The Universal Church

Robert Peter Burns rburns at
Thu Nov 9 23:47:24 MST 1995

Doug Henwood asks:

> I wonder if Peter Burns could comment on two things:
> 1) How successful has the Vatican's campaign to rein in the Jesuits been?
> As I understand it, and correct me if I'm wrong, JP2 has been trying to
> bring the order more under the direct authority of the Vatican.

Well, I obviously don't feel reined in, do I, though maybe the marxists
will beat the Vatican to the task.  But to answer Doug's question:

In 1983 there was an attempt at a sort of "putsch" by JP2 when Pedro
Arrupe fell seriously ill.  The pope tried to appoint his own man
to oversee the Society instead of the guy who by our constitution
should have had that job.  This was all highly irregular, and some
of us were worried that we were going to be for the chop.  But eventually
the pope backed off, and normal procedures were restored.  Officially
we are no more under the "direct authority of the Vatican" now than
we were before, and any attempts to go in that direction would cause
an explosion which the Vatican does not really want to risk at the
moment.  Having said that, we are obliged to obey the pope when he
issues a direct and insistent order about something specific, but
he rarely does that <but see below>.  Some Vatican types have been
trying to undermine us in other ways.  But it's not just the
Vatican.  There is a very sinister campaign going in Mexico right
now sponsored by the PRI, who are accusing the Mexican Jesuits of
being behind the Chiapas uprising, and are issuing death threats
similar to those that were eventually carried out in El Salvador.
The Mexican government is trying *very* hard to make trouble for
us with the Vatican.  So we pretty much have enemies everywhere,
thanks be to God.

Earlier this year the Jesuits held their 34th General Congregation <GC34>
in Rome.  There had been some vague talk beforehand of the Congregation
retreating from the commitment made at GC32 <1975> in its Decree 4
to work for the structural transformation of society in the direction
of justice.  But I am glad to report that Decree 4 was reaffirmed, and
moreover, a surprisingly strong statement <well, strong for a bunch
of male clerics meeting under the watchful eyes of the Vatican> was added
in favor of women's issues being a vital part of justice concerns, including
a confession of the Society's sins of sexism.  So my sense is that not much
reining in has really taken place.  However, as a result of the general
trends toward conservatism in the church and in wider society over the
last 15 years, we are not getting as many *really* radical younger guys
joining as we used to, though I would say that a lot depends on which
country you're talking about.

The most publicized case of reining in was that of Fernando Cardenal,
minister of education in the Sandinista government <his brother, Ernesto,
who is also a priest but not a Jesuit, was minister of culture and had
a famous finger-wagging from JP2 at Managua airport in 1983.  Their nephew,
Antonio Cardenal, was a former Jesuit who became "Comandante Jesus" in
the FMLN in El Salvador before he was killed by the security forces in
an ambush>.  The Vatican insisted that Fernando be expelled from the order
because he refused to quit political office.  But crafty Jesuits that we
are, we allowed, indeed invited Fernando to remain in his Jesuit community
and continue as if nothing had happened even though he was officially an
ex-SJ.  I stayed in that community when I visited Managua in 1990, and
Fernando told me all about the background shenanigans, as well as showing me
around Nicaragua.

> 2) What are Catholic seminarians taught? I'm told that at most of the
> high-end Episcopalian divinity schools, God is explained as a metaphor, and
> so too the rest of the doctrine. I thought I recalled reading that many
> Catholic theologians in the US teach the young ones similar things. What's
> the state of Catholic theology these days (at least in the US)?
I would say that the general standard of theology and priestly
training in *diocesan* seminaries has always been, and continues
to be, mediocre to abysmal.  In the religious orders, things are
usually though not always somewhat better, and I think the Jesuits
are pretty good on the whole--well, I would, wouldn't I?  Some RC
theologians are into "postmodernism", or at least "a
dialogue" with "postmodernism".  Others take their cue from
Germany <Hegel through Habermas> and others from the later Wittgenstein.
I was trained <as a Jesuit> in analytic philosophy in Britain,
however, and this is not a strong point in US Catholic or US
Jesuit circles.  Though an analytic philosopher who was on
the faculty at UC Riverside, Mark Ravizza, recently joined up.

I would not say that in Catholic circles "God is explained *as*
a metaphor", so much as that it is held that there are important
reasons why God is to be spoken of *in* metaphorical terms <the
same applies to science, which is *full* of metaphors, BTW>.

I have my own views about this, and about questions to do with
transcendence, and I have been in recent dialogue off-list with a
couple of people on these and related issues.  Similarly, I have
views about what it means to say "it all happens in the world".
A lot depends on whether one thinks that what is "in the world"
is all and only what is discoverable by science, <what about
mathematical objects, what about reason and value, what about
meaning and mental content?  Are these "in" the world?  If so,
are they visible, physical objects? If not, are they nonetheless
discoverable by science?>  If you think I am playing with words
here, you are obviously not up to date with the big issues in
contemporary analytic philosophy <of course, you might not think
that that is to your discredit, or you might just not care.>
Likewise, a lot depends on whether one thinks that "God is
in the world" is a meaningful sentence, and so on, and of
course a lot depends on whether one is trapped in the thought
that God is some kind of finite objectifiable entity.  But
I realize I am boring everyone at this point, so I'll stop there.
But there is a big serious, scientifically and philosophically
informed and sophisticated literature out there for anyone who is

Peter Burns SJ
rburns at

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