By Hilary White

ROME, March 11, 2008 ( – The two-month General Congregation meeting of the Society of Jesus ended in Rome on Thursday with the 225 delegates professing their loyalty to the Pope and their obedience to Catholic teaching. At the start of their meeting, the Jesuit order, one of the most influential in the history of the Catholic Church, received a letter from Pope Benedict XVI implicitly criticising the order for laxity in its commitment to Catholic teaching and its traditional loyalty to the pope.

Pope Benedict wrote to the order in January, “I heartily hope that the present Congregation affirms with clarity the authentic charism of the founder so as to encourage all Jesuits to promote true and healthy Catholic doctrine.”

The pope wrote that “it could prove extremely useful” for the General Congregation to “reaffirmâEUR¦its own total adhesion to Catholic doctrine,” in areas which “today are strongly attacked by secular culture”. Pope Benedict specified the teaching of the Church on inter-religious and inter-denominational relations, “some aspects” of “Liberation theology” denounced by many in the Church as Marxist-inspired, and “various points of sexual morality, especially as regards the indissolubility of marriage and the pastoral care of homosexual persons”.

In response, the General Congregation has issued a declaration titled, “With New Fervor and Dynamism, the Society of Jesus Responds to the Call of Benedict XVI”.

Shortly after his election during the General Congregation as the new Superior General of the order, Father Adolfo Nicolás chided reporters for running “unhelpful” reportage and creating “an artificial tension” between the Jesuits and the Pope. He said the problems had been created by outsiders unaware that “the Society of Jesus from the very beginning has always been in communion with the Holy Father.”

The order, founded in the 16th century to answer the religious controversies driving the Protestant Reformation, has in recent decades moved away from its traditional defence of Catholic orthodoxy. Throughout its history the Society of Jesus was strongly marked by its characteristic “fourth vow” of total obedience to the pope, in addition to the traditional three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. But since the 1960’s, that special relationship has been strained as the order has taken the lead in the so-called “progressive” or left-liberal wing in the Church.

In the areas of the sanctity of human life, the Church’s teaching on sexuality and the meaning of marriage, US Jesuits in particular have been instrumental in creating in both government and academia the widespread acceptance of abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality and finally gay marriage among American Catholics, particularly in the political sphere.

Observers have said that despite the officially declared line of loyalty, little is to be expected in reform of the order’s direction of “tacit dissent” of the past forty years.

Fr. Adolfo Nicolás did little to allay such suspicions when he told reporters on Friday that the Jesuits’ tradition of fidelity and obedience never stopped them “in their theological research or in their way of living the Christian faith.” He said only that the order would now understand that “we need more humility because conflicts and difficulties are what make us grow.”

Even more clearly, the superior of the Jesuits of Italy distanced the order from the traditional “militaristic” interpretation of obedience. Father Carlo Casalone said, “In reality, obedience understood as uncritical obedience to the will of another is not a virtue.” Instead, he said, obedience is “seeking the will of God together with another person, that is, seeking the good to be done.”

US Catholic author and columnist Russell Shaw wrote in January, “The Jesuits as a body are in serious trouble today”. He called the 35th General Congregation, “a matter of the highest urgency. The Society’s very survival could be at stake.”

“The really big difference between then and now is that Jesuits then were a band of ultra-orthodox papal loyalists, while Jesuits now and for several decades have collectively cast themselves in the role of a shakily loyal opposition.”

The order’s continued existence, however, is a matter of some doubt. The order reached a numerical peak in 1965. However, in 2002 more men had left since 1960 (5,892) than were then members (3,635). As of 2007, the number of Jesuits in the United States has fallen to 2,991.

American Catholic author and thinker George Weigel wrote in the Denver Catholic Register in February that there were immediate tests in the offing for the Jesuits’ latest profession of loyalty. Weigel asked the newly elected Superior General, “What will Father Nicolas do about Jesuits who are manifestly not obedient to the Pope or to the teaching authority of the Church?”

Weigel offered one example among many. “Take, for example, the case of Father James Keenan, S.J., of Boston College. Several years ago, Father Keenan testified before the Massachusetts Legislature, arguing that the principles of Catholic social doctrine did not merely tolerate ‘gay marriage,’ they demanded it.”

“That position is manifestly not ‘in communion’ with the teaching of popes past and present on the nature of marriage; now what?”