Uncertain Trumpet

July-August 1997By Francis Canavan

The Rev. Francis Canavan, S.J. is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Fordham, and the author of several books, most recently The Pluralist Game.

The Re-Formed Jesuits, Vol. 2.  By Joseph M. Becker. S.J. Ignatius. 153 pages. No price given..

Fr. Joseph Becker’s first volume (reviewed in the Dec. 1993 NOR) described the changes in the formation of young Jesuits in the 1950s and 1960s. This second volume relates the changes in the way Jesuits dressed and lived in the decade 1965-75; it also discusses the marked drop in the membership of the order from that day to this. (Becker frequently adverts to later developments.) The significant changes in the way in which Jesuits were trained and lived, however, had their origin in what may broadly be called the era of Vatican II.

The sound and fury of those stirring years have now died down. The exodus of priests from the Society of Jesus has diminished to a trickle; so too, unfortunately, has the inflow of new recruits. There is less “experimentation” with the liturgy, less public “protest” posturing. There is also less assurance that the Society is the cutting edge of progress in the Church — those who think so are still with us, but they are an aging band. Today one is aware of a loss of confidence in the future of the order.

In the distance I hear a voice that cries, “You can’t turn back the clock!” It is indeed impossible to go back to the years before 1965. But it is always possible to look at the years since then and ask where we may have gone wrong and whether, starting today, we can correct our course. This book, like the preceding volume, will help in such rethinking.

Fr. Becker is a sociologist, and writes as a sociologist should. That is, he describes what happened in Jesuit life and thought, and the reasons for it, but he refrains from evaluating it. Or so he says, though one may suspect a kind of evaluation in his pointing out how many of the authors of the “reforms” left the Society and how many of the reforms failed.

The events he describes in this volume were not as dramatic as those in the first volume, where young Jesuits wrought a kind of revolution by forcing change on superiors. Here, the superiors themselves, intent upon “renewal and reform,” initiated or at least favored many changes (I do not imply that all of these were wrong or that I would like to see all of them reversed). The changes were mainly external ones. For example, the cassock was abandoned, and many Jesuits only rarely wore the clerical suit and Roman collar. A “monastic” order of the day marked by the ringing of bells was allowed to lapse. Jesuit residences were no longer cloistered.

A number of Jesuits asked for, and often got, the right to live in “small communities,” in order to escape from the “impersonal” way of life in the large communities attached to Jesuit schools and universities. The purpose was to enable Jesuits to live in a more “familial” atmosphere. More recently, there has arisen a policy of separating the Jesuits who are actively engaged in the work of a high school or college from those who have retired. Relegating the retirees to a separate community will, it is said, attract younger Jesuits to teach in those schools and induce young laymen to join the Society. Neither prediction, so far as I know, has been fulfilled to any notable extent.

While Becker does not evaluate, he does offer explanations. The changes the Society has gone through are part of “a major cultural shift in the West,” from which there is “rapidly emerging a rationalistic, scientific, pragmatic mentality.” This has affected the Catholic Church, “which has been undergoing a profound transformation,” marked by “a greater awareness of history, cultural evolution, and scientific advances.” The crisis in the Church appears most markedly in the life of her religious institutes. The Jesuit experience, therefore, is not unique but typical among the religious orders, especially the older ones.

To form a judgment on these developments, one must evaluate contemporary American culture. My opinion is that our culture is becoming a large bowl of warm mush, in which all tastes, beliefs, and “lifestyles” are held to be equal; and this affects religious life. For example, having given several reasons for the shift to lay dress among Jesuits, Becker remarks that among the more remote reasons for it is “the long-time growth of political democracy through the Western world…. It is not congenial to this idea to wear a garb that seems to indicate the wearer belongs to a special social class.” Or, as John Stuart Mill put it, “Democracy is not favorable to the reverential spirit.”

The implications of this are vast. As Alexis de Tocqueville stated more than a century and a half ago, the dominant passion of democratic man is for equality. That helps explain the present widespread American rejection of authority, in religion and morals as well as politics. It also clarifies a statement made in a supplement to The New Catholic Encyclopedia in 1978: “Many [religious] institutes have moved steadily away from hierarchical organization.”

Behind the drive for small communities there were what a committee of Jesuits in Cincinnati in 1983 called “different visions” of religious life. “At this point,” the committee said in its report, “it seems futile to try to talk our way into resolutions of these differences,” because much more was involved than housekeeping preferences. At issue were also “different theological and philosophical approaches.” Becker alludes to some of them, but without explicating them. Yet they are the source of the crisis in religious life.

Among them, I will add, are differences in ecclesiology (our concept of what the Church is), and in liturgical, sacramental, and moral theology. These have given rise to radically opposed understandings of the Society’s role as an active apostolic order, and of its corporate relation to the Holy See, the hierarchy, and the institutional Church. Although these theological differences among Jesuits are deeply felt, discussions inside the Society seldom reach the level that would enable them to be articulated and resolved (if indeed resolution is possible). An unexpressed tension among theologically incompatible views shows itself in the uncertainty and ambiguity of the Society’s official stance toward its traditional apostolates and its institutional commitments. For this reason, details of community life have become a more frequent topic for discussion among Jesuits than the debilitating inner tensions which have undermined the strong apostolic unity for which the Society was once known.

Here we may see a major reason for the sharp decline in vocations to the Society and other religious institutes: “If the trumpet gives forth an uncertain sound, who will gird himself for battle?” (1 Cor. 14:8).

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