Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Extinction, accepted in 'the Jesuit tradition'

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Apr 26, 2011

The Washington Post has noticed the phenomenon to which we called your attention last week: the precipitous drop in the number of American Jesuits.

The Post story is short, and generally friendly. But it doesn’t avoid the bottom line: “Jesuits are vanishing from the Washington area, where they established the first Catholic parish in the Colonies.”

Did I mention that the story was sympathetic? Maybe this will explain why:

Jesuits are the archetype of priests with PhDs who protest in the streets or otherwise advocate for causes, often politically liberal ones.

“Often” for political liberal causes? That would suggest that Jesuits sometimes demonstrate in favor of politically conservative causes. Try to name one. It’s true that one might occasionally encounter a Jesuit at a right-to-life rally. But Jesuits: plural? Not likely.

Despite the catastrophic decline in membership in the Society of Jesus, the Post happily passes along the party line, suggesting that while the Jesuits can’t seem to attract young men into their ranks, still they continue to exercise considerable influence, through the various schools and universities they control. There are no longer many Jesuits teaching at those schools, and the attitudes prevalent on campus would shock a Jesuit—or a Jesuit-trained student—of previous generations. That doesn’t matter. The important thing is the Jesuits still have clout, and the “Jesuit tradition”—a phrase that seems as malleable as the “spirit of Vatican II”, and usually connotes the same things—is upheld:

But even as the Jesuits brace for near-extinction in this part of the world, their ideals are spreading.

For the Washington Post, “this part of the world” means the area inside the Washington Beltway. For Jesuit institutions the clientele can be described more specifically as generally well educated, affluent, mostly Caucasian, ethnically Catholic. What do we know about such people as a group? First, that they aren’t having many children; they are reproducing at or below the demographic replacement level. Second, that they aren’t providing young Catholics; their children tend to drift away from the Church. So in the long run this group will cease to exist.

You might say that the Post is right; the Jesuits are indeed spreading their ideals—that is, the ideals that have guided the Jesuit order in its spectacular decline—around the Washington area. They’re teaching young Catholics how to follow them into extinction.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: - Apr. 27, 2011 6:17 PM ET USA

    Self-Suppression, or Final Dissolution of the Jesuit Order?

  • Posted by: JohnVIII - Apr. 27, 2011 4:14 PM ET USA

    Oh for the days when the Jebbies were Catholic! A former Regis HS student, circa 1943.

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Apr. 27, 2011 4:10 PM ET USA

    I suppose you have to be a Jesuit to be smart enough to understand that argument, Cornelius.

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Apr. 27, 2011 4:09 PM ET USA

    I suppose you have to be a Jesuit to be smart enough to understand that argument, Cornelius.

  • Posted by: bsp1022 - Apr. 27, 2011 3:55 PM ET USA

    Very nicely rendered Mr. Lawler. Kudos... Nothing is more confounding to me in the post-Vatican II Church than the spectre of Religious Orders [women's in my experience] bragging about not accepting novices. This pearl had from a dear friend, a brilliant teacher [8th grade for 3 of my children]and Superior of her order, but she found her niche at our local Seminary teaching Theology [I think] to both of the seminarians. Go Figure....

  • Posted by: - Apr. 26, 2011 5:23 PM ET USA

    The Jesuits in the article are sure that their diminishing numbers are actually a success story because they're empowering the laity. The illogic here is similar to that of the womyn-priest movement which aggressively seeks positions in the Church hierarchy while at the same time seeking to make the hierarchy obsolete. Say what? Perhaps the new Jesuit motto should be, "Become a priest so you can get rid of priests!"