On a quick trip to Rome a few weeks ago, I made it a point to visit the Gesu, the mother church of the Society of Jesus, and to pray for the Jesuits and their general congregation opening January 7. I found much of the church's magnificent Baroque interior concealed by scaffolding set up for a housecleaning before that crucial event.
The symbolism couldn't have been more apt. Just as the Gesu, in the historic heart of Rome, needed renovating, so does the Society itself. Rather than operating at the cutting edge of the Church, Jesuits in recent decades have fallen increasingly behind the times and, not unlike the Gesu, now stand in need of some serious renewing.
This is not an anti-Jesuit polemic. I am grateful for the education I received from the Society. Over the years I've known many Jesuits, and most have been — and still are — admirable men, loyal sons of the Church deeply devoted to the service of the people of God. Many have been, and still are, my friends.
Yet as 217 Jesuits from around the world convene at the Society's headquarters near St. Peter's Square for the 35th general congregation in the order's history, they face the challenge of not only electing a new General Superior but setting directions for a body in long-running crisis. Business as usual won't work. The Jesuits need an overhaul and they need it soon.
Numbers underscore the urgency. Forty years ago there were 35,000 Jesuits in the world. Now there are 19,000. The dropoff has been even steeper in the United States, where the Society counted over 8,000 members in 1965 and now has under 3,000.
True, the Society still has an impressive presence — in the U.S. alone, 28 colleges and universities and 40 secondary schools. But how Jesuit are those institutions? The colleges and universities have boards of trustees with a majority of lay members; four have lay presidents, with more presumably coming; on most Jesuit campuses, Jesuits are a small and shrinking handful, while the percentage of Jesuit teachers in the high schools has dropped from roughly half in the mid-1960s to single digits now.
The problem goes beyond declining numbers. Among the very few theologians whom the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith has criticized by name in recent years, four have been members of the Society. A larger reality is the phenomenon of "tacit dissent" that Peter McDonough and Eugene C. Bianchi (himself an ex-Jesuit) found among many of the 430 current and former Jesuits whom they interviewed for Passionate Uncertainty, their 2002 report on the Society in the U.S.
The Jesuits' problems are neither new nor uniquely theirs. In 1973 Time magazine declared the Society "a microcosm of the tensions and turmoil that are sweeping the Roman Catholic Church as a whole." But although the Church still has lots of problems, it's moved on since 1973, while many Jesuits appear to be frozen in postures of avant-garde dissension out of the past. I repeat — today's Society has many exceptions to this picture. But the picture is accurate enough to merit concern.
Two years ago Father Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, S.J., General Superior of the Society since 1983, announced that he would retire in 2008 when he turned 80. The delegates to the 35th general congregation have the task of choosing a successor and setting policy for the years ahead. People who care about the Jesuits should wish them much success. That's what I prayed for at the Gesu when I was there.