The Jesuits' Search For a New Identity

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If ever any Congregation of Men could merit eternal Perdition on Earth and in Hell, it is the company of Loyola.

− John Adams, writing to Thomas Jefferson, in 1816

The expense is reckoned, the enterprise is begun; it is of God, it cannot be withstood.

− Edmund Campion, S.J., in 1581, shortly before being hanged, drawn and quartered

SOME of their critics have consigned them, in holy outrage, to the lower regions of hell. Some of their defenders, with equally fervent conviction, see them as saints destined for the higher reaches of heaven. Whatever their presumed destination, they are arguably the most remarkable company of men to embark on a spiritual journey since Jesus chose the Twelve Apostles. With a certain pride, they have adopted the name their enemies once used against them in derision. They are the Jesuits.

Their founder, St. Ignatius Loyola, wanted them to be all things to all men, and even in today's pluralistic secular world it sometimes seems that they are. Apart from their shared religious identity and their common appendage−S.J., for the Society of Jesus−they are a bewilderingly diverse fraternity. They are seismologists, swamis, architects and engineers, theologians and winemakers, politicians, lawyers, social workers, astronomers, revolutionaries, economists−as well as missionaries, teachers and parish priests. The dictionary lists the adjective Jesuitical as a condemnation−"given to intrigue or equivocation"−but the title of Jesuit also carries the tradition of their aggressive brilliance.

Mystics. From the very beginning, they have been originals. When Ignatius first brought together his handful of friends 439 years ago, he gave the Christian world a revolutionary creation. They were a company of men who chose the discipline but rejected the shared observances of a religious order so that they could free themselves for work among their fellow men, a band of mystics who chose to find their enlightenment in a combative encounter with the world around them. Like religious orders before them−Benedictines, Dominicans, Franciscans−they pledged themselves to strict obedience but, like the Renaissance men they were, they also preserved a high regard for individual talent and initiative.

The synthesis of discipline and freedom proved to be formidable. It has kept them at the cutting edge of Roman Catholicism, and often on the frontiers of Western civilization. It is an exposed position, open alike to opportunity, risk and scorn. As a result of it, the Jesuits have become, both inside and outside the church, the objects of perennial controversy.

They are still in the vanguard, still vulnerable, still controversial. Today, the Society of Jesus is a microcosm of the tensions and turmoil that are sweeping the Roman Catholic Church as a whole. The old certainty that guided the Jesuits for so long has vanished; the new anxieties have arrived. Says Father David Tracy, a non-Jesuit theologian at the University of Chicago's Divinity School: "At one time, when you were seeking an answer, you'd find a Jesuit. Today, when you are looking for a question, you find a Jesuit."

Conservative Catholics, especially, are distressed that an order claiming a special fealty to the Pope should so often include some of the most

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