Passionate Uncertainty: Inside the American Jesuits

by Peter McDonough and Eugene C. Bianchi Reviewed by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D.



Needless to say, I am overwhelmed by the work of the Jesuits and who they are as a people devoted to Christ. This book gives us the breadth and depth that is so much a part of their lives. This book looks at the drama that has occurred from the perspective of key players: Jesuits who have stayed with the institution and those who have abandoned the clerical enterprise. The troubles facing the Jesuits closely resemble those afflicting the clergy in general. With the ascent of the laity, the crisis of priestly identity and purpose has become a crisis of church leadership. Insofar as the laity look toward the representatives of the church for insight into their spiritual lives, their own sense of identity is also in crisis. The story of the Jesuits falls into three acts. The first ended abruptly in 1773, when the pope issued an edict to suppress the Society. The Jesuits, celebrated not only for their school and their schools and their missionary work but also for their activities as court advisers, had aroused the hostility of absolutist monarchs and the enmity of rivals within the Church. Except in Russia, where rulers declined to receive the papal edict, the Jesuits were disbanded, and their property was confiscated. Many became secular priests, and the superior-general of the order died in a papal prison in Rome.


After a forty year absence, a papacy alarmed by upheavals attendant on the French Revolution restored the Society of Jesus. The period from 1814 until Vatican II in the 1960s constitutes the second act in the saga of the Jesuits. Once again on the upswing, the restored Society was associated with conservative, antidemocratic elements through much of the nineteenth and the first part of the twentieth century in Europe. The order was identified with “ultramontane” support for the universal, transnational supremacy of the pope. More than Jesuits elsewhere, the American branch deployed its manpower through a network of high schools. Colleges and universities. The high schools especially became a major source of recruits. By the end of the 1930s, the Society of Jesus in the United States had overtaken Spanish Jesuits to form the largest regional contingent in the worldwide order.


Vatican II touched off the third act of the Jesuit drama, one whose scenario has yet to be completed. The promulgation of Vatican II’s decree on religious freedom, drafted by Murray, vindicated his views. Pedro Arupe , the first Basque to head the order since its founding, was elected superior-general and undertook a program of change in line with the reformist shift in Catholicism. The training of Jesuits became less regimented, and greater priority was placed on social justice. By 1965 when the council drew to a close, the Jesuits were at their peak, with more than 35,000 men around the world, about 8,500 of whom were Americans. As perceptions of the hardships of religious life and its challenges have become sharper than appreciation of its rewards, the attractions of that option diminish. As perceptions like this has happened since Vatican II. Rates of attrition from religious vocations are probably no higher than they are for other, modestly rewarding professions. But the number of applicants has dropped steadily. The central problem is no longer retention but recruitment in the first place. Why do men enter the Jesuits?


The factors that drew men to the priesthood in the 1930s and 1940s, when vocations to religious life were numerous, differed from the tradeoffs that brought subsequent cohorts on board. The motives behind religious commitments have become rather specialized. This change shows up in the reduced number and distinctive makeup of recruits and the altered texture of religious life. The book gives us significant information about those who leaned toward political life and those who chose education as their primary goal. There are graphs and charts that show the changes and trends. The notes and bibliography help us to ascertain the serious tenor of the text. Truly, it is filled with the joy and hardships of the Jesuits. In 2010 they have developed many of their high schools as Christo Rey High Schools that have the students and the faculty take responsibility for the promulgation of the faith. It is an interesting and thoughtful text. I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in all things Jesuit from St. Ignatius to present times.

Recent Posts

See All

Japan Politics

Articles/Commentaries ‘It is bullying, pure and simple’: being a woman in Japanese politics by Justin McCurry The Guardian