The decline in Jesuit numbers began as Vatican Council II, the twenty-first ecumenical council of the Catholic Church, came to an end. The Council, which began in the early 1960s, initiated profound changes in the Roman Catholic Church that are still reverberating. The sixteen documents produced by the council redefined the nature of the church, gave bishops greater influence in church affairs, and increased lay participation in the liturgy and parish life. Changes in the liturgy included replacing Latin with the vernacular as the language of liturgy; having the priest face the congregation during the Mass; and introducing new styles of music. It was an exhilarating and tumultuous time in the Church. In America, it coincided with a period of widespread social and moral experimentation. In the ferment of the time, many priests and religious in America reexamined their lives and chose to leave their vows for the secular world.
Addressing the decline of the Jesuits
What has caused the precipitous decline in the American Jesuits, both in attracting new members and in retention of the old? The authors offer various possibilities gleaned from the interviews:
- the priesthood is not as prestigious as it once was;
- the immigrant Catholic culture that produced large numbers of priests has become upper middle class and worldly;
- the ascent of the laity within the Church obscures priestly identity;
- the Jesuit educational mission no longer has the panache it once enjoyed;
- celibacy is a stumbling block for many.
The men in the order today are living a life much different from that of Jesuits of previous generations. In many cases, American Jesuits no longer have the sense of a common mission, lived in common for the greater glory of God. Jesuits generally live much more individualistic lives and worry about their careers, about fulfillment, about human relationships, etc. The apparently high percentage of homosexuals in the order brings with it a set of issues and problems that are profoundly troubling. Many Jesuits interviewed espoused views that are contrary to Church teaching. Many of those interviewed seem to have lost their way in life, and perhaps their faith in God.
A current perspective
The story of the American Jesuits makes no sense unless read in the context of the international Society of Jesus and ultimately, the context of the Roman Catholic Church.
In recent months Americans have been bombarded by stories of sexual abuse of children and young people by Catholic priests, who, when complaints surfaced, were waved on to a new assignments by their Bishops. The scandal has lacerated the Church over these last months and generated a demand that priests who abuse be removed. At the same time, all indications are that American Catholics still love their Church and they love their priests but that they would like to see more lay involvement at the diocesan level. Statements from the recent Conference of American Bishops, led by Bishop Wilton Gregory, indicate a deep sense of remorse and responsibility and a resolve to better serve Gods people. Many Catholics, clerics, religious and lay people, see the scandal as a penitential fire that will purify the Church and usher in a new period of holiness and justice.
Worldwide, the number of Catholics continues to grow and it reached 1.45 billion at the end of 2000 (although the general population is growing faster than the Church), with the most dramatic increases occurring in Africa. However, while membership is up, numbers of men and women in religious groups continue to decline, although more slowly than in recent years, and the numbers of men studying for the priesthood has begun to increase. (The increase in religious vocations is for the most part occurring in orders and in dioceses that adhere to the teachings of the Magisterium, that is, to the official, orthodox, teachings of the Church.) In short, the Church desperately needs more workers in the vineyard.
The work to be done
Who will minister to the Churchs billions? The entire liturgical life of the Catholic Church revolves around the Eucharistic sacrifice of the Mass and the sacraments. All the assembly celebrates the eucharistic liturgy with the ordained priest representing Christ. Similarly, several of the seven sacraments can only be celebrated by a priest. To compensate for the declining numbers of priests, many American dioceses are reinstating the ancient order of deacon for men, single or married, who can celebrate some of the sacraments. Lay people, men and women, are filling many essential roles in Churches and parishes, including presiding at prayer services. In addition, some dioceses are inviting foreign priests to minister here, a rich example of the Churchs universality. For example, the Diocese of Madison, Wisconsin, has a formal relationship with the Diocese of Owerri, Nigeria, and ten Nigerian priests now serve in various Wisconsin parishes. It goes without saying that there is no shortage of priestly work for the Jesuits to do in this country and in the rest of the world. Many of the American Jesuits quoted in this book seem self-indulgently focused on themselves rather than on Christ and his Church. A return to Ignatius of Loyolas passionate love of Christ and passionate sense of mission to the Church is imperative. The Church, an institution founded by Christ, will endure, as it has for over 2000 years, despite this books view of it as an authoritarian regime. Will the Jesuits continue to be part of the Churchs third millennium? One scenario would see the Jesuits fading from the American scene but continuing to thrive in other parts of the world such as India. That would be a sad finale to the saga of the Jesuits in America. St. Paul offers sound advice that should forestall that unhappy end: . . . . be steady and self-possessed; put up with hardship, perform your work as an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.
Although a useful book for any American Catholic, Passionate Uncertainty reads like sociology textbook. Finally, unless one reads to the very end of the final section of the book, entitled Notes on Methodology, you would not know the relevant information that both authors have personal experience with the Jesuits. Eugene Bianchi was a member of the California province of the Society of Jesus for twenty years but left in 1968. He is a founding member of CORPUS, an advocacy association of ex-priests. Professionally, he is Professor Emeritus of Religion at Emory University. Peter McDonough was never a Jesuit but spent nine years in Jesuit schools. He is a political scientist at Arizona State University where his work has focused on the study of authoritarian regimes and the transition to democracy in Brazil and Spain. This is his second book on the Jesuits.