|Fr. Thomas P. Gaunt, S.J.|
In the 1970s, when the church was debating how it should relate to the modern world, the order’s General“the service of faith” and “the promotion of justice” would be the focus of every Jesuit ministry.Congregation, or legislative body, decreed that
This coincided with a period of high-profile — detractors would say notorious — activist Jesuits, including the Rev. Daniel Berrigan, a founder of the anti-nuclear Plowshares Movement.
In Latin America, the Jesuit emphasis on helping the poorest peoples often drew the society into political upheaval, including the cause of liberation theology, a Latin American-inspired view that Jesus’ teachings imbue followers with a duty to fight for social and economic justice. U.S. Jesuit James Carney was killed in 1983 serving as chaplain to a rebel column from Honduras.
Pope John Paul II, hoping to re-direct the religious order, took the extraordinary step in 1981 of replacing the Jesuit’s chosen leader with his own representative.
The society encompasses a range of outlooks, including tradition-minded men. Still, conservative Catholics often view Jesuits as a band of disloyal liberals. The day after Francis was elected, George Weigel, a John Paul biographer, wrote in the conservative National Review magazine that the pope “just might take in hand the reform of the Jesuits” that Weigel argued was never finished. (Smolich rejects any suggestion that the order isn’t faithful to the church or its teachings.)
It’s too early to say how these past conflicts could influence Francis and his relationships with the society. He had disavowed liberation theology as a misguided strain of Catholic tenets, while still maintaining a focus on the economic failings of Western-style capitalism and the need to close the divide between rich and poor.
Jesuits also worry that the religious order could suffer in the spotlight. Maybe the new pope will keep his distance from the society, for fear of giving an appearance of favoritism. Or, he could use his new authority to become — from their perspective — too involved in the society, like John Paul. And they wonder if Jesuits would somehow be blamed for any of Francis’ decisions that prove unpopular.
Jesuits were already at a crossroads when Francis was elected. Although the order remains the largest in the church for men, membership has dropped by more than half since peaking in 1965, Gaunt said.
The decline came mostly in the West. But In South Asia and India, Christianity — and Catholicism specifically — have been growing, and so, too, have the numbers of Jesuits in those areas.
Fr. Thomas P. Gaunt, S.J. calls it “the changing Jesuit geography.” India now has the largest national group of Jesuits with just over 3,900 members, followed by the U.S., with just under 2,500. Nearly one-third of the world’s 17,287 Jesuits came from developing countries, a figure that is expected to rise in coming years.
For U.S. Jesuits, this has meant a long season of wondering where they go from here. The order is restructuring in the U.S., merging their 10 smaller provinces into four larger ones. Lay people now staff most Jesuit schools and ministries, so the order has started Jesuit spirituality retreats and instruction for lay faculty and staff to help maintain the religious identity of what they’ve built. Among the newer Jesuit initiatives are high schools or middle schools in poor communities, and programs that bring online college-level classes to refugees in Africa and elsewhere
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