The Jesuit Mystique

304 pages,
ISBN: 0771573294

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A Slippery Term
by Anne Roche

Yet another book about the Jesuits, to join 139 others in Books in Print: 1995-96. The Franciscans, more than three centuries older than the Jesuits, rate only sixty-six entries in the same volume. Francis was as great a saint as Ignatius, as brave a soldier, as unique in his spirituality, as charismatic a leader, as innovative a founder. Yet it was Ignatius and his Companions of Jesus who, for better or worse, captured and held the popular imagination. They saw themselves as "Soldiers of Christ", the Church's shock troops, in the battle against principalities and powers, visible and invisible. To this end, they placed themselves entirely at the Pope's disposal. Afire with God, they had spread by the time of Ignatius' death throughout the known world.
The Jesuits, then as now, pursued a double mission: to the powerless, and to the rulers. They set out to baptize, educate, and defend the native peoples against oppression and died for and with them. The terrible history of the Jesuit settlements in Canada and Paraguay remains fresh in Catholic memory. My children attended a school named Canadian Martyrs, and numerous Canadian schools and churches bear the names of individual Jesuit saints. Two recent movies, Blackrobe, based on Brian Moore's novel about the destruction of Huronia, and The Mission, which deals with the extermination of the Jesuit settlements in Paraguay around 1750, show how attractive the early history of the Jesuits still is to the secular imagination.
It's unfortunate that Douglas Letson and Michael Higgins, in this latest addition to Jesuit-inspired literature, chose to define their controlling idea by the slippery term "mystique". An even bigger problem for the reader is that Letson and Higgins never explain what they mean by this. In fact, apart from references to the title, the word appears only twice, once in an introductory blurb by a professor at Regius College, the Jesuit presence at the University of Toronto, who mentions a "mystique about the Jesuits" and again in the book's last sentence: ".behold the mystique."
"Mystique" is a newish import from the French-1940, according to the Shorter Oxford, which defines it as the atmosphere of mystery and veneration adopted towards certain doctrines, arts, professions, or personages, which mystifies and impresses the layman. The OED gives a startling and exact example of this definition: "the `mystique' built up around.[Stalin] has become a genuine outlet for the Russian religious instinct."
When the English borrow from the French, they usually do so to insult rather than to clarify. For example, we talk about Castro's regime but Mr. Chrétien's government, meaning that Castro is a dictator and Chrétien is a democrat. "Mystique" is a similarly worsened word. In French it means "mystical", in English "quasi-mystical". That is to say, a mystique is not real. It is as if it were real, or almost or virtually real, not reality but virtual reality. A mystique is a false picture of the truth; it resembles the truth, but is not true. You can simulate going over Niagara Falls simply by donning a "virtual reality" helmet, or attract amorous glances by anointing yourself with the new perfume mystique.
One wonders, therefore, why the authors chose to put this word in their title. Perhaps they did not want their book to be confused with the ex-Jesuit Malachi Martin's 1987 axe job, The Jesuits: The Society of Jesus and the Betrayal of the Roman Catholic Church. Or perhaps they liked this term because it is vague and enveloping enough to allow them to cover up the truth about the behaviour of modern Jesuits. When you look, for example, at Father Robert Drinan through Letson's and Higgins's virtual reality helmet, you see, not the abortion rights enthusiast who during his ten-year term in the U.S. House of Representatives never missed a chance to vote against pro-life initiatives, but simply one of two "outstanding North American politicians" who fell victim to Pope John Paul II's "adamant" insistence that priests and those consecrated to religious life must not hold elective office. Only by such equivocation could two Catholic educators, president and dean respectively of St. Jerome's University in Guelph, Ontario, get away with pretending that Drinan's shameful pro-abortion career did not happen.
Letson and Higgins indulge in a more subtle form of equivocation in their treatment of the role played by Jesuit missionaries in contemporary Nicaragua and El Salvador. The Jesuit Mystique gives a fair explanation of why liberation theology appealed to them so strongly. The poverty and corruption they encountered persuaded them that, as soldiers of Christ, they must preach the Gospel, but also support armed struggle on behalf of the downtrodden local inhabitants. However, the book plays down the consequences of Jesuit missionaries becoming afire with Marx instead of Christ. The Thirty-Second General Congregation of the Society of Jesus between December 1974 and March 1975 had already signalled a departure from the Society's original mission so radical that Pope Paul VI himself felt called upon to retire the ultra-liberal Father General Pedro Arrupe, and to replace him with a papal deputy, a move unparalleled since 1773, when Clement XIV, under pressure from the "enlightened despots" of that time, suppressed the Order.
"Where are you going?" Pope Paul asked the Society. "Is the Church able to have faith in you here and now, the kind of faith it always had?" The Pope worried that General Congregation 32 would encourage Jesuits to subordinate the spiritual side of their mission to the secular. His fears turned out to be fully justified. Many "new" Jesuits repudiated the Order's traditional prayer life in order to spend more time in radical social activism. The outstanding exponent of G.C. 32 and liberation theology was Father Ignacio Ellacuría, who, as rector of the University of Central America in El Salvador, turned it into the centre of Marxist opposition to the Salvadoran government. He was on close terms with the leaders of the FMLN, the local leftist guerrilla army, with whom he conferred outside El Salvador, thereby gaining the reputation for having masterminded the country's anti-government terrorist movement.
"All they that take the sword shall perish with the sword." Father Ellacuría and five fellow Jesuit revolutionaries died on the UCA campus at the hands of a right-wing death squad while championing the cause of left-wing terrorism. The Jesuit Mystique treats them as martyrs. Certainly they were prepared to die for what they called "the preferential option for the poor". For them, social justice eclipsed every other Jesuit work. In other words, Father Ellacuría and his brave companions were not Jesuit martyrs in the same sense that Saint Jean de Brébeuf and his brethren were. The El Salvador Six had separated themselves from the original Ignatian spirituality.
Here is a major flaw in the book. In failing to distinguish between what the Canadian Martyrs and what the El Salvador Six died for, it refuses to acknowledge the anti-Ignatian revolution that has taken place among the Jesuits. A clear symptom of this revolution is the change of heart among secular writers towards the Jesuits. Until recently, the secular world demonized them. Dictionaries still define the word "jesuit" as a dissembler, a prevaricator, one who practises equivocation or mental reservation in order to evade the truth. Post-Arrupe Jesuits are secular heroes for their defiance of papal authority and their uncritical acceptance of the reigning liberalism. "The Pope's men" ain't what they used to be. Behold the new Jesuit mystique, which Letson and Higgins wholeheartedly go along with.
Despite its modernist bias, The Jesuit Mystique at least gives a hearing to Jesuit traditionalists. Of the one hundred Catholic intellectuals, most of them Jesuit priests, interviewed for this book, fifty-one are directly quoted. At least one traditionalist, Father Joseph Fessio, the brilliant and formidable founder of Ignatius Press, gets more than a passing reference-although Letson and Higgins cannot resist a final sneer: "He has Cardinal Ratzinger's blessing. No more is necessary."
All this virtual reality not only falls short of the truth, but makes it sound uninteresting. G.C. 32 was correctly seen by those who took part in it as the blueprint for a theological revolution. Letson and Higgins artfully play down its destructiveness. You would never know from their polite reading of G.C. 32 that it would end in one Jesuit priest voting for abortion in the U.S. Congress and others taking up the cause of left-wing guerrillas in Latin America. Their book is a disguised polemic against the traditional Jesuit vocation, and by implication against papal authority, which all Jesuits make a unique fourth vow to uphold. The Jesuit Mystique is a whitewash. Its authors have embraced the preferential option for the bland.

Anne Roche is a Newfoundland writer residing in the Niagara Peninsula.


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