World -- Analysis
This week's stories | Home Page
Issue Date:  April 4, 2008

-- CNS/L'Osservatore Romano via Catholic Press Photo

Pope Benedict XVI meets Jesuit Fr. Adolfo Nicolás, newly elected superior general of the Society of Jesus, at the Vatican Feb. 21.
Fractious papal-Jesuit 'marriage' has a moment of détente


Among the most complicated and at times most strained relationships in the Catholic world is that between the Society of Jesus and the pope. As the dust settles on the Jesuits’ 35th General Congregation in Rome, a Jan. 7-March 6 international assembly to ponder the religious order’s future, one question thus hangs in the air: Did Benedict XVI and the Jesuits reach détente?

To extend a metaphor proposed by the newly elected Jesuit leader, 71-year-old Spaniard Fr. Adolfo Nicolás -- he compared the relationship between the pope and the Jesuits to a marriage, with its natural ups and downs -- it would seem in the aftermath of the General Congregation that the partners to this union genuinely care for each other, yet may continue to have problems with conflict.

The Jesuits’ encounter with Benedict was a significant improvement over relations in the early days of Pope John Paul II. In 1981, John Paul suspended the Jesuit constitution by appointing his own leadership team rather than allowing the Jesuits to elect their leaders. Though temporary, the move was interpreted as a vote of “no confidence” in a religious order seen by the Vatican as excessively politicized and enchanted by liberal theological currents.

This time around, the Jesuits had no difficulty in choosing Nicolás, who has spent most of his career in Asia, where theological currents have the Vatican on guard. Though the pope did not have to approve the result, Benedict warmly received Nicolás one week later. The embrace was striking, not only because early analysis painted Nicolás as a liberal, but also because the Vatican had previously vetoed him as rector of the Jesuit-run Gregorian University in Rome. Nicolás had acted as a theological adviser to the Japanese bishops during the 1998 Synod for Asia, where prelates argued for greater collegiality, or decentralization, in church authority, a stance that set off alarms in Rome.

The fact that Benedict XVI nevertheless graciously accepted Nicolás struck many Jesuits as a good sign.

To be sure, Benedict repeatedly called the Jesuits to obedience, and specifically asked for their assent in three critical areas: the theology of religious pluralism, liberation theology, and sexual morality. All represent battle zones; Three Jesuit theologians in the last seven years have drawn Vatican censures for their writings on these topics.

However, what made a deeper impression was the pope’s positive overall tone. In a Feb. 21 audience, Benedict even praised the order’s controversial former general, Fr. Pedro Arrupe, for his “farsighted intuitions” concerning the option for the poor.

Afterward, the Jesuits were clearly moved -- so much so that during an afternoon session that day, one delegate recalled an insight from their founder, St. Ignatius Loyola, that it’s unwise to make choices born of either great desolation or consolation. Since the Jesuits were feeling enormous consolation, this delegate cautioned, “Let us be careful not to make decisions we may regret two months later.”

Arguably, Benedict came into the papacy more favorably inclined to the Jesuits than had John Paul, and more aware of the diversity within the almost 20,000-strong order. At the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the pope -- then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger -- built a warm relationship with Nicolás’ predecessor, Dutch Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach. One of Ratzinger’s closest advisers was another Jesuit, German Fr. Karl Becker, and among his first acts as pope was to appoint yet another Jesuit, Federico Lombardi, as his spokesperson. The presence of trusted Jesuits in the pope’s inner circle, observers say, acts as a counterweight to perceptions of the order as a “loyal opposition.”

At their recent assembly, the Jesuits elected Lombardi as one of four “general assistants” to Nicolás, widely taken as a signal to Benedict XVI that his concerns will be heard at the order’s highest level. It also gives Nicolás an adviser skilled in the argot of the Vatican.

In terms of substance, however, there’s scant evidence that either Benedict or the Jesuits changed their minds on the issues that provoke conflict.

The election of Nicolás was widely interpreted as a victory for the more progressive views associated with many Jesuits, especially interreligious dialogue and social advocacy.

To take one example, in a Feb. 10 interview with three Jesuits, Nicolás said that he admired the later St. Francis Xavier -- not the ardent missionary of Xavier’s early years, but the Xavier who later developed deep respect for Asian cultures. Nicolás told a story of how Xavier once went to Fukoka, Japan, to scold a morally lax Buddhist monk. What impressed Nicolás is that Xavier went not to tell the monk he should become a Christian, but rather to be a better Buddhist.

For a pope committed to reawakening a strong missionary spirit in Catholicism, that’s not necessarily the most encouraging conclusion Nicolás could have drawn.

So far the Jesuits have not released the six major documents, or “decrees,” adopted by the General Congregation, including a much anticipated text on obedience and a response to Benedict XVI’s letter to the society. There’s no indication, however, that the Jesuits made significant concessions on one core matter -- their famed fourth vow of special obedience to the pope “in regard to missions.” Benedict XVI takes a fairly expansive view of the vow as implying “effective and affective” submission across the board, while most Jesuits see it as a more narrow promise to go wherever the pope needs them, either in a geographic sense or in terms of broad areas of concern.

One delegate, Mexican Fr. Juan Luis Orozco, summed up the Jesuit approach this way: “We’ll obey, but we’re not the Swiss Guard.”

That spirit is not always well received in the Vatican. Speaking on background, one official in Ratzinger’s former domain, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, described the General Congregation as a “disaster.” Such voices can even be heard inside the order; American Jesuit Fr. Joseph Fessio, a papal protégé and noted theological conservative, charged that the General Congregation affirmed a course “leading to virtual extinction.”

In sum, there’s little reason to believe the future won’t hold new flashpoints -- more Jesuit theologians censured, more publications investigated. What Slovenian Cardinal Franc Rodé, the Vatican’s top official for religious life, recently called “sadness and anxiety” about the Jesuits does not appear to have vanished, all the polite talk notwithstanding.

At the same time, both the Jesuits and Benedict seem committed to living with those differences. As Benedict said in his Feb. 21 speech to the Jesuits, “The church needs you, it counts on you, and it continues to trust you, especially your ability to reach those physical and spiritual places where others can’t go.”

This may be an occasionally bumpy marriage, but it doesn’t look like it’s headed for a separation, much less a divorce, any time soon.

National Catholic Reporter, April 4, 2008

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: