His nickname is “the black pope.” Elected on January 19 as father-general of the Society of Jesus, Fr. Adolfo Nicolás now leads one of Catholicism’s most influential — and controversial — religious orders.
A Spaniard who spent most of his life teaching theology in Japan, Nicolás succeeds Dutchman Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach. The designation “the black pope” partly comes from the black robe worn by many Jesuits since the order’s founding in 1540 by Ignatius Loyola but also from mythology about hidden Jesuit power. Witness the 1998 film Elizabeth, which ludicrously portrayed Jesuits as priests with licenses to kill.
Whatever the myths, few question Nicolás has inherited an order in crisis. You know something is terribly wrong when Rome had to tell a prominent Jesuit in 2004 that his book contradicted basic Christian dogmas concerning “the divinity of Jesus, the Trinity . . . and the resurrection of Jesus.” These are hardly debatable subjects for Catholics.
In a January homily in Rome, Cardinal Franc Rodé, the Vatican official who oversees religious orders, politely told his Jesuit audience that their order could not persist in its present direction. So why would a senior Vatican cardinal tell one of Catholicism’s most successful orders that change was essential?
The Jesuits, after all, played a major role in the Counter-Reformation that rolled back Protestantism’s frontiers in Europe. For almost 500 years they have imparted a superb education to thousands of people. Famous Jesuit alumni include Cervantes, Descartes, de Gaulle, Molière, and Scalia — as well as Castro, Diderot, and Voltaire.
The Jesuits themselves were no intellectual slouches. In How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, Thomas Woods notes that Isaac Newton counted Jesuits as among his most prized scientific correspondents. Thirty-five lunar craters are named after Jesuit mathematicians and scientists. Jesuits helped identify key concepts underlying market economics 200 years before Adam Smith.
These are no small achievements. Yet it’s hard to deny today’s Jesuits are in trouble. In raw numbers, the Jesuits have dropped from 36,000 in 1965 to about 19,000 today.
A key figure in the story of the Jesuits’ implosion is Fr. Pedro Arrupe — another Spaniard who lived in Japan — and who, oddly enough, employed Nicolás as his personal barber. Elected 28th General of the Order in 1965, Arrupe was either a “second Ignatius” of prophetic proportions or a well-meaning naïf, depending on whom you talk to. Under Arrupe’s guidance, the Jesuits’ 1974 General Congregation decreed “the promotion of justice” as an “absolute requirement” for Jesuit activities.
The problem is that many Jesuits’ “promotion of justice” collapsed almost immediately into radical left-wing activism. Sensible Jesuit-authored critiques of Latin American oligarchies, for example, soon degenerated into Marxist versions of liberation theology.
Many Jesuit universities have become virtually indistinguishable from your average left-wing secular academy. Some Jesuits candidly say the order’s intellectual edge began seriously fraying in the 1970s, corroded by an idolatry of the contemporary — marked particularly by an embrace of Marxist critiques that would engender bad politics and even worse theology, including efforts to water down Christ’s uniqueness in the name of that ubiquitous word: “dialogue.”
By the early 1980s, Rome had had enough. In 1981, John Paul II took the radical step of suspending the order’s normal governance. In 1983, Fr. Kolvenbach was elected Father-General. Though widely considered a good man, it’s unclear he affected any significant change in the Jesuits’ direction.
For example, three of the last four Catholic theologians publicly notified by the Vatican’s doctrinal office that their writings contradict basic Christian beliefs were Jesuits: Frs. Jon Sobrino, Roger Haight, and Jacques Dupuis. Some see this as the price of doing cutting-edge theology. Others view it as the result of simply muddled theology.
Consider Fr. Sobrino: One gets the sense from his theological writings that salvation comes only to the materially poor. Not only does this raise the question of why we would want anyone to escape poverty, but it also seems to prioritize economic status over faith in Christ through His Church. For his part, Nicolás contributed an article to an edition of the hyper-progressive Catholic periodical Concilium in 2005 that Sobrino helped edit, in which he extolled “the religious wealth of other religions and the real and actual salvation they have brought to a thousand generations.” This begs the question of why heroic Jesuits like Saint Francis Xavier would have even bothered to engage in missionary activity.
In his first homily as Jesuit Father-General this past Sunday, Nicolás did little to assuage fears that muddled theology remains ascendant in the Society of Jesus: “In this globalized world of ours the number of those excluded by all is increasing,” the new Father-General intoned, “since our society only has room for the big and not the small.”
More troubling than this 1970s boilerplate, Nicolás seemed to imply that the order would seek to further relativize the gospel to accommodate non-Christians: “[W]hat is the color, the tone, the image of salvation today for those many people who are in need of it, those human non-geographic nations that demand salvation.” He’s off to an inauspicious start.
Unfortunately, the Jesuits’ theological drift has some very serious real-world consequences. One of Hugo Chavez’s better-known defenders in Venezuela is a Jesuit, Fr. Jesús Gazo. Chavez, says Fr. Gazo, has “a very strong theological formation.” Given that Chavez’s precise religious beliefs seem at best confused, one wonders what “theological formation” Fr. Gazo has in mind. Despite Chavez’s public insults of Catholic clergy and his regime’s physical assaults upon Catholic university students protesting Chavez’s policies, Fr. Gazo claims that the Church’s opposition to Chavez reflects its capture by “elites” rather than concerns about Chavez’s efforts to demolish basic human rights in the name of “21st Century Socialism.” (The expression “useful idiot” comes to mind.)
Fortunately, great Jesuits still exist today. American theologian Avery Cardinal Dulles is widely regarded as a model of theological rectitude. Another Jesuit, Argentina’s Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires, is considered a living saint. All this, however, is overshadowed by a sense that the Jesuits are at a crossroads: renewal or irrelevance.
In a 2007 interview, Fr. Kolvenbach observed that religious orders have come and gone in the Catholic Church’s history. When an order’s task was finished, he said, “that institute may disappear.” Was Kolvenbach thinking of his own order? No one knows. Unquestionably, however, his successor has an immense challenge before him — presuming he actually thinks the Jesuits require serious reform.
Time will tell.