The National Catholic Review

Since I've been getting this question a lot over the last few days, here goes. (And, for good measure, another photo of two Jesuit brothers.)

A Jesuit is a Jesuit forever, from the day he enters the novitiate until his death, unless he formally leaves the Society of Jesus or, in religious parlance, is "dismissed."  (The three dates listed on a Jesuit's tombstone are: Natus, the date of his birth; Ingressus, the date he entered the novitiate; and Obiit, the date of his death.) Most Jesuits, when they have finished their Jesuit training, or "formation," are invited to not only to pronounce the three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience (which they first pronounced at the end of their novitiate), and the special "fourth vow" to the Sovereign Pontiff "with regards to missions" (that is, an openness and willingess to be sent anywhere in the world, or on any mission by the pope), but also to make several "promises." Among these is a promise is not to "strive or ambition" for any high office or "dignity" in the Society of Jesus or the church. This promise was intended by St. Ignatius to prevent Jesuits from the kind of clerical climbing that he found so distasteful in his time. So Jesuits are supposed to avoid all such offices.

But sometimes the Vatican will ask a Jesuit to become a bishop, or an archbishop, often in places where the church has fewer local vocations, or when the Jesuit is considered by the Vatican as an outstanding candidate for the episcopacy. When that happens the Jesuit will ask the permission of the Superior General, and it is almost always granted. (I believe that this is a courtesy; technically, the Vatican can do what it likes and ask whom it likes.)  The Jesuit of course can turn down this invitation, as ordination to the episcopacy is a sacrament and cannot be coerced. If the Jesuit accepts the invitation (and he almost always does out of a desire to help the universal church) the Jesuit is then formally "dispensed" from his vows of obedience and poverty. Obedience because he obviously is not taking orders from the Superior General any longer. Poverty because under canon law a bishop must own property. (There is a promise in the final vows that the Jesuit will be open to taking advice from the General, if he offers it.)

But the man is still considered a Jesuit by tradition--if not canonically.  I'll leave it to the canonists to figure that one out: I've gotten multiple responses in response to that question. However, Canon 705 states: "A religious raised to the episcopate remains a member of his institute but is subject only to the Roman Pontiff by virtue of the vow of obedience and is not bound by obligations which he himself prudently judges cannot be reconciled with his condition."  And usually they themselves consider themselves as member of their orders, even after their ordination to the episcopacy.  Often "Jesuit bishops," for example, will stay in the Jesuit residence in a city they are visiting, and they almost always retire in the Jesuit infirmary with their brothers, and are buried in the Jesuit cemetery.

The best "proof" of all this may be the official communique from the Jesuit Curia on the election of Pope Francis, in which the Superior General of the Society of Jesus, Father Adolfo Nicolas referred to him first as "Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, S.J.," using the traditional abbreviation for a Jesuit (S.J.) and then called him "our brother."  Cardinal Bergoglio himself used the "S.J." when signing letters addressed to the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires.  Also, Jesuit bishops and archbishops and cardinals are always listed on the first page of the local Jesuit catalog.  Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., for example, was, after his creation as a cardinal by Pope John Paul II, listed on Page 1 of the New York Province catalog until his death. (He is buried in the Jesuit cemetery at Auriesville, N.Y.). When the Pope met Father General last week, Francis said that Father Nicolas should treat him like "any other Jesuit."  

So yes, traditionally, the Pope is still considered a Jesuit.

And to answer two other questions that have come up frequently: Yes, the Superior General of the Society of Jesus is obedient to Pope Francis, not the other way around.  In a few days, Father General will meet with the Pope Francis to "formally" to offer his own obedience, as Superiors General have done with every Pope. And no, I seriously doubt that Cardinal Bergoglio asked the permission of the Superior General to accept his election as pope; besides, he was locked away in the conclave. 

Updated: This post has been updated to answer questions posed in the comments below, especially with regard to Canon 705.


Jm McDermott | 3/23/2013 - 2:19pm

That's interesting, Kevin. I read the Pope's letter differently. Definitely an acknowledgement of his roots and connection, but with a care not to overextend it.

And Rob, the note on the canon is well taken. But -- and here I am quite clearly weaseling out of some of what I wrote before (I know, shocker) -- while from the Church's point of view that might be true, from the religious order's point of view, a man dispensed from the vows is on some level not a member of the community any longer. He's still welcomed as a brother, but there's also a sense of him having left in some way. At least, that sense of things would jive with the experience of the Jesuit bishops I have known, who say quite clearly that they have had to leave the order to become a bishop.

(And Matt, while yes, in theory a religious can refuse to serve as a bishop, in point of fact I think most experience it as a command performance. Certainly that was the case under John Paul II. It has not made for the happiest of experiences for some.)

Andrew Guidroz | 3/24/2013 - 8:39am


Respectfully ...

Perhaps, if Jesuits embrace the Holy Father's previous work as a Jesuit and his Jesuit sensibilities in the fulfillment of his new mission in very public ways during this papacy, maybe we'll see a future where Jesuit bishops and their Jesuit brethren won't feel that way ... that they'll clearly say, "Certainly, the Holy Father was and is a Jesuit through and through."

The Jesuit call to reject the political ambitions of climbing the ladder of the hierarchy shouldn't run head on into the vow to obey the Holy Father by answering a call to serve as a bishop.

To the average layman, religious orders are already a little hard to understand. When we recruit folks locally to attend retreats at Our Lady of the Oaks Retreat House in Grand Coteau, Louisiana ... giving them an opportunity to be receptive to God while learning from our Jesuits there ... some of our difficulty in attracting them is in the perceived distance of Jesuits from the mainstream Church. Pope Francis' example can give us a wonderful opportunity to showcase Jesuit teachings and spirituality in a way that no one would dare dream of.

And, more and more, the idea of Jesuits journeying out to the edges of the earth ... where the gospel has never been heard ... maybe shouldn't be thought of in a geographical sense. Certainly, the Holy Father's homilies thus far have pointed out how a society focused on using people and loving things hasn't heard it.

I just think we have a great opportunity here. I hope the Jesuits really reach out during this papacy.

Kevin Spinale | 3/23/2013 - 12:22pm

The term "our" or "ours" has been an important pronoun for Jesuits since Ignatius was writing letters to his companions. It implies a brotherhood, a confraternity of friends. Furthermore, the notion of disposition also seems quite important in Ignatian spirituality. These two points came to mind as I read Pope Francis's letter to Fr. Nicolas - the Superior General of the Society of Jesus. The letter is dated March 16th and is available on th Vatican press office's blog. Here is an exceprt:

“I thank you cordially for this token of appreciation and closeness, which I reciprocate with pleasure, asking the Lord to enlighten and accompany all Jesuits so that—faithful to the charism received and the footsteps of the saints of our beloved Order, by their pastoral activity but above all through the witness of lives entirely devoted to the service of the Church, the Bride of Christ—they may be evangelical leaven to the world, tirelessly seeking the glory of God and the good of souls.”

In the middle of the paragraph, Francis speaks of the saints of "our beloved Order." It seems that Francis still is disposed to thinking himself a Jesuit. I certainly claim him as such - with all the warmth "our" can muster.

Matt Collins | 3/22/2013 - 8:43pm

"The Jesuit of course can turn down this invitation, as ordination to the episcopacy is a sacrament and cannot be coerced."

Is episcopal ordination a sacrament? According to the Catechism, baptism, confirmation and holy orders can never be repeated (1121).

Robert Carter | 3/22/2013 - 4:06pm

Canon 705 is the authoritative word on the subject. Everything else is merely anecdotal.

James Martin | 3/23/2013 - 12:10pm

Thanks for the note about Canon 705. Emended the post to reflect this. Very helpful.

Jm McDermott | 3/22/2013 - 4:03am

Jim, a respectful counterpoint:

When the Pope was first made a bishop, he was released from his Jesuit vows of poverty and obedience to his religious superior. At this point, canonically he left the Society.

(I'd be crazy if I didn't note, then-Bishop Bergoglio might have been released from his vow of poverty, but clearly he didn't stop living it! Indeed, he puts the rest of us to shame.)

To say he was no longer a Jesuit canonically is not to say Jesuits shunned him or even thought of him as anything less than a brother, or that he thought of himself as no longer a Jesuit. As you point out, he signs his name with an S.J. The General likewise has referred to him in this way.

But all of that is a matter of respect and as you say tradition, not law. No longer obedient to the General, he is not canonically a Jesuit.

I've lived with a number of Jesuits who are bishops. They explain things in exactly the same way that I've just laid out -- even as they, too, sign their names with an "S.J." or live in Jesuit communities.

I appreciate your desire to embrace our brother in every possible way. And I share it! But it seems clear the real answer to the question is more complicated -- and wonderfully so.

(Also, I must say, while no doubt Ignatius would rejoice in the example of this holy man, I suspect he would be mortified at some of our brothers who seem to be using this moment to pat themselves or our order on the back. I see him shaking his finger at us and scolding, "Spend more time taking the bus and visiting prisoners, and less time ordering your double decaf skim mocha lattes while tweeting on your iPhones, and then we'll talk about how great this least Society is." Does this count as a vision? Or maybe after all the excitement of the last month I just need more sleep.)

Congratulations to you and Matt for your great onscreen work the last month, and to the magazine staff for its always dependable coverage. Well done!

Jim McDermott, SJ
Former Assoc. Editor,
Future Crotchedy Old Snerd

James Martin | 3/23/2013 - 12:11pm

Jim: Thanks for the comments!  I emended it to cast some doubt on it canonically.  Before I wrote the piece, I had asked someone in the Jesuit Curia, who said, "Yes" and pointed me to the Argentine catalog (where he has long been an "SJ) and to Father General's use of "SJ" and also to Cardinal Bergoglio's use of the "SJ."  So it is complicated--as usual. One Jesuit said that even though he had been dispensed he was still a Jesuit (as someone on leave would be, dispensed as he is from the vow of poverty, e.g.)  So this person made the distinction between "dispensed" and "dismissed."  Maybe the best summation was one Curial official who said he "Yes.  Unless of course he dismisses himself."  Anyway, thanks for the note.  I think we may be on safer ground with "Traditionally."