One of the treasures of the Catholic Church is its religious orders, with their various rules and charisms directed toward addressing particular needs in the Church at the time of their founding. Human nature being what it is, though, a common phenomenon is that over time, orders fall into laxity and lose the original vigor of their founders. It has been a blessing for the Church that when orders grow tepid in their founding mission, reform movements rise up that seek to restore the zeal and vibrancy of their origins. Such was the case, for example, with the Cistercians and the Discalced Carmelites, and subsequently, they produced some of the great saints of the Church, like Bernard of Clairvaux, Teresa of Avila, and John of the Cross.
Considering the malaise that the Society of Jesus has fallen into in the last century, and particularly since Vatican II, the Jesuits are ripe for a reform movement.
To appreciate the depths to which the modern Jesuits have descended, we must first reacquaint ourselves with the original mission of Ignatius of Loyola. Malachi Martin, himself a former Jesuit, provides a nice synopsis of the society’s founder’s vision in his book The Jesuits:
Classical Jesuitism, based on the spiritual teaching of Ignatius, saw the Jesuit mission in very clear outline. There was a perpetual state of war on earth between Christ and Lucifer. Those who fought on Christ’s side, the truly choice fighters, served the Roman Pontiff diligently, were at his complete disposal, were ‘Pope’s Men.’ The ‘Kingdom’ being fought over was the Heaven of God’s glory. The enemy, the archenemy, the only enemy, was Lucifer. The weapons the Jesuits used were supernatural: the Sacraments, preaching, writing, suffering. The objective was spiritual, supernatural, and otherworldly. It was simply this: that as many individuals as possible would die in a state of supernatural grace and friendship with their Savior so that they would spend eternity with God, their Creator.
Unfortunately, there is no congruity between this description and the current Society of Jesus. In the decade following the Second Vatican Council, the Jesuits held two general congregations that produced 72 different decrees, far outpacing the output of the Council itself. Practically no aspect of Jesuit life and spirituality was untouched by these decrees, and they display a systematic effort to redefine the order in conformity with the modern world, following the “spirit of Vatican II.” In particular, the fourth decree of General Congregation 32, “Our Mission Today,” called for the Jesuits to radically transform the world by combatting injustice in the social order and restructuring sociopolitical systems.
The Jesuit mission, as described therein, ceased to be a spiritual one. The struggle was no longer a metaphysical confrontation between Christ and Lucifer for the salvation of souls, but a wholly worldly one against unjust economic and political systems. The war was to be fought not with the weapons of Scripture, Tradition, and the sacraments, but through political activism, labor relations, and the redistribution of wealth.
The fruits of these congregations became immediately evident in their aftermath. There was a wholesale rejection of Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae after General Congregation 31, in defiance of the Jesuits’ solemn vow of obedience to the pope. In response to the newly defined mission of General Congregation 32, the Jesuits in the 1970s and ’80s became the standard-bearers of Liberation Theology and aligned themselves with left-wing socialist and Marxist regimes throughout the world, especially in Latin America. Some Jesuits even participated in armed revolutions and held high-ranking positions in the communist-backed Sandinista government of Nicaragua, against the expressed directives of John Paul II.
Today, these aberrations from the original Jesuit charism are manifest in the Order’s two most prominent public figures, James Martin and Pope Francis. Paralleling the rejection of Humanae Vitae, Martin is the leading Modernist proponent for changing Catholic doctrine on sexuality and is insolent in his promotion of the “LBGTQ” lifestyle. Consistent with the agenda of the recent general congregations, he attempts to define deviancy down to make the Church more palatable to the modern world. Meanwhile, Pope Francis works within the framework of the new social justice mission of the Jesuits. He appears most passionate and animated when critiquing capitalism and its accompanying evils of economic inequality and climate change.
The present situation of the Church is perhaps as dire today was it was at the Protestation Revolution, and it cannot persist. We must hope that a return to tradition and orthodoxy is on the not so distant horizon. But the Jesuits as currently constituted are incapable of repeating the transformation of Catholic culture that they effected in the Church’s response to the Protestants. In fact, it would be reasonable to expect that they would be antagonistic toward such a reversal from Modernism.
What is sorely needed is the Jesuit equivalent of St. Teresa of Avila — one who will gather together a band of loyal brothers committed to recapturing the original zeal of St. Ignatius for saving souls through a spirited defense and promotion of the true faith against the currents of the modern world. Who will establish an order of “Discalced” Jesuits who once go anywhere and do anything to propagate the faith — and thus, through their zeal, re-establish a Catholic world in which it is easy to take seriously the fourth vow of absolute obedience to the Roman pontiff?
If we look at the religious orders thriving in the Church today, it is those that have once again donned their habits, embrace tradition and the perennial teachings of the Church, believe in the Real Presence of the Eucharist, and are devoted to the traditional liturgy. The Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, for example, is flourishing, while the seminaries and vocations of so-called progressive dioceses are in free fall. The evidence indicates that within a couple of decades, the vocations to a reformed Society of Jesus could easily outstrip those of the current Jesuit novitiates.
It is unlikely that Pope Francis would sanction a reform movement within his own order, but the time will come when the Church recognizes that the only solution to the havoc wrought on the Church since Vatican II is a return to orthodoxy and traditional liturgy. When that time comes, the Church, and especially the reigning pope, will need shock troops on the frontlines to re-evangelize the world. They will need to penetrate into every corner of our technological, scientific, and rationalistic world with the Gospel of Christ, which is ever new and ever at odds with the demands of the age. Anyone with eyes to see perceives the fierce battle raging between the forces of good and those of darkness, and it was for this battle that St. Ignatius enlisted his militia. This mission is the noble heritage of the Society of Jesus, and it is only fitting that a reformed order of the same name be the instrument by which the glory of the Catholic Church is restored.
The question is, who will take up the torch?
Shane Ball earned a B.A. in political science from Loyola University in Maryland and completed graduate studies in theology at both Franciscan University in Steubenville and the Pontifical College of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum) in Rome. He was also a seminarian at the Pontifical College Josephinum for over two years, where he earned a B.Phil., completing his thesis on St. Thomas’s distinction between essence and existence. Shane is married with children and teaches theology in the Diocese of Columbus.