Talking with Jesuits

By Andrew M. Haines
June 7, 2018

In 1987, Jorge Mario Bergoglio now famously wrote: "Ideas are discussed; situations are discerned." That might as well have been his personal motto as a bishop. It seems to explain a lot about how he sees his role as a leader and pastor, and about how he wants others to react to it. Evangelii gaudium, Laudato Si', Amoris laetitia, Gaudete et exsultate—they're all a brand new sort of papal patois. They all stem from a notion that it's situations, not ideas, that point us most clearly to the life of Christ.

This is "jesuitical" stuff. But if that term still remains a jibe five years on in Francis's pontificate, it's gained some ground, as well. Now is an historical moment especially suited to Jesuit missionary zeal, and to a profound, practical lesson in spiritual discernment.

Decoding Francis's hidden meaning

I'm not a Jesuit, but I've been around them most of my life. I've studied at two Jesuit universities and have had three Jesuit spiritual directors. I've often said that the best and worst priests I know are Jesuits. (Here are two great ones.) Most Jesuits have a way of thinking and speaking that's difficult to put a finger on, even in close quarters. At worst, it's alluring casuistry; at best, it's profound and rich learning packaged carefully for those who lack the privilege of decades of intellectual and spiritual formation. Pope Francis is a Jesuit shouting through the megaphone of the modern papacy, where sifting signal from noise is uniquely difficult. Still, everyone knows there's at least something powerful and good coming through, even if it can sound awful most of the time.

In the days after his election, Francis gave instructions on how to listen to what would follow for those who had ears to hear. His first homily focused on three types of spiritual movement, three simple but significant verbs that he saw would somehow define his ministry: camminare, edificare, confessare—to walk, to build, and to confess the faith. His first visible acts as pope were rich with imagery, too, from his request for prayers on the loggia to paying his personal hotel bill. These early statements weren't blueprints (although that sounds like the punchline setup of a good Jesuit joke). They were hermeneutic keys, "decryptors" to be used later on to help cut out static and focus on his message. I don't think any of it was done so deliberately as it sounds, but it'd have been part of a natural disposition that anyone so steeped in the Society's spiritual tradition couldn't have avoided.

Father Robert Spitzer, SJ, develops this idea far better than I could in his lecture, "The Jesuit Hermeneutic of Pope Francis." He says the pope's encyclicals and letters, in particular, are up to "something different, something more" than what they appear to be. They tend to have a common, four-phase structure of edification, challenge, invitation, and resolution. He also says they tend to focus on a few key angles of a subject: What or who is broken that no one is paying attention to? And what or who is being ignored that Christ would not ignore? That reminds me a lot of the Ignatian exercises, where vivid imagining and visualization is key to fruitful meditation. It also helps to make sense of Francis's ongoing, almost-performative dialogue with Eugenio Scalfari.

Discovering the magis

To rip off Tolstoy, batty Jesuits are all alike; every great Jesuit is great in his own way. That greatness—whatever it looks like—is the magis that Jesuits strive for. It's the execution of their motto, Ad maiorem Dei gloriam, and it means something like (as Ignatius wrote in the order's Constitutions) "the greater service of God and the more universal good." Pope Francis is striving for the magis in his own way. All of his successes—and his failures—are part of this personal mission, something ingrained in him far more deeply, on a human level, than the Petrine Office is likely to be.

None of this, however, means that Jesuits are best suited for every job. Father Barton T. Geger, SJ, in discussing what magis really means, describes Ignatius's warnings against Jesuit bishops, and about the conflicts that come with positions of authority and prestige. Crudely put, Ignatius was worried about the megaphone effect, too: something that's good in one way outweighing the greater good. But he also saw the importance of prestige, from time to time, for accomplishing that same greater benefit. Discerning these situations is woven into the Society's fabric from the very start. Even "mistaken" discernment is virtuous—as long as it's authentic—since it weighs particular actions in light of a personal call to holiness, informed by practical wisdom and careful study. Sometimes accepting a position of power turns out to have bad effects, but accepting it, or exercising ministry within it, may not itself be a bad thing.

Pope Francis's preference for situations over ideas is indeed jesuitical. But that doesn't necessarily mean it's deceptive. Prayerful discernment is at the heart of the Gospel and of the whole Christian life, even if most Christians (including some smart, vocal, and even popular ones) have no real training in it. Perhaps the most evident and unqualified redeeming feature of this present papacy is the explicit emphasis placed on spiritual discernment ahead of anything else. It's a remarkably appropriate follow-up to Pope Benedict's tremendous example of humble discernment in search of true freedom, and in accord with the dictates of an active conscience.

What's more, and maybe most surprising to many, is that spiritual discernment can produce real results that effectively encourage orthodox faith. Take for example the recent story of soon-to-be-Cardinal Ladaria (a controversial appointment to head the CDF, also a Jesuit, and one of my favorite teachers) blocking an avant-garde move by the German bishops in favor of intercommunion for non-Catholics. Or the same man reaffirming the Church's "definitive" teaching on male priesthood. In such cases, tactfulness is paramount, given a number of prevailing circumstances. Yet each shows an Ignatian emphasis on real-world situations that does not dilute the resolve of the Church's firm faith or her consistent teaching about it. I suspect that, in the long run, even Amoris laetitia will end up on the right side of history. And if it doesn't, it'll at least be judged as a noble attempt to get a very complicated thing as right as possible.

Physician, heal thyself

To listen to prevailing Catholic voices would make it seem that the calculus of discernment in Rome is just a sophisticated rehearsal of political ideas; not something real at all, mere showmanship. Or, slightly less perfidious, only the naive dreaming of an unscrupulous pastor. I think this could not be further from the truth. Ignatius's hesitations against high office notwithstanding (and they should be taken very seriously), something genuinely good just might be afoot with this papacy. Just might probably be afoot. It might also be, and probably is, mixed up with bad things, too; the crisis for the Church in South America is an ugly affair for many reasons. In any case, those suffering the effects of a global crisis of faith will benefit more from a practical lesson in spirituality than from even the most elegant reiteration of doctrine. This includes the Church's pastors, as well.

The "confusion" felt so acutely and bemoaned by many Catholics concerning Francis is connected to the confusion of the Church's pastors surrounding sex abuse cases, financial mismanagement, and orthodox collegiality. It's all a product of human sinfulness, and of a decades-old crisis of knowledge that's battering the Church in unprecedented ways. The solution is not and cannot be a mere restatement of truths; it must be a rehabilitation of the means for getting at truth, itself. In my experience, and in the historical experience of the Church, Jesuits have a unique claim in such moments of great missionary adversity. Talking with Jesuits has planted the seeds of deep faith for countless Christians throughout history. And working through the purpose and significance of that faith by the light of intelligent, prayerful discernment has formed Christian cultures that have endured for centuries.

The present moment, both for the Church and for humanity, is one that we should entrust a bit more to that same "jesuitical" brilliance.

Andrew M. Haines is editor and founder of Ethika Politika, and co-founder and chief operating officer at Fiat Insight.