The Society of Jesus without Jesus

The other day I read an article whose headline seemed to hold out some slim hope for Catholic education in America: “As Jesuit presence fades, Georgetown recommits to its roots.”

Straight off I thought of the agricultural metaphors that Jesus uses all the time. So he says to the apostles at the Last Supper: “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” But from those to whom much has been given, much will be expected, so that if a man, having lived by the life-giving vine of Christ, does not abide in him, “he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered into the fire and burned.”

We may note also that this withering and burning may be accompanied by worldly success. So I cite the psalmist (Ps 49:16-20) as a warning to administrators who believe that their main concerns are with finances, athletics, prestige, new buildings, and popularity:

Be not afraid when one becomes rich,
when the glory of his house increases.
For when he dies he will carry nothing away;

his glory will not go down after him.
Though, while he lives, he counts himself happy,
and though a man gets praise when he does well for himself,
He will go to the generation of his fathers,
who will never more see the light.
Man cannot abide in his pomp,
he is like the beasts that perish.

It turns out that Georgetown University is doing nothing so radical as returning to its roots, that is, taking nourishment from the faith that moved its founders in the face of anti-Catholic hostility and intermittent suppression of the Jesuit order. Thirteen Jesuits now teach at the university, a quarter as many as taught there 50 years ago, and only in a couple of departments at that.

However, the author, a sophomore named Will Simon, assures us that all’s well. Indeed, all is going according to plan. For the “roots” don’t reach back 2,000 years to when Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss. They reach back to 1967, when a young Jesuit, William McFadden, became chairman of the theology department. McFadden, says Simon, “realized that incoming freshmen did not need courses in Catholic doctrine. Rather, they needed to experience ‘serious, thoughtful, critical thinking’ through religion…. Under his leadership, the department began offering classes that provided students and professors alike a space to explore fundamental questions of existence through lenses that were not exclusively Catholic.”

That last sentence baffles me. I can make no sense of it, knowing what I do about university curricula. Before McFadden, had there been no courses in British literature written after Henry VIII? Was Milton’s Paradise Lost on an index of forbidden books? Did no Hoya ever encounter the agonized doubts of Herman Melville, and the satanic obsession of his Ahab? Was the name of Goethe only scrawled on a basement wall? Did students have to meet in secret to whisper the sacred words of John Stuart Mill? Was there no anthropology department? Did the Georgetown history department stand at the shores of the Caspian Sea, facing west, and declaring, “Thus far, and no farther”? Of course not.

What Simon must mean is that the theology department would no longer be dedicated to Catholic theology, just as Fr. McFadden was not dedicated to doctrine, the teaching of which he believed to be quite unnecessary. Someday I hope finally to understand how so many people, at such a crisis in the Church and in western civilization, could make airy pronouncements about the glories of the coming age, predictions shown in short order to have been colossally wrong, and yet never to recant and repent.

If ever Catholic doctrine was needed, it was then, because the secular anti-culture was having things all its own way: the spread of pornography like a fungus, the pushing of abortion, the Pill, no-fault divorce, the accelerating decay of family life, the brazen worship of the big and rich and powerful, our army’s embroilment in a nation whose Catholic leader we had assassinated, the occupation of eastern Europe by atheist apparatchiks, and the brutal destruction of culture at the hands of the little red Mao. What augured hope for clear skies and quiet days?

It seems that those Catholic intellectuals were embarrassed by the Faith. They did not deny it, not exactly, but they treated it as if it needed instruction from the secular world, rather than the reverse. They certainly did not see it as a deposit of truth that the world urgently needed, a treasury of good for mankind.

Young Mr. Simon does not see the faith that way, either. He himself concedes that it is not likely that a student at Georgetown will receive “a deep Catholic education.” There will be talk about “social justice,” always and everywhere, although what that phrase is supposed to mean, other than statist liberalism in its current manifestation as identity politics, I don’t know. According to Simon, “Today’s Jesuits at Georgetown are not actively looking to play a more public role in education. Rather, they seek assurance that their founding principles shape the students who walk Georgetown’s campus.”

Their founding principles: the phrase is most strange. The Jesuits were founded for missionary work in a world that was breaking apart in the west, and opening up in the east and in the new lands across the Atlantic Ocean. They were the Society of Jesus; yet Jesus does not appear in Simon’s article. Nor can I find His name in Georgetown’s description of its “Catholic and Jesuit” values. They do say that “faith” is an important part of the “whole person” to be instructed, but what does that word mean? I have no faith in faith.

Communists had faith in a system that was the worst evil that men of the last century visited on the world, and that is saying a great deal. The devotees of thugee had faith in the goddess Kali, and that is why they robbed and murdered travelers in the mountain passes of the Punjab. The Catholic Church, no doubt, is open to the virtues of any culture she encounters, not because such openness is an end in itself, but rather so that she may the more effectively bring to it the One in whose name alone may man be saved.

People whose lives are informed by a tradition do not talk much about “tradition,” just as people who are directed by their religion do not talk much about “religion.” They talk about what they have been handed from their forebears; if they are Christians, they talk about the Lord. In a strange way, those who consign talk about Jesus to a portion of the chaplain’s quarters are akin to those who value tradition because it is traditional. Call it Downton Abbey Syndrome. There is no life to it.

One of the Jesuits to whom Simon spoke says he would be content if the last Jesuit were to disappear from Georgetown. That can be taken in a variety of ways. I would say instead that the Church very much needs a Society of Jesus, such as St. Ignatius founded: for the only source of value that Ignatius found in our sorry world was in Jesus himself. We need a Society of Jesus. We can do without a Society of Jesus Without Jesus.

ANTHONY ESOLEN is professor of English Renaissance and classical literature at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack, N.H. He is a prolific author and has translated several epic poems of the West. He is a graduate of Princeton and the University of North Carolina. He is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.