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Struggling with Catholic and How the Church Reasoned

by John Aquino on 03/15/19

Many of us who are Catholics are struggling, A March 19, 2019 Gallup Poll showed an increasing percentage of Catholic who say they are considering leaving the church. Even some, who are not Catholics but have respect for those who are, are struggling. The struggle is an attempt to balance the history of the Roman Catholic Church, its contributions to the inner well being of human beings, its tireless efforts to feed the hungry and clothe the homeless, and its spreading the word of the Gospel throughout the world, with the recent priest pedophile scandal and cover-up. 


The scandal comes down to the  decision of church officials to focus on keeping the church strong and place little or no attention on helping those hurt by the actions of these priests. This line of reasoning smacks of that expressed by the brilliant but emotionless Vulcan Spock in the "Star Trek" television series and movies: The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. As part of that larger context, I found myself sorting out the meaning of the terms "Jesuit" and "Jesuitical" as I understand them. Some have credited the church's reasoning in this scandal as directly or indirectly influenced by Jesuitical thinking. In December 2018, the Jesuits released their own list of members of their order suspected of sexual abuse, and there have been claims that some accused priests found a haven at Jesuit college campuses. And even here there is a struggle to balance a rich and beneficial history of Jesuit learning and selfless giving against a reputation for being cunning and emotionless--Jesuits as Vulcans?--and my own limited experiences, none of which were good. But, again, I balance that with the good experience of family members.

A Jesuit is a member of the Society of Jesus, a Roman Catholic order of priests founded by St. Ignatius Loyola, St. Francis Xavier, and others in 1534 to serve as missionaries for the church. The order began establishing schools soon after its founding, which today include such universities as Georgetown and Marquette. "Jesuitical" is defined in dictionaries as dissembling and equivocating like a Jesuit. Dissembling means to conceal one's true motives, and equivocation is the use of ambiguous language to conceal the truth or to avoid making a commitment. The background for this labeling is that in Elizabethan England, where Catholics were persecuted by the state and its Church of England, Jesuits advised them to employ equivocation to avoid the sin of lying. If they were asked, "Is there a priest in your house?", they were told to say, "I know not," with the mental reservation that the full sentence was actually, "I know not to tell you" or "My answer is no," to which they were to add mentally "to you." Those critical of Jesuits, however, describe their reasoning as sly and cunning.

If someone listens to your argument and responds, "That's very Jesuitical," it may not be a compliment.  In Shakespeare's King John, based on the life of the 12th century English king, the character of Cardinal Pandulph is said to be a parody of Jesuitical thinking. In the play, Pandulph excommunicates King John and urges King Phillip of France to break away from John. Philip answers that he had sworn to support John. Pandulph replies:

All form is formless, order orderless,
Save what is opposite to England's love. . . .
For that which thou hast sworn to do amiss
Is not amiss when it is truly done, 
And being not done, where doing tends to ill,
The truth is then most done not doing it.

I have seen program notes to the play describing this passage as "Jesuitical double-talk" and a parody of Jesuitical reasoning. 

Having gone this far, I should note that my knowledge of Jesuits and Jesuitical reasoning is limited because, of the male members of my immediate family, I was the only one not taught by Jesuits. I have had three experiences with Jesuits.

First, when I had just graduated from college and still retained my knowledge of Latin, I heard that the division of the church responsible for translating Catholic liturgy and writings into English was looking for a translator. A practicing Catholic, I liked the idea of using my skills to help my church. I applied and went through four interviews with a Jesuit who was very encouraging. I was called back for a fifth, and the Jesuit, whose encouragement had disappeared with a suddenness that shocked by naive soul, informed me that they had decided not to waste time and money with someone like me for whom this would be his first job and to instead hire part-time an experienced translator who had worked with this particular Jesuit before. My assumption is he was misleading me to have me in hand until he signed a deal with the older man. I bumped into the man on the way out and he was thirty years older than I and smelled of alcohol. I heard later that the project had run into difficulties and delays, but I had by then started my career in journalism.

My second experience concerns a scholar I am very close to who was up for tenure at a university. The school's decision-making bodies were split, and the final decision fell to the university's president, who was a Jesuit and who had previously been supportive of the scholar, even writing in a university publication about the scholar's achievements. He decided not to grant tenure for the simple reason that there had been a division among those who were to decide. Someone would be unhappy with his ruling, he reasoned, which could make the future unhappy for the scholar. Not granting tenure was actually for the scholar's own good, he said. It's an interesting line of reasoning. Unfortunately, anyone who is familiar with the university world knows that not receiving tenure for his/her first position is a black mark in applying for other positions, and the scholar, who was and is a great teacher, never taught full-time at the university level again. 

Finally, when I was between jobs, I applied for a communications director position with a Jesuit entity. Again, I liked the idea of working for my church. I interviewed four times and was called back for a fifth. There were five interviewers, three were very cordial, and the other two--a former university president and a fellow journalist--were rude and insulting to me from the moment I walked into the room. For the other three, I told stories and they laughed, I gave examples of how I would handle the position, and they nodded appreciatively. For the other two, when I said something, anything, they rolled their eyes and shifted noisily in their chairs. I received a letter just two days later informing me that they had hired an individual who had been trained by Jesuits and had worked with Jesuits before. 

Other things about Jesuits come to me second-hand. My father was proud of his education at Georgetown and spoke highly of his Jesuit teachers. He was, as I have written before, the son of Italian immigrants who never learned to write English. He left home for the first time when he came to study at Georgetown, and he left with training that made him a skilled attorney who practiced for 40 years, a leading example for both his profession and his church. And the Jesuits' work in education over the centuries is a formidable achievement. 

There is, I would think, much to be learned from them. And I even said this at my final interview at that Jesuit entity, I was asked how I would present what was the Jesuits had done and were doing. In my answer, which was off the top of my head, I described how for my birthday that year my wife had given me a copy of the noted British writer Evelyn Waugh's biography of Edmund Campion, an Elizabethan Jesuit who was hanged in England in 1581. My wife didn't know when she gave the book to me that I would be interviewing with this Jesuit organization. She just knew I liked reading brilliant writing. In reading it, I was struck by a passage that described how, when Campion and other Jesuits were preparing to enter England, knowing that they were likely to be hanged, they wrote their wills, at ease with the possibility of dying for their faith. Later, when preparing for my fifth interview with the Jesuit entity, I came upon an article one of the interviewers had written on the three white "freedom riders," college students who were in Mississippi in 1961 attempting to register African-Americans to vote. They were ultimately killed by Ku Klux Klan members. The article noted that before these three, brave young men left for Mississippi, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy asked a member of his staff if the students were prepared for the dangers they could encounter. The answer he received was: "They're writing their wills." This, I told, the five interviewers illustrates the relevance of the Jesuit story. The example of 1581 reaches out four centuries to the example of 1961 of individuals who will risk everything for what they believe.

As I wrote earlier, I didn't get the job. But I believed then, and I believe now, that, if one can come to terms with what "Jesuitical" means, there is a lot to be learned from Jesuit history. I also hope that reasoning by religious leaders that benefits the many at the expense of the few is on the way out. 

Copyright 2019 by John T. Aquino

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