The Pope & the Jesuits: The Aftermath

My book The Pope and The Jesuits was published in the fall of 1984, after having first seen the light of day as an excerpt in Catholicism in Crisis (July 1984), Since then numerous people have asked me how the Jesuits themselves have reacted to the book, especially in view of the fact that I teach at a Jesuit university. I have been able to say truthfully that the positive comments I have received from members of the Society far outweigh the negative ones, perhaps owing merely to a pattern I noticed long ago—people who contact an author directly are usually those who like what he has written.

To date I have counted 43 Jesuits who have written or spoken to me, telling me that they agree substantially with the book’s thesis, although they sometimes take issue with one or other specific point. About a half dozen have said that they think it was too mild and does not fully expose the depth of the problems in the Society.

Those have who have responded favorably run the gamut of age from elderly and retired to scholastics in training. (The latter are the ones, I have found, who are in an especially good position to see how deep the problems really go.) Those who have contacted me included two former university presidents, a former provincial, and a dozen respected scholars. I have jokingly said that there seem to be a lot of Jesuits whose middle name is Nicodemus.

It is puzzling that, as far as I know, there have been only two public negative responses from Jesuits, although I heard second- and third-hand reports about others who do not like the book. (A few of those have contacted me directly.)

One response was in a Canadian Catholic paper, by Father E.F. Sheridan, a moral theologian and a former Canadian provincial, who wrote an indignant letter denouncing a review of the book, mentioning in passing that he had not read the book itself.

Oddly, Sheridan seemed to admit the book’s major contentions in the very act of refuting them. For example, he came to the defense of Jesuits who supported Hans Kung in his clash with Pope John Paul II and seemed to say that “papolatry” (another Jesuit’s phrase for those who take the Pope too seriously) is indeed a contemporary threat. Sheridan indignantly denied that Father Robert Drinan was ever pro-abortion and cited Governor Mario Cuomo’s Notre Dame University speech as evidence that Drinan had been right all along.

The only review of the book itself from a Jesuit hand, as far as I know, was by Father Daniel F.X. Meenan, editor of a journal called Review for Religious, writing in his own journal. Meenan’s reaction seems to me even odder than Sheridan’s even though he seems to have read the book.

He characterizes the work as “a gossip’s handbook,” a characterization which is repeated several times. In all modesty I think that is exactly what it is not. Those who have told me that I did not paint the picture bleak enough mainly mean that I did not include material pertaining to the personal behavior or the “life styles” of contemporary Jesuits. Information about such things is not hard to come by, and some of it can be documented. I chose to leave it out, and to confine myself almost exclusively to what is a matter of public record.

Meenan objects, as have other Jesuits, to my characterizing the Society’s in-house publication, National Jesuit News, as “semi-official.” Perhaps I should have dropped the “semi”—N.J.N. is paid for by the Society and sent free of charge to all American Jesuits. Its editor is appointed by the highest officials of the Society in the United States.

But Meenan’s objection to my citing of N.J.N. reveals the curious evasion which he uses to deny the seriousness of the Society’s problems—many of my citations from N.J.N. (as well as from the National Catholic Reporter and other ephemeral journals) are perfectly valid primary sources, because they quote a particular Jesuit’s own words, in articles written and published by him. Even a letter to a newspaper is a reliable source in this sense, a point Meenan seems not to comprehend.

But he goes farther in his contention that it is somehow unfair (or “gossip”) to cite a Jesuit’s own words as an index of what he thinks. Of one Jesuit, for example, he writes, “Personally I was surprised to learn from these pages that… a man with whom I live and break bread, has been, all this while, a Marxist—and I never knew!”

In point of fact I did not say the Jesuit in question was a Marxist. I merely quoted his own words, from a book he wrote, words which I think are quite representative of the entire book.

Meenan also faults me for not having included the Jesuits’ own response to criticism. But in reality I did—the official responses to papal criticism, going back almost twenty years, have been to acknowledge serious problems and to promise to do better. Obviously, as time went on, John Paul II was not satisfied that abuses were actually being corrected.

But the tactic of the Society’s leadership, here followed by Father Meenan, has been to admit problems in the abstract while denying them in the concrete. Almost no specific abuse, no matter how blatant or widespread, is ever candidly acknowledged to be such. To continue that strategy Meenan now finds it necessary to cry “foul” when embarrassing public statements by particular Jesuits are recalled.

Is the Society of Jesus even now undergoing the kind of reforms which the Pope obviously intended? It is, perhaps, too early to say. But, from personal experience I can testify that there is no lack of men within its ranks who know exactly what those problems are and want to do something about them, even as there are others who cannot understand what the Pope could possibly have been concerned about.



  • 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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