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 Jesuitsa
monastic order of men founded by Ignatius of Loyola in the 16th
centurywere 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.
Thats a tremendous demographic change in the religious
order, to have decreased that much, said Eugene Bianchi, professor
emeritus of religion. Bianchis 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 didnt need anyones 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
I left the order to some extent because I didnt 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 whod 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
hierarchybishops and priestsreally 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 issuescelibacy
and the priesthood, contraception, homosexualitybut 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 Jesuitsand 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, theres a whole section in the book on homosexuality
in the order; I dont 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 retiredin name only, it seems, since he
now spends his days at Emorys 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 provosts office for 200304 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.