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July 8, 2002

Book examines Jesuit priests, Catholic Church

By Michael Terrazas

These are not the best of times for the Catholic Church. Under slow but steady pressure for years to relax its strictures on personal behavior in an increasingly secular world, the Vatican now finds itself playing a central role in the priest child molestation scandal that is haunting the church in America.

But the pressures between modernity and convention that only now have claimed the mainstream spotlight have been simmering for decades between the Vatican and what was once one of its most prestigious and well-known religious orders: the Jesuits.

At the time of the Second Vatican Council in 1965, the Jesuits—a monastic order of men founded by Ignatius of Loyola in the 16th century—were at their pinnacle, with more than 35,000 members worldwide (8,500 in the United States). Today, less than 40 years later, the Jesuits’ numbers have dwindled to 20,000, fewer than 4,000 of them Americans. In fact, there now are more ex-Jesuits than there are practicing members.

“That’s a tremendous demographic change in the religious order, to have decreased that much,” said Eugene Bianchi, professor emeritus of religion. Bianchi’s new book, Passionate Uncertainty: Inside the American Jesuits (University of California Press, 2002), examines both the order itself and its recent decline.

Bianchi cowrote the book with Peter McDonough, professor of political science at Arizona State University and author of Men Astutely Trained: A History of the Jesuits in the American Century (1992). But Bianchi didn’t need anyone’s help to grasp the significance of what has happened to the Jesuits; he attended a Jesuit high school and subsequently spent 20 years in the order, the last seven as an ordained Jesuit priest, before leaving in 1968 to become a professor at Emory.

“I left the order to some extent because I didn’t see myself living a celibate life well for the rest of my life,” Bianchi admitted. “But I also left because I wanted more freedom to make my own decisions.”

In fact, while researching the book, Bianchi said he heard echoes of his own thoughts from long ago. He and McDonough contacted 430 current and former Jesuits, obtaining long essay responses from all and conducting lengthy personal interviews with nearly a quarter of the sample. To be sure, among those who’d left the order, the authors frequently encountered a desire to lead a more intimate life (Jesuits take monastic vows of poverty, celibacy and obedience), but there also was a larger sense of anxiety regarding Jesuits’ relationship to the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church.

“In the broad sweep of history, the Catholic Church and its hierarchy—bishops and priests—really have not been thoroughly reformed since the Middle Ages,” Bianchi said. “Since the 1700s there have been democratic revolutions of all sorts in all aspects of society, and all of that I think is gradually coming to bear on the structure of the church.”

This pressure concerns not only lifestyle issues—celibacy and the priesthood, contraception, homosexuality—but also those related to the church itself, such as ordination of women and participation of the laity in church governance. The current child molestation scandal is only the latest in a series of strains that eventually could force another revolution on the order of Vatican II in 1965.

In Passionate Uncertainty, Bianchi and McDonough examine in detail all of these factors and more, in terms of how they relate to the Jesuits—and through the very words of Jesuits themselves. The authors liberally quote excerpts from subject interviews and essay responses throughout the book.

“The only way of really getting more penetrating information was by a qualitative and not a quantitative approach,” Bianchi said of the methodology. “Quantitative instruments are fine for what they do, but sometimes they just come up with trivia. For example, there’s a whole section in the book on homosexuality in the order; I don’t think we could have found that right off the bat with a quantitative instrument.”

But they found that, given the chance to explain in their own words how they integrate sexuality into their lives, both current and former Jesuits offered up the information freely. It took a sizable amount of time (Bianchi began working on the book in 1995), but eventually the authors were able to produce an honest and comprehensive look at the state of the religious order.

In fact, the book was not published until a year after Bianchi himself “retired”—in name only, it seems, since he now spends his days at Emory’s Briarcliff Campus, shepherding the nascent Emeritus College through the second of a two-year pilot program. The college boasts three part-time employees (Bianchi, an administrative assistant and a graduate researcher), and its director said he is preparing a proposal to receive funding from the provost’s office for 2003–04 and beyond.

“We had a very good first year,” Bianchi said. “We started a number of things, and hopefully we can convince people that this is something that can be beneficial both to retirees and to the University.”