A Book Review
by William Cleary
requested by NCR
Passionate Uncertainty: Inside the American Jesuits. . . . .834 words
by Peter McDonough and Eugene C. Bianchi
University of California Press
cloth, 380 pp., $29.95
This will be a widely read book: a must for ex-Jesuits, a should for Jesuits, a need-to-know for Religious and priests everywhere, a fascination for anyone curious. The University of California Press has published it in good, hard covers because you usually can't believe what you just read, and will page back and forth -- not to mention trips to the world of footnotes at the back -- which some of us still long to see at the foot of each page, like in the good old days.
The good old days . . . are gone forever, my friend. You thought they'd never end? They're over. Listen to these 430 empassioned voices speaking anonymously, as if in a darkened conference room: 224 of them present-day U.S. Jesuits, 206 of them ex-Jesuits. One hundred of the interviews were taken in person, the rest via essays answering dozens of questions: why did you join the Society? why did you (not) leave? where are you now religiously?
Often the answer is unexpected. I wore out my eyes pouring over these 380 pages of amazing, honest, burning words. "Passionate Uncertainty" was indeed the overall feeling among the respondents, like people living near simmering volcano. Nobody really knows what is happening -- but it is scary.
Jesuit membership in the U.S. peaked in l965 at 8,395 men. By 2000 the number had slipped to 3,635. My brother Tom and I found ourselves among the "Olims," a latin adverb meaning "once upon a time," now a euphemism for what has become a Brotherhood of Broken Dreams, men who left.
Olims gather for retreat days, meet some of the old still-in friends for lunch, even hunker around melancholy listservs and talk a lot of the old talk. But it's all different. We are 5000-plus, this poor man's battered "Society," more thousands than remain inside. We often wonder out loud: "Will the Order ever listen to us?" We need wonder no more. Our ideas, our suggestions, our feelings are now public -- but alongside the words of our brothers who stayed: an ideal arrangement.
The authors are a couple of pro's. Eugene Bianchi, a former Jesuit, has eight books to his credit. Peter McDonough is a political scientist who wowed us in l992 with the 600-page Men Astutely Trained: A History of the Jesuits in the American Century. The new book is a another treat for anyone who loves language, and a permanent contribution to religious sociology.
The content is, well, edifying -- if the edifice you care about is a church for tomorrow and not for yesterday. The church for yesterday made priests into heroes, and Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra were honored to play them in the movies. Those were the days! Young men flocked to seminaries, young women filled up the novitiates. Now, suddenly, almost no one wants to be a priest or a nun. The unthinkable is happening. The church body, while still burgeoning, wants a married clergy, a sexually enlightened catechism, a servant hierarchy. As for the Jesuits in the book? Read all about it in Passionate Uncertainty: it's decidedly edifying -- because the Jesuits of tomorrow, will be a new quantity: dedicated first to justice, not institutions, and benefiting more from the "epistemological privilege of the oppressed" (in ethicist Sharon Welch's phrase) which comes with heartening force especially from gays, a lot of them in the book "out" and unapologetic. The honesty is sometimes arresting:
Said one Jesuit: "I entered as a way to cope with being gay, although that would not have been the way I put it then." Said another: ..." a major problem is our inability to come to terms with the fact that a majority of Jesuits under forty are not heterosexual." The many testimonials about this are inconclusive, but it may be that gays are drawn to Religious Life simply because they are caring individuals who make excellent priests and teachers, and with their frequent charism for relationality are naturals for ministry of every kind.
In fact, to this outside observer, the "gaying of religious life" (as the authors put it) suggests that little would be lost and much gained by co-eding the Order altogether. If gays and straights can learn to live in the same monastery, why not women and men? Zen monasteries and college dorms seem to have accepted the challenges of this, and absorbed the costs. The founder himself admitted two women to the Order, and at the request of the pope: so what else is new?
But inclusive monasteries will never happen. Rome won't even allow inclusive language. The Olims in the book -- who are religiously and spiritually "all over the lot" -- often speak prophetically too, and with bracing loyalty to the Ignatian spirit -- which was from the beginning innovational and politically incorrect. "Those were the days, my friend" ends with a kind of lament, drifting into neutral syllables the last time through. But it's probably too early to lament: too much uncertainty. #
William Cleary recently authored Praying Your Story (Forest of Peace). He can be reached at Bill@Clearyworks.com.