This Least Society

Book cover
Passionate Uncertaintyby By Peter McDonough and Eugene C. BianchiUniv. of California Press. 372p $27.50

The intent of the authors of Passionate Uncertainty: Inside the American Jesuits would seem to be clear from the title. Given the relatively uncomplicated prospect of gathering data from a random sample of current Jesuits and from the vast array of documents that guide the direction of the Society of Jesus, the reader might expect a rich and unbiased social scientific analysis of information. Unfortunately, the book disappoints on almost all counts.

Peter McDonough, a professor of political science at Arizona State University, and a former Jesuit, Eugene C. Bianchi, professor emeritus of religion at Emory University, chose what they call sampling procedures that depart from scrupulously scientific method. They relied as much on personal contacts and recommendations as on random drawings. The authors used a sociological technique called snowball sampling to select most participants, which means that once they identified a few respondents, these men in turn nominated others to participate. This method may prove information-rich, but it is unreliable in that it gives the reader no confidence that the sample is representative.


Moreover, informants include nearly as many former (206) as current (224) Jesuits (of the 4,047 who were members of the U.S. provinces in 1996, the mid-point of the research period). This is puzzling in that the only chapter where the views of former Jesuits are particularly relevant is the first, Staying and Leaving. The use of extensive quotes by former Jesuits weighted toward those who left the Society 20, 30 or more years ago does more to confuse than shed light on the findings of other chapters. The rationale for the methodology is unconvincing, and the plausibility of the end product doubtful.

Even overlooking the question of reliability, the book has other more serious problems. Beginning with the prologue, Diversity Without Democracy, the authors seem bent on using hyperbole, innuendo and buzzwords. With little or no context, comments such as the following are abundantly scattered throughout the book: Mainstreaming threatens to obliterate the identity of groups like the Society of Jesus. Or Even if the organization is perceived as being on its last legs, this condition is cast as beyond the control of its members. These dark suppositions have no identifiable sources in the data or proofs of accuracy. Words and phrases are liberally sprinkled throughout the book to weave an impression that Jesuits are discontent with their lives and regularly dissent from the teachings of the church. Generally, it would be more accurate to attribute these positions to respondents who are former Jesuits or to the authors themselves. Even when the attribution is clear, it is impossible to know if the opinion is that of one or 10 or 100 Jesuits.

So what’s to like about the book? If one were simply to read at face value many of the extensive quotes from present Jesuits, a picture of an incredibly dedicated, deeply spiritual group of men would emerge. While their statements acknowledge the struggles they experience with the church, the Society, their ministry and themselves, the overall impression of their lives suggests continuing commitment to spiritual growth, immense contributions in service to the church and the world and persistent attention to issues that really matter. Unfortunately, the commentary misrepresents the content of the quotes and portrays instead a confused and discontented membership.

The short section on why Jesuits stay is predominantly positive in tone, emphasizing their conviction about divine guidance, fulfilling ministry and really good friends and companions. Equally positive is the authors’ assessment of the Jesuit Secondary Education Association (J.S.E.A.) in Chapter 9, Revitalizing the Schools. In general, their appraisal of spiritual ministries, including spiritual direction and the handling of the Spiritual Exercises, is likewise positive, but little else about Jesuit life and ministry escapes negative review. Why? In large part because the authors state in their methodology that their first rule is deliberately to downplay affirmative responses. This gives a thoroughly dishonest account of the full content of the research.

In a different vein, the range of topics the authors cover in 11 chapters is quite comprehensive, including the obvious topics of Ignatian spirituality, sexuality, life in community and ministry and the meaning of priesthood. Disappointing by its absence is attention to the role of leadership and the impact of the crucial guiding documents produced by recent general congregations of the Society of Jesus. Also missing is any meaningful comparison of Jesuit life and ministry with those of other religious congregations. Recent major studies of religious life, which could have provided much-needed context, are given little notice, if not totally ignored. At the same time, hundreds of other books are footnoted in a peculiar wayreferences are made to entire volumes, with virtually no reference to particularly relevant pages or even chapters, and they provide almost no direct quotes from these books and other studies.

Those who are entertained by clever images and rich vocabulary will find plenty to enjoy in the writing style, but it seems more likely that readers will experience the overall content as dense, confusing and overstated. The movement back and forth between responses of Jesuits and former Jesuits leaves a murky picture of the topic under consideration. Do the summaries and commentary reflect the inside of the Society, or are they muddied by the interjection of responses from former Jesuits, whose views are both outdated and distant? It is difficult to judge. Further obfuscating the findings, the authors frequently and blatantly disparage church teaching and practice. They weave their own interpretation into the text so cleverly that one might be lured into thinking these views are all the direct result of interview and survey data from current Jesuits.

If you really want to acquire an understanding of what is happening inside the American Jesuits, you will need to look to other sources for a more reliable picture. An excellent starting point might be the inspiring documents of the Jesuits’ 34th General Congregation and the numerous reports of efforts to implement these guiding principles in the spiritual, intellectual and pastoral ministries of U.S. Jesuits and in their lives as dedicated religious men.

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12 years 2 months ago
The trenchant review by Katarina Schuth, O.S.F., of Passionate Uncertainty, by Peter McDonough and Eugene C. Bianchi, (3/25) fairly raises issues of method, interpretation and context, to which the authors are rightly challenged to respond. In particular, more attention to the global Society of Jesus and its official documents would have helped contextualize the Society in the United States. But it would be unfortunate were potential readers to be persuaded by Schuth’s review to ignore the book, which vividly offers numerous insights, bracing but not hostile, into the experiences, perceptions and choices shaping American Jesuit life today. It does not disappoint “on almost all accounts,” nor do the 34th General Congregation documents offer an adequate substitute. Better to read both official documents and this book and ponder the continuities and gaps between what we Jesuits say and how we live.

12 years 2 months ago
The variety of reactions stirred up by Passionate Uncertainty is all to the good, compared to the alternative—silence—that greets most academic publications. Our purpose here is not to convert Katarina Schuth, O.S.F., and other critics of the book but to set the record straight regarding the analytic and interpretive strategies we employed (3/25).

In faulting us for not using random sampling, Sr. Schuth confuses rules with tools. Sampling designs are practical tools for getting valid estimates of populations, not Platonic rules. Virtually nothing is known about the population of former Jesuits. Consider carrying out a random sample of the homeless, for whom documentation is sketchy, and you understand the basic problem. A strictly random sample of former Jesuits is impossible.

As for Jesuits themselves, we are dealing not with a captive audience, but with a population of diverse men, with an average age in the low 60’s, who are engaged in everything from theological studies to running large universities. The challenge is to get their time and attention in the first place.

Do snowball samples, which ask those who are interviewed early on to nominate others, who in turn nominate others and so forth, produce reliable results? The proof is in the pudding. As we demonstrate on page 310, our samples of Jesuits and former Jesuits closely match the proportions of Jesuits in the 10 provinces of the United States, a fact that Sr. Schuth ignores. And, as we show on page 49, the connections we discover between such variables as social origins and the period of entering the Society of Jesus are what standard histories of American Catholicism would lead us to expect. The older men, born in the Depression, generally come from lower-class backgrounds, in contrast to younger Jesuits and former Jesuits. Here, confirming the obvious suggests that the samples are not technically awry.

Snowball methods are not intrinsically better or worse than other sampling procedures. All of them need to be tailored to the research situation and resources in hand. There is no one-size-fits-all template.

A more serious criticism is that, regardless of the representativeness issue, we put a negative spin on what the men say. “The authors state in their methodology that their first rule is deliberately to downplay affirmative responses.” We do? We’re unable to locate any such statement. It doesn’t make sense to suppose that authors bent on promoting their “dark suppositions” would admit to bias of this sort. Yet, like burglars who operate noisily and in broad daylight, we are supposed to be both incompetent and openly dishonest.

We interpreted the discursive interviews and written statements in two stages. First, we used 10-point scales of the sort, “How satisfied (10) or dissatisfied (1) are you with the direction the Society of Jesus has taken in the past few years?” We employed these items sparingly. Like most grown-ups, Jesuits and former Jesuits don’t take well to “Mickey Mouse,” polling-type questions. But we have enough measures of this sort to compare Jesuits and several Jesuits along key dimensions—satisfaction with the Society’s performance, with the institutional church, with their own work, et cetera. The quantitative measures also enable us to compute how these variables are interrelated—for example, how satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the sexual magisterium ties in with satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the institutional church. In order to relieve the general reader of the tedium of heavy-metal science, the pertinent coefficients were relegated to the back of the book, in end notes and in the notes on method. Evidently Sr. Schuth missed these. By an oddly symmetrical logic she comes up with claims we haven’t made and overlooks statements we have made.

How does the comparatively hard data help us with the qualitative, unavoidably interpretative, analysis? Once we have an idea of what goes with what (of how s

12 years 2 months ago
I was one of the 400-plus Jesuits interviewed by the authors of Passionate Uncertainty, reviewed by Katarina Schuth, O.S.F. (3/25), and I have browsed through the book and found at least three fairly lengthy quotes from my “contribution.”

Born in Spain, I lived in India 33 of my 53 years as a Jesuit. The last 18 years I have been, well, part of the book, as an administrator and professor at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.

The book seems to “single out” (implicitly) an astonishing cultural as well as institutional change, crisis, decline, etc., inside the Jesuit organization. To prove this hypothesis, the authors have certainly done their homework! Large numbers who left the order, crisis of identity, “pelvic theology,” eclecticism and other internal or ecclesial tensions and traumas are presented as more than enough evidence in favor of the title of the book.

My reflection: These cultural changes, the massive exodus from monasteries and convents, these identity crises, these religious and moral upheavals have been taking place in every single human institution since the 1960’s. Nothing new, unusual or “subtle.” Reasons? Family breakdown, moral eclecticism, lack of religious education, post-Vatican II adjustments to religious life, etc. These and other allied social, moral and political freedoms have reduced the size of the family, the practice of religion and the obvious disappearance of “religious life” as a career option or vocation for youth. This is true in the United States, India, Spain and the rest of the “developed and free world.” I do not see the “subtleness” element in trying to discover anything new or unique within the Jesuit order that we couldn’t say and write about any other religious order. The Second Vatican Council did contribute to the “tensions” and “transition” happenings and the exodus from the post-60’s religious structures. Many other religious orders suffered much greater losses, and a few are heading for extinction. Reasons? All of the above!

I have also been surprised by the extensive and exaggerated attention given to the discussion regarding the “gay” and sexual-identity tensions within the Society. Where was I all these 52 years, hopping between three continents and pretty much alert to what people do, say and think about superiors, community life, individual personalities, the Vatican and the communion of saints? I certainly did not perceive the “sizeable” amount of evidence that the authors have put together: too much of “pelvic” problems and too little of “matters of the heart.”

A final and brief remark regarding the use of numbers and statistics, and the context in which they are used. The authors write that “only in India does membership appear to be growing steadily.” I beg to disagree. That was three or even two decades ago! At present, the growth is minimal and certainly declining very fast. I have with me the latest catalogs of the western Jesuit provinces in India. The average of all four provinces is “zero growth.” Crisis within the Society of Jesus in India? No. It’s just the same story everywhere you look. I feel compassionately certain about it!

12 years 2 months ago
I read with great interest Sister Katarina Schuth’s sociologically authoritative review of the book Passionate Uncertainty, by Peter McDonough and Eugene Bianchi (3/25). She clearly made the case that this is not a scientific sociological study. There are no charts or statistics to prove the allegations and assumptions of the authors.

But nowhere in the book do the co-authors suggest that this was their intention. They simply set out to tell what some present-day Jesuits and ex-Jesuits thought. Here and there they quoted an excessive statement of an individual that was in no way representative of a widespread attitude, such as the one who called Roman authorities “thugs.” But most were worthy of consideration.

St. Ignatius urged his men to listen to the views of others, even critics, and possibly learn from them. In the light of this, many of us in the hinterland believe that the basic position of the authors should be addressed: namely that the loss of a common apostolate in education has greatly affected the spirit of members of the order and the vision of the Society of Jesus among prospective members.

Father General Pedro Arrupe himself asked, at the time of the separation of community and colleges: “How can one call a university Jesuit if the superior general has no say whatever in its operation?” The reviewer admitted that the authors spoke of a condition in the Society “beyond the control of its members.” This situation has to be faced.

All the while, the co-authors point out that many Jesuits are doing “their own thing” in a variety of rewarding apostolates, especially in the area of spiritual direction, and generally are happier than those who left the order. But the sense of a common apostolate is no more.


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