Jesuits provide window for viewing Catholic Church

A study of the Jesuit Order in the United States, according to religion professor Eugene Bianchi, can provide a window through which to view important changes in the Catholic Church. Declining numbers entering the priesthood, shifting attitudes about sexuality, underlying tensions resulting from an increasingly conservative hierarchy, and the increased role of the laity are issues of concern for the entire church that can be viewed through the smaller window of the Jesuits.

A former Jesuit himself, Bianchi, along with Peter McDonough from Arizona State University, has conducted an in-depth study of current and former members of the Catholic order during the last year and a half.

With a two-year grant from the Lilly Endowment, Bianchi and McDonough have been in touch with more than 800 current Jesuits and Jesuits who have left the order since the 1960s. They have done approximately 100 face-to-face interviews, and have sent out written questionnaires to an additional 700 men. The number of responses is currently around 300. The interviews and questionnaires feature open-ended essay-type questions such as:

*What were some of the most important family and/or community-educational influences that brought you into the Jesuits?

* What were some of the high points and low points of your years of formation in the Order? What motivations kept you in the Order?

* How do you integrate sexuality into your life?

* How would you assess the quality of community life in the Jesuits?

* What do you see as the major problems facing the Jesuits today as they move into the new century? Do you see any particular avenues for solving these problems?

The goals of the study, according to Bianchi, are to gain a deeper understanding of the life experiences of Jesuits and former Jesuits; to understand what forms spirituality and ministry take during a period of great institutional and cultural transition; to provide information, from the perspective of participants, regarding the direction of professional religious life; to chart changing patterns of leadership for the institutional church; and to develop theoretical models of the dynamics of costs and benefits in the growth and decline of religious life.

The study is a personal one for Bianchi, who dedicated 20 years of his life to the Jesuit Order and has been interested in Catholic change and reform over the years. The idea for the study was born during a conversation he had with another former Jesuit. "I said, `What would really be interesting would be to do a study of former Jesuits like ourselves, as well as current Jesuits, to see if there are any differences in attitudes and actions,'" he explained. Bianchi then got in touch with McDonough, who had studied American Jesuits before the Second Vatican Council and had written the book, Men Astutely Trained.

The grant was originally for a two-year period, and only included the face-to-face interviews. As Bianchi and McDonough got into the project, they decided to add the questionnaires, as well as an additional smaller questionnaire aimed at lay people who collaborate with Jesuits in their institutions. There are 28 Jesuit colleges and universities and more than 50 high schools in the United States. The questionnaire for lay people was added after the 1995 Jesuit General Congregation, which noted the decreasing numbers of Jesuits and the rising average age of members of the Order. (There are currently approximately 4,000 Jesuits in the United States; the average age is 61.) One recommendation from the meetings was for greater collaboration with laity, particularly women. Bianchi and McDonough have asked the Lilly Foundation for an additional year of funding, which will allow them to finish their analysis and complete a book that they hope will be both scholarly and readable.

"This may be a way for me to cycle back to my intellectual and spiritual origins," said Bianchi. "Twenty years in the order marked my life. The years between 18 and 38 are very formative years. I think this is a way of reweaving the tapestry of my own life, seeing how the strands of the tapestry have shaped themselves."

-- Nancy M. Spitler

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