What Good Came of It?
The Re-Formed Jesuits, Volume I: A History of Changes in Jesuit Formation During the Decade 1965-1975
By Joseph Becker, S.J.
Review Author: Francis Canavan
I am told that America’s Catholic bishops have been reading this book in preparation for the upcoming Synod of Bishops on religious life, news that dismays the more theologically progressive members of the Society of Jesus in America. A more general public may read it with profit if interested in what has happened since Vatican II to Catholic religious orders in the U.S., for the Jesuit experience has by no means been unique.
Joseph Becker is a seasoned Jesuit priest and economist who devoted years to the study of primary documentary sources and to hundreds of interviews with Jesuits who in one way or another had been involved in the changes in the Society that he describes. He tells us that he eschews “all explicit evaluation” of the changes, but since description without evaluation is impossible, his personal views inevitably shine through. Nonetheless, he has done his homework thoroughly and reports his findings dispassionately.
His subject is the changes that took place in the 10 years after Vatican II in the program for the “formation” of young Jesuits (which is something more than mere training since it aims at the development of a character and a dedication to the religious life and mission of the Society). This crucial decade marked “a significant internal transformation” of the Society, “probably greater than any it had experienced in its previous four hundred years.” The changes inevitably affected all aspects of Jesuit life, but they began in the “houses of formation,” principally novitiates (for initial formation), philosophates (for the study of philosophy), and theologates (for the study of theology).
The changes in the Society, however, reflected and were occasioned by the developments in the Church that found expression and, to some extent, ratification in Vatican II. They were also the result of a long-term shift in Western culture. At the end of the book Fr. Becker schematizes it as “a shift along four axes of vital tension.” It was a movement from the objective toward the subjective, from the absolute toward the relative, from the sacral toward the secular, and from the institution toward the individual. This shift has been going on since the late Middle Ages and, I would suggest, is greeted with whoops of joy as liberation only by people too ignorant or too shallow to see all that it implies.
In a single institution such as the Society of Jesus, it gets mixed up with a mass of details and much confusion among both “progressives” and “traditionalists” about what is truly important to the life of the institution and what could or should be changed in order to preserve and further that life. All of this is faithfully reported by Becker, but there is no space to detail it here.
The principal and most immediate cause of change in the Society, as in all religious orders (in the broad sense, including congregations and religious institutes), was Vatican II. The Council required each order “to hold a general chapter with the explicit purpose of examining whether anything in the order needed to be changed.” As Becker explains, the Council thereby “moved the burden of proof in religious orders from innovation onto stability.” What henceforth needed proof was keeping things as they were, not changing them. “The effect was that of an earthquake, shaking every part of a religious institution.”
Whether the Council expected the results it got is doubtful. But, to shift the metaphor, it dropped a seed that fell on very receptive ground. The first and most continuous cause of the sweeping changes that ensued in the Society was the character of the young men it had been receiving as novices from the mid-1950s on. One New York Jesuit, a graduate of Regis High School, commented that the students he taught there in the late 1950s “were more questioning, less docile, less grateful for their free education” than his classmates had been. They were typical in this respect of those who entered the Society from 1954 on and were scholastics (Jesuits not yet ordained) who were in philosophy and theology in the stormy period of the 1960s.
Another Jesuit who observed the “new breed” of scholastic described him as having “an antipathy to status and defined roles…an insistence on deciding matters (both practice and principle) for himself…a personalist interest which caused him to be greatly concerned with friendship…[and] a marked dependence on the support of his peers.” The rector of a house of formation in 1962 described a “small group” of scholastics as having these characteristics: “a conflict between personal development and submission to authority; criticism of superiors; hypersensitivity to correction; a demand for greater exercise of personal initiative so that they should not be restricted by a schema of regulations…a desire that they be consulted about the details of house discipline; a demand that the religious life be adapted…to modern conditions of living.”
By the end of the decade, these young Jesuits, grown in number, were leading a largely successful revolt against the traditional Jesuit course of studies and way of living in the houses of formation. One factor in their success was that “in theology a flood of changes was taking place as young professors returned from their training in Europe, as a new era in theology seemed to be ratified by Vatican II.” The result was a marked shift in emphasis in the study of theology, away from dogmatic theology toward a greater biblical and historical emphasis, toward “creative ideas” and away from the “judgmental decision of the Church.” In the philosophates scholastics professed to be bored with abstract philosophy, and wanted to get away from Thomism in favor of a more “relevant” type of thought. The attraction of “relativism, process, [and] rupture with the past” was also said to be strong among them.
There was a “confrontational insistence on change in almost all existing patterns of formation,” and a notable relaxation of discipline in such matters as attendance at class and at Mass, following a fixed order of time, keeping silence in the house, wearing clerical attire, and minimal contact with the outside world. It helped that the Society’s 31st General Congregation in 1965-1966 had encouraged adaptation, and that superiors were willing to go along with it. When they were not, the “new breed” took matters into their own hands and forced acceptance of change with the confrontational tactics so popular in the 1960s. Or they simply stopped obeying rules they did not like, knowing that superiors, whose authority was crumbling, could no longer enforce them.
Jesuit life today is freer and easier than it was. But whether we have a deeper faith, a stronger spirituality, and greater apostolic effectiveness is not at all clear. Looking back over the last 30 years of Jesuit history in this country, I am reminded of the closing lines of Robert Southey’s poem “After Blenheim,” in which a little boy asks his grandfather questions about that great battle, the last one being:
“But what good came of it at last?”
Quoth little Peterkin: —
“Why that I cannot tell,” said he,
“But ’twas a famous victory.”
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