Jesuits in Denial

Well over a decade ago, while researching my first book on the Society of Jesus, I happened to be sitting in an office at Jesuit headquarters in Rome. The occupant of the office was visibly agitated. Malachi Martin’s book about the Jesuits had just appeared, and alarms were sounding up and down the curia. "No one," I said airily, "believes that crap." The regional assistant was not reassured. At stake was the damage that such propaganda could do to the Society and its operations.

Over the years I’ve collected a small number of books in the Malachi Martin mode. The titles change (one favorite is a salacious gothic number from 1853, A Night with the Jesuits in Rome) but the story, of shadowy power and preternatural iniquity, stays the same. Now my coauthor Eugene Bianchi and I find ourselves slotted in pretty much the same sinister category by James Martin in his review of Passionate Uncertainty: Inside the American Jesuits ("Societies of Jesus," Commonweal, May 3). Our book turns out to be scientifically shoddy, tendentious, and poorly written to boot.

The deficiencies James Martin attributes to the book are nonissues. One primary concern of Martin-his claim that "snowball" sampling guarantees biased results-draws on a potted social science that’s been outmoded for years. Random samples were infeasible for the population of former Jesuits, about whom virtually nothing is known. Consider trying to draw a sample of the homeless and you understand the basic problem. As for Jesuits themselves, they’re extremely busy men. The trick is to get your foot in the door. Once trust and access are established for a handful, the way to avoid selection bias is to state, as we did, when asking participants to nominate further participants, that "we are not particularly interested in talking with people who agree with you, or us." Such methods, along with the fact that our samples line up closely with what is known about the geographic distribution of Jesuits and former Jesuits, indicate that our numbers are not awry.

If, as Martin supposes, snowball sampling produces a "homogeneous network," where do the variegated and sometimes divisive opinions we document come from? Martin’s amateurish bean counting blinds him to the significance of what our respondents actually say.

A second set of side issues revolves around the idea that dragging former Jesuits into the study grievously distorts what Martin calls our "snapshot" of the current Society. Yet it is the similarity between Jesuits and former Jesuits on the various dimensions we examined-on changes in attitudes toward sexual morality, for example-that stands out as much as the contrast between them. Differences between generations, for Jesuits and former Jesuits alike, tend to be as strong as differences between Jesuits and former Jesuits.

Our study is not a snapshot. The analysis is closer to one of those curious quattrocento paintings of the Sienese school that depict, within a single frame, the journey of a saint from conversion to martyrdom to an afterlife of miracles. The spiritual hero pops up at various ages in different parts of the picture. The analogy with this convention is clearest in the chapters devoted to why men enter, stay with, and leave the Jesuits. (You can see it as well in our reconstruction of Jesuits at work in their schools from the sixties on.) Their stories include memories as well as updated information. No secret is made of the tendency of older former Jesuits to express more jaundiced views of the Society, not to mention of the church, than do the younger men. Martin ignores these age differences. They’re worth a second look, because they outweigh the Jesuit-former Jesuit divide. Such information captures some of the changes undergone by the Society of Jesus, including the crucial dynamic of departures from religious life. To study the Jesuits without looking at former Jesuits is the quite unmystical equivalent of the sound of one hand clapping.

What about the less technical issues that Martin doesn’t mention? Two of these are crucial. The first has to do with the connection between attitudes toward the sexual teaching of the church and the authority structure of Catholicism, and the second with the increasing tension between the apostolic apparatus of the Society-the schools, the retreat houses, and so on-and, again, the authority structure of the church.

It is not just that Jesuits as well as former Jesuits generally see themselves as more liberal on sexual/moral issues than they used to, though this change should not be underestimated. (For example, regardless of whatever their actual adherence to celibacy may be, it is clear that Jesuits can be divided roughly into three camps on the matter: those who see it as a defining and liberating discipline, those at the opposite pole for whom it is a destructive burden, and those who are terribly conflicted by or simply indifferent to it.) What counts even more for traditional forms of religious life is that attitudes toward the sexual teaching coincide with opinions about church authority. The men who are strict on sexual questions are likely to revere the hierarchy, while those who are more permissive tend to take the clerical edifice with a grain of salt.

So what? What else is new? Among Jesuits, concern with "pelvic theology" is symptomatic of deeper worries about the identity of the celibate priesthood. Because a vow of chastity is the necessary condition for clerical leadership, sexuality and ecclesiastical power are hard to disentangle. The credibility of the authority structure wanes largely as the credibility of the sexual teaching declines, and so does "the point" of the celibate priesthood. It is ambivalence about the priesthood that drives much of the search on the part of Jesuits for forms of collective identity in groups defined by sexual orientation and other cultural demarcators and causes.

The other challenge to the institutional status quo comes from the growing number of laypeople engaged in ministries once manned and run by Jesuits. It is not as if these people typically want to expel Jesuits from "the works" or to become ordained ministers themselves. Instead, the problem has to do with what becomes of Jesuits, what happens to their role and mission, now that their customary positions are filled by others. What influence can any clerical presence exercise over these ministries? The apostolic structure of the church is increasingly out of whack with its authority structure, and this too calls into question "the point" of the priesthood traditionally understood. It is the convergence of the crisis in the sexual teaching with the gulf between the apostolic and authority structures that is at the heart of the current predicament of the church.

On both these issues, Martin’s difficulty is not one of comprehension, as it is with methodological issues, but of listening in the first place. Quandaries about the connections and tensions between priesthood, ministry, sexuality, and authority simply don’t register. He is more concerned with asserting things we don’t deny-that the majority of Jesuits lead celibate lives-than with engaging the questions we raise.

Published in the 2002-05-17 issue: 

Peter McDonough is the coauthor (with Eugene Bianchi) of Passionate Uncertainty: Inside the American Jesuits (University of California Press).

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