A Closer Look

    Jesuit shenanigans

    by Peter McDonough
    (East Pakistan/Bangladesh 1961–63)

    Passionate Uncertainty: Inside the American Jesuits written by Peter McDonough and Eugene C. Bianchi, a professor emeritus of religion at Emory University, traces the transformation of the Society of Jesus [the Jesuits — an order of Catholic priests] from a fairly unified organization into a smaller, looser community with disparate goals and an elusive corporate identity. The book was reviewed positively by M. Susan Hundt-Bergan (Ethiopia 1966–68) on our site last year. But with many things Jesuit, there’s another story. Here’s the latest from Peter McDonough about his book that is stirring up Jesuits passions.

    AROUND THIS TIME LAST YEAR, when early copies of Passionate Uncertainty were becoming available, I received an email from Father Tom Widner, SJ, the Director of Communications at the Jesuit Conference. (The Jesuit Conference is the assembly of the 10 provincial superiors in the U.S., with staff headquartered in Washington). Widner wanted an advance copy of the book, which he said he was having trouble getting from the University of California Press. So I asked the press to ship Widner — whom I had never met — a copy, which they did.

    The Jesuits issue some “talking points”
    A few weeks later an Irish friend, Noel Barber, SJ, emailed me from Dublin about a statement issued by the Jesuit Conference demolishing the book, with a 3-page laundry list of “talking points” — e.g., criticisms of the book that could be used by Jesuit superiors in case they were questioned by the press about it. “This poorly done study,” the statement concluded, “offers us little from which to learn.” Evidently, this “fatwah” (the term used by my colleague Gene Bianchi) was being circulated to Jesuit residences, at least in the English-speaking world, and posted on their bulletin boards.
         I emailed Widner requesting a copy of all this. He responded by denying that the Jesuit Conference had issued such a statement. Within a week or so I managed to obtain copies of the “non-statement” and talking points from some of my moles. Widner evidently felt that the letter and appended talking points didn’t constitute a “statement as such.” I faxed Fr. Frank Case, the American assistant at the Jesuit curia in Rome, about Widner’s behavior and got back the line about this not being a public statement etc. Casuistry on steroids! Mental reservation to the max!
    America shops for a negative review
    At about the same time, John Coleman, a prominent Jesuit sociologist, emailed me with a copy of a positive review of Passionate Uncertainty that he had written, warning me that a number of Jesuits were “working over-time” to discredit the book. Tom Reese, SJ, the editor of America, had approached John about doing a review, but when John said that he liked the book, Reese spiked the review and solicited one from Sr. Katarina Schuth, whose negative review, coincidentally resembling the “talking points,” soon appeared in America. All this maneuvering outraged John, so he alerted me to what was happening.
         Coleman’s review finally appeared in National Jesuit News — the house organ of the American Society of Jesus — over the objections of Tom Widner, who also happens to be the editor in chief of NJN. He was ordered to publish Coleman’s review by Fr. Brad Schaeffer, the president of the Jesuit Conference. Schaeffer is no friend of mine but apparently the machinations of Widner and others were a bit too much for him.
         It’s important to note that the Jesuit leadership was doing all this at the same time that favorable reviews — including ones by Garry Wills of the New York Review of Books and Jonathan Kirsch of the L.A.Times — were coming out. One of the most laudatory pieces, a two-pager by Charles Morris, author of American Catholic, came out in the Boston College alumni magazine. This surprised the hell out of me, since these publications are usually bland fund-raising operations. Ben Birnbaum, the editor, told me that ever since Don Monan, SJ, became president of BC (he’s now retired), the magazine has been given a free hand.Commonweal enters the fray
    Another person who got involved in this soap opera is Peggy Steinfels, the now retired editor of Commonweal. An associate editor at America, James Martin, SJ, published a blistering review of the book in Commonweal, but when Peggy discovered the goings-on at America and the Jesuit Conference she refused to publish his reply to my response to his trashing of the book.
         Fr. Richard Neuhaus, the editor of the neo-conservative monthly First Things, picked up on the orchestrated nature of the reviews in America and Commonweal and chided the Jesuits about this in his column. First Things published a review of the book by Avery Dulles, the only American Jesuit who is a cardinal. Though hardly sympathetic to some of our interpretations, Dulles called the book “a wakeup call.”
    Well, there are a few more ins and outs to this, but it was only this past February that Noel Barber’s review appeared in The Irish Catholic, a Dublin weekly. The review opens by citing the condemnation by the Jesuit Conference and the hanky-panky at America, then notes: “Such news whets one’s appetite.” Since Noel emailed me his review, I’ve been gleefully emailing it to everyone on the planet, especially to Jesuits in authority. Total silence so far from the hierarchy.

    P. S.
    Just remembered two pieces of artistic-literary background about Noel Barber, SJ, who wrote the favorable review for The Irish Catholic.
         He’s the “Caravaggio guy.”
    A few years back, at the Jesuit “house of
    writers” on Leeson Street in the heart of Dublin, Noel got curious about a musty old painting on the refectory wall. (Why house of writers? That’s where most of the Jesuit journalists, etc., resided, and Noel was the rector.) It was thought to be by “some minor German master.” It turned out to be a long-lost Caravaggio, given to the Irish province by the widow of a British officer assassinated during the Civil War in retribution for forcing Irish prisoners to parade naked in front of nurses. Why she donated the painting to the SJ I’m not sure. Anyway the discovery got written up in the NY Times and the painting went on tour to the U.S., with a big exposition in Boston.
         Also, Noel is a friend of John McGahern, the publication of whose first novel cost him his job as a school teacher. The archbishop of Dublin had him fired for indecency. I’m guessing, though I don’t know for sure, that Noel was also a friend of Sean O’Faolain, who had numerous run-ins with the clergy. So he’s probably more sensitive to these literary wars than your run-of-the-mill Irishman.

    Lessons learned
    Any lessons from this baroque tale? The brouhaha exploded just as the scandal over clerical sexual abuse was spreading all over the media. So it’s understandable that, for some Jesuits, Passionate Uncertainty (as a Jesuit friend wrote me) “was just another piece of bad news to break our hearts.”
         Still, it’s clear that a handful of Jesuits have lived up to the “jesuitical” stereotype, just as some real-life mafiosi have been said to model themselves after Hollywood depictions of gangsters. There’s precedent for this sort of intrigue on the part of Jesuits against their own colleagues. Several studies of religious life by Joe Fichter, the late Jesuit sociologist, were put on hold or otherwise stymied by his superiors. (Fichter, by the way, is one of the Jesuits to whom the book is dedicated.)
         On the other hand, a number of Jesuits have been supportive and a few have stuck their necks out in defense of Passionate Uncertainty. And at least one Jesuit provincial superior has let on that the talking points business was a bad idea, though no Jesuit in the upper echelons has condemned the overkill tactics for the record. Dishonorable, no doubt, and possibly despicable. Ethically challenged. Maybe even embarrassing. But not illegal.

    The University of California Press will release the paperback edition of Passionate Uncertainty this fall.