Sunday, May 08, 2005

Fr Reese and the Reform of the Jesuits

The irreplaceable John L. Allen confirms that Tom Reese, SJ, was forced out of his position as the editor of America magazine by the Vatican.

Some years ago, when I was thinking about becoming Catholic, I read Reese´s Inside the Vatican, a fair-minded, thoughtful look at the Vatican from the perspective of political science. I have deep disagreements, and deep respect, for Reese and his views.

The firing of Reese will certainly raise concerns about a possible purge of the Jesuits. While a purge may or may not be in order, reform of some kind is long overdue.

The truth is that the Jesuits have been led for nearly forty years by what on any account must be held to be the least capable leaders in Jesuit history. Since the early 1960s, the number of Jesuits has fallen from over 40,000 to about 20,000. The number of seminarians studying to be Jesuits has dropped by 90%.

In any business with that level of failure, the leaders would have been fired by the stockholders 35 years ago. If any US bureaucracy had failed that miserably, its leaders would have been dragged before a Senate committee, grilled over a long slow flame, and ignominiously dispatched. What is astonishing is not that on occasion the Jesuits have run into trouble with Rome; what is astonishing is Rome´s patience with the Jesuits, her hope that the Jesuits would reform on their own without meaningful action from the Vatican.

The firing of Reese may well be a signal that that patience has run out. The evidence of the last forty years is irrefutable: the Jesuits are clearly incapable of reforming on their own, and will have to be dealt with from outside the order.

At a human level, I feel sad for Reese, who seems to be handling a difficult situation with dignity and class. One hopes that American Jesuits will think seriously about the history that has brought the Jesuits to their current state--and that the process of reform can begin.


At Monday, 09 May, 2005, Blogger Kerry said...

A former Monk I once knew told me jokingly, "The only two things the Pope does not know, is how many order of nuns there are, and what the Jesuits are up to." Could he have been right?

At Monday, 09 May, 2005, Anonymous Michael said...

Jesuit bashing. I never got this tired sport. The disappointing thing - these days it always comes from Catholics.

Now your business analogy may have the slightest, tangential bit of merit. Funny how that is all you have to smear 40 years worth of Jesuits. Quite depressing.

That analogy could be more appropriately used to look at overall US Mass attendance, for example.

But it's pointless to go there. As pointless, mean-spirited, and quite frankly juvenile as your criticism. Besides that, it was just bad form: you're going after a family member. You are implying, against the grain of 2000 years, that some in the family are better, and worse, than others.

There's something wrong with that.

At Monday, 09 May, 2005, Blogger GrenfellHunt said...

Dear Michael:

I'm sorry if the post came across as mean-spirited. As I mentioned, I respect Fr Reese and appreciate his sincerity and his fairmindedness. I try to keep the rhetorical temperature of this blog on "cool"--we have plenty of rants on the internet, which is fine for those who enjoy them, but I don't consciously intend to increase their number. I appreciate your criticisms of the tone of the post and am thinking seriously over what you said. Please be kind enough to renew those criticisms if I write any future posts that you believe step over the line in this regard.

The content of the post was actually suggested by some of Fr Reese's own work. A recent editorial in America was titled "Challenges for the New Pope":

"The pope also faces many challenges in the internal life of the church. At the top of the list is the shortage of priests. The time for denial is over. There are not enough priests now, and the situation is only going to get worse." I agree with this. But I fear that the single group within the Church that is most deeply in denial are the Jesuits. Contrast the sharp drop in Jesuit seminarians with the sharp in rise in Catholic seminarians globally under John Paul II. I hope the Jesuits recover from their period of denial and institute the kind of reforms necessary to reverse their decline.

The same editorial in America also stated: "There are no simple answers to these issues, and reformers must recognize that every change has both positive and negative effects. But without open discussion, church life will become more and more dysfunctional." I agree with this too. I hope that open discussion of reform includes "open discussion of how to reform the Jesuits". Without that discussion, Jesuit life will become "more and more dysfunctional".

If you have suggestions for how to reform the Jesuits, please do contribute them. And please understand that any criticisms of the Jesuits offered here are always set forth "more in sorrow than in anger".


At Monday, 09 May, 2005, Anonymous Michael said...

Hello Bruce,

I don't have any grand suggestions for how to reform the Jesuits. To be honest, I think the Jesuit way of proceeding on the question would be to first identify it as a question, and then try to answer it.

I think the Jesuits are "big" on self-reflection. And when they do so they typically try to follow a procedure: first say what is good, then what is not good, then suggestions, etc.

From the Jesuits I know, I really do think these are serious, dedicated, charitable men who are, at their best, trying for "the greater", trying to find God in all things.

I suppose that sometimes lands them in hot water. Maybe sometimes they make mistakes. Some of the issues are all too big for me to make a judgment on. But I will note two things that I would say are important to keep in mind.

First, the Jesuits, any individual Jesuit is in the beginning a product of the basic parish system. They are in the Church. They come out of the same basic faith and practice we all did (given variations in place, etc.). They want to serve that Church in some way. Their intentions are very good. Thank goodness the Church has a religious order like the Jesuits where some people can find an institution within an institution as an outlet for living the Gospel as they can. And the Jesuits have 500 years of history of doing that well. Very well.

Second, I have no way of knowing the details of Father Reese's stepping down from "America". Exactly how the decision was reached, we can only speculate. I don't like the word "fired". I'm not happy about his exit, but I don't know. That's a given. What I do know is Father Reese's and his Superior's public response: Not a negative word from them about the result or whatever process occurred to get the result. They've been obedient. I think that is what the overwhelming majority of Jesuits do.

I don't know how they feel privately. They may look at it as the Spirit nudging them. Don't know. But publicly they are right down the line, as they should be I think. Therefore, I reacted to even the hint that they would or should somehow be impugned.

They took things in the right spirit I think. For my own part I would say that if I was in a similar situation I hope I could do as well. Probably we all would hope we could.

Anyway. I do like your blog. I found it via some other blog (can't recall), and I bookmarked it. I really like the theology/philosophy reference with "Aristotle". I think I get it, and I also think this is one thing the Church Universal really needs now, one thing it needs to remember. The Jesuits are no slackers there either.

Peace, etc., Michael

At Monday, 09 May, 2005, Blogger GrenfellHunt said...

Dear Michael:

Thanks for your gracious letter. I think some of the sharp tone you identified in my first post was that of a wounded lover--I gave very serious consideration to joining the Jesuits about 5 years ago, and gave it up with much reluctance...largely because of what seemed to be the internal problems of the order.

I have a very high regard for the caliber of men that the Jesuits both attract and produce: highly intelligent, highly disciplined men, of very high integrity, who pursue what they conceive to be the truth with exceptional boldness and courage...characteristics that seem to apply even to those Jesuits whose theology sometimes worries me.

It's very difficult to know the full truth about what's happened at America magazine. I was reluctant to post on it when rumours started circulating about the change of leadership--but I decided to go with it when I saw the article by John Allen at NCR, whom I take to be reliable on these things.

I think Fr Reese and the Jesuits are handling what must be a very painful situation with dignity and grace.

You are certainly right that the local parish system affects the quality of the men who enter the Jesuits. Traditionally, the Jesuits have been brilliant at training men, and sending them into the Church and the world, and renewing the surrounding culture. From the sixteenth century to the mid-part of the twentieth, the case could be made that no religious movement in any religious tradition changed more lives with fewer men than the Jesuits. Their success in missions, education, relief of the poor is astonishing--there's never really been anything quite like them.

Thanks for your kind words about the blog. One of the things I like about Ignatius of Loyola was his enthusiasm of Thomas Aquinas...which brings with it an enthusiasm for Aristotle. I hope the blog can make some contribution both to public discourse (at least in the blogosphere!), and help Christians achieve a more philosophically rigorous understanding of our role in a democracy.

Thanks again for your letter,


At Monday, 09 May, 2005, Anonymous michael said...

And to you and your gracious responses, etc.

We need Aristotle right now - via Thomas of course.

The culture needs him. Sanity demands him.

I'm all for starting people on Aristotle by the second grade. If I could do it, I would.

More for the distinctions, the different ways that something, anything, can and should be approached. Contemporary culture has this awful habit (as I see it) of trying to make everything the same thing.

Don't even get me started on habits and character and growing in virtue. How many marriages would never get to the point of no return if young couples were told on their wedding day that if they want to remain friends, to grow together, they need to grow together in virtue?

And Thomas' invaluable distinction between the knowledge of faith and the knowledge of reason (from how I read Gilson reading Thomas anyway). The false arguments that could stop in their tracks.

We could do much worse than recalling T. Aq. to the everyday world he belongs in. Not that he's everything, but you'd do alright even if he was.

I could go on, but I won't. The Jesuits taught me Aristotle's basics, and Aquinas. I can never thank them enough for that.

Peace, etc.


At Tuesday, 10 May, 2005, Blogger GrenfellHunt said...

Dear Michael:

Where did you study? Was this a Catholic high school? university?

Feel free to send me an e-mail at



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