Top Jesuit praises predecessor for reform without rupture

New York

In what amounts almost to a valedictory address, the current leader of the Jesuit order, set to resign in early January, has praised his controversial predecessor for committing the Jesuits to a path of reform, steering between what he called “fanatical proponents” of the status quo and a radical break with the past that “leaves nothing but empty spaces and ruins.”

Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach made the comments on Nov. 14 in Bilbao, Spain, at a conference commemorating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Fr. Pedro Arrupe. Kolvenbach replaced Arrupe in 1983 as Father General.

For many, the reform-minded Arrupe, who among other things encouraged the Jesuits to take up social justice as a core concern, was a symbol of broader tensions in Catholicism following the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). With almost 20,000 members worldwide, the Jesuits have long been considered the flagship religious order in the church.

Despite a public image of Arrupe as a liberal, Kolvenbach said that the former Jesuit leader, who died in 1991 after a decade-long illness, rejected the post-Vatican II tendency to classify everything in terms of “conservatives and progressives.” Arrupe’s point of reference, Kolvenbach said, lay neither in the right nor the left, but in personal conversion rooted in encounter with Christ.

“We face the danger of taking for granted the victories of the council,” Kolvenbach said, paraphrasing Arrupe, “such as aggiornamento and the new presence of the church in the world; religious freedom of conscience and the responsibility of the faithful in the church; interreligious dialogue and the preferential option for the poor; the commitment toward human development and the rediscovery of Scripture and of liturgy. These are undeniable values, but for them to be fruits of the Spirit they presuppose a true conversion of our hearts. Otherwise, such victories would produce no more than superficial accommodations or would be transformed into concessions to opportunism, yielding to the pressures of fashion or to so-called modern currents.”

For that reason, Kolvenbach argued, Arrupe was never the radical some critics made him out to be.

“Father Arrupe could not imagine a change that would be a radical break with the past, or a discontinuity which entailed the abandonment of a holy tradition, for it were thus it would involve an emptiness which nothing could fill,” Kolvenbach said. In that sense, Kolvenbach said, Arrupe was firmly on the side of a “hermeneutic of reform,” as opposed to what Pope Benedict XVI has called a “hermeneutic of rupture and discontinuity in which change is sought only for the sake of change.”

According to Kolvenbach, Arrupe understood that the Jesuits’ choice to accent social justice would create opposition.

“We will witness rising up against us those who in the industrial society of today practice injustice, who on the other hand are considered excellent Christians and who have perhaps been able to be our benefactors, our friends and even members of our families,” Kolvenbach said, synthesizing Arrupe’s thought.

“They will accuse us of Marxism and subversion. They will withdraw their friendship from us and with it they will take away their long-standing trust and economic support,” Kolvenbach said.

“Are we willing to assume this responsibility of entering on the path of a heavier cross, of withstanding the incomprehension of the civil and ecclesiastic authorities, and of our best friends?” Kolvenbach asked, still paraphrasing Arrupe. “Are we ourselves ready to offer a true witness in our lives, in our work, in our lifestyle?”

On the subject of Marxism, Kolvenbach said Arrupe was clear that “the Society of Jesus can never accept an ideology which has atheism as its essential tenet.” Tracing the Jesuit engagement with social themes all the way back to St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the order in the 16th century, Kolvenbach said: “To see in all this only a sort of capitulation before Marxist ideologies would simply be a false interpretation.”

At the same time, Kolvenbach said, Arrupe felt that “the truth [Marxism] possesses ought to be studied seriously and conscientiously.”

That instinct, Kolvenbach said, led Arrupe to embrace another characteristic emphasis of post-Vatican II Catholicism: inter-religious dialogue.

“Should we not recognize as an innovation of the council, which believes in the presence of the semina Verbi, the valid elements present in Hinduism, Buddhism, and other religions?” Kolvenbach said. “Should we not recognize such semina Verbi as a starting point for constructive dialogue with the other?

Kolvenbach referred only briefly to tensions between the Society of Jesus and the Vatican that dogged Arrupe’s tenure, under both Paul VI and especially John Paul II, who in 1981 imposed his own leaders on the Jesuits for a two-year period prior to Kolvenbach’s election. Documentation from that period, Kolvenbach said, “contains signs of precaution, preoccupation and reservations with respect to this path forward along a road less traveled.”

“Inside the Society, the worries of the popes were used in different places to foment resistance against the renewal launched by Father Arrupe,” he said. “Meanwhile, some of Father Arrupe’s expressions were interpreted lightly as a justification of initiatives and conduct foreign to the mission of the Society, giving an almost dominant weight to human promotion and only social progress.”

At times, Kolvenbach said, criticism of Arrupe could become biting, for example in the formula: “That which Ignatius, a Basque, has built, another Basque is going to destroy.”

Arrupe was sustained, Kolvenbach said, by a proverb also recently cited by Pope Benedict XVI: “If a tree falls, it makes a lot of noise, but if a thousand flowers bloom it happens in the greatest of silence.”

The 35th General Congregation of the Jesuits, a representative gathering of Jesuits from around the world that will elect a successor to Kolvenbach and consider the future of the order, opens in Rome on Jan. 7.

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here