Liberal Jesuits & the Late Pope

By Fr. Paul Mankowski, S.J. ( articles ) | Apr 04, 2005

May the Lord preserve our pontiff and give him life
and make him blessed upon the earth
and deliver him not to the will of his enemies.

Sinéad O'Connor, during a 1992 appearance on SNL, ended her performance of a Bob Marley song by ripping a photo of Pope John Paul II top to bottom while chanting "Fight the real enemy!" Most people who heard of the incident were shocked by the display of hatred. I wasn't. I'm a Jesuit, you see.

Over the course of 28 years in the Society of Jesus, I've watched Wojtyla-hatred turn into one of the principal sub-themes of Jesuit life. I say "theme" and not "policy." The official documents have never departed from the language of deference to the pope. I'm talking about the informal expectations of day to day existence, the culture transmitted not by the printed word but by oblique rewards and punishments, by the smiles and scowls of the men who count. Viewed from within this culture of jesuitry, Sinéad's pontiff-shredding was almost sacramental: an outward sign of an interior reality.

How widespread was this hatred? It's hard to say. Certainly John Paul II always had a staunch minority of admirers and defenders among Jesuits, nor were all superiors inimical to him. The prominence of the theme was a function both of the intensity of the pope-haters and of the tolerance shown this hatred by their brethren -- that is, it was as much a matter of what was left unspoken as what was actually said.

Diogenes has cited a remark made by a Jesuit on the day of the attempt on the Pope's life in May 1981. Fr. Cyril Barrett, S.J. ("in a bellow that filled a London restaurant"), said of the failed assassin Mehmet Ali Agca, "The only thing wrong with that bloody Turk was that he couldn't shoot straight!" Note that this is not the language of passionate disagreement, this is hatred, pure and simple. But the key point is not Barrett's malice, nor even his Sinéad-ish ferocity in expressing it. The really telling fact is that the episode was recounted in Barrett's obituary, in a Jesuit publication, in a tone that, if short of endorsement, suggested nothing worse than a venial lapse of good taste on his part. Classic Cyril!

Before ordination I'd heard my Jesuit professors pray that Wojtyla come to an early death -- and go unrebuked, or rebuked in that jocular vein that signals sympathy. It was the absence of contradiction that spoke loudest. Of course you can come up with many examples of pro-papal utterances by Jesuits, but try to find (comparably public, self-initiated) examples of remonstrance or correction of influential papal detractors by their superiors. You won't. Take the remarks quoted by McDonough and Bianchi in their book (Passionate Uncertainty) on the U.S. Jesuits. From a Jesuit academic: "The Society has not sold its soul to the 'Restoration' of John Paul II." From a Jesuit church historian: "[He's] probably the worst pope of all times" (referring to Wojtyla, and adding) "He's not one of the worst popes; he's THE worst. Don't misquote me." They didn't.

The reason for these Jesuits' Wojtyla-hatred is no mystery. His fiercest adversaries have always been liberal-apostate Catholics: those who, in flat contradiction to the logic of doctrine, press for that doctrine to change. Women may become priests, and approval may be given to contraception, but the institution that enacts these innovations ipso facto has ceased to be part of the Catholic Church. The venom of liberals toward Karol Wojtyla was bitterest, ironically, in precisely that area in which he differed least from his predecessors and in which his successor will differ least from him: in repeating the truism that doctrine, being unchangeable, will not be changed.

Men's hatred for the one who has been unjust to them is trifling compared to their hatred for the one they have treated unjustly; every reminder of him brings a fresh twinge of pain. Liberal-apostates know that their stance is irrational, that they do the pope an injustice in pretending he is free to un-pope himself by altering the deposit of faith. The dreams that progressivists surfaced during Paul VI's pontificate -- of a congregational, sexually emancipated, anti-sacral "picnic" catholicism -- were frankly infantile. Yet Catholics over 50 will remember the emotional mist of auto-suggestion that "the next pope" would move with the times and make these dreams come true. Not all Jesuits got smitten by this vision, but the majority did, and was stunned when Wojtyla failed to act out its fantasy. Many left the Society to seethe outside it; others remained, and seethe within.

I don't want to overstate the case. Several Jesuits around the world have a profound interest in the late Pope and have been careful and articulate expounders of his work. But their endeavors are nearly always made to seem marginal: at best, philosophical hobbyism; at worst, deviationist crankery. When a group of us put together a conference on the Thought of Karol Wojtyla fifteen years ago, we asked the U.S. provinces to distribute a flyer to all Jesuit houses. One socius (2nd-in-command) sent off the flyer with the accompanying note, "This item is being passed on to you without comment" -- which was more than a comment; it was a sneer plus a veiled threat: you may, if you wish, affect to treat Wojtyla with respect, but understand that you have demoted yourself to the second class. We all knew the score.

John Paul is dead, and his despisers must find other bones to gnaw. A younger, less rancorous, and (thanks, in part, to a quarter century of choler) markedly smaller generation of Jesuits is presently in formation. No one knows which man, as pope, the new Jesuits will be called to serve, but the deposit of faith he inherits at the outset of his papacy will be intact at its end. We've come to a fork in the road: Jesuits can continue to serve a make-believe church and rage in impotence against the pope who ignores it, or can reconnect with a tradition of martyrs, more concerned with the conversion of Turks than in improving their marksmanship. "Deliver him not," reads the prayer Pro Pontifice, "to the will of his enemies." It would be good to speak these words once again, pleading for the success of the Society's endeavors instead of their frustration.

Sound Off! CatholicCulture.org supporters weigh in.

All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a current donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!

There are no comments yet for this item.