One of the interesting things about being a Jesuit is that we get dragged into a lot of fights, whether we are involved or not, whether it is merited or not. People are especially eager to believe things about the Jesuits, especially if it seems to confirm their prejudices about us, both good and bad. Someone years ago tried to speak to me about support for abortion among Jesuits, for example. The assumption was that since Jesuits are “liberal” (another questionable prejudice), that there must be widespread support for abortion among Jesuits. I told her—and it’s true—that I don’t know a single Jesuit whom I would consider anything but pro-life on the abortion issue. Still such mistaken perceptions endure. My most commented-on blog post ever was when I called out the author of a Catholic magazine article for a spurious claim that the Jesuits were at the “vanguard” of the opposition to a Vatican document when, in truth, the vast majority of Jesuits had expressed no opinion about the document one way or another. If that logic held, then, there were any number of organizations that could have joined us in the “vanguard.” But it’s much more sexy to blame the Jesuits.
Recently I’ve been thinking about the fact though that it’s not just our critics who love to drag us into their fights. It’s our friends too. People, often with little thought, are sometimes quick to presume that we are on their side in a given matter. Or, short of saying that we are on their side, they somehow implicate us in what they are saying. Again, this is either because it’s more sexy to include the Jesuits, or because they are using “Jesuits” to refer to an amorphous constituency within the Church that includes some Jesuits, as well as many people who are not Jesuits. It’s more akin to a pop culture phenomenon than an assertion of the truth about the Society of Jesus.
What prompted me to think about this in particular this week was Maureen Dowd’s column in last weekend’s New York Times entitled, “Hold the Halo,” about the beatification of John Paul II. In it, she cites John Paul II’s support of Maciel, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, as evidence against his beatification and eventual canonization. And, she makes a valid criticism, as few would deny that for all his virtues, John Paul II had something of a blind spot when it came to Maciel. He refused to believe that Maciel might be guilty of the things that we now know he was indeed guilty of. Now perhaps I’m naïve, but I’ve always believed, contrary to the assertions of Dowd and others, that this was not a case of deliberate concealment of Maciel’s crimes, but a certain naivete on the part of an aging Pope. But here I’m not really entering into the debate about whether John Paul should be canonized or not, because what bothered me more was where she goes next.
“The ultra-orthodox Legion of Christ and Opus Dei,” she continues, “were the shock troops in John Paul’s war on Jesuits and other progressive theologians.” Now I presume from this statement that Dowd would consider herself as, at the very least, positively inclined toward the Jesuits (whether she is our ‘friend’ or not, I don’t want to presume to say), but there are so many problems with this statement that I hardly know where to begin. First among them is, of course, the fact that she equates Jesuits with “progressive theologians,” as if every Jesuit can be presumed to be a progressive theologian. Only a small percentage of Jesuits, of course, are theologians, and not all of them could be said to be progressive. Nor can this be said of all Jesuits, as people often presume. The joke among Jesuits is that if you poll four Jesuits about some matter, you’ll get five different opinions. It’s funny, because it’s not far from the truth. And the Jesuits were never at war with John Paul II! The pope did intervene in Jesuit governance at the beginning of his papacy, because he was led to believe that he had reason to be concerned about the Jesuits. If there was going to be a war, it was then. But what surprised many—including the pope—was that the Jesuits did not rebel, but obediently accepted the situation (even if they weren’t so happy about it). There never was a war. Among Jesuits you’ll find as many men many who are ardent supporters of John Paul II and his papacy as you’ll find detractors. And you’ll find many, frankly, who don’t find it necessary to have an opinion or stance toward any pope, because the main focus of their lives is their ministry to the people of God. Indeed, belief in the importance and primacy of their ministry is the thing that you’ll find most Jesuits in agreement on.
There is much more I could say about the implications of the above statement and the ways in which it distorts the truth. But, again, my main goal is to point to it as an example of how “friends” of the Jesuits sometimes misrepresent us as much as our critics, and anyone who might believe themselves to be “at war” with us, might. So, thanks Maureen for liking us, but if you want to speak of a war on “progressive theologians,” leave it at that, and keep us out of the equation. Sure, there are some Jesuits who share your concerns about John Paul’s beatification, but there are also plenty of Jesuits, even some “progressive theologians” among them, who will also be celebrating the beatification this weekend of a flawed but holy man and pope, even if he wasn’t always our biggest fan.