Fr. Dwight Longenecker: Two Kinds of Jesuits

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The featured image is “Saint Ignatius Loyola” painted by Miguel Cabrera (1695-1768), courtesy of copyrighted work available under Creative Commons.

By Fr. Dwight Longenecker, a Senior Contributor, The Imaginative Conservative

Whereas heroic missionary effort and martyrdom seemed the hallmark of the first Jesuits, the second generation moved in a different direction…

Dwight LongeneckerIn the Roman calendar, October is a harvest for militant saints. Kicking off with Saint Therese of Lisieux who proclaimed, “Sanctity! It must be won at the point of a sword!”, the calendar marches through to Saint Francis of Assisi, and Saint Faustina, then celebrates the Battle of Lepanto with the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary. Not finished, the heroic Saint Ignatius of Antioch is followed by John de Brébeuf and the North American martyrs on the nineteenth and Pope Saint John Paul II on the twenty-second. Although their day has now been moved to May, October was also the month in which the martyrs of England and Wales were commemorated.

Reading Ignatius Press’ recently published biography of St John de Brébeuf brought to mind the heroism of the first generation of Jesuit missionaries, and one couldn’t help contrasting them with the present crop of Jesuits. Readers who are familiar with the history of the English Protestant Revolution will remember how Jesuits like Edmund Campion and Robert Southwell left their homeland to train as priests, then returned to Elizabeth I’s police state to serve their co-religionists in secret. Always on the run, using aliases, disguises, and hiding themselves in Saint Nicholas Owen’s cleverly constructed priest holes, the young Jesuits were profiles in courage. Ultimately tortured and martyred, these were men whose determination and faith knew no bounds.

They were matched in the sixteenth century by the Frenchmen who came to the New World to evangelize the savages. It is easy in our Disney-fied society to imagine that the native American tribal people were all peaceful hunter-gatherers who subsisted on nuts and berries and the occasional rabbit. While some tribes were indeed peaceful, many were not. The Mohawk, Huron, and Iroquois of New France were a warlike people. Locked in superstition, their religion was a horrible spectacle of demon worship and frenzied orgies. Driven by fear and revenge, they tortured their captives for days in the most unspeakable ways, finally ending the ritual agony by consuming their flesh in a grotesque cannibalistic feast.

These were the people Saint John de Brébeuf, Saint Isaac Jogues, and their companions left France to evangelize. The hardships they endured are only somewhat visualized in films like Blackrobe and The Mission. Setting out without knowing the language, and expecting a tomahawk in the back of the head at any moment, the Jesuits paddled and portaged canoes with the Indians as they traveled upstream to their settlements. They lived and slept with the natives in squalid, vermin-infested conditions. The food was sparse, the Canadian winter as harsh as you can imagine, and the filth, promiscuity, and savagery surrounded them like a constant miasmal mist.

De Brébeuf was eventually martyred in 1649 by the Iroquois after enduring appalling ritual torture. Isaac Jogues had his fingers bitten off knuckle-by-knuckle before escaping back to France and, after recovery, returning to New France where he was also martyred by the Mohawk warriors.

I recount the heroism of these Jesuit martyrs as a sampling of a similar spirit amongst the first Jesuits. They not only served in the midst of tremendous hardship—often offering their lives—in Canada and England, but also in India, China, Japan, and South America. Whereas heroic missionary effort and martyrdom seemed the hallmark of the first Jesuits, the second generation moved in a different direction.

In the second half of the seventeenth century, the Jesuits in Europe had the reputation of being liberal. Contrasting with the Calvinistic-type Jansenists, the Jesuits were known for making whatever compromise necessary to advance the faith. So Hilaire Belloc in Characters of the Reformation wrote, “The great effect of the Jesuits had been to recover Europe for the Faith by making every sort of allowance—trying to understand and by sympathy to attract the worldly and the sensual and all the indifferent, and insisting the whole time on the absolute necessity of loyalty to the Church. Defend the unity of the Church, and talk of other things afterwards: preserve the Church which was in peril of destruction; only then, when you have leisure, after the battle, debate other things.” This accommodating spirit caused them to be viewed with suspicion by more dogmatically minded Catholics and, along with their political intrigues, led to their suppression in 1773 by Pope Clement XIV.

This history provides some context therefore with the present crop of Jesuits. In a recent essay in the Jesuit mouthpiece, America magazine, the ordination of homosexuals is advanced.[1] Media darling Father James Martin SJ is notoriously controversial for his advocacy of the LGBTQ agenda in the Catholic Church. Appointed by the Jesuit pope to be a media spokesman, Father Martin endorses dissident gay support groups while ignoring the orthodox support ministry, Courage. In a devastating essay, Father Paul Shaughnessy SJ asks, “Are the Jesuits Catholic?”[2]

Father Shaughnessy summarizes the book Passionate Uncertainty by Peter McDonough and Eugene Bianchi:

The trajectory of the decline is not hard to trace, and the Jesuit story, though more dramatic, differs little from that of other progressive religious orders in the decades following the Second Vatican Council. Liberalism had been seen to foster tolerance and mutual respect in pluralist secular communities. Yet, being purely negative in content and procedural in application, it proved lethal when imported into an intentional association like the Society of Jesus, one both doctrinally exclusivist and rigidly hierarchical. Almost overnight the pope’s light infantry became a battalion in which every man decided for himself which war he was fighting. The result was an institutional nightmare: confusion and cowardice at the top; despair, rage, and disillusionment in the ranks. American Jesuits went from 8,400 members in 1965 to 3,500 today. Entering novices declined from a peak one-year total of 409 to a low of 38. Worse, the number of priests who jump ship each year roughly equals the number of entering novices; the number of Jesuits who die annually is twice as high as either.

One of the main tenets of the modern Jesuits is the defining principle of modernism itself: Use the words of orthodox Catholicism while re-interpreting them to mean whatever you want. Stay within the church and battle from within the ranks, and see this as a sign of “true loyalty” rather than dissent or rebellion. Father Shaughnessy explains:

This “plausible deniability” is the motto of the new Jesuit nomenklatura, and the men who made themselves superiors in the 1970s understood clearly that you can write or say pretty much anything you want, provided you keep open your semantic lines of retreat. Thus the German theologian Karl Rahner was able to exhort his fellow Jesuits: “You must remain loyal to the papacy in theology and in practice, because that is part of your heritage to a special degree, but because the actual form of the papacy remains subject, in the future too, to an historical process of change, your theology and ecclesiastical law has above all to serve the papacy as it will be in the future.” See the move? Our current Jesuits are all loyal to the papacy, but to the future papacy—that of Pope Chelsea XII, perhaps—and their support for contraception, gay sex, and divorce proceeds from humble obedience to this conveniently protean pontiff.

The flexible approach to authority and doctrine also extends to sexual morality. The authors of Passionate Uncertainty outline the ambiguity modern Jesuits feel regarding their vow of celibacy. In the age of the sexual revolution just what does “celibacy” entail? Some argue that it simply means a man does not get married—not that he remains sexually inactive. Indeed, for men not attracted to marriage, the door to the closet would suddenly be opened. Father Shaughnessy reports,

Roughly half of the Society under the age of fifty shuffles on the borderline between declared and undeclared gayness. In 1999 the American Jesuits decided to give priority to the recruitment of gays (under the rubric of “men comfortable with their sexuality”), and the majority of American formatores, Jesuits in charge of training, are homosexual as well.

There is a good deal of dissembling among superiors here: some denying the accusation of the gay influx, some admitting it but insisting that it is a boon, most perhaps shifting from one stance to the other depending on the sympathies of their audience and the exigencies of the moment. Overall, superiors have cautiously abetted the transformation of the gay subculture into the dominant culture within Jesuit houses. The website of the California Province portrays its novitiate in frankly camp terms (a photo showing two novices in Mardi Gras masks was captioned “Pretty Boy and Jabba the Slut”). On the other coast, Boston Magazine recognized the downtown Jesuit parish as the “best place to meet a mate—gay” in its “Best of Boston” awards.

One wonders what John de Brébeuf, Edmund Campion and Isaac Jogues would make of their Jesuit brothers today. But perhaps the present crop of Jesuits argue that they are simply affirming that other seventeenth century Jesuit tradition: the one that was “making every sort of allowance—trying to understand and by sympathy to attract the worldly and the sensual and all the indifferent.”

In fact under Jesuit leadership, this seems to be exactly the tone being set for the contemporary Catholic Church. It is a path of accommodation, open-ness, and endless dialogue. It is a path of sympathy to attract the worldly, the sensual, and the indifferent, and it seems difficult to reconcile this Jesuitical approach with the one in which missionaries combine herculean heroism with supernatural courage to preach the gospel to all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.


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[1] “No, homosexuality is not a risk factor for the sexual abuse of children,” America, October 22, 2018.

[2] “Are the Jesuits Catholic?“, The Weekly Standard, June 3, 2002.

Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Saint Ignatius Loyola” painted by Miguel Cabrera (1695-1768), courtesy of copyrighted work available under Creative Commons.