The Jesuits 500 Years After St. Ignatius: Roadblocks to Renewal?

Part II: As the Society of Jesus commemorates the anniversary of its founder’s ‘cannonball conversion,’ some observers question if it can recover from the wounds it has suffered over the past 50 years.

The Savior Embraces St. Ignatius Loyola
The Savior Embraces St. Ignatius Loyola (photo: Gregorio Lazzarini (1655-1730) / Public Domain)

Editor’s Note: This is Part II of an analysis of the current state of the Jesuits. Part I is available here.

The Society of Jesus is celebrating an “Ignatian Year,” commemorating 500 years since St. Ignatius of Loyola was wounded in battle and set on the path to conversion. And as members of a religious order that has been buffeted by abuses and dissent since the Second Vatican Council, many Jesuits see the humbling experience of their founder as a compelling model to follow toward renewal today.

But there may be formidable obstacles standing in the way.

Several current and former Jesuits told the Register that while good young men are entering the fold and various Jesuits are doing exceptional work around the world, the order as a whole has not experienced a needed conversion. “The best priests I know are Jesuits, and the worst priests I know are Jesuits,” said Father Andy Jaspers, a diocesan priest in Minnesota who spent 10 years in formation with the Jesuits in the 2000s, illustrating the disjointed identity of the Society today. 

Similarly, while some provinces — especially the USA Central & Southern province — have earned a reputation for being relatively more orthodox, others are still perceived to be mired in the false logic of rupture that’s crippled the Society’s membership and influence in recent decades.

One barrier to more sweeping reform might be the Society’s hierarchical structure, in which the superior general appoints every provincial and a limited delegation, in turn, votes on the new superior general, makes reforming Jesuit leadership and the Society’s guiding ethos no easy task.

Jesuit Father Joseph Fessio, the founder and editor of Ignatius Press, says that Jesuits committed to renewal in continuity with tradition “aren’t in charge of institutional ministries” — they’re not selected to be presidents of Jesuit universities, superiors of provinces or formators of novices. 

On the contrary, taking an orthodox stand on controversial topics seems to be recipe for being “exiled” from the Society, and barred from a place at Jesuit institutions. 

Father Fessio says the “list goes on” of Jesuits who’ve received this kind of treatment in recent decades. It includes the recently deceased Jesuit Father Paul Mankowski, whose friend and former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott wrote was “on the verge of expulsion and denied the opportunity to take final vows” due to his criticisms of the Society’s attitude toward issues like celibacy and priestly identity. Pope Francis himself, while provincial in Argentina, was sent into exile by Jesuit leadership in Rome due to his conservative positions.

Father Fessio, an outspoken and orthodox voice, has experienced something similar. 

In 2002, the theologian and former doctoral student of Cardinal Ratzinger was barred by his superior from any involvement in Campion College in San Francisco, which Father Fessio had helped to start. Instead, he was assigned to a hospital 400 miles away, and complied out of obedience.

One indication that this dynamic of suppression may still be ongoing? Several Jesuits would not speak to the Register on record with their concerns about the Society, for fear of reprisal. 

By contrast, public dissent from Church teaching, whether overt or implicit, still seems to be permitted by Jesuit leadership, with little in the way of at least public correction. In fact, superior general Father Sosa set heterodoxy alarm bells ringing in August 2019 when he suggested the devil was not a personal entity, but merely a “symbolic figure for evil,” a clear departure from the longstanding and orthodox teaching of the devil as a fallen spiritual, non-corporeal being, or angel. The Venezuelan Jesuit articulated a more theologically sound position a few months later.

In another high-profile case, Jesuit Father James Martin has led what some Catholics believe is a thinly veiled campaign to subvert Church teaching on human sexuality and marriage, all under the pretext of compassionately reaching out to people with same-sex attractions. 

Retired Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, for instance, has expressed concern about “a pattern of ambiguity” in Father Martin’s advocacy that, while never explicitly crossing doctrinal lines, causes confusion and encourages dissent. Recently, Father Martin expressed disappointment after the CDF pronounced that the Church and her ministers cannot bless same-sex unions, encouraging his followers to not give up hope that the Church can change in this regard. 

America magazine, of which Father Martin is editor-at-large, has certainly made considerable strides towards orthodoxy since the days of its near-censure and is home to some of the most thoughtful Catholic analysis on the web, but it also continues to run pieces that, at the very least, frame implicit dissent from settled teaching on faith and morals in a sympathetic light. While some suggest that there is a value in publishing a diversity of perspectives, the criteria by which the publication considers a position consistent with Church teaching remains unclear.

There have also been recent indications that the Jesuits’ struggles with celibacy and a homosexual subculture are ongoing, as two high-profile Jesuits — Jesuit Father Kevin O’Brien, president of Santa Clara University, and Jesuit Father Daniel Lahart, president of Regis High School in New York City — were recently ousted from their positions for misconduct related to sexual impropriety. Father Lahart’s case involved “unwelcome sexual misconduct” with adults in the Regis community, while Father O’Brien “exhibited behaviors in adult settings, consisting primarily of conversation, which may be inconsistent with established Jesuit protocols and boundaries,” a vague statement from the college that some have suggested refers to exchanges of a sexual nature with Jesuits-in-formation.

Barring papal intervention, Father Fessio thinks a reform of the Jesuits at the institutional level is unlikely. Some had hopes that such a correction would come under the pontificate of Francis, given his history as a Jesuit reformer, but have thus far been disappointed.

Given his doubts, Father Fessio openly wonders if the Society has outlived its purpose, noting that most religious orders only last for a couple centuries, which is close to the amount of time the Jesuits have been around since being restored in 1814 following a half-century suppression. He compares the Society of Jesus to the Old Testament depiction of the Jewish people living among the Canaanites, astray from God and in need of a prophet.

“I think we’re still waiting for the prophet, waiting for the renewal,” he said. “And that’s why I pray for another cannonball.”


Putting the Jesus Back in Jesuits

As an ordained bishop, Bishop Michael Barber of Oakland, California, is technically still a member of the Society of Jesus, but is no longer under the authority of Jesuit superiors. From his position of autonomy, he shares many of the concerns of the Society’s critics. 

As a symbolic indication of what’s gone wrong in recent decades, he points to a common motto at Jesuit institutions: “men and women for others.” The original usage, however, which comes from a 1970s speech by then Superior General Arrupe, also emphasizes explicitly living “for God and his Christ,” the absence of which Bishop Barber suggests points to an activist turn not rooted sufficiently in the Gospel.

“What happened to the God and the Jesus part?” he asks rhetorically. “I say, let’s put that back in there.”

But Bishop Barber is confident that the Society is moving in the right direction, putting the “Jesus” back in the “Jesuits,” as it were. This is based in large part on his interactions with young Jesuits in the Diocese of Oakland, where he has been bishop for eight years. Bishop Barber regularly teaches a class on the priesthood at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, and also ordains the Jesuit diaconate candidates, noting that the Jesuit deacons are greatly appreciated in the diocesan parishes where they serve. 

He says what he sees in men entering the Society today is a devotion both to the Jesuit charism, and also “a sense of communion with the whole Church.” Unlike the days of his formation in the 1970s, when things were “eccentric and leftward,” Bishop Barber says Jesuit liturgical practices today seem “mainstream.” The liturgical life at the house of formation revolves around the chapel, where daily Mass is celebrated, the Roman Missal is followed, and the Blessed Sacrament is reposed.

“I have a great hope that when this younger generation eventually become superiors of communities, rectors and provincials, they’ll bring this renewed sense of the true spirit of the Society of Jesus to bear,” said the bishop.

The Society of Jesus in the U.S. and Canada will ordain 25 men to the priesthood this year. And while the total number of Jesuits in North America will continue to decline in the coming years, there are signs that stability is within reach. To encourage more men to enter, Bishop Barber says the Society must “prepare itself for vocations” by offering a compelling example of the Jesuit charism, one rooted in fidelity to prayer, loyalty to the Church, and a distinctively religious mission.

And for young men considering entering the Society? Bishop Barber says that if the calling seems authentic, he encourages them to do so. In some settings that might entail enduring some suffering or mistreatment for one’s orthodoxy or devotional practices. But if following in the footsteps of St. Ignatius is truly one’s calling, it’ll be worth it.

“How else is an order ever going to improve unless it gets good people to come in, who want to be authentic Jesuits after the heart of St. Ignatius?”