Aggiornamento Comes to The Jesuits
Toward the close of the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI asked that all religious congregations update their constitutions in accord with modern times. He reiterated this expectation in his decree Ecclesiae Sanctae published in 1966, where he asked all major religious orders to call a special chapter to update their constitutions.1 As the General Superior of the Holy Ghost Fathers, Archbishop Lefebvre oversaw such a meeting in September 1968. At this congregation, Archbishop Lefebvre was saddened to find that a majority of the delegates wished to introduce radical and far-reaching changes to the Constitutions which would be wholly destructive of the order. Seeing that his advice was not wanted and that the delegates were determined to sidestep his authority, he sought counsel from Bishop Antonio Mauro at the Congregation for Religious. After explaining his situation to the Curial official, he received the following response: “I am going to give you some advice that I have just given to another Superior General who came to see me about the same thing. ‘Go on,’ I said to him, ‘take a little trip to the United States. It will do you good.’ As for the chapter and even for the congregation’s present business, leave it to your assistants!” Knowing then that the Congregation would not support his efforts to preserve the constitutions of the order, he handed in his resignation to the Pope.
Normally, in considering this episode, we marvel at God’s providence which, in this manner, prepared the way for the foundation of the Society of St. Pius X. However, it is worth considering what our founder would have encountered in the United States had he chosen to follow Bishop Mauro’s advice. What was the state of religious life in America in the mid to late 1960s? Perhaps the easiest way to catch a glimpse of the state of affairs at this time is to observe what was occurring within the Jesuit order, which had taken very much to heart the exhortation of Pope Paul VI, as reported by Fr. Joseph Becker, S.J., in his book The Re-Formed Jesuits.
Re-inventing Religious Life
Indeed, as Fr. Becker shows, the sons of St. Ignatius were in the process of wholly re-inventing the meaning of religious life for the members of their order. In so doing, they would radically depart from the traditional understanding of the religious life—best explained by St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica—as a whole-hearted consecration of oneself to the service of God in order to attain perfect charity. In other words, the goal of the religious life has always been to be conformed to Our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the model of charity.2 The Jesuits in the United States—or at least those who exercised the greatest influence in the order—during the 1960s appear to have forgotten this ultimate goal.
Instead of seeking to conform men to Christ through self-renunciation, the prevailing idea of the leading lights among the Jesuits was to encourage personal self-fulfillment. Fr. Becker quotes one Jesuit priest who articulated the view that “modern man is seeking . . . to found his further progress on personal fulfillment scaled out to the size of his expanding understanding of himself and of the world.”3 In other words, “modern man”—or, more broadly, the world—believed his true excellence depended not on being divinized by the grace of God but rather exercising his personal liberty and taking responsibility for his own actions, and this especially through “dialogue” with his fellow men.
Rather than correct this view, which is starkly opposed to the Christian spirit, he advocated that the Society incorporate this vision so as to be—in the words of another priest, Fr. Edward Sponga4—“relevant to the modern world.” Fr. Becker notes that this attitude prevailed throughout much of the Jesuit houses during the 1960s: “A sense of self-worth and a preference for self-direction were to be encouraged steadily through speeches, papers, & books.”5 He points out that a manifestation of this spirit could be seen in the very décor of the private quarters of many novices of the order, where religious art largely disappeared in favor of “an art which was more optimistically psychological, cheery rather than strong, secular rather than sacral.”6 In other words, Jesuits were increasingly taught not to focus on their faults and sinful qualities nor to seek guidance from their superiors. Rather, by focusing on developing the positives in their personality and those activities which were “meaningful” for them, they come into contact with God within themselves and their neighbor.
Collapse of Discipline
As a result of this attitude, the discipline of many Jesuit houses of formation effectively collapsed. The author notes that silence in most houses disappeared, obligatory daily schedules disintegrated7, and regular community activities such as common prayer or readings at meal were abandoned. Overall, obedience widely was practiced only to the extent that members believed that their superiors’ commands coincided with their own experiences and judgment.8 Indeed, Fr. Becker observes that the “most general lifestyle change [in many houses] was a revolt against the rules: against rules requiring attendance at class or at daily Mass or at a particular Mass; against rules forbidding talking in certain places or at certain times, or going to movies and plays, or being out of the house at night, or wearing certain clothes.”9 He explains that the prevailing conviction was that each person should be responsible for himself and his own development. Thus, any external constraints not dependent on his own will became automatically suspect and worthy of being disregarded.
An unsurprising fruit of this belief was that, in many places, attendance at Mass and reception of the sacraments became less frequent. Tied to this disgust with a prescribed rule of life, there were perhaps similar reasons as those described at one house of formation: “Some admit to not attending daily Mass because it does not have any particular meaning for them.”10 Anything that did not seem meaningful to the young men was freely abandoned.
One can only imagine what became of the status of the religious vows—whose principle goal is to remove various obstacles to the life of charity—in such an environment. Fr. Becker points out that the order’s General Congregation 31, which was held in 1965, already encouraged discussion on how best to “adapt” the vows to modern times.11 Without formally abandoning them, the Jesuit houses in America considerably loosened their application in many important respects. What has been said heretofore already illustrates the manner in which the vow of obedience was neglected, if not outright abandoned in many communities. While the vow of chastity was not eliminated, many vital safeguards were removed in order to permit young men to “have a mature Christian relationship with the opposite sex.” Furthermore, at an important meeting of American Jesuits held at Santa Clara University in 1967, there was favorable discussion—though no formal approval—of what was called the “Third Way,” a utopian idea in which religious could develop non-marital relations with members of the opposite sex. It comes therefore as no surprise that the 1960s and 1970s saw many young men who entered the order fail to persevere and not a few who had taken vows subsequently leave and be “married.”
As is clear, the most influential American Jesuits—especially those in charge of formation—seem to have forgotten the principal purpose of the religious life: to conform men to Christ. In the place of a whole-hearted consecration to almighty God consummated by the vows—especially that of obedience—the order attempted to give the widest possible scope to the individual initiative and free-will of its subjects so as to permit them to attain a meaningful experience of the divine. Instead of asking subjects to deny themselves and to die to the world, the order encouraged them to foster their personality and to embrace the positive aspects of the world lest it run the danger of becoming “irrelevant” in these modern times. Fr. Becker states in his introduction that the “Jesuit experience was similar to that of other religious orders in the United States.”12
Thus, had the Archbishop followed the counsel of Bishop Mauro, he would have merely witnessed many religious orders committing suicide by abandoning Our Lord. As he would later note in a spiritual conference at Ecône, there was no country in the Catholic world which saw as many priests and religious abandon the consecrated life as in the United States. Even now, most religious orders in the United States have upwards of 90 percent fewer postulants and novices than there were in the 1960s.13 In many cases, those which remained in the religious orders lived in a manner which would be wholly unrecognizable to their founders. Fortunately for the Church, the Archbishop refrained from traveling to the United States in order to “learn” and instead later communicated to the Society the true spirit of religious life.14
1 “The most important work of the General Chapters is the studied accommodation of the rules of their Institute to the changed conditions of the times. This, however, must be done in such a way that the proper nature and discipline of the Institute is kept intact” (Address of May 23, 1964).
2 Archbishop Lefebvre loved to preach that Christ was the religious of God par excellence.
3 Re-Formed Jesuits: A History of Changes in the Jesuit Order During the Decade 1965–1975 (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992), p. 34.
4 Ibid., p. 32. Father Sponga was a provincial of the Maryland province during the latter half of the 1960s. In other words, he held a position roughly equivalent to a District Superior. He later left the Society of Jesus and married.
5 Ibid., p. 30.
6 Ibid., p. 251. As another example of what is meant by “optimistically psychological,” the author notes that a book by Thomas A. Harris that was common in many of the Jesuit novitiates throughout the United States was titled, I’m OK, You’re OK.
7 As an example, the author notes that in many novitiates and houses of study, such basic requirements as an hour for rising and for going to bed ceased to exist. At most, there might be some recommendations which few members followed.
8 The author quotes one rector of a house of philosophy writing to his provincial and saying of his students “that they do what [the rector] wants if he is reasonable, but of course if he isn’t [according to their judgment] they do it anyway” (Re-Formed Jesuits, p. 295).
9 Re-Formed Jesuits, p. 294.
10 Ibid., p. 46.
11 Ibid., p. 39.
12 Ibid., p. 11.
13 An excellent reference, even if somewhat dated, is Kenneth C. Jones’s Index of Leading Catholic Indicators.
14 Even though the Archbishop did not impose two of the vows on the members of the Society, he consistently and emphatically asked them to embrace the spirit of the vows.