Good stylists know that the last word in a sentence is the most emphatic word. The location of the “Rules for Thinking with the Church” as the last piece in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius can suggest, therefore, that they are the most emphatic part or even that they are the culmination of the Exercises, the goal toward which they have been tending all along. Some commentators and retreat givers have, in fact, adopted that interpretation and have gone on to see Rule 13 as the culmination within the culmination: “What seems to me white, I will believe black if the hierarchical Church so defines.”
Such interpretations raise two questions: First, what role do the “Rules for Thinking with the Church” play in the overall dynamic of the Exercises? Second, how should we interpret Rule 13? Does that rule inculcate a kind of super-orthodoxy, an orthodoxy more radical and sweeping than that of mainstream Catholics?
Regarding the first question, we are fortunate in having notes from Ignatius himself for directors of the Exercises. We also have an extensive commentary from his trusted secretary, Juan de Polanco, and 30 more notes and commentaries by other leading Jesuit of the era up to the publication of the official Directory for retreat-givers in 1599. Martin E. Palmer translated and edited these documents and published them in 1996 in On Giving the Spiritual Exercises.
Does Rule 13 inculcate a kind of super-orthodoxy, an orthodoxy more radical and sweeping than that of mainstream Catholics?
The documents have a great deal to say about the “Rules for the Discernment of Spirits.” They have little or, more often, nothing to say about the “Rules for Thinking with the Church,” just as they have little or nothing to say about the three other sets of rules in the Exercises with which they are usually grouped—“On the Distribution of Alms,” “On Dealing with Scruples” and “On the Use of Food.” Of these four, the rules about eating receive the most comments and, somewhat surprisingly, are the only ones among the four Ignatius himself commented on.
For all four rules, the advice is the same: They are to be given only to those who seem to need them. More specifically for the “Rules for Thinking with the Church,” they are especially to be given to priests who minister in places where heretics are numerous. In other words, they are intended to promote prudent pastoral practice. They are a pastoral afterthought to the Exercises. In his vast correspondence and other writings, Ignatius never makes mention of them
He composed them in Paris, 1534-35, just as he was finishing his degree there. They are the last piece of substance added to the Exercises. The date and the place are crucial for understanding their genesis. While he and his companions were in Paris, the university was in turmoil over the infiltration of Lutheranism there. In 1533, Nicolas Cop, the rector of the university, was accused of being a Lutheran and amid great public outcry forced to resign. Cop was, in fact, a friend and confidant of John Calvin.
“The Rules for Thinking with the Church,” counter-statements principally to Lutheran positions, are Ignatius’ response to the Reformation.
At Paris for the first time in his life, therefore, Ignatius came face to face with the Reformation as a public force. He must have been shocked. “The Rules for Thinking with the Church,” counter-statements principally to Lutheran positions, are his response. Since Ignatius was himself suspected of being a heretic, he most probably wanted the rules to stand as a manifesto of orthodoxy to protect the Exercises from such attacks.
Given the overall pastoral orientation of Ignatius’ life, however, the pastoral reasons for them seem uppermost. Their very wording, in fact, suggests a pastoral purpose—“we should praise,” “we must be careful in speaking,” “we should be cautious” and so forth. Like the other rules in the Exercises, they are meant to help people who find themselves in certain situations.
Rule 13 fits this pattern—“if we wish to proceed securely.” But it goes further by giving pastoral practices a theological foundation. The Lutherans (and all later Protestants) denied that “the hierarchical Church” had any claim to orthodoxy or orthopraxis and thus undercut everything in “The Rules for Thinking with the Church.” The antidote is Rule 13.
Does Rule 13 tell us, therefore, that we are to accept as an article of faith everything “the hierarchical Church” in some form or other communicates to us? Examine the text: “if the Church so defines.”Ignatius wrote the rules when he had been following theology courses at the Dominican school in Paris. He was now schooled in theological language. He surely knew by this time that define was a technical term.
That simple fact puts Rule 13 into perspective. “What seems to me black, I will believe white.” Let’s translate that: “What seems to me bread, I will believe is the body and blood of Christ.” Rule 13 is not super-orthodoxy but mainline Catholic faith. It is in that regard revealing that in the 16th century not even the most severe critics of the Exercises singled out Rule 13 for comment.