Among the most complicated and at times most strained relationships in the Catholic world is that between the Society of Jesus and the pope. As the dust settles on the Jesuits' 35th General Congregation in Rome, a Jan. 7-March 6 international assembly to ponder the religious order's future, one question thus hangs in the air: Did Benedict XVI and the Jesuits reach detente?
To extend a metaphor proposed by the newly elected Jesuit leader, 71-year-old Spaniard Fr. Adolfo Nicolas--he compared the relationship between the pope and the Jesuits to a marriage, with its natural ups and downs--it would seem in the aftermath of the General Congregation that the partners to this union genuinely care for each other, yet may continue to have problems with conflict.
The Jesuits' encounter with Benedict was a significant improvement over relations in the early days of Pope John Paul II. In 1981, John Paul suspended the Jesuit constitution by appointing his own leadership team rather than allowing the Jesuits to elect their leaders. Though temporary, the move was interpreted as a vote of "no confidence" in a religious order seen by the Vatican as excessively politicized and enchanted by liberal theological currents.
This time around, the Jesuits had no difficulty in choosing Nicolas, who has spent most of his career in Asia, where theological currents have the Vatican on guard. Though the pope did not have to approve the result, Benedict warmly received Nicolas one week later. The embrace was striking, not only because early analysis painted Nicolas as a liberal, but also because the Vatican had previously vetoed him as rector of the Jesuit-run Gregorian University in Rome. Nicolas had acted as a theological adviser to the Japanese bishops during the 1998 Synod for Asia, where prelates argued for greater collegiality, or decentralization, in church authority, a stance that set off alarms in Rome.
The fact that Benedict XVI nevertheless graciously accepted Nicolas struck many Jesuits as a good sign.
To be sure, Benedict repeatedly called the Jesuits to obedience, and specifically asked for their assent in three critical areas: the theology of religious pluralism, liberation theology, and sexual morality. All represent battle zones; Three Jesuit theologians in the last seven years have drawn Vatican censures for their writings on these topics.
However, what made a deeper impression was the pope's positive overall tone. In a Feb. 21 audience, Benedict even praised the order's controversial former general, Fr. Pedro Arrupe, for his "farsighted intuitions" concerning the option for the poor.
Afterward, the Jesuits were clearly moved--so much so that during an afternoon session that day, one delegate recalled an insight from their founder, St. Ignatius Loyola, that it's unwise to make choices born of either great desolation or consolation. Since the Jesuits were feeling enormous consolation, this delegate cautioned, "Let us be careful not to make decisions we may regret two months later."
Arguably, Benedict came into the papacy more favorably inclined to the Jesuits than had John Paul, and more aware of the diversity within the almost 20,000-strong order. At the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the pope--then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger--built a warm relationship with Nicolas' predecessor, Dutch Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach. One of Ratzinger's closest advisers was another Jesuit, German Fr. Karl Becker, and among his first acts as pope was to appoint …