was jolting news then. It first came to me from a theologian, not a Jesuit, who was a student of Karl Rahner and had been intellectually nourished by the Jesuit tradition. He returned from a tenure in Rome declaring that the Jesuits were washed up, that they had lost their intellectual moorings and had taken the revolutionary gas. It was a criticism I was to hear with mounting frequency, building to the crescendo of the recent past. Because I was a loyal son, I resisted those who were writing you off as no longer a viable force in the church. Yet as I moved to Cincinnati and became more intimately reunited with the mainstream of Jesuit thought, I was forced to admit, based on first-hand evidence, some of the truth of the allegations.

When I was being educated back in the “Dark Ages,” the characteristic I admired most was your rigorous intellectual tradition. Here were loyal sons of the Church who nonetheless married their fidelity to a bracingly open and stimulating quest for truth. They were not imprisoned by an ideology, at least not as a collective body. There was a willingness to challenge established wisdom and an eagerness to defend established wisdom. There were Jesuits on the left and Jesuits on the right. There were Jesuit proponents of the new technologies and Jesuit defenders of the old humanities. There were Jesuits combing the capitalist marketplace and Jesuits marked with transcendant asceticism. In sum, there was a richness of intellectual and spiritual texture that is not simply one balding grad’s nostalgic memories.

One thing these Jesuits seemed to have in common was an understanding of their history. They saw clearly that their role in mid-century America was to conduct an educational program for the immigrant church that would propel her young members into the mainstream of the communities and nation, there to make a mark—to be, in your words, men and women for others.

How well you, and I, have succeeded in that task is for history to judge. I happen to think you and your predecessors will be accorded a noble and notable place.

What have we today? You’re different, I’m different and the church is surely different. I think I understand the dynamics of change, but I must nonetheless confess the shock I felt when I heard one of your Cincinnati colleagues say that your educational mission in the pilgrim church in America was perhaps over and that, given your declining numbers, perhaps you should consider deploying your scarce resources to more pressing needs, such as making revolutions (all in the name of peace and justice, mind you).

What seems so clear to all the rest of us seems no longer so clear to some of you—that you must continue to fulfill your educational function. I realize your founder Ignatius doubted the centrality of this role in the beginning but it is a belief he came to in later life. Your history in America surely demands it—the history of a century and a half at St. Xavier High School, for example. In a microcosm, St. Xavier leavens Cincinnati in a way I would think Loyola meant for your society to leaven the world. Sometimes I think you do not adequately appreciate what a truly profound influence you have exerted and are continuing to exert on this community through your graduates who now are an often decisive component of its economic, cultural, political, social and religious lifeblood. To move through Cincinnati life and observe the Jesuit legacy played out in hundreds of ways, as I have been privileged to do through the vantage point of journalist, is to appreciate your fundamental educational contribution. Don’t minimize it. Nor, if I might preach further, should you rest on your laurels. For just as surely as your schools have yielded yeast for today’s society, so will tomorrow’s need it as well, only more so.

I mentioned earlier the rich diversity of thought and elite academic climate of the Society of Jesus at mid-century. That quality appears to have eroded as heart rule replaces head rule in your weltanschauung. As I listen to you, there seems to be nothing but givens in your political and social belief system, a new orthodoxy where those who would challenge certain of your interpretations of peace and justice are dismissed as unchristian and uncaring. The fineness of Jesuit discernment, that quintessential use of reason, the sifting and winnowing—where have these qualities gone? In their stead a shrillness has emerged. Some appear to have concluded, to take one glaring example, that democratic capitalism is an inherently corrupt economic idea, that socialistic and central-government models best comport with biblical injunctions and that a Marxist analysis of history is compatible with Christian witness.

Those propositions are, to say the very least, arguable. Therefore, I am not only dismayed to see certain of you dismiss their arguability but enshrine the new orthodoxy in your curricula and in your mission statements.

I don’t want to be misunderstood. The imperatives of peace and justice are real and pressing. But they should not be used to excuse intellectual shallowness or dangerous ideological doctrines. In the old days—and again I believe this is not simply revisionist nostalgia—I think such questions could be posed and debated with a force calculated to divine truth. How different is today’s methodology where a kind of litmus test is employed instead.

I would offer two small examples from Cincinnati experience.

One is the way the pastorals of the American bishops are being used in your schools. In a recent religion class in one of them, the students were told that there could be no discussion of the disarmament question because the bishops were right about the missiles and that was the position of the church. No other points of view could be discussed, not even the parallel letters of the French and German bishops. Now that’s intellectually dishonest and I hope you know it. I happened to be at Marquette during the height of McCarthyism (history will record the good senator as one of my fellow alums, you will recall). I admired the courage with which Jesuits boldly challenged the role of Cardinal Spellman and other church authorities in that searing period. My young Hoosier eyes were opened to the care and skill with which you defined the magisterium and the space you created and staunchly defended for legitimate debate, in the interests of academic freedom. Just because episcopal views possessed of no more authority now happen to accord with some of your own political biases is no reason to pinch off questions and seek to transform opinions into creeds.

Another example: When I was still writing, I did a column on the emerging fate of Pedro Chomorro and his independent Nicaraguan newspaper, La Prensa, as the Sandinistas moved inexorably toward censorship because their totalitarian approach could not tolerate a truly free press. Several of your number challenged me as a kind of enemy of the revolution (which, I cheerfully admit, I was). What was so telling, though, was that in the name of peace and justice they had bought so completely into the Sandinista cause that they could not see the telltale signs of the unraveling of democratic government and of elemental human rights being stifled. If it was good for the revolution, one of your colleagues told me, then Senor Chomorro should be silenced.

I hope you can see what I mean by the dangers of your new orthodoxy.

Recently I had an opportunity to visit with another Jesuit graduate, Langhorn (Tony) Motley, then U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Latin American Affairs. I asked him why the blackrobes whom we have known and loved so well are now embracing regimes the rest of us view as so dangerous. “The Jesuits think they’re smarter than the Marxists,” he said. “They think they can use the revolution for their own purposes and that what happened to all others who tried to do business with the communists in this century won’t happen to them. Their arrogance ends up sinking them, and the Marxists in Central America are relying on it. I never thought I would call my Jesuit teachers dupes, but they are.”

I think you as an important religious order face a credibility problem as you consider your future. It is a problem not unlike the one facing the press in America. The people repose a declining level of trust in both of us. In a major study completed for the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the reasons for this distrust of the press are manifestly clear. We are seen as radical and insensitive, out of step with fundamental values, unfair and arrogant. Those same words, I suspect, could be applied to the Society of Jesus. As for the press, we can no longer afford to dismiss the criticism as uninformed. We are being forced to reassess our practices and underlying assumptions because without credibility, our mission—however noble—cannot be carried out. As you ponder your role in serving this area’s future needs, I hope you consider doing the same.

I think that the Society can best regain both its intellectual vigor and its credibility in this country by doing one very specific thing. That is simply to acquire a deep understanding of what has made America and western civilization distinctive in the history of the world. Once, all of mankind lived in poverty. Much of mankind lived under some form of tyranny. Why, we must ask, did we not all remain impoverished and enslaved? What in particular has this country done to raise its people out of poverty and enslavement? Whatever its imperfections—and it has many—America has nonetheless done more than any other civilization to enable people to live in freedom and prosperity. Surely that fact should carry some weight with Jesuits who are trying to explore the concept of peace and justice—or, as I would prefer to use, the old-fashioned but durable word, charity.

If Jesuits could appreciate some of the basic principles of the American political, economic, intellectual and spiritual tradition, I believe they could make the most creative use of their resources. We all need to understand what principles and conditions are essential for the preservation of freedom. We all need to understand, as well, just how wealth and economic growth come about. Wealth and growth result not from redistribution of money and resources but from capital formation. If Jesuits really knew what that means, they could do more to alleviate poverty and hunger than in any other way.

The church for too long has based its political, economic and social principles on European models that do not bring out the best in human nature. Far better, I think, to begin to look to what America in its best moments has done for people. Some of the great Europeans—Catholics themselves, like Tocqueville, for example—have understood, sometimes better than we ourselves, what this country has really accomplished. Tocqueville saw when he visited Cincinnati an American phenomenon at work that no European nation has ever used effectively—and that phenomenon is voluntarism. Europeans barely know what voluntarism is. But America couldn’t exist without it. It is just such pehnomena that the Society of Jesus should understand. Voluntarism grew up only in the free political and economic atmosphere of America. And so I repeat, if Jesuits are really interested in charity, then they would do well to study what made this country fertile ground for the institutions of charity.

As I conclude, and at the risk of indulging in that deadly practice of offering free advice, I hope you return to your glittering intellectual tradition, to a respect for your history, to a greater willingness to listen to voices other than your own. After all, yours may not be the only one with whom the Holy Spirit is conversing.

Even though I disagree to the point of apoplexy with some of you, I’m not writing you off. I’m not giving up on you. I’m hanging in there. You’re going to have to put up with me and a lot of others you have spawned. After all, we have a proprietary interest in how your story turns out.


  • William R. Burleigh

    William R. Burleigh has spent his entire career with The E.W. Scripps Company in Cincinnati and is well-known for his leadership of for-profit, charitable and public institutions.

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