Cardinal Avery Dulles: US Jesuits need 'wake-up call'

Cardinal Avery Dulles: US Jesuits need 'wake-up call'

Michael Gilchrist

While reviewing a new book, Passionate Uncertainty: Inside the American Jesuits by Peter McDonough and Eugene C. Bianchi, in the US religious journal First Things, Cardinal Avery Dulles SJ took the opportunity to analyse the state of his own Jesuit order.

In particular, he notes a wide gulf in thinking between Jesuits radicalised in the 1960s and 1970s and those formed before Vatican II, as well as a younger, more orthodox generation now emerging.

While Dulles is critical of Passionate Uncertainty as "heavily slanted" and "a flawed study", he finds in its contents "a wake-up call" for his order.

He summarises the book's liberal "thesis" as follows: "The Society of Jesus is caught in a bind. The hierarchical Church is a rigid institution striving in vain to bring the behavior and ideas of its members into line with traditional orthodoxy. Especially under the 'restorationist' regime of Pope John Paul II, the Church has stubbornly rejected the democratic reforms that are needed.

"The bishops are impotent creatures of the Vatican. Jesuits, for the most part, are to be praised for deploring the repressive structures but at the same time pitied for their inability to change the situation. As a religious order, the Society is bound to preserve at least the appearance of conformity. Even among Jesuits, therefore, dissent has for the most part gone underground."

Ideological revolutions

Cardinal Dulles distinguishes between Jesuits completing their formation before Vatican II, who had "remained faithful to their previous vision of the Church and the Society, and were able to integrate Vatican II into that vision", and those "whose attitudes were shaped by the ideological revolutions of the 1960s." These "belonged to the restless 'baby-boom' generation" who, "like many of their contemporaries ... became wildly optimistic about secularisation in the 1960s, and then in the early 1970s were deeply involved in protests against the Vietnam War and in fighting for various social causes."

The latter group "interpreted Vatican II as a kind of 'palace revolution' in which the bishops put limits on the papacy, decentralised the Church, and transferred to the laity many powers formerly reserved to priests." Some of these Jesuits believe the Council had "renounced the high claims previously made for the Church and put Catholic Christianity on a plane of equality with other churches and religions. It also ostensibly embraced the modern world and the process of secularisation."

Dulles continues: "Armed with their 'progressive' reading of Vatican II, American Jesuits of this transitional generation became more committed to the struggle for social reform than to the propagation of Christian faith. They saw little but evil in pre-conciliar Catholicism. Drifting from historical consciousness into historical relativism, some of this generation questioned the current validity of the accepted creeds and dogmas of the Church. At the present moment members of this intermediate age group hold positions of greatest power and influence in the Society, but they no longer represent the cutting edge. A younger group is arising, much more committed to the Church and its traditions.

"A few Jesuits in their fifties and sixties believe that the Church 'as we know it' is destined soon to collapse. This group tends to be critical of Pope John Paul II and his alleged attempts to silence dissent. Some express perplexity about the sacerdotal aspects of the Jesuit calling. Especially in the theological schools, which have a large enrolment of women students, Jesuit faculty members are reluctant to bring up the topic of priestly ordination. Some formation directors seem to have been infected with a critical attitude toward hierarchy and priesthood."

On the other hand: "A new generation of seminarians and religious is arising, not only in the Jesuits but in the nation at large. This generation is not interested in denigrating the past or in liberating itself from the shackles of orthodoxy. On the contrary, it consists of young men eager to retrieve the tradition of former centuries and to serve the hierarchical Church as it exists today."

While this generation receives "little recognition" in the book under review, Dulles finds the "testimonies of Jesuits under forty ... encouraging".


One 30-year-old notes: "If the stance of the Society is widely perceived as anti-institutional hierarchy, anti-Vatican, anti-pope, and if political and politically correct norms are used to select candidates for the Society, most of those who wish to serve Christ's Church will go elsewhere.".

And a 31-year-old complains: "In the two theologates that I attended ... I didn't find anyone providing a cogent explanation of ordained ministry and its relation to lay ministry." A third, aged thirty-five and already ordained, observes: "The word 'priesthood' is rarely mentioned in our classes. In fact, this year when the third-year theologians ... gathered in Boston, most men from all three centres reported that they had spent the last two years either ignoring or apologising for the fact that they were preparing for ordination. Such is life in the ideologically insulated and trendy city-states on the self-proclaimed cutting edge of theology."

However, Cardinal Dulles remains optimistic about the future: "Because of the undying imprint that St Ignatius has made upon his order, and the appeal that his personality holds for Jesuits today, the Society of Jesus has extraordinary resources for its own self-renewal."

"There is something special about an order that is always prepared to take risks in the hope of accomplishing greater things for Christ and his Kingdom. The Jesuit enigma never ceases to fascinate and to attract. The particular spirit and style that St Ignatius bequeathed to his order was never more needed than it is in ... our day."

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