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ROME, December 2, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) —  Speculation has arisen lately about the status of the Society of Jesus, now that the highest office in the Church is held by a member of the Jesuits. 

Historically, the Society has been the object of considerable suspicion from more traditional religious orders and from sections of the Catholic laity. Pope Paul IV, who served from 1555 to 1559, described the Society’s internal structure as a tyranny, and in a difficult and bad-tempered exchange with the second superior general of the Jesuits, he alleged that if they did not begin the choral recitation of the office, one day “Satan would arise from their ranks.”

Famously, one of the greatest theological disputes in the history of the Church, the de Auxiliis controversy, was left unresolved because of Pope Paul V’s fear that condemning the Jesuit theology of grace as heretical (as the older theological schools insisted that it was) would do irreparable harm to the society’s prestige, damaging the Counter-Reformation. 

The celebrated French author and mathematician, Blaise Pascal, reproached the society for having compromised the Augustinian doctrine of God’s grace and led their penitents into moral laxity.  

Through the first two hundred years of its history, the society was adorned with many saints whose missionary labors were prodigious and who gave their lives for the Gospel and for the unity of the Church. Undoubtedly, the Jesuits struck fear into the hearts of Protestants and secular enemies of the Church. 

In 1773, under huge pressure from so-called “Enlightened” despots then ruling Catholic Europe, Pope Clement XIV (a Franciscan) “forever annulled and extinguished” the Society of Jesus. In the period following their dissolution, certain theological positions dear to the Jesuits but less congenial to the more traditional schools sank beneath the waves, and in the words of Francis Sullivan, SJ, “hardly any Catholic theologians dared to question the traditional teaching.”

And yet, in 1814, in the wake of Napoleon’s defeat and abdication, Pius VII revived the Society, its dissolution being associated with the secularism that climaxed in the French Revolution. 

While the scale of the hostility among Catholics that existed before the dissolution did not revive, there remained a strong resistance to the appointment of Jesuits to senior positions in the Roman Curia, and to the election of a Jesuit as pope. The Jesuits in fact promise to spurn high ecclesial office unless compelled to accept it under obedience.  

But in these days, concerns have been raised that, the ultimate glass ceiling having been broken, with a Jesuit upon the throne of St. Peter, all the lesser bastions are also giving way, or rather being given away. 

In the wake of the Second Vatican Council, the Jesuits have become stalwarts of the new liberal conception of Catholicism and the hostility of former centuries among more conservative and traditional clergy, laity and religious has revived. Like the medieval tale of Prester John, the legend of the good Jesuit endures in the hearts of the faithful. Over the next hill and around the next bend he must exist, prostrated somewhere in a cave doing penance for the latest article of James Martin, with copious tears.

Journalist Joshua McElwee, Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter (NCR), has observed an increasing flow of Jesuits into prominent positions in the Roman Curia under Pope Francis. The Society’s formidable reputation has in the past created a general reluctance to concede to them the commanding heights of the papal administration. But now, McElwee alleges, that age is past. 

McElwee argues that a number of significant appointments under Francis, including the recent pick of Spanish Jesuit Father Antonio Guerrero Alves as prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, a post held until recently by Cardinal George Pell, have raised Jesuits to positions never before held in the Roman Curia.

Until now, Fr. Guerrero has served as Councilor to the Society’s Superior General, Fr. Arturo Sosa, and has overseen Jesuit houses in Rome, including the Gregorian, the Biblicum and the Pontifical Oriental Institute.

In an interview with Vatican News following Guerrero’s appointment, Fr. Sosa said he asked the Pope that the appointment “not be associated with the episcopate,” so that Fr. Guerrero, 60, could “return, after finishing his mission, to his normal life as a Jesuit.” 

According to McElwee’s reckoning, the only Jesuit ever previously to have held the rank of prefect in Rome was the late German Cardinal Augustin Bea, who “headed the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity under Popes John XXIII and Paul VI from 1960-68.” One NCR source called Pope Francis’s choices “an anomaly and certainly not traditional,” while another argued that it is only natural for a pope to appoint “like-minded” men who “fit the model.”

But sources in Rome consulted by LifeSite urge caution, saying some of Joshua McElwee’s claims may be overstated.

Jesuits did hold senior positions in the Roman Curia under the last pontificate. Cardinal Luis Ladaria, SJ joined the Curia in 2004 as Secretary General of the International Theological Commission and was appointed Secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith by Pope Benedict XVI in 2008. Jesuit archbishop Cyril Vasil’ was also named secretary of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches under Benedict. And Fr. Federico Lombardi’s post as Vatican spokesman spanned the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Admittedly, none of these constituted prefectures of Roman dicasteries but were all number two positions. 

Furthermore, Canadian Jesuit Cardinal Michael Czerny does not, as the article suggests, “lead” the Migrants and Refugees Section of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, but serves as its under-secretary. 

McElwee’s claims that the appointment of Fr. Guerrero as prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy may partly be inspired by a drive to lower the ecclesiastic rank of Roman officials, or separate priestly ordination from high administrative office, remains unproven. Michael Czerny was appointed to his office as a priest but then went on to be ordained a bishop and created a cardinal. 

Father Guerrero, 60, may be entirely sincere in his stated desire to serve only a short term in the papal administration before returning to the normal life of a Jesuit, sources add, although they do concede that it will be difficult for him to “give orders” to cardinals and bishops given the hierarchical nature of the Roman Curia. 

The Jesuits too may be concerned about overreaching themselves, and the possibility of a violent reaction when a new Pharaoh arises who does not know Joseph (cf. Ex 1:7). During the pontificate of Benedict XVI, the Salesians became concerned that Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, a member of their order, was creating resentment by appointing too many of his confreres to senior positions. The joke in the Vatican was that the initials which identify a Salesian, SDB, really stood for “Sono di Bertone,” i.e. “I belong to Bertone.”

Or could it be that with the approach of an internal demographic cliff, and noting the increasing popularity of the Clement XIV memorabilia sold by Fr. Z, the Jesuits have decided that their long march through the institutions must reach its objective before it’s too late? With only three years to go until the 250th anniversary of Dominus ac Redemptor, the Society cannot but be concerned at the possibility of a positive reassessment of the legacy of Clement XIV.