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Issue Date:  February 8, 2008

-- CNS/L'Osservatore Romano

Pope Benedict XVI poses with Fr. Adolfo Nicolás, newly elected superior general of the Society of Jesus, Jan. 26 at the Vatican.
Pacesetting Jesuits elect new global leader


As the largest and most influential religious order in the Catholic church, the Society of Jesus has always been a pacesetter. When Jesuits from around the world gather for a General Congregation, as they are currently doing in Rome, their decisions are always scrutinized for hints of the Catholic future.

Over the centuries, General Congregations have usually been important either for their “who” or their “what.”

For example, the 31st congregation, in 1965, was a “what” session, launching a course of internal reform following the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). The same was true of the 32nd, in 1974-75, which defined social justice as an “absolute requirement” of the faith, and the 34th, in 1995, which emphasized interreligious and intercultural dialogue. On the other hand, the 33rd General Congregation, in 1983, was more a “who” event, electing Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach to handle the order’s ever-delicate relations with the Vatican.

To date, the 35th General Congregation of the Jesuits, which opened Jan. 7 and is expected to run at least until the end of February, has produced a watershed “who,” electing 71-year-old Fr. Adolfo Nicolás, a Spaniard who has spent most of his career in Asia, as the order’s new leader.

It remains to be seen if it will also generate a “what,” steering the Jesuits decisively in some new direction, or if it will be largely content to leave it to Nicolás and his new team to fill in the blanks. Though the sessions are held in secret, interviews with a number of Jesuits attending the meeting provided a deeper sense of the issues under consideration.

Current plans call for substantive documents, formally known as “decrees,” on four broad subjects:

  • Mission and identity, or what it means to be a Jesuit in an early 21st-century world, facing realities such as globalization, instantaneous communications, religious fundamentalism and ecological menaces;
  • Collaboration with the laity, building on the 34th General Congregation’s declaration that the society “places itself at the service of the mission of the laity”;
  • Obedience, which among other things is likely to reaffirm the value of obedience in a strongly antiauthoritarian culture, and particularly to underscore the role of local Jesuit superiors;
  • Governance, treating the internal management of the order -- such as the role of national conferences of Jesuits in relation to individual provinces and Rome.

In reality, however, many Jesuits believe the “who” of this General Congregation is likely also to be its most important “what.”

By electing Nicolás, a leader of intellectual refinement and personal graciousness, many Jesuits believe they’ve signaled continuity with Kolvenbach’s approach of healing with the Vatican. Yet by choosing a man who incarnates intercultural and interreligious dialogue, who has a deep sensitivity to social justice and ecology, and who approaches obedience from within a framework of collegiality, Jesuits say they’ve indicated there will be no retreat from those commitments. In that sense, some believe that everything else the General Congregation does will be anticlimactic.

“Coming in, many of us felt that we should put about 65 percent of our energy into electing a general,” one Jesuit said, “and that seems to be how things are playing out.”

Yet with an important audience with Pope Benedict XVI looming on Feb. 21, there’s still time for the General Congregation to break new ground, Jesuit sources say, depending upon which way the winds blow. Three areas seem potentially consequential.

First, if there is to be an original contribution from this General Congregation, many Jesuits seem to think it could come with ecology. That subject drew the second-highest number of “postulates,” meaning proposals for action, prior to the General Congregation.

On the other hand, at the moment there does not seem to be momentum for a separate document on ecology, and some Jesuits say they’re inclined to focus less on sweeping statements and more on practical questions of how ecological sustainability can be translated into action by provinces, local communities, and individual Jesuits.

At that level, some Jesuits believe, space must be left for differing responses in different contexts. One delegate told NCR that in the United States, Jesuits might emphasize shareholder activism, using the order’s institutional holdings to pressure corporations. Such a step, he said, probably would not make as much sense in Africa, where Jesuit institutions generally do not possess substantial portfolios.

Second, the document on obedience is keenly anticipated, especially in light of recent tensions between some Jesuits and the Vatican. (Three of the last four theologians publicly censured by the Vatican have been Jesuits: Belgian Jacques Dupuis, American Roger Haight, and the Basque Jon Sobrino.)

Jesuit sources stress, however, that their discussion of obedience is not a response to any specific crisis, but rather the fact that the subject has not been considered since the 31st General Congregation. In the meantime they’ve produced documents on poverty and chastity, the other traditional religious vows.

Moreover, Jesuits say, in the context of a culture in which authority is often seen with suspicion, it’s important to reaffirm the positive value of obedience -- albeit a form of obedience exercised in what many Jesuits describe as “collegial and participatory” fashion.

As one element of that discussion, some participants want the assembly to comment upon the Jesuits’ storied fourth vow of obedience to the pope regarding missions.

“People are constantly telling us what they think the vow means,” one Jesuit told NCR. “I think it’s time for a General Congregation to say for itself what it means.”

Third, the General Congregation is also pondering a letter from Pope Benedict XVI prior to the opening of the meeting, expressing great “affection and esteem” for the order’s contributions, but also calling it to fidelity on a number of contentious issues: “The relationship between Christ and religions; some aspects of the theology of liberation; and various points of sexual morality, especially as regards the indissolubility of marriage and the pastoral care of homosexual persons.”

In general, Jesuit sources said, the assembly is taking the letter seriously, though it is not yet clear if it will draft a formal response. At least some Jesuits say they hope any reply will pick up on the positive dimensions of Benedict’s message.

There is little indication the Jesuits will disown members who hold more progressive positions on these issues, but instead are likely to call for further dialogue.

Before they finish, the Jesuits will also elect a group of general assistants to Nicolás (technically known as assistants ad providentiam). As with the election of the general, the vote will be preceded by four days of murmuratio, meaning one-on-one conversations to identify candidates. (One core responsibility of the assistants is to safeguard the health of the general; Kolvenbach’s assistants, for example, compelled him to fly business class when he travels internationally.)

Exactly how much longer the General Congregation will meet is difficult to say, since only the assembly can declare its work finished. March 15 strikes many as the outer limit, since some Jesuits are staying in rooms already promised to other parties during Holy Week, which begins March 16.

That’s a useful reminder, some Jesuits have wryly noted, that grand theories generally yield to practical reality.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR senior correspondent. His extended coverage of the Jesuits’ 35th General Congregation can be found online at

National Catholic Reporter, February 8, 2008

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