Last month, the 35th General Congregation of the Society of Jesus elected Father Adolfo Nicolas, a Spaniard, as General of the order. A few days later, Father Nicolas gently chided Roman journalists for running some "not so helpful" stories about alleged problems between the Jesuits and Pope Benedict XVI; any notion of a rift with the Vatican, he said, was "an artificial tension" created by outsiders unaware that "the Society of Jesus from the very beginning has always been in communion with the Holy Father…" The Jesuits "want to collaborate with the Holy See and to obey the Holy Father," Father Nicolas averred. "That has not changed and it will not change."
About which, some questions:
What will Father Nicolas do about Jesuits who are manifestly not obedient to the Pope or to the teaching authority of the Church? Take, for example, the case of Father James Keenan, S.J., of Boston College. Several years ago, Father Keenan testified before the Massachusetts Legislature, arguing that the principles of Catholic social doctrine did not merely tolerate "gay marriage," they demanded it. That position is manifestly not "in communion" with the teaching of popes past and present on the nature of marriage; now what?
Father Nicolas cannot be unaware of Jesuit colleges and universities whose Catholicism – measured by curriculum, faculty, and mode-of-life on campus – is vestigial at best. Does he think it appropriate for Jesuit institutions to honor Jesuits who taught the precise opposite of what the popes have taught about abortion, and distorted the meaning of papal teaching in counseling others? Georgetown University's Law School has an endowed chair in international human rights law named after the late Father Robert Drinan, S.J., who did more than anyone else to convince Catholic legislators that the settled teaching of the Church on the grave immorality of abortion had no bearing on their legislative work. Father Drinan gave Catholic legislators a pass on the great civil rights issue of our time, yet a Jesuit university hosts a human rights chair named for him; how does this square with the Society's commitment to social justice and with the obedient fidelity St. Ignatius bade his followers to observe in their relationship to the Church's magisterium and to the Bishop of Rome?
Then there is the third-rail issue in religious orders today: homosexuality. In a letter to the General Congregation, Pope Benedict suggested that there were serious problems with how some Jesuits undertook the pastoral care of persons with homosexual desires. He could have gone farther and addressed this problem within the Society of Jesus itself; it was not that long ago, after all, that the Web site of the Jesuits' California Province featured photos of "Pretty Boy" and "Jabba the Slut" in gay drag at a novices' party. Will Father Nicolas demand that Jesuits observe their vows of chastity, whatever their sexual preferences? Will there be consequences for those who violate those vows, or cover for those who do? Will Jesuit vocations offices and novitiates obey the 2005 Vatican instruction which states that "those who practice homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies, or support the so-called ‘gay culture'" must not be admitted to seminaries or to holy orders?
A fourth point: the tendency among some Jesuit theologians to minimize the unique salvific role of Christ. That problem is most apparent in Asia, where Father Nicolas has lived for decades; the Holy See has addressed it in recent disciplinary actions against Jesuit theologians. Does Ignatian communion with the Pope still require Jesuits to affirm the Nicene Creed, the Council of Chalcedon's teaching on the hypostatic union, and the teaching of Dominus Iesus on Christ as unique savior of the world?
The Long Lent of 2002, which revealed the disastrous consequences of sexual corruption and malfeasant leadership in the Church, should have hammered home to every Catholic the dangers of euphemism, and of winking-and-nodding. When the future of a great religious congregation is at stake, there is no room for anything but the unvarnished truth. I pray that Father Nicolas provides it.