Monday, December 20, 2010

When are the Jesuits going to be Catholic?

I met some friends - guys I've not seen in very many years - this morning for coffee. We ordered our beverages (you can tell we're all growing up by our common order: regular coffee, black) and set about the business of catching up. We chatted of families, weddings, deaths, births of children, and the passing of loved ones. New jobs, career changes, and fears for the future peppered the discussion, too, and it was great to hear the stories and see how the lives of my friends had unfolded since we graduated in 1998.

At a certain point, the conversation turned to my decision to enter the Society of Jesus. "When," one of my friends asked, not without a barbed edge, "are the Jesuits going to be Catholic?"

Now I don't think he meant this to be offensive but, all the same, it cut a bit. Normally, I let these little jabs go but, being fueled by caffeine, I thought to pursue the issue. With no small amount of irritation lacing my voice, I asked him, "What, if you don't mind me asking, do you mean by this?"

He went on to talk about how ALL the Jesuits have become liberal and NONE of them love the Church any more. ALL Jesuits are disobedient and are involved in advancing some RADICAL AGENDA of liberalism. Jesuits seldom wear clerical attire in public, he added, and they breed confusion and dissent rather than clarity of thought and acceptance of the Church.

Having said his piece, my friend sat back. I sipped my coffee and met eyes with the other two guys who were with us, each of whom looked bemused and embarrassed.

The conversation that ensued for the next half-hour ranged over many topics. Later, I'll take up the question of the Catholicity of the Jesuits. Right now, I would like to make two points that touch on the experience of clergy (potentially) in general:

First, to the point of Jesuits being liberals, let me take one instance. When I am asked about whether I am Pro-Life or Pro-Choice (or Pro-Abortion) I have no reservation in averring that I am 100% pro-life. This meets with nods from many who seem to think that there are Jesuits out there who are actively working to kill unborn babies. Yet I always go on to say that not only am I vehemently against abortion, I am against euthanasia, I am against guns, I totally oppose the death penalty, and I'm not a fan of war. I'm also so Pro-Life that I think that we as a nation, and as a world, need to address the economic structures that contribute to crippling poverty. I am so Pro-Life that I think we as a nation need to take steps to address our flailing educational and medical systems. I am so Pro-Life that, when people hear how broadly I construe Pro-Life, I go from being a "Good Conservative" to being a "Filthy Liberal."

Does this make sense? If I agree with a person on abortion, I'm a Good Catholic. If I extend my valuation of life to other issues, I become a Socialist and I'm told that I'm out-of-touch with reality and that I live in an ivory tower (such towers, I guess, abound in Detroit). How is it that the more Pro-Life I am, the more that I endorse and affirm the dignity of EVERY HUMAN LIFE from womb to tomb, that I am transformed from a "Good Catholic" into a "Dissenting Jesuit"? Boggles my mind.

As for clerical attire, I wear the Roman collar every day to work (unless we have a spirit day, when I seize the opportunity to wear jeans and a spirit shirt). I also wear it to sporting events (when we play other Catholic league teams), when I chaperone dances, when I go out to meet benefactors, when I attend social events that are directly linked to the school or to the Society of Jesus. Yet the fact that I spend most of my waking hours wearing black isn't enough for some: when I go to the movies, the doctor's, or to hang out with my friend I should be clad in clerical attire. So should clergy be "on" all of the time?

I think people forget the demands that are placed on priests and religious today. We are expected to be good preachers - not too long-winded, of course, and sufficiently entertaining - and good with balancing the books. A high premium is placed on orthodoxy, so long as it doesn't make waves or make people feel uncomfortable. We need to be available at a moment's notice to bring Communion, celebrate weddings, do wakes and funerals, offer counseling, rush to hospitals, and teach courses. And, I might add, try to find time for personal prayer and relaxation.

In other words, I often wonder if people realize the enormous burden that is placed on clergy today. Speaking personally, some days it really stinks to be a Jesuit. Jokes about pedophile priests, about clergy abuse, about financial improprieties, about discrimination and hypocrisy, about a host of things...I get these a lot. People write comments on YouTube and on the blog and send me emails that are little more than scurrilous attacks on me, the Jesuits, and the Church at large. If my experience is at all similar to that of others, is it any wonder that guys would want to go to the movies, or out to dinner, or to the bar without having to be identified as clergy? Some might see sporting clerical attire as a public witness...others experience it as a target. There is a time and a place for all things and, as I've experienced it, there's no hard-and-fast rule for wearing a collar. I think my solution - wear it when it involves my working or being a Jesuit presence - has worked well...for I just can't imagine that my wearing it to see "A Nightmare on Elm Street" or "Black Swan" has much of a witness value!

It's sometimes disheartening to poke about on the internet to see the great animosity had (1) toward the Catholic Church, (2) toward priests, and within the Church (3) those who hate the Jesuits. These are humbling days, in my experience, for there is precious little luster or glory associated with being a part of the Church. Perhaps I'd have it no other way: the Christ child was born in a manger and, perhaps, it's my job to sit vigil amidst the manure!

My friend did apologize for his comment, saying he didn't realize things were so complicated. This, I think, is symptomatic of idiot-blogging and the news bites we get on television. We want short, pre-digested bits of information so that we don't have to take the time to wade through the information and make informed judgments on our own. Perhaps here, then, is the challenge each of us can accept this final week of Advent: to embrace the story of Christ's coming not as a mere fact, a bit of information, but rather as an invitation to learn more, to explore more deeply what the coming of the Son of Man means and how it might encourage us to grow as women and men for others who have committed themselves to the greater glory of God.


Anonymous said...

As we speak over one billion Catholics believe Pope Benedict has primacy over the world. In submission they call him their Holy Father, the Vicar of Christ. They believe anyone refusing to acknowledge the Pope as the Father of all Christians is accursed of God. Yet Jesus warned His followers not to call anyone on earth their Father. There is only One Holy Father, God Almighty.

"Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven." (Mat. 23:9)

Jeremiah warned His people not to pray to Semiramis, the queen of heaven (Jer. 44:18-25). Yet, millions of Catholics get on their knees every day and pray to their queen of heaven, Mary. Like the Babylonian priests proclaiming Semiramis as God, some Catholic priests teach the heresy Mary is now sitting at the right hand of God.

Anonymous said...

The issue that often arises, with many of the Catholics who insist they have a "pro-life" position similar to your own, is this. Functionally, they end up dissenting with regard to the defense of the fundamental right to life of all unbporn human beings by viewing it as only one issue among many of equal importance. In order to advance some of these other issues, they become willing to accept abortion if that's the necessary price.

I'm not saying this is your position; I have no reason to believe it is. But I have plenty of experience with Catholics who interpret the term pro-life with similar breadth, and then decline to assign meaningful primacy to the defense of life against abortion.

To me, this is the real issue with defining pro-life in the way you have outlines. It's nothing to do with whether someone regards themselves as being a political "liberal." Whatever a Catholic's political affiliation, if he or she is authentic in claiming to be pro-life, then a fundamental priority must be assigned to protecting innocent lives in their mothers' wombs.

Dorothy Day and the folks over at the Houston Catholic Worker have the right idea about how to reconcile a properly developed social conscience with the abortion issue. Proclaim the dignity of every human being, and fight for the marginalized at all times and in all places. But never, ever attempt to justify the intrinsic evil of abortion due to some particular circumstance or allow the abortion issue to be subordinated to another "social concern."

Unknown said...


A consistent ethic of life begins with the recognition that from the moment of conception we are dealing with human life. I simply find it astonishing that people will fight so vehemently over abortion - a fight I endorse - and then, once the child is born, they seem to lose all interest in the life they worked so hard to preserve! Hence my high standard for what it means to be truly pro-life: are you willing to defend and work for on behalf of the dignity of all human life? Sometimes I have to wonder if we too easily reduce "pro-life" to "anti-abortion" and forget the remainder of the human journey.

James M. Lang said...

Ryan, you do an excellent job of articulating the position on life issues that Cardinal Bernadin described as the "seamless garment." He had it right, as I believe you do too. Keep up the great work.

Anonymous said...

"Sometimes I have to wonder if we too easily reduce "pro-life" to "anti-abortion" and forget the remainder of the human journey." That's what I tell my ├╝ber-Catholic friends who call themselves pro-life yet support war (if the US is attacking), and the death penalty. Then they come up with all kinds of reasons why war and the death penalty are O.K. and not comparable to abortion. It's nuts.

Shawn said...

"They'll know we are Christians by our love." When the Amish children were senselessly and brutally murdered a few years ago in their schoolhouse, everyone knew they and their family members and friends were Amish because they wore the garb of the Amish. But the world learned they were Christians when they went to the wife of the man who carried out the senseless killings and told her of their forgiveness and of their prayer and concern for her and her children. Pro-life, religiously garbed, and living Christian witnesses. It's that simple...and as you say, Mr. D., that complicated. All the best. Merry Christmas. Happy New Year.

Jdn717 said...

I dont follow this logic. Stealing money from the taxpayers is prolife, so a Jesuit priest can feel more secure in a zero sum world? All economic structures are the same and result in poverty.