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the obstinate question mark

By Diogenes (articles ) | Apr 02, 2008

NCR correspondent John Allen has an interesting piece on the Jesuits and Pope Benedict. As usual, Allen is balanced, sober, and inclined to put a positive construction on Catholic controversies. Unpersuaded both by the claim of the newly-elected General Superior that Jesuit conflict with the Holy See is largely a media myth, and by the counter-claim that the recent General Congregation was a "disaster," Allen concludes that the possibility of a Jesuit-papal "détente" should still be tagged by a question mark. The doctrinal convictions of the new General, he suggests, are a possible ground for mistrust:

The election of Nicolás was widely interpreted as a victory for the more progressive views associated with many Jesuits, especially interreligious dialogue and social advocacy. To take one example, in a Feb. 10 interview with three Jesuits, Nicolás said that he admired the later St. Francis Xavier -- not the ardent missionary of Xavier’s early years, but the Xavier who later developed deep respect for Asian cultures. Nicolás told a story of how Xavier once went to Fukoka, Japan, to scold a morally lax Buddhist monk. What impressed Nicolás is that Xavier went not to tell the monk he should become a Christian, but rather to be a better Buddhist.

Allen laconically remarks:

For a pope committed to reawakening a strong missionary spirit in Catholicism, that's not necessarily the most encouraging conclusion Nicolás could have drawn.

The business of Building Better Buddhists did not seem to impress St. Ignatius Loyola, if his biographers are to be trusted, but the problem goes deeper. The dispute concerning the Jesuits' obligations in obedience also remains yet to be resolved:

So far the Jesuits have not released the six major documents, or "decrees," adopted by the General Congregation, including a much anticipated text on obedience and a response to Benedict XVI's letter to the society. There's no indication, however, that the Jesuits made significant concessions on one core matter -- their famed fourth vow of special obedience to the pope "in regard to missions." Benedict XVI takes a fairly expansive view of the vow as implying "effective and affective" submission across the board, while most Jesuits see it as a more narrow promise to go wherever the pope needs them, either in a geographic sense or in terms of broad areas of concern.

One delegate, Mexican Fr. Juan Luis Orozco, summed up the Jesuit approach this way: "We'll obey, but we're not the Swiss Guard."

That spirit is not always well received in the Vatican. Speaking on background, one official in Ratzinger’s former domain, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, described the General Congregation as a "disaster." Such voices can even be heard inside the order; American Jesuit Fr. Joseph Fessio, a papal protégé and noted theological conservative, charged that the General Congregation affirmed a course "leading to virtual extinction."

In the retort "We're not the Swiss Guard," many Catholics will hear an echo of the familiar protest of dissenting theology faculties, "We're not catechism teachers!" Both statements are true. Neither allays our anxiety. No one questions that the platoon sergeant and the general staff strategist have different duties. The doubt concerns whose side they're fighting on.

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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: - Apr. 03, 2008 1:16 PM ET USA

    The California Provence studies theology at Berekley along with Protestant ministers I am told. Maybe the dissenters are having too great an influence on the Jesuit students. They did much better at learning Catholic views when they studied at Alma. Once again the jibe at the Order: "Jesuits are a group in search of a religion"- takes on a too realistic meaning. Part of the problem appears to be the decline in the intellectual level of its leaders. The giants of old are long since departed,

  • Posted by: - Apr. 03, 2008 8:30 AM ET USA

    If the offhand comment offered by our Jesuit priest, after returning from Rome during the conclave is any indication ... hold onto your hats. He demonstrated a rather open disdain for the Pope. Goes along with his general disregard for the Mass, as well. Alas, living here in Peru, we have little choice, wanting to have our children hear Mass in English. He is definitely not the same caliber of priest that our pastor (also Jesuit) for 4 years was in backwater Nevada! Sadly, a dying breed!

  • Posted by: - Apr. 02, 2008 6:28 PM ET USA

    I have known some fine Jesuits--Fessio, Kenneth Baker, Spitzer come to mind. But if I were told that typical Jesuits were guarding my right flank, I would reinforce the right.

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