The Pope and the Jesuits

When Jesuit journals publish articles undercutting papal positions or when individual Jesuits do the same in public pronouncements, they promote a concept of the Church quite different from that of the Church’s leader — the man to whom Jesuits take a special vow of obedience.

The Society of Jesus is one of the great glories of the Roman Catholic Church but like so many other one time bulwarks of the faith it has in recent times been riven by internal dissent. We may doubt the story that John Paul I was reading a report on the Jesuits the night he died, but it is public knowledge that, before the recent election of a new General, John Paul 11 personally intervened in the governance of the Society. It is one thing to survive the pen of Pascal and the persecution of politicians, but for Jesuits to come into collision with the Pope, given their special mission, contributes mightily to the current crisis in Catholicism.

We are pleased to present to our readers a major excerpt from James Hitchcock’s soon to be published The Pope and the Jesuits. Hitchcock combines a long time association with the Jesuits as a member of the faculty of St. Louis University, the skills of an historian, the grace of a practiced writer and, most important, a deep and abiding Catholic faith. Fraternal criticism is an old tradition among us. In recent years, the Pope, the Curia, the bishops, have been subjected to penetrating — indeed, at times withering — scrutiny. Has the Society of Jesus received similar criticism? James Hitchcock’s careful look at the Jesuits is overdue.

The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) was the great watershed of modern Catholic history, the dividing line between a church which had escaped to a remarkable degree the inroads of modern secularization and a church which found itself thrown, willy nilly, into a whirlpool of contemporary culture. Although it scarcely authorized such a result, the Council was widely interpreted as an overwhelming signal of release, “liberating” Catholics from all the obligations to which their faith had historically committed them.

The post-conciliar upheaval in the Church was not a “grass-roots” movement from the pews. It originated primarily among the priests and religious. It was they who proved to be the most discontented classes, and their discontent eddied outward until it engulfed the whole Church. Inevitably, the Jesuits were crucial to this process.

The image of the Jesuits has often been a contradictory one. Sometimes the Society has been portrayed as made up of extraordinarily crafty reactionaries, serving the interests of the Church ruthlessly but deviously. Often, however, it has been perceived as the Church’s “premier” liberal order, not hampered by the narrow kinds of orthodoxy and piety which afflict ordinary Catholics.

Both images can be entertained, because the Jesuits are a diverse group of men. In the post-conciliar period especially, they have been the leaders of increasingly radical efforts to reshape the Church, ultimately beyond all recognition, and simultaneously the leaders of movements to defend and strengthen orthodox Catholicism. Their generally high level of education has led some to become almost perfect instruments for conveying secular attitudes to the Catholic world, while others have understood their faith at so deep a level that they have no illusions about various fashionable programs of “renewal” within the Church.

In contrast to the numerous theologically dissenting or politically left-leaning Jesuits surveyed in these pages, there are perhaps a dozen American Jesuits publicly identified with either religious or political movements of a conservative cast. Several prominent conservative Jesuits have left the Society, which is unusual for religious of traditional persuasions. As in most communities, there exists within the Society of Jesus a “moderate middle” which is not conspicuously identified with either right or left. However, while almost every dissenting position has been tolerated and even encouraged within the Society, Jesuits known to be conservative have often found themselves on the defensive, uncomfortable in what they have sometimes experienced as an inhospitable milieu. (A disproportionate number of conservative or “moderate” Jesuits are probably also older members of the Society.) While Jesuit superiors have not endorsed every position of the Society’s more liberal members, it is nonetheless the case that the latter have generally been treated with a respect usually not accorded the conservatives and have in effect been given the task of sketching out the future direction of the Society. The “moderate middle,” precisely by not “taking sides” in disputes, has granted legitimacy to the left-of-center positions.

The post-conciliar crisis can be most easily seen in terms of numbers, and while the Church as a whole lost members in the United States after 1965, the statistics are most striking in the religious orders.

In 1965, its peak year, the Society of Jesus had 36,000 members worldwide, with 8,000 in the United States. Ten years later that number had shrunk to slightly under 29,000, and to about 6,200 in this country. Its official 1983 membership was about 26,000 with only 5,550 now remaining in the U.S.

Natural attrition through death does not primarily account for this startling decline, since in previous years deaths have been more than offset by new recruits. After 1965, however, not only did relatively few young men join the Society, but older members, supposedly committed for life, also began to leave.

Prior to the 1960’s it was a rare occurrence for a Catholic priest to leave the priesthood. Among American Jesuits, for example, only two out of a total of nearly 4,400 did so in 1958. In 1966 the numbers jumped to two digit for the first time, and in 1970 the total was 96. The decline in the numbers since that date is only partially reassuring, since it reflects the fact that the priests who remain are disproportionately older men who are not very likely to leave. The generation of young and middle-aged priests has been, if not decimated, at least severely diminished.

In 1958, the peak year, over 400 young men joined the Society in the United States. By 1970 there were only 85, and even though these numbers increased somewhat after that year, there has been no sign of a return to the high levels of the past. In addition, the rate of attrition among young Jesuits in training has itself remained high, so that the ultimate number making a commitment to the Society is even lower than the meager recruitment figures indicate.

Few religious communities, nor the diocesan clergy, escaped comparable losses during the same period. In this, once again, the Jesuits were hardly unique, although it was a source of surprise to many that they suffered so intensely, because their image had always been that of an elite corps with a special esprit, immune from the weaknesses of other groups. In fact there are few reasons for the decline which are unique to the Jesuits. Two factors stand out above all others: the profound uncertainties about the very nature of Catholicism, and therefore of religious life itself, which followed the Second Vatican Council, and the revolutionary upheavals which the whole of Western society underwent beginning in the mid-1960’s, from which the Catholic Church was no longer immune.

Put simply, in the case of the Jesuits there occurred a rapid metamorphosis from what might be called a “hard” milieu to a “soft” one, a transformation which called almost every aspect of traditional Jesuit life into question. Since the days of Loyola the Society had said to prospective members in effect: “Take us as we are or not at all. You must conform to the life, not the life to you.” Prospective Jesuits were subjected to long and rigorous training in large measure designed to burn out all elements of personal desire and ambition, so as to fit the future Jesuit to perform whatever work his superiors deemed suitable for him. The spirit of the training was unrelentingly intellectual, even if sometimes rather narrow. It possessed an overwhelmingly objective spirit, focused on tangible kinds of activity which fit in with the Jesuit vocation. Older Jesuits who came out of this system were often marvelously individualistic and even eccentric, but this was regarded as a mere by-product, tolerable only to the degree that it fit in with the overall demands of the life. Both in training and afterwards, Jesuits found little emphasis placed on personal psychological needs. The mature Jesuit would be obedient but also self-sufficient.

In part what happened in the Society after 1960 was the discovery of psychology, of the affective dimensions of the human condition. Perhaps because its existence had been minimized for so long, affectivity now flooded in on the Society as if from a burst dam. For the first time large numbers of Jesuits began to think and talk about their feelings, their desires, their “needs.” Some became deeply involved in various aspects of the “human potential movement,” including visits to shrines like the Esalen Institute. In time various kinds of therapeutic techniques, derived from humanistic psychology and the human potential movement, became an institutionalized feature of the training of young Jesuits, and part of the standard equipment of many older Jesuits as well. (Thus in 1982 the student newspaper of a Jesuit university published a feature about a Jesuit scholastic for whom “High school was more a social enterprise than an academic institution.” The young Jesuit told the interviewer that his ultimate criterion for judging the authenticity of his calling was whether it was “fun” and he said he used “gut reactions” rather than intellectual analysis to make decisions. Describing the early Jesuits as men who served others, “having a blast while doing it,” he claimed that the hot tub in the campus recreation center was one of the chief places where he “found God.” The scholastic wanted on his tombstone the inscription, “He made it fun.”) Especially within communities of young Jesuits in training, great emphasis came to be placed on the ability to “share one’s feelings,” and candidates for the Society have sometimes been asked to leave because they are regarded as “too intellectual” or “unwilling to share.”

Parallel changes were taking place on the intellectual plane. Just as Jesuits began to discover psychology in a way they had scarcely known before, so also many began to chafe at what they regarded as the narrowness of their own training — mainly the classics and neo-Scholastic philosophy and theology (although many Jesuits had for some time been doing graduate work in secular disciplines in the most prestigious universities). There was a heightened desire to confront the modern world at the point of its greatest brilliance. Young Jesuits (as well as some older ones) became sympathetically engaged with Hegel, Marx, the Existentialists, and modern Protestant theology. as well as with the social sciences. As with psychology, however, a long thirst seemed to make it difficult for many Jesuits to drink in moderation. An “openness” to newer modes of thought soon became, for many, a wholesale acceptance of systems which could be reconciled with Christianity only with difficulty if at all, and a concomitant compulsion to brush aside almost everything from the Catholic past as irrelevant at best, perhaps even false and pernicious. The most contested areas have been almost all aspects of sexual morality, from contraception to homosexuality, as well as the general exercise of ecclesiastical authority by pope and bishops.

Under such conditions it was not only impossible to maintain the traditional Jesuit esprit, and the institutional arrangements which went with it, but also difficult to articulate new visions which could command wide assent. Not only was the Society deeply divided between “liberals” and “conservatives” (not entirely along the lines of age), those who favored innovation could no longer agree even among themselves as to what kind.

In the past, Jesuit individualism had existed within a firmly defined framework. Now that framework was bent out of shape, even as it was discovered to have many holes. Individualism was intensified, largely because there was no communal vision. Many Jesuits gave up the work to which they had devoted themselves (especially teaching) in order to look for something more “fulfilling.” Now largely bereft of meaningful community rituals or effective structures of authority, some Jesuit communities started to fall apart. Some members even began to find apartments for themselves. Especially among younger Jesuits, it became increasingly common to make assignments on the basis of the individual’s own preferences. Traditional Jesuits have been overwhelmingly men of the Church, their work firmly oriented towards strengthening the Catholicism of the people they served. Now their relationship to the “institutional Church,” as it was often disparagingly called, became at best problematical. Many Jesuits began to conceive of their mission as one of erecting “alternative structures” to those governed by the pope and bishops, and they found themselves distinctly uncomfortable emphasizing “churchly” matters. They preferred to understand their mission as one of “serving mankind” or “helping people lead more humane lives.” In practice this sometimes meant going contrary to official Catholic teaching and practice.

In the United States the Jesuits have been most prominently identified with education, both at the secondary and college levels. Jesuit high schools have maintained a fairly strong Jesuit identity, although one which is eroding. But Fordham University in New York City officially secularized so as to qualify for public money. Most Jesuit colleges and universities have reorganized their boards of trustees so that Jesuits no longer have juridical control of the institutions. Most seriously, many schools watch in seeming impotence as the number of Jesuits on their faculties shrinks, year after year, to the point where on some campuses a student might attend classes for four years and not be taught by a single Jesuit.

The decline of the Jesuit presence on college campuses is due not only to the large number of priests (especially those born in the 1920’s and 1930’s) who left the Society but also to a kind of anti-intellectualism which for awhile took hold among scholastics (Jesuits in training). Academic careers were frequently rejected as irrelevant and remote from the primary religious commitment of the Jesuit. Scholastics of the period after 1965 were often outspokenly impatient with formal academic training, longing for involvement in the “real world.”

In a sense this could be understood as a return to the authentic spirit of Loyola, who had favored directly apostolic activity over institutionalized educational work. But the rejection of academic life does not signal a new pietism. Although younger Jesuits now show themselves primarily interested in pastoral activity of various kinds (or, if academically inclined at all, in theology), it is often religion as understood in secular ways, heavily interlarded with secular concerns and not uncommonly at odds with the teachings of the “official Church.”

The traumatic loss of members and the decline in entrants in the late 1960’s affected the leaders of the Society in the same way that similar expressions of the new “spirit of youth” affected people in comparable positions of secular authority. At first superiors resisted demands for radical change, but soon the dissidents won victories almost everywhere. Older “rigid” superiors departed (more accurately, perhaps, fled), to be replaced by men convinced that the Society would flourish only if it accommodated itself to the new age.

Applicants were now required to undergo careful psychological examination, not only to weed out those with problems or those lacking the traits suitable for religious life but also to discourage “rigid” young men, now often defined in the very same terms used to describe the ideal novice of a few years before. Previously the novitiate had been a place in which there was maximum emphasis on separation from the world and entry into a new way of life. Now novitiates were moved from their rural retreats into the midst of cities, and novices were encouraged to involve themselves without hesitation in the life of the world around them. The Society of Jesus no longer represented itself to its newest members as a cohesive organization to which they must aspire to be worthy, but as a loosely organized group of idealistic men, often possessed of the most diverse and contradictory notions of what Jesuits ought to be and do. Meanwhile young Jesuits could see the Society crack and peel before their eyes. Sometimes the very priests set over them to provide guidance and stability themselves left the Society.

As with the secular youth culture of the same period, the victory of the new was not primarily the result of the youth rebellion, although that served as its justification. In the Society as elsewhere, the key role was played by somewhat older men who themselves responded empathetically to many aspects of the “counter-culture” and who cited the youth rebellion as a rationale for changes which they themselves found desirable. In particular, a whole generation of men trained under the older rigorous system now chose to throw off its alleged “repressions” in the name of making the Jesuit ideal more appealing to the young.

Contemporary Jesuit attitudes toward the past have been skewed as a result, because many of those presently in positions of authority in the Society, sometimes men even in their fifties and sixties, have a personal vested interest in denigrating the condition of the Society as it existed before 1965. Thus, there has grown up a semi-official view of the Jesuit past which sees it as narrow and inhumane, as having produced men who were immature and even personally damaged. In common with people elsewhere in the Church, many Jesuits seem to believe in effect that the true meaning of Christianity was only discovered at the time of the Second Vatican Council.

In the late 1960’s, as noted, Jesuit novitiates and theologates were systematically moved from rural retreats, previously thought conducive to spiritual formation, to large cities where young men in training could be exposed both to a rigorous university education and the realities of modern life. But the universities themselves were in a state of turmoil, and in most of the new Jesuit institutions not only traditional religious practices but discipline of all kinds was severely undermined.

The Mass is the center of all Catholic life, and especially of the life of religious orders. In Jesuit houses a custom began, paralleled in numerous other religious communities throughout the United States, of having priests without vestments celebrate the Eucharist while seated on the floor, using types of communion bread (even sometimes cookies) prohibited by the Church, with improvised readings in lieu of those officially prescribed. Although objections to these practices were dismissed as fussy legalisms, the implications of the practices were profound — those who engaged in them were signaling that the Mass which they believed in was not the same Mass being celebrated in parish churches, under hierarchical authority. The “new Jesuits,” in common with many others throughout the Church, put themselves forth as the representative of a radically different kind of Catholicism, one which was in some ways in direct conflict with the “official Church.” Their understanding of this new Catholicism was often extremely secular. One scholastic, Joseph O’Rourke, said, for example, that he desired to be ordained a priest “to be a celebrator of moments teeming with human possibility — birth, marriage, death.”

In 1969, O’Rourke was ordained, along with a number of his fellow students, by the late Cardinal Terence Cooke of New York. During the ceremony O’Rourke and one other man ostentatiously refused to exchange a greeting of peace with the Cardinal, and O’Rourke went to a microphone to proclaim to the congregation that they refused the sign of brotherhood because of the Cardinal’s role as superior of Catholic chaplains in the armed forces. Although many of their companions resented the clumsiness of the act, they apparently did not disagree substantially with its sentiments. Before long such politicized feelings became almost routine for Jesuits of O’Rourke’s generation. (O’Rourke further argued that Jesuits should be “religious Robin Hoods,” using benefactor’s money for purposes of which the donors would have disapproved.)

Woodstock, which had existed in rural Maryland since 1869, was the American Jesuits’ most prestigious seminary. It was moved to Manhattan, attended by all the ironies of the age — Edward Sponga, the Jesuit provincial (roughly the equivalent of a bishop) who engineered the move left the Society and married his secretary. Felix Cardegna, who headed the new Woodstock, also left the priesthood, as did the school’s leading moral theologian, J. Giles Milhaven. After a few years Woodstock closed rather ignominiously, thus ending almost in farce one of the American Jesuits’ proudest traditions.

A 1971 book on the “new Jesuits” typified the confusion of the period. Amidst the testimonies of men with an obvious love for the Society and a commitment to its works were sandwiched, for example, the comments of a scholastic who disparaged all efforts to hand on the culture of the past through education and spoke tolerantly about the use of drugs. A Fordham priest-professor gave blanket endorsement to the entire youth culture. A dogmatic follower of Marshall McLuhan, he asserted that the Jesuits were “in trouble” because their training was based on literacy. A black scholastic poured scorn on his fellow Jesuits and on white society in general and justified “responsible violence” against property as a means of social change. Not surprisingly, seven of the eleven men chosen to represent the future of the Society eventually left it.

Indeed, the most extreme manifestations of unrest circa 1970 were traceable to people most of whom eventually left the Society. But a strange pattern emerged from all this. Despite the fact that many of the innovations of the period were the work of men who did eventually leave, thus indicating their lack of commitment to the life they were supposedly “saving,” this fact did not cause those who remained to reassess the changes. The same policies continued to be pursued, no matter how destructive. Uncertainty about the Society’s nature and goals could be glimpsed even at its highest levels.

In the midst of all the turmoil, Father General Arrupe visited the United States and addressed himself to the burning questions. In one speech he noted the universal phenomenon of dissent in the West, which he assessed as inevitable and even desirable. Although he made no specific applications, the implication of his speech was a justification of dissent from Church teaching, since, he said, dissent had been found an effective tool for change and dissenters paid authorities the compliment of taking them seriously. In identifying the characteristics of an un-Christian society, Arrupe included such things as “a serried network of ceremonial and disciplinary laws, which openly served the interests of a dominating priestly class and which stifled the humane, productive, and free meaning of Creation,” a remark which seemed almost to invite transgression of Church laws.

The Society’s Thirty-First General Congregation had met in Rome in 1965-66, one of its principal acts being the election of Arrupe as general. By later standards the actions of that body seem moderate, even conservative. However, even then Pope Paul VI called the Jesuits’ attention to certain reports about the Society which caused him “amazement” and “sorrow.” Reminding the Jesuits of their particular fidelity to the Papacy he asked rhetorically whether there was any longer any “charism of permanent truth and invincible stability.” He warned against a decline in the spirit of obedience and the adoption of worldly ways.

Eight years later the Thirty-Second General Congregation met. Here the changes of the intervening years were more noticeable, especially in the language of the decrees, which was no longer the familiar religious terminology of earlier documents. Here the conflict with Paul VI was even more direct, as he intervened three times to prohibit certain proposed changes in the Society’s constitution. In his concluding address the Pope warned against a “false humanism” and admitted that “deep doubts” had arisen about the Society. Officially, the Congregation expressed regrets over the failures of some of its members. Loyalty to the Papacy was once again reaffirmed.


Expressions of loyalty and obedience to the Papacy were perhaps sincerely meant. But it was difficult for Jesuits to live and act in accordance with a certitude they no longer possessed even with regard to their own lives and missions.

With the traditional educational, missionary, and pastoral activities of the Society now thrown into doubt or subject to radical reinterpretation, many Jesuits began to conceive of their task, in the last years of the second Christian millennium, as one of constant experimentation, regardless of the official beliefs and traditions of the Church and the Society.

In a sense the warrant for this was seen to have been issued by the most influential Jesuit minds of the twentieth century. In the turmoil after 1965 some Jesuit theologians who had earlier been under something of a cloud, especially the Frenchmen Jean Danielou and Henri DeLubac, became strong defenders of orthodoxy. However, their influence was probably less than that of another Frenchman, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and a German, Karl Rahner.

Even before the Second Vatican Council, Teilhard had become a cult figure. (He died in New York City in 1955, the subject of an official Vatican warning concerning his orthodoxy.) Societies were formed to perpetuate his name and ideas. His writings, most of which had circulated only in manuscript, were now published in a small flood, and for about ten years his name was constantly on every progressive Catholic lip. Then, somewhat surprisingly, his popularity waned.

The fact that his name is no longer invoked with such enthusiasm is not a reliable index to his influence, since in a sense that influence became so pervasive as to be no longer noticeable. Teilhard was a quasi-mystical writer whose ideas were used to justify every kind of vaguely theological notion of secularity and of inevitable cosmic progress. Despite his own sometimes conservative opinions, especially in politics, Teilhard could be used to justify anything which promised a new and more “creative” kind of Christianity. The fact that he was under a Roman cloud strengthened his popularity in some circles, and the Teilhardian cult often gave rise to the kind of frenzied anti-papal outbursts that became characteristic of post-conciliar Catholic liberals. (Teilhard’s theology proclaims a cosmic optimism, in which both human history and the evolution of nature are converging towards an “omega point” which will be the fulfillment of the divine plan of creation. It is a theology which has lent Itself quite readily to the uses of those who would deny the sinfulness of humanity and who wish to give secular events a profoundly religious significance. It is easily employed by those impatient with formal religion of any kind, and eager to see God’s will in all “progressive” secular movements.)

Rahner is simultaneously an easier and more difficult figure to evaluate. As a Thomist and a rigorous systematic thinker, he possesses none of the mystical ambiguities of Teilhard. But precisely because he has chosen to work within traditional theological categories, the long-term implications of his thought are not clear as yet. As with Hegel there can be said to be both right-wing and left-wing Rahnerians.

Apart from his theological writings, however, Rahner himself has tended more and more towards public stances of dissent in recent years, and to certain markedly anti-Roman attitudes.

On lecture tours, for example, he publicly criticized the Vatican’s position on the ordination of women to the priesthood, and some of his writings have been characterized by a nagging, almost bitter tone of reproach towards Rome. In 1979 Rahner attempted to get Johann Baptist Metz, the seminal “political” theologian, appointed to the faculty of the University of Munich. When Metz was passed over, Rahner issued an intemperate blast at the Archbishop of Munich, Joseph Ratzinger, himself a distinguished theologian and later a cardinal in Rome. Ratzinger in turn accused Rahner of distorting the facts of the case. (Rahner, however, at least partially supported the Vatican action against the German theologian Hans Kung the following year.)

Among many Catholic liberals at the time of the Council, a strong conviction developed that the Church would become credible only through a radical and daring revision of its teachings and practices, which in the end would render it almost unrecognizable as its former self. What had been a somewhat vague notion of “progressive” Catholicism before the Council soon produced an almost unbridgeable polarization, as Catholics were forced to decide whether or not they took seriously the Church’s claim to divine authority.

The Jesuits were especially affected by this, since as the most intellectual order within the Church they could not ignore new developments. In addition, two quite different conceptions of the Society were brought into sharp conflict — that it was the most intrepid defender of Catholic orthodoxy and that it represented the cutting edge of everything new in the Church. Some Jesuits seemed to be embarrassed at any sign that the Society was being surpassed in its progressivism by other groups. Thus Jesuits inevitably came into prominence in the ranks of theologians who publicly dissented from official Church teaching. One American Jesuit university, Marquette in Milwaukee, saw three prominent Jesuit theologians — Bernard Cooke, Quentin Quesnell, and Tad Guzie — leave the Society after attaining considerable influence. Their stories were better known than most others, but were not unique.

Another Jesuit theologian, Carl Armbruster, was commissioned by the American bishops to make a study of the priesthood. After producing (in 1971) a document which seemed to raze the foundation of Catholic beliefs concerning the priesthood and the episcopacy, Armbruster too left the priesthood.

When John Paul II later called the Jesuits to account for their actions, one common response was to say that most of the problems had been caused by men who had already left the Society. This defense, however, is only partially valid. By no means all dissenting Jesuits have left the Society. Furthermore, many of those who did leave, like Cooke and Armbruster, held positions of high responsibility and were fully supported by their superiors up to the moment they chose to depart. They did not represent a fringe element within the Society but what had become its mainstream. (Cooke later became a professor at the Jesuits’ Holy Cross College.)

In addition, dissenting positions came to be published regularly in journals under official Jesuit sponsorship, such as America and Theological Studies in the United States, Orientierung in Germany•, Etudes in France, and The Month in England — to name only the most prominent. Former Jesuits often continued publishing in Jesuit journals. (In March of 1975, The Month noted that the editors of the various Jesuit periodicals had met with Arrupe in Rome and that there had occurred “what the politicians would call a useful exchange of views. Characteristically, Fr. Arrupe did not seek to impose any sort of censorship, though he did remind the editors of the problems they might create for the Church by an indiscriminate or indiscreet policy.” While acknowledging that “the feelings, no less than the opinions of others” needed to be taken into account, the editors ringingly affirmed that a Church on the move … will be helped on its forward way by those who are forward-looking. Nostalgia is not an eschatological attitude.”)

Statements by Jesuits critical of official Church leadership and teaching, sometimes with a cutting and strident edge, could be cited almost endlessly. A few samples might be offered:

—     The president of Georgetown University in Washington, I Timothy Healy, responded to Pope John Paul’s visit to the United States by writing that the Pope did not understand American higher education.

—     A theologian, Edward Kilmartin, published a book, Church, Eucharist, and Priesthood, critical of John Paul’s 1980 document on the Eucharist, because it was not fully in accord with modern theology.

—     A number of Jesuits, including virtually the entire faculty of the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, California, publicly rejected the Vatican’s 1977 document stating that women could not be validly ordained to the priesthood.

—     Walter Burghardt, editor of Theological Studies, published in the secular press a criticism of the Vatican’s 1979 censure of the Swiss theologian Hans Kung, and in the process remarked that he “choked” on the Vatican’s official statement concerning the morality of contraceptive sterilization.

—     George Wilson, a Jesuit heading a consulting organization called Management Design, Inc., was brought into a dispute within the diocese of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and tried to pressure the bishop to resign because he was in conflict with the liberal elements in his diocese. The bishop, Joseph V. Sullivan, accused Wilson of violating confidentiality and of falsifying some of the facts of the case.

—     A sociologist, John A. Coleman, wrote biting attacks on the Vatican in the midst of its attempts to bring order into the chaotic Catholic Church in Holland and suggested that those Dutch bishops who accepted the Vatican’s directives might be stoned by their people.

—     A Jesuit theologian, George Maloney, praised the Eastern Orthodox churches for possessing “the saving feature of having avoided the heavy authority of a monarchical hierarchy under a Pope …”

—     Joseph O’Hare, editor of America, reported that at Woodstock in the late 1950’s a prominent Jesuit theologian systematically sought to disabuse students of the “papolatry” (worship of the Pope), a sickness which O’Hare thought might still be infecting American Catholics. Like other American Catholic liberals, O’Hare thought John Paul was an Eastern European unable to understand Americans.

—     A theologian, David Toolan, wrote that “If any of this generation decide to take seriously the spiritual journey, they are virtually forced to renounce the Church’s ‘Christ.”‘

—     When in 1979 the Vatican officially declared that the dissident German writer Hans Kung was no longer to be considered a Catholic theologian, and withdrew his official “mandate to teach,” America (Jan. 12, 1980) insisted that the Vatican action “will more likely result in bitter polarization rather than unity, and confusion rather than clarity about doctrine.” Several American Jesuits, including Richard McCormick, Edward Kilmartin, J. Patout Burns, Peter Schineller, and James Bresnahan, were among the signers of a statement directly contradicting the Vatican action and “affirming our recognition that Hans Kung is indeed a Roman Catholic theologian.”

The most sensitive matters of dispute in contemporary Catholicism have tended to be those, like sexual morality, which have immediate practical implications. However, symbolic issues have also been important, and of these perhaps the most important is liturgy, the official worship of the Church.

Historically, Jesuits were identified with almost an indifference to liturgy, since Loyola had told his men to avoid lengthy end elaborate ceremonies which might keep them from their work. Traditionally, therefore, Jesuits celebrated the Mass simply but correctly. Like practically all priests, they celebrated it with close attention to the official rubrics.

The Second Vatican Council put into effect sweeping liturgical changes, of which the most important was authorization for a vernacular liturgy as distinct from the universal. Latin. Here as elsewhere, however, the Council also insisted on strict conformity to official Church teaching and explicitly forbade unauthorized experimentation in worship.

Jesuits became interested in liturgy at just about the time the changes started to take place, and thus the corporate Jesuit plunge into that area tended to come amidst wholesale deviations from what was officially authorized. In Jesuit seminaries, for example, it became common for priests to celebrate Mass without vestments and with prayers and readings chosen or even composed by the students. In 1972 the American Jesuits’ official newspaper published a front-page photograph of the American provincials of the Society celebrating Mass without proper vestments, and the provincial of the Chicago province later acknowledged that “Some Jesuits appeared to carry liturgical renewal even farther than they were permitted to go.” Two Jesuit liturgists, John Gallen and James Empereur, have been among the leading advocates of liturgical experimentations, and other Jesuits have followed their lead.

Devotees of experimental liturgy argue that worship cannot be confined by rigid and arbitrary rules. However, liturgical deviation has been one of the greatest concerns of Church authorities, because the Mass is the central act of worship, and hence of unity, of the entire Church. Local liturgical variations thus imply diversity of belief and even rejection of official doctrine — and often enough they are intended to be that. During the period of widespread liturgical experimentation after 1965, almost no important Jesuit in the United States publicly defended the need for liturgical unity and conformity to official prescriptions.

In the end, however, it has been primarily sexual morality, with its immediate relevance to every person, and its nervous timeliness in a permissive society, which has been the focus of the sharpest attacks on Church authority. To a great extent the issue of authority was first raised because of dissatisfaction with its specific applications to sexuality.

Jesuits have been involved in this conflict in a double way: as religious personally vowed to lives of celibacy, and as theologians and moral teachers to whom many of the faithful look for guidance. Although their problems have, once again, not been unique among Catholic clergy and religious, their eminence insures that the effects of the sexual revolution on the Society reverberate widely.

The boiling point was reached in 1968, with the issuance by Pope Paul VI of the encyclical Humanae Vitae (“human life”), which among other things reaffirmed traditional Catholic teaching about birth control. Many Jesuits were among those publicly dissenting from the document.

The most influential Jesuit moralist in the United States is Richard A. McCormick of Georgetown, the resident expert in moral theology for Theological Studies. Over the years McCormick has shown a consistent and growing tendency to dissent from official Church teaching in the area of sexual morality, to defend those who dissent even more sharply than himself, and to question the intellectual and scholarly credentials of those (including fellow Jesuits) who accept those teachings. (He has, for example, been highly critical of the Vatican’s official Declaration Concerning Sexual Ethics and other aspects of the Church’s official teaching about sexual morality.) McCormick, whose collected writings were published with a subsidy from the Society, now represents what can be called the mainstream of American Jesuit opinion in disputed moral questions. (In this equation, the right-wing “extreme” would be represented by Pope John Paul II.)

Until 1966, the Jesuit magazine America supported the official teaching on contraception. Then, under a new editor, Donald Campion (later the official public-relations officer for the American Society), it shifted ground sharply, publishing (March 4 and July 15, 1967) two articles by Jesuits rejecting that teaching. Subsequently it has given considerable space to dissenters from that and other doctrines involving sexual morality, and it sharply criticized (January 24, 1976) an official Vatican statement on sexual morality aimed at quieting what amounted to a systematic assault on Catholic doctrine in that area.

Blaise Pascal mercilessly satirized the Jesuits for their alleged catering to the consciences of fashionable penitents. After 1965 Jesuits began playing somewhat the same role for Americans caught up in the permissive society. Thus Joseph Califano, when serving as U.S. Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, went to the Jesuits at fashionable Holy Trinity Church in Georgetown to be told that he need not use his authority to prohibit abortions. An influential Jesuit secondary educator, James DiGiacomo, was co-author of a book which celebrated and endorsed much of the new permissiveness among adolescents. A Jesuit psychiatrist, James Gill, warned the American bishops not to lay sexual burdens on their people which the people could not bear.

Someone once joked that every movement has to have its resident Jesuit, the point being that Jesuits have tended to involve themselves in almost every aspect of modern life and that they pride themselves on their professional competence. The degree to which some Jesuits have supported the “sexual revolution” and other things difficult to reconcile with Catholic doctrine is partly, traceable to a tendency to identify, sometimes uncritically, with prevailing secular opinion on a particular subject. (Thus when the 1983 television film The Thorn Birds was criticized for its titillating exploitation of priestly celibacy, the producers announced that they had been advised by Terry Sweeney, a Jesuit from Los Angeles, who is a professor of film and theatre. When the virulently anti-Catholic play Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All to You was criticized, Sweeney also rushed to its defense, asserting that it was an accurate portrayal of Catholic grammar schools of the past and a “liberating experience.”)

By 1965, many Jesuits were reassessing their own concept of chastity, and it was soon an open secret that some of them were “experimenting” with sexual relationships. Most of those who did so probably eventually left the Society. However, whereas at one time even a hint of unchastity would have brought strong action from superiors, now it became standard practice to tolerate all but the most blatant instances. Quasi-official policy was enunciated in a booklet, published under official auspices, which posited several hypothetical cases of Jesuit misbehavior, including homosexuality and a heterosexual love affair. The advice offered superiors, by Gill and others, was to respect each Jesuits’ need for “affective development” and to refrain from decisive action. The unmistakable implication was that all problems were to be allowed to work themselves out in their own way. (Nothing better reveals the revolution that has taken place in the Society than the shift whereby personal feelings are now given a status bordering on the holy.)

Homosexuality is always one of the dangers of religious life, and historically Catholic orders erected systematic barriers to its expression within their ranks. As with many things, the obstacles were lowered after the Council, first on the grounds that they were unnecessary, then often on the grounds that what they sought to prevent was tolerable. No more than a small percentage of Jesuits are likely to be homosexuals, but in the 1970’s it came to be an issue in the Church, and once again Jesuits were among those who provided the rationale for a new morality.

In 1976 the theologian John McNeill, formerly of Woodstock, published The Church and the Homosexual, perhaps the first overt attempt in the history of the Catholic Church to justify homosexual behavior theologically, a theme McNeill had been developing for several years. Although his work had first been inhibited by his superiors, the book was passed by Jesuit censors and officially approved for publication. However, McNeill was then “silenced” by the Vatican — forbidden to write or speak on the subject of homosexuality — and Arrupe acquiesced in the ban. But, although the McNeill case would later be cited as showing how the Jesuits still maintained discipline, no one at the time believed that the Society officially agreed with the Vatican action. Several Jesuits, including Richard McCormick and the famed political activist Daniel Berrigan, came to McNeill’s defense. In 1979, despite the Vatican ban, McNeill with impunity spoke to the national convention of Dignity, a Catholic homosexual organization.

That McNeill had at least the passive sympathy of his superiors is suggested by the fact that other Jesuits have also taken stands approving of homosexual behavior but have not been disciplined, presumably because their writings did not come to the attention of the Vatican. Peter Fink, a theologian on the faculty at Weston, the Jesuit school of theology near Boston, once proposed that the Church “explore the hypothesis” that homosexuality is a valid form of love. Robert Springer, a theologian formerly at Woodstock, argued that, since sex has no essential connection with begetting children, there is nothing wrong with homosexual relationships. In 1980 another theologian, Edward Vacek, proposed a thesis not substantially different from McNeill’s. Not only was he not disciplined, he was subsequently appointed to the faculty at Weston, one of the two remaining schools in the United States for the theological training of young Jesuits.

A number of Jesuits signed a national petition sponsored by the Catholic Coalition for Gay Civil Rights, and prior to the closing of Woodstock, 28 of its Jesuits publicly attacked the Archdiocese of New York for its opposition to a “gay rights” bill in the city council. A Jesuit, George Casey, was implicated in the actions of a homosexual group which hit the archbishop of St. Paul-Minneapolis in the face with a pie because of the Church’s opposition to a Minnesota “gay rights” bill. Casey was transferred by his superiors but suffered no more severe penalty.

At least one Jesuit is known to have been refused ordination because of his admitted homosexuality; his case became known because he himself made it public. How many others have been so refused is unknown. However, Jesuits say privately that there has not been a consistent policy of refusing ordination even to candidates known to have been involved in homosexual activities.

Dissenters usually justify their dissent by appeals to the Second Vatican Council, which allegedly proposed a model of authority far less absolute than in the past. Yet the Council itself said that ” … the Roman pontiff has full, supreme, and universal power over the Church. And he can always exercise this power freely,” going on to assert that obedience to the pope’s teachings is required “even when he is not speaking infallibly.”

Many liberal Catholics regarded Paul VI as a well-intentioned but timid and indecisive pontiff and thus took it upon themselves to prod the Church in the directions they thought it ought to proceed. The election of John Paul II in 1978, however, created an entirely new situation — a pope who was not in the least timid, who seemed to possess limitless boldness and self-confidence, and who had his own agenda for the Church.

The subject of orthodoxy and dissent in the Catholic Church is a complex one, which can be broadly divided into three categories. On the most fundamental level are those dogmas of the Church (for example, the Trinity or the divinity of Christ) which are solemnly proclaimed and the denial of which constitutes heresy. In a second category are those things consistently taught by the “ordinary magisterium” of the Church — the pope and the bishops. While these have less binding force than those in the first category, they too must be accepted by Catholics and, although subject to legitimate discussion among theologians, may not be publicly attacked. Most teachings about morality fall into this category. Finally there are disciplinary questions, which are not properly matters of dogma but where obedience is nonetheless required. (The proper manner for the celebration of Mass is one example.)

Very few Catholics openly repudiate dogmas of the first category, although the “reinterpretations” of some contemporary theologians sometimes seem to undermine them. Most of the controversy in contemporary Catholicism centers on teachings in the second category, where circumspect scholarly discussion has long given way to organized, often bitter public contestation. In the third category, some Catholics, including priests, now act as though they think rules are made merely to be broken.

All dissent is therefore not definable heresy. However, a resolute and consistent posture of dissent now characterizes large segments of the contemporary Church, the cumulative effect of which has been to call almost all official teaching into doubt. Some highly visible and articulate people have shown themselves far more adept at proclaiming what they cannot accept in official doctrine than in making affirmations of it. In the case of Jesuit dissenters the situation is greatly exacerbated by the special fourth vow of obedience to the Pope which many members of the Society take.

Public dissent by Jesuits from official Church teaching has often been not merely a haphazard thing, an expression of individual opinion. Under Paul VI it was more often part of a larger pattern whereby liberals consciously took advantage of what they perceived to be a disintegrating structure, in order to reshape the Church as they wished. Under John Paul II the task became more urgent, as it began to seem that the Pope might actually halt and even reverse the movement which liberals had been accelerating. When Jesuit journals published articles undercutting papal positions, bluntly or subtly, or when individual Jesuits did the same in their public statements, the result, therefore, was often precisely to promote a concept of the Church consciously different from that of the Church’s leader, the man to whom Jesuits take a special vow of obedience.

The chapters printed here are from James Hitchcock’s soon to be published book, The Pope and the Jesuits — John Paul II and the New Order in the Society of Jesus; copyright 1984 by the National Committee of Catholic Laymen. (Reprinted with permission)


  • James Hitchcock

    James Hitchcock is Professor of History at St. Louis University. He is the author of many books including The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life (Princeton) and, most recently, The History of the Catholic Church: From the Apostolic Age to the Third Millennium (Ignatius, 2012).

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