Religion: John Paul Takes On the Jesuits

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The Pope picks his own team to head the powerful order

The Jesuits swear an oath of obedience to the papacy but, throughout their 441-year history, their independent ways and elitist style have ruffled many Popes. John Paul II, no stranger to controversy, last week took a bold step to bridle the Society of Jesus. In a move interpreted as a warning to all religious orders, he suspended the normal workings of the Jesuit Constitutions, removed the acting leader of the organization and replaced him with two Italian Jesuits who enjoy the Vatican's confidence: Paolo Dezza, 79, and Joseph Pittau, 53.

John Paul has entered a high-stakes game. The Jesuits are the largest (27,000) and the most dominant of the men's orders, with far-flung influence in education, theology and missions. The Superior General of the society is considered the second most powerful figure in Roman Catholicism.

Pontiffs have intervened in the past by dictating the elections of Superiors General. In 1773 Pope Clement XIV even dissolved the society, a 41-year-long humiliation that some Jesuit intellectuals close to the Vatican are comparing with John Paul's treatment.

The current conflict has been building ever since the Second Vatican Council, when some Jesuits began busying themselves in social action and in questioning papal teachings. In 1973 a harried Pope Paul VI wrote Superior General Pedro Arrupe to "express our desire, indeed our demand," that the Jesuits remain loyal to the papacy. In 1979 Pope John Paul II directed Arrupe to wipe out secularism and other "regrettable shortcomings."

Last year Arrupe, Superior General since 1965, cited age and health in asking John Paul's permission to resign. In August, felled by a stroke that left him partially paralyzed, Arrupe, 73, followed Jesuit legal procedure and selected a Vicar General (interim leader), American Father Vincent O'Keefe, 61, to run the order. O'Keefe is a former president of Fordham University. Unable to speak intelligibly because of his illness, Arrupe has not replied to John Paul's announcement that he was naming Dezza as "a delegate who will represent me more closely in the society" until a General Congregation elects Arrupe's permanent successor.

When Arrupe was chosen Superior General, Dezza and O'Keefe were among his four advisers. Dezza, no reactionary but well to the right of both Arrupe and O'Keefe, is a philosopher and onetime rector of Rome's Pontifical Gregorian University. John Paul named the energetic Pittau to assist the aged, partially blind Dezza and take over "should he be impeded or die." Pittau, considered a moderate, is the sort of well-trained, efficient academic who catches John Paul's eye. A Harvard Ph.D. in sociology, he is rector of Tokyo's Sophia University and, since last year, leader of the Japan province. O'Keefe remains an adviser to the new team and refuses to comment.

In a letter to Arrupe, John Paul saw a need for "more thorough preparation of the society" before a General Congregation is held. That is being read as a signal that John Paul wants the Jesuits to shape up before the election of a new leader. As a result, no one in Rome sees a replacement for the Dezza-Pittau administration until at least 1983 and perhaps years beyond that.