Depicting a Catholic Order Buffeted, Like the Church Itself, by Change

Jonathan Kirsch, a contributing writer for the Los Angeles Times Book Review, is the author of, most recently, "The Woman Who Laughed at God: The Untold History of the Jewish People."

Perhaps the most startling revelation in “Passionate Uncertainty: Inside the American Jesuits"--one that sums up all the stresses that afflict the single largest male order in Catholicism--is the simple fact that former Jesuits now outnumber active Jesuits in the United States.

“The crushing demographics are wrapped in mystery,” write Peter McDonough and Eugene C. Bianchi with a sense of drama that enlivens their whole scholarly enterprise. “Nearly 500 years of existence make for tradition as mundane institutions go, yet the tradition itself appears to be curiously unstable.”

The Society of Jesus dates back to the 16th century, when it was founded by Ignatius of Loyola as a missionary order whose special calling eventually focused on the education of youth around the world. The order was suppressed by a distrustful pope in 1773, restored after the French Revolution and revolutionized by the sweeping reforms of the Second Vatican Council in 1963. “By 1965, when the council drew to a close, the Jesuits were at their peak, with more than 35,000 men around the world, about 8,500 of whom were Americans,” observe the authors of “Passionate Uncertainty.” “Even then, however, signs of trouble were detectable.”

The Jesuits have been buffeted by the same crosscurrents that have been eroding the foundation of the rest of traditional Catholicism over the last several decades, including the struggle for social justice embodied in so-called “liberation theology,” the activism of lay Catholics who demanded both a greater role in the governance of the church and a greater degree of freedom in the governance of their private lives, and the “self-absorption [and] soft-boiled spirituality” that the authors dub “designer Catholicism.” Some Jesuits work to change the church from the inside, some resist the forces of change, but many more have simply walked away. A generation after Vatican II, the membership of the order has declined to 20,000 or so, and fewer than 4,000 of them are Americans.


“So, the tightly woven subculture of the Society of Jesus has unraveled into a melange of countercultures,” the authors sum up. “The connection between who Jesuits are and what they do remains unsettled.”

“Passionate Uncertainty” is based on a study of some 400 current and former Jesuits. McDonough, a political science professor at Arizona State University, and Bianchi, professor emeritus of religion at Emory University, explain their data with intellectual elegance and a lively rhetorical style. They have a gift for summing up a complex idea in a few deft words, while allowing their informants to express what has befallen the order in poignant words of their own.

Some priests, for example, suggest that they would have made very different decisions about their vocations if they had only enjoyed the freedom of choice that now prevails among otherwise pious Catholics: “I wanted to be either a priest or a baseball player,” explains a 69-year-old former Jesuit who left the order after a quarter-century. “Looking back, I sense that a feeling of free decision in this area just evaporated.”

Other priests bemoan the loss of old traditions: “I hate the fact that we have dropped clerical dress and are embarrassed to be recognized as priests,” says a priest who remains a Jesuit after 50 years in the order. “I hate the sloppy way we do liturgy, the fact that liturgical vessels are now cheap five-and-dime glassware. I hate the fact that liturgical music is just guitar music. But I still love God and the church and try to say a public Mass as reverently as I can despite the liturgical chaos.”

Today, many Jesuits live in what the authors call “tacit dissent” against the refusal of the Roman Catholic Church to ordain women as priests, for example, or to soften the strictures against birth control. As the Catholic population increases--and the membership of the order decreases--the schools that have always been the raison d’etre of the Jesuits are “increasingly staffed and run by laymen and laywomen,” report McDonough and Bianchi. Between the cross hairs of these conflicts are the Jesuits themselves.

“The Jesuits are in a bind,” the authors conclude. “They cannot go back, insofar as that course would entail a return to clerical dominance in an age of lay ascendancy. But they cannot move forward without placing their clerical identity at risk.”

“Passionate Uncertainty” does not end on a note of gloom. The authors suggest that the sheer diversity of belief and practice within the order offers its best chance of survival--and a sure sign that the Jesuits will continue to come up with surprising changes in their own identity and function. “Spiritually, Jesuits have reinvented themselves,” the authors sum up. “The result is remarkable longevity and low predictability.”