This Least Society
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.