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olson & shaw on the jesuits

By Diogenes (articles) | Feb 26, 2008

Carl Olson points us to a Catholic Insight article by Russell Shaw called Can the Jesuits Be Saved?. He begins by recounting an incident told him by a friend who attended the screening at a Jesuit university of a video on the life of the Jesuit Superior General Pedro Arrupe (1965-1983). Shaw continues:

Questions and discussion followed the video. Someone asked if Father Arrupe would be canonized a saint. According to my friend, the answer was: Not as long as the people currently in charge in Rome are calling the shots.

That strikes the authentic Jesuit note of the last 30 years: a little paranoid, more than a little petulant, quick to blame others -- preferably the Vatican -- for the Society's troubles. Members of a healthy-minded group with a sense of being in charge of their own destiny don't express themselves like that.

"Paranoid" may be an overstatement, but the rest of Shaw's point stands. One expects a certain amount of clannish defensiveness from a tightly structured corps like the Jesuits, but it's remarkable how often any criticism of the Society of Jesus is attributed by its members to malice.

Are the Society's critics malicious? Some are, no doubt. But there is a considerable number of Catholics who, like Shaw, are alumni of Jesuit schools or members of Jesuit parishes and who have unabashed gratitude for many of the blessings thereby received, and yet who don't buy the party line that -- with negligible exceptions -- the Jesuits are in good shape. Such critics are patently neither ill-willed nor ignorant, and to pretend otherwise only deepens the suspicion that the Society has lost its capacity for candid self-assessment. An unrelated article in today's Washington Post pointedly observes the phenomenon in another sphere of operation: "To keep the press from declaring the race over before the voters of Ohio and Texas have their say next week, Clinton aides have resorted to a mixture of surreal happy talk and angry accusation."

Surreal happy talk and angry accusation -- that sums up perfectly the program of many Jesuit apologists, for whom the most obvious and indisputable problems can be blithely waved into non-existence. Shaw writes:

Numbers illustrate the Society's long-running crisis but don't explain it. Forty years ago, there were 35,000 Jesuits in the world. Now, though they remain the Church's largest religious order of men, there are 19,000. More important than numerical decline, however, has been the group's sometimes troubled relationship with the Magisterium of the Church.

Sometimes the crisis is accounted for by finger-pointing ("tension with the Magisterium is the creation of scandal-hungry media") and sometimes it is trivialized ("all post-conciliar periods are decades of upheaval") but these are explanations that both giver and receiver find more consoling than convincing. Everyone, including the wagon-circling company men, must harbor a suspicion that if the energy devoted to denying the problems were devoted to solving them, the crisis would have been resolved by now. That raises a yet more delicate question: why would the Jesuits forbear from fixing the problems, unless the consequences of doing so were worse than inaction?

Carl Olson's post also discussed an editorial in the Georgetown student newspaper titled Where Have All the Jesuits Gone?. Their conclusion is that the Jesuits may not be absent, just silent. Yet another possibility is suggested by an article in one of Georgetown's alternative student publications, concerning three Jesuit faculty members gathered to "kick off" Georgetown's Jesuit Heritage Week this past January:

At a panel discussion about Jesuit identity earlier this week, Father John O’Malley scanned the twenty or so faces in the spacious sitting room in Wolfington Hall. Fewer than half of the faces belonged to students, most of whom drifted out of the room before the discussion was finished.

" ... most of whom drifted out of the room before the discussion was finished." Were these students likely to be malicious, or cynical, or quick to find fault? Were they likely to be intellectually warped by the falsehoods and half-truths spread by conservative websites? Were they likely to be insufficiently attentive to the roaring Pentecostal afflatus in the room? The Jesuits manifestly were not silent on this occasion. Might it be the case that they had nothing to say?

Richard Cross holds a doctorate in psychology, who has taught at the university level, including at Franciscan University. He is currently an educational researcher and consultant in the field of psychology and related disciplines.
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