Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam
I am not remotely objective about the Society of Jesus. The Jesuits have been my companions in faith for all of my adult life. It was graduate work at
It is true that the Society has sometimes been the target of criticism within the Church. This criticism often reaches a fanatic intensity in some of the more febrile corners of the Internet, which take delight in exhaustively cataloging examples of the Society’s alleged heterodoxy. Even more sympathetic Catholics, though, may be inclined to wonder why the Society is so often in the thick of intra-ecclesial controversy. By way of answer, I’d like to suggest three ideas as food for thought.
First, the Society is a missionary order. Missionary work always gets done at the margins and requires a willingness to translate the Gospel message into new cultural contexts. Sometimes the proposed translations can prove controversial. Back in the 16th century, the Society got itself into hot water when Jesuit Fr. Matteo Ricci attempted to make the Gospel intelligible to the Chinese by appropriating some of their indigenous religious language and traditions. Horrified Dominican and Franciscan missionaries reported to
Secondly, the Society is a teaching order. As the Jesuit historian John O’Malley details in his fine book The First Jesuits, the entry of the order into education was almost an accident, a byproduct of Ignatius’ desire to improve the formation of members of the order. Within the last century, the Jesuits’ large institutional presence within higher education has brought them into broader dialogue with an increasingly secular academic community. The Jesuits are thus very much in the middle of the—often heated— discussion about the nature of a Catholic university.
Finally, I would argue that the Society’s spirituality—rooted in Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises—positioned the order to be sympathetic to the religious concerns of the modern era. It’s no accident that Ignatius of Loyola and Martin Luther lived in the same century, which was characterized by an increasing interest in personal conversion and the subjective dimension of religious experience. To the extent that modern philosophy and theology emphasized the “turn to the subject” and religious experience, the Jesuits were well placed to respond. Recent assessments of Karl Rahner’s theology—perhaps the best effort by a 20th century theologian to express the Christian faith in a modern idiom—have noted the influence of the Spiritual Exercises on his work. To the extent, though, that differing assessments of the positive value of modern thought lie at the heart of Catholicism’s contemporary “culture war,” it’s not surprising to find Jesuits occasionally caught up in those controversies.
None of this is to say that the actions of individual Jesuits or the order as a whole are beyond criticism. In unpracticed hands, “faith doing justice” can degenerate into a form of social work that elides the eschatological implications of the Christian faith. The instinct to “find God in all things” can sometimes lead to excessively optimistic readings of contemporary culture. Inter-religious dialogue—a cause to which many Jesuits have been honorably committed in recent years—cannot become an excuse for failing to preach Jesus Christ as savior of the world. The phrase “Jesuit values” cannot be invoked to imply that the order somehow operates by a different set of rules than the
In my experience, though, the Jesuits wrestling with these questions are animated by the same kind of missionary spirit that animated Matteo Ricci, Francis Xavier, Isaac Jogues, and Ignatius himself. Those working in Latin America and
It’s true that not every solution that arises out of these interactions between Gospel and culture will ultimately prove fruitful. But there will be no fruitful solutions without these interactions, and without those willing to take on the risks that they entail. Which is why I’m thankful that for more than 450 years the Society of Jesus has inspired men to embrace poverty, chastity and obedience in service to Christ and his Church. They will be in my prayers in these important weeks and I hope they will be in yours.