Why the Jesuits Are Dying Out

The numbers for membership in the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) are bleak. The average age of a Jesuit in the US is nearly 70, and “Jesuit schools” (including Georgetown) find themselves increasingly devoid of any actual Jesuits.  Most extreme are those schools like Washington Jesuit Academy, which no longer has any full-time Jesuit staff members, and who president isn’t even Christian. David Mills has a great analysis as to why. I wanted to focus on one specific reason:

The situation is nearly as bad elsewhere in the country and Europe, though reportedly the Jesuits are doing much better in Africa. A once great religious order is now in the institutional equivalent of a hospice. (Though, let me be clear, I know some wonderful Jesuits.)

One can debate the reasons, but one of them seems obvious. As the author puts it, admiringly: “Jesuits are the archetype of priests with PhDs who protest in the streets or otherwise advocate for causes, often politically liberal ones.”

Forget what you feel about Ph.Ds, street protests or liberal political activism. The central point is that if that’s what you want to do, why bother becoming a Jesuit at all? It’s not at all any easy process, and takes years of hard work. As Mills explains, this is one obvious reason most young priests are orthodox – a love of the Church the only reason to become a priest:

The average Catholic young man, even if he grew up entirely within the Catholic educational system, knows that he has a lot of choices for what he wants to do with his life. The priesthood and the religious life have to draw him in and appeal to him in a way all the other options don’t.

He can get a Ph.D. without being a Jesuit. He can protest in the streets without being a Jesuit. He can be a political advocate without being a Jesuit. He can do all that and have a family and a job.

What he has to want, if he’s going to join the order, is to be what only a Jesuit can be. And that archetype includes fidelity to the Church’s teaching. Such a young man these days will be religiously serious, which almost always means traditional and believing. If he’s going to be a Jesuit, he’s going to be an old-fashioned one.

This point seems so obviously correct that I’m at a loss to its rebuttal. Certainly, it’s not the only factor in play, but it’s hardly a shocking thesis that men who are going to give up  marriage, sex and family, and turn nearly complete control of their lives (from where they live to what their occupation is) to their religious superiors want to get something out of it.

If what’s being offered is participation in the priesthood of Jesus Christ Himself, the ability to turn bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus, the ability to forgive sins through Divine power, the ability to call down the Holy Spirit… these things make those sacrifices not only worth it, but insignificant by comparison. But if what’s being offered instead is no different from what you’d get at nearly any secular doctoral program in the country, why become a Jesuit?

So the choices modern Jesuits face are to re-emphasize the absolute centrality of the priesthood, or die. Unfortunately, Mills points to some ominous signs that there are Jesuits who’d rather simply see the Jesuit Order die out than turn the reins over to their more theologically-conservative successors. May God protect the Society of Jesus from such influences, and may the Springtime for Evangelization bear real fruit amongst the Jesuits.

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