With new ordinations, the Jesuits see hope for the future

In many respects, reports of the death of the Society of Jesus are greatly exaggerated.

Defying predictions of what some anticipated as an “implosion” of the Society of Jesus in America just a few years ago, the Jesuits recently announced the ordination of 20 new Jesuit priests in the US, Canada, and Haiti in 2016. In 2015, 28 new priests were ordained in the US and Canada—the largest group to be ordained in 15 years. That same year the order welcomed a robust class of 44 novices. In 2014, 19 new Jesuit priests were ordained.

With more than 17,000 Jesuits worldwide, the Society of Jesus is the largest order of priests and brothers in the Roman Catholic Church. Yet the Jesuits have struggled to maintain their numbers in the United States. Peaking in 1965 with 36,038 Jesuit priests throughout the world, the declines in Europe and the United States have been dramatic. In fact, two years ago, Matthew Archbold of the Cardinal Newman Society predicted “a demographic winter…a free fall with decreasing ordinations and former Jesuits outnumbering current Jesuits in the United States.” Today, there is reason for optimism. Some within the order are attributing the increase in novices to a “Pope Francis Effect.” On the Jesuits.org website, Father Chuck Frederico, SJ, vocation director for the Maryland and Northeast Province Jesuits, suggests that the recent increase in those exploring a call to the Jesuits is due in part to “the excitement and example of Pope Francis….They’re excited about the Catholic Church and, because of the example of Pope Francis, they want to learn more about the Jesuits.” 

Despite the demographic declines in the United States, there never really was an “implosion” of the Jesuits worldwide. Although Jesuit priests in Europe and United States declined in number, there was an increase in the number of Jesuit priests in South Asia (including India, Nepal and Sri Lanka) and Africa.  Similarly, the number of Jesuit priests in East Asia (including Australia, Philippines, Indonesia, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, China, Thailand, and Myanmar) as well as the number of Jesuit priests in Latin America have stayed steady since the 1980s. The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate points out that in 1982, Africa and South Asia had 16.4 percent of the Jesuit membership, and Europe and the United States had 62.9 percent; by 2010, Africa and South Asia had grown to 30 percent and Europe and the United States had declined to 46.2 percent. Driving these numbers are those priests who separated from the order in great numbers in the late 1960s and 70s, coupled with the number of elderly priests who died each year. It was a period that saw declines between 811 to 1,037 Jesuit priests each year in Europe and the United States.

Today, these declines have leveled out, and young men in the United States and Canada are increasingly considering the Jesuits. The 2016 class of ordinands included a new priest who had been a physician, one who had been a nurse, one who volunteered with the Peace Corps, one who had served in the Navy, one who was a fire and explosives investigator, and one who had worked as an assistant to a brewmaster at a local brewery, as well as several teachers, counselors, and businessmen. Videotaped interviews with the new ordinands posted on the Jesuits.org website reveal a real excitement about being a part of the Society of Jesus—and a true appreciation for the calling they received from God. 

Faithful Catholics should celebrate their arrival. Yet for some observers, concerns remain about the culture these new priests and novices may encounter—specifically as relates to fidelity and obedience to the Magisterium.

Originally founded by Ignatius of Loyola, “the soldier-turned-mystic,” the Jesuits have always had the mission to serve Christ and the pope. Although the long-time commitment to social justice and “the preferential option for the poor” as articulated in 1968 by then-Superior General Father Pedro Arrupe, SJ continues to be strong today for all Jesuits, the perceived lack of obedience to the Magisterium—especially on Jesuit-led college and university campuses—has caused some concern.

In 2002, Father Paul Shaughnessy, SJ published an article in The Weekly Standard titled, “Are the Jesuits Catholic?” For Father Shaughnessy, the “real crisis [for the Jesuits], is not one of size but one of allegiance.” Echoing these concerns, George Neumayr wrote in The American Spectator in 2002 that the Jesuits were “in the throes of a collapse as historically significant as its suppression in 1773…. Were Ignatius of Loyola alive today, the Jesuit Order he founded wouldn’t ordain him…the once-formidable society is now a corrupt club for homosexual dilettantes and anti-papal dissenters. Real Catholics need no longer apply.”

Some of these concerns remain today, and although they center on what seems to be a rejection of authority, the reality is that in their commitment to social justice some Jesuits have attempted to redefine the very purpose of the Catholic Church itself. Some Jesuits attempted to draw upon the authority of the Church as a way to help usher in a new society—creating a kind of “heaven on earth.” Toward that goal a large number of Jesuit priests became involved in the propagation of a new and “more liberating” theology that blended theological principles with sociology and a dominant concern for the “here and now.”

By the 1980s, the Jesuits were becoming increasingly influenced by liberation theology, which tends to “downplay the reality of the spiritual and to emphasize the social dimensions of the Christian experience,” according to Father Martin Tripole, author of the book Church in Crisis: The Enlightenment and Its Impact on Today’s Church. Social justice is, of course, a noble goal, but the means of achieving that goal became perilous. For example, a Jesuit commitment to missionary work in Nicaragua in the late 1970s changed when the Jesuits began to view their mission in more worldly terms. Helping the Roman Catholic country defeat the regime led by the corrupt and autocratic Somoza family came to be viewed as part of their priestly ministry, and the Jesuits allied with Daniel Ortega y Saavedra and the Marxist Sandinistas in a violent attack on the Somoza regime. This Jesuit alliance was important to the Sandinista leadership because more than 90 percent of the Nicaraguan population belonged to the Catholic Church. In order to gain the support of the people, the Sandinistas knew they needed to enlist the Catholic Church to lend legitimacy to their activities. When the Sandinistas succeeded in removing the Somoza family from power, five Jesuit priests were given cabinet positions.

By 1982, Pope John Paul II was so concerned about the socio-political role the Jesuits were playing in Nicaragua and Latin America that the Holy Father rebuked them, saying, “The ways of the religious minded do not follow the calculations of men. They do not use as parameters the cult of power, riches or politics…. Your proper activity is not in the temporal realm, nor in that one which is the field of laymen and which must be left to them.” It appeared to most that the Pope’s message was ignored.  

While the involvement of the Jesuits in Nicaragua may seem tangential to the Jesuits of today in the United States, it is important to recall the case because of its continued effect on the ways in which social justice is defined on Jesuit college campuses, where the groups like the Sandinistas often remain romantic role models.

Beyond revolutionary politics, gay and lesbian issues continue to present a challenge to the Jesuit leadership, as some Jesuit priests have expanded the definition of social justice to supporting same-sex behavior and equal access to marriage by same-sex couples. All of this is documented in detail in a 2002 study by Peter McDonough, a political science professor at Arizona State University, and his co-author, Eugene Bianchi, a professor emeritus of religion at Emory University, titled Passionate Uncertainty: Inside the American Jesuits. In an effort to understand the challenges faced by the Jesuits in the 21st century, McDonough and Bianchi launched an in-depth sociological study of more than 400 current and former Jesuits. The findings were devastating. In a Los Angeles Times review of the book, Jonathan Kirsch wrote that McDonough and Bianchi’s data demonstrate that “the Jesuits have been buffeted by the same cross currents that have been eroding the foundation of the rest of traditional Catholicism over the last several decades, including the struggle for social justice embodied in so-called ‘liberation theology,’ the activism of lay Catholics who demanded both a greater role in the governance of the Church and a greater degree of freedom in the governance of their private lives.” 

It is clear that some of these problems continue today. This spring, the San Francisco Chronicle reported on the same-sex marriage of Jennifer Azzi, currently the coach of the University of San Francisco women’s basketball team—and quoted the University of San Francisco’s president, Father Paul Fitzgerald, SJ, as “being quick to offer congratulations the day after Azzi’s announcement.”

Rather than defending the Catholic understanding of marriage as a union of one man and one woman, scholars at Jesuit schools like Georgetown, Boston College, Seattle University, and the University of San Francisco have lobbied to allow same-sex couples to marry, and others—including Jodi O’Brien, a prominent sociologist at the Jesuit Seattle University—have written about the need to “end” marriage, or to “move beyond” the institution of marriage itself.  

Beyond gay and lesbian issues, support for abortion flourishes on many Jesuit campuses. Last year the Cardinal Newman Society released a major study on the ties between abortion provider Planned Parenthood and Catholic colleges—many of them Jesuit colleges and universities. These schools advertise and facilitate student internships and career opportunities at Planned Parenthood, or hire faculty with board memberships, work experience, or other ties to Planned Parenthood.

Some of what happens on Jesuit campuses today may have more to do with an institutional attempt to appeal to a broader student population, rather than a resistance to Church teaching on moral issues per se. A 2014 article in The Atlantic, “The New Brand of Jesuit Universities,” revealed that several Jesuit colleges and universities have “recently undergone major rebranding campaigns—initiatives that have typically endeavored to retain the schools’ Catholic foundation while shifting marketing strategies to appear more inclusive.” Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Missouri removed the word “Jesuit” from the university tagline; Regis University in Denver, Colorado, launched a new brand campaign deleting both the words “Jesuit” and “Catholic” in the school’s description and its brand platform. While such actions are in several respects drastic departures from the schools’ identities,  when one visits the schools’ websites, there is no question of their commitment to helping students become “men and women for and with others” in terms of addressing poverty and other social needs.   

Despite the problems that persist on these campuses, God still finds a way to reach out to young men for the priesthood—no matter how many obstacles there may be. In an interview published on Ignatius Insight a few years ago with Father David Vincent Meconi, SJ, editor of Homiletic & Pastoral Review and professor of patristic theology at St. Louis University, we learn that the first Jesuit he met as a student at Marquette University was a professor teaching a course on atheism. Father Meconi recalls his early days at Marquette, when he first “learned about the Jesuits and their mission of teaching and writing and prayer, and [I] started to think that here was my calling…. The way Jesuits lived and studied and prayed (and laughed) resonated with my own personality and desires and I respected them as real ‘men’s men’—you know, regular guys—dedicated to their students, and who were not afraid to fight for the Truth.” Father Meconi described the priests he knew as “great men who had given their lives to Christ in that special way and their example made quite an impact on me.” Today Father Meconi is himself a role model and a mentor to many students, on his Jesuit university campus and beyond.

There is reason for optimism. Despite the continuing problematic elements surrounding issues like abortion and marriage at many Jesuit colleges and universities, an increasing number of young men who have been educated on these campuses are answering the Jesuit call to priesthood. Of the 44 young men who entered the 2015 novice class in the United States and Canada, 25 percent are graduates of Jesuit universities, 9 percent received a graduate degree from a Jesuit university, and 29 percent are graduates of Jesuit high schools. Nine men each came from the Chicago-Detroit Province and the Central and Southern Province; the Wisconsin Province sent seven young men, while California’s province sent four. Four novices came from the Northeast Province, and an additional four came from the Maryland Province. Canada sent five. The average age of the 2015 novice class is 27; 81.8 percent are white, 6.8 percent are black, and the rest are Hispanic, Asian Indian, or Southeast Asian.   

Culture is constantly changing, and as increasing numbers of young Jesuit novices arrive without the cultural baggage carried by so many Jesuits of the 1960s and 70s, the culture on Jesuit campuses will change. Catholics will have to be patient as the more recalcitrant members of the “old” order of Jesuits still hold leadership positions on these college campuses.


Further reading: “On making the world safe for Jesuits” 

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Anne Hendershott 103 Articles
Anne Hendershott is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University in Steubenville, OH