Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam

Iowa isnt the only interesting caucus around. Tomorrow, the 35th General Convention of the Society of Jesus convenes in Rome. The central order of business will be the election of a new Superior General to replace Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, who has led the order since 1983. CNS, Rocco, and the Tablet have coverage, and Creighton University has a helpful website, including a prayer for the GC. John Allen has recent coverage of a recent address by Fr. Kolvenbach.

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 Georgetown University that helped reconnect me with my childhood faith. It was a Jesuit parish a few blocks away that nurtured that faith and exposed me to the practicalities of faith doing justice. It was Jesuit theologians like Karl Rahner and Avery Dulles who deepened my understanding of what I professed to believe. It is a Jesuit institution where I study with both laypeople and Jesuits preparing for ministry. I owe these men a debt that can never be repaid and I continue to be inspired by their witness to Christ.

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 Societys 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, Id 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 Rome that Ricci was tolerating ancestor worship! Rome ultimately ordered an end to the use of Riccis Chinese Rites, a decision whose negative implications for the evangelization of Asia are being felt even today.

Secondly, the Society is a teaching order. As the Jesuit historian John OMalley 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 theoften heated discussion about the nature of a Catholic university.

Finally, I would argue that the Societys spiritualityrooted in Ignatius Spiritual Exercisespositioned the order to be sympathetic to the religious concerns of the modern era. Its 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 Rahners theologyperhaps the best effort by a 20th century theologian to express the Christian faith in a modern idiomhave 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 Catholicisms contemporary culture war, its 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 dialoguea cause to which many Jesuits have been honorably committed in recent yearscannot 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 Universal Church.

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 Africa are asking how the Gospel can be heard amidst vast disparities of wealth and power. Those working in Asia are asking how it can be heard in countries with deeply rooted religious and philosophical traditions of their own. Those working in Europe and North America are asking how it can be heard in cultures characterized by affluence, secularism, and religious pluralism.

Its 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 Im 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.

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