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Issue Date:  February 8, 2008

Obedience, Jesuit-style

If the core danger of the immediate period after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) was that legitimate reform might shade off into anything-goes chaos, today’s equal and opposite risk is a narrow traditionalism that, in practice, holds that nothing should ever be done for the first time.

Examples of that tendency are, sadly, not difficult to find.

In such a context, it is vitally important that the church foster forces committed to intellectual imagination, pastoral experimentation, and dialogue -- rooted in a solid sense of Catholic identity, but also committed to standing at the frontier between the church and culture. In a nutshell, that has been the historic mission of the Society of Jesus since its inception in the 16th century, and it is a mission that the Jesuits have seemingly confirmed anew with the election of Fr. Adolfo Nicolás as their father general, as well as with early indications about the directions likely to be set by their 35th General Congregation, currently meeting in Rome.

Under Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the dominant current at the policy-setting level of the church has been reassertion of traditional Catholic identity. The goal is to defend classic markers of Catholic thought, speech and practice against the inroads of secularization and relativism -- to ensure that Catholicism does not end up, in the memorable phrase of Jacques Maritain, “kneeling before the world.”

However justified in itself, this push for identity carries the inherent risk that, in the wrong hands, it could shade off into a “Taliban Catholicism” that knows only how to excoriate, condemn, and smash the idols of modernity. That may not be the case with Pope Benedict himself, who, in his writing and speeches, shows a keen understanding of Catholicism’s breadth and capacity for development. The problem is that such sophistication is often lost at lower levels of authority. Some of those most enthusiastic about reasserting Catholic identity, including not a few bishops, can artificially shut down conversations or constrict options that are actually vital to the long-term health of Catholicism.

Although Nicolás rightly told the press in Rome last week that he is not the second coming of Fr. Pedro Arrupe, the late Jesuit general who led the order into struggles for social justice and cultural dialogue, it’s hard not be struck by the parallels between the two men. Both Spaniards who spent much of their careers in Japan, each was turned inside out by the experience of meeting the “other.” The choice of Nicolás has to be read, and has been read by the Jesuits themselves, as an option for basic continuity along the path of reform and renewal traced by Arrupe and by Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach.

From the outside, it may be tempting to read that choice as an act of defiance against the pope or the Vatican, but that would be both inaccurate and unhelpful. One of Nicolás’ first acts was to meet with Benedict XVI and personally renew his vows, including obedience to the pope regarding mission. The General Congregation is expected to produce a document on obedience, reaffirming that submission to authority is a constituent element of Jesuit identity, and a working group is also pondering a response to the letter of Benedict XVI calling the order’s attention to a set of contentious issues. In truth, most members of the Society of Jesus want good relations with the Vatican, and most have a deep respect for Benedict XVI as a theologian and a spiritual figure. Most also resent media images of the Jesuits as a “parallel church” or as the “loyal opposition,” which they rightly insist do not do justice to the real pluralism within the society itself.

That said, the Jesuits do nevertheless represent an adult form of obedience, one that recognizes the need for loyal but creative thought about the ways in which Catholic identity must evolve to meet the challenges of a changing world. At a time when spaces for exploration can be difficult to find, keeping them open is a lonely and sometimes thankless vocation, but one that represents a precious gift to the church.

For that reason, the broad direction being set by the 226 Jesuit delegates currently meeting in Rome is to be welcomed. More than ever, the church needs centers of imagination and daring, antibodies against what Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, the new president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, just last week described as the danger of “religious fundamentalism” in a Catholic guise. It is gratifying to see the Jesuits, who have long held a special place among the intellectual leadership of the Catholic community, reaffirming their commitment to that great project. That is good news, indeed.

National Catholic Reporter, February 8, 2008

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