Wednesday, November 19, 2014

In defense of the Jesuits

Sarah Morris | Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Around this campus, there exists a list of well-known crowd pleasers that one can toss into any conversation for a reliable chuckle. Such topics include South Bend’s unforgiving weather, the obesity of our campus’s squirrels, that sorry excuse for a university in Ann Arbor and of course the heathen Jesuits. Despite the facts that thousands of us have been educated by Jesuits at some point in our lives, that eight of the 15 largest Catholic universities in the country are Jesuit and that the pope himself is a Jesuit, it seems that many folks around Notre Dame no longer recognize them as “real Catholics.” Of course, many of these comments are made in jest, light-heartedly poking fun at an order that has long been a popular subject of humor. (A man walked up to a Franciscan and Jesuit and asked, “How many novenas must you say to get a Mercedes Benz?” The Franciscan asked, “What’s a Mercedes Benz?” The Jesuit asked, “What’s a novena?”)

However, the persisting sense of serious differentiation between “us” and “them” is cause for concern.

The tendency to distinguish “real” Catholics from Jesuits often goes hand in hand with what New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has dubbed a possible “schism” between “adherent” and “progressive” Catholics that is brewing on the horizon. As Douthat and Fr. James Martin, a prominent Jesuit scholar and author, discuss in an excellent dialogue recently published in America Magazine, the labels of left-right/liberal-conservative can often be reductive when discussing varying ideologies within the Catholic faith. However, most would agree that it is fair to place Jesuits on the progressive side of things. This leads to the unsurprising conclusion that the large number of conservative-leaning Catholics at this University may find significant discrepancies between their idea of Catholicism and the Jesuit “brand.” Yet, it must be recognized that such discrepancies are not dogmatically based but rather matters of focus.

The Jesuit order’s emphasis on higher education and social justice does not make it any less Catholic than groups that emphasize issues like abortion or gay marriage. Providing world-class educations to young people around the world and promoting the preferential option for the poor are just as “Catholic” as attending the March for Life or fighting for the “sanctity of marriage.” (In fact, I would argue that they are more so, but that is for another column). In a September 2013 interview, Pope Francis remarked that “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. … The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.” His comments strongly reflect the Jesuit tendency to focus on broader means of carrying out the Gospels through promoting “global justice, peace and dialogue” instead of honing in on ultra-specific issues that affect much smaller percentages of humanity (more than three billion people live on less than $2.50 per day. There have been roughly 71,165 same-sex marriages in the United States since 2004).

But disagreement on focus is expected and should be viewed as a positive element of our shared Catholic faith. There are 1.2 billion Catholics around the world. Of course we will have different ideas of what matters most. This diversity is what makes the Church such a wonderfully dynamic body. To dismiss the largest single order of the Catholic Church simply because it emphasizes “liberal” values is wrong. To lament the fact that “Georgetown is basically a secular university” is not only factually inaccurate, but dismisses a rich and major element of Catholic presence in the United States and the world.

As a community, we can differentiate and debate the various manifestations of Catholicism, as well as their merits and vices. It is completely acceptable to disagree with the Jesuits’ focuses and believe that we as Catholics should invest our time and energy in entirely different pursuits of living the faith. But writing them off as “fake” Catholics will get us nowhere. Jesuits, and liberal Catholics in general, have an important place at the table. For some, the recent goings-on at the Vatican are incredibly exciting; for others, they are genuinely upsetting and worrisome. Instead of condemning one faction of “other” Catholics as heathens and heretics, or fundamentalists and bigots for that matter, let’s discuss these changes together, like Fr. Martin and Douthat do. With all of the rhetorical skills we picked up at our Jesuit high schools, it’s sure to be an excellent debate.

Sarah Morris is junior studying political science and American studies. She is a proud Ryan Hall wildcat and originally hails from Monterey, California. She can be reached at

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.


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