What Do The Jesuits REALLY Think About Pope Francis?

Dr. J. Patrick Hornbeck, II

“There has to be a certain amount of understandable pride. And I mean that in the best sense possible.”

An interview with

Dr. J. Patrick Hornbeck, II

theologian and historian

at the Jesuit

Fordham University in New York

The following is a true story.

St. Beuno’s

In April 2005 a group of Jesuits were celebrating mass at St. Beuno’s, an Ignatian spirituality center in Wales, literally while crowds at the Vatican were waiting to see who would be the new pope, up on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica. Of course, near the end of the Liturgy of the Word, the celebrant priest at St. Beuno’s would have to pray for the pope. But on this day, the celebrant didn’t know which pope he was going to pray for. So he had an assistant wait outside the chapel, watching the Vatican coverage live on TV. The assistant was planning to alert the priest, during the mass, of the new pope’s name, as soon as he appeared on the balcony. So, indeed, at some point early in the liturgy, the assistant tiptoed into the chapel with a little folded note bearing the name of the new pope. The celebrant stopped and opened the note. Then his face went pale, and he closed it. When he finally got to the intercessory prayers, he grumbled, “…and for our Pope, Joseph Ratzinger, Benedict the, uh, [looking down at the note] 16th, Lord help us.”

Like the new pope, Francis I, many Jesuits are “conservative”, as some Americans understand the term, on social and gender issues like contraception, abortion, same-sex marriage, and the ordination of women. But many Jesuits are liberal. Some are very liberal. One was sanctioned by the Archdiocese of Milwaukee in 1992 for saying mass with a Roman Catholic Womanpriest. Many Jesuits backed liberation theology, which led Pope John Paul II in 1982 to appoint a staunch conservative in charge of the order.

All of this raises the question: what do Jesuits actually think about the new pope? Not what do they say — because publicly, few of them say anything but praise — but what is being whispered, at St. Beuno’s, behind monastery walls, in university corridors — anywhere the Jesuits have confidentiality? Well, why not ask one? Certainly, some Jesuit could give us a general idea. So, I called some media offices to try to get an interview with a Jesuit who would speak candidly about what his colleagues really think about Pope Francis. No takers.

Duane Library,
Fordham University

Why not? Well, a friend of mine had a theory: “if they do they lose their pension, housing, insurance… everything they vowed away at age 16 or so….” That may or may not be true. It could also be the case that no Jesuit is critical of the new pope. [Update, March 21: Please see Tim's comment on this, below, and the reply.]

Since I couldn’t find a Jesuit who’ll spill the beans, I went to someone who knows a lot about the Jesuits without actually being one. Dr. J. Patrick Hornbeck, II is Associate Chair for Undergraduate Studies at the Jesuit Fordham University in the Bronx. I met him in his office in the beautiful 1927 Duane Library. [Just for full disclosure, my father is also a professor at Fordham -- but on a different campus in the economics department, and he doesn’t know Hornbeck personally.]

♂ ♀ ♂ ♀ ♂

Erik Campano: What do Jesuits say about the new pope? Not publicly — because just about everybody is measured, publicly — but behind closed doors?

Dr. J. Patrick Hornbeck, II: There has to be a certain amount of understandable pride. And I mean that in the best sense possible. These are men who have seen one of their order ascend to the highest office in the Church. It would completely make sense that there is occasion for rejoicing and excitement. And surprise. He was seen as someone who moderates as well as reformers could get behind.

But he is conservative on a lot of social issues that are dividing the Church — for example, abortion, contraception, women’s ordination –

I think it’s fair to say that all the 115 men who were in that room had what the Church would think of as orthodox positions on abortion, contraception, homosexuality, women’s ordination. So of course, Francis I is going to fall on the conservative end.

So, the fact that a conservative was elected — not a surprise — but the fact that a Jesuit conservative was elected — how has that been met by liberal Jesuits, of which there are very many?

You’d have to ask the liberal Jesuits. [Ed.’s note: D’oh!]

Pope Benedict XVI

When I was researching this interview, I called a number of press offices and asked for a Jesuit to talk to who’d be critical of Francis. Nobody will say anything.

One of the things that people have found so refreshing about Pope Francis I, even though he does hold these positions that progressive Catholics — Jesuits and non-Jesuits — would disagree with, is that he has not made those positions the center of his papacy so far. Think about it: Benedict XVI, then Joseph Ratzinger, preached the sermon at the mass for the cardinals the day before the Conclave in which he would ultimately be elected, and in that sermon he famously decried what he called the “dictatorship of relativism.” And that was his “campaign platform”, although no one would use those words.

There’s not been a word of that from Pope Francis. This morning, for instance, he gave his installation homily at the Vatican before about 200,000 people. And the main theme of it was the protection of the environment. He’s preaching on those areas which aren’t as divisive within his own flock. [Update, March 25: Francis has since spoken of the "tyranny of relativism" . HT to JoFro -- see his or her comment, below.]

What’s the difference between speaking out against them, and being tacit about them? Because liberal Jesuits want reform.

The difference has a lot to do with the relationship between style and substance. Catholicism is a very symbolic religion — art, music — it’s not just about the word. And this is not going to be a monarchical pontificate, or one in which he comes out the first day wearing all of the trappings of his office. That he comes out as a simple priest, wearing white to the world, is a striking difference between what happened with the previous pontificate.

In other words, the content of his belief, and the probability of his doctrinal choices, are not too different from Benedict XVI. But the way he presents it is somehow more amenable or pleasant to –

It’s not just a question of, is he smiling or not smiling? Popes smile. They all do that. I think that in the whole complicated tapestry that is Catholic teaching, there are different things you can emphasize. Even if you were to say that there are problems in the world, one pope, Benedict, seemed to trace that back to what he saw was a mistaken understanding of the human person, in some modern cultures. Francis’ line seems to be that we don’t love each other enough — the poor, the environment.

So he chose the name Francis — talk about symbolic –

– and it’s the most important decision the pope makes early in his pontificate, what signal to send.

The decision to make a Jesuit the pope — how have the Franciscans, their historical quote-unquote enemy order — well, I don’t know if you can say that anymore, it’s more like a nice rivalry –

Pope Clement XIV, who suppressed the Jesuits

Certainly this was a very serious rivalry many years ago. It’s a Franciscan pope, Clement XIV, who actually supressed the Society of Jesus in 1773. The new pope’s choice of Francis as the first Jesuit pope speaks to his desire to bridge these gaps.

But even in the 20th century, the Vatican, at times, muzzled Jesuits.

Even in the 21st century. There are a number of cases. John Sobrino, Jacques Dupuis, and there are probably others.

Do Jesuits think that that’s not going to happen anymore?

I have not heard that. There’s even a question asked yesterday on one of the Catholic websites, is Pope Francis technically a Jesuit? It’s actually a little unclear. The closest analog that anyone has been able to come up with is what happens when a Jesuit is made bishop. Jesuits take a vow not to seek these sorts of dignities. And even in that vow, they say they’ll do their best to get out of them if they’re asked. They’ll only become a bishop if they’re forced to.

Francis was forced to become pope?

One could say it was the prompting of the Holy Spirit, one could say it was the cardinals who encouraged him. Who knows? But the way it’s written in the Jesuit vow is that they will not seek an office unless they are compelled to do so by someone under whose obedience they are. And Francis could easily have understood himself as in obedience to the Conclave that elected him. But anyway, we simply don’t know the relationship between Francis and the Jesuits.

We do know that one of the first phone calls he made as pope was to Father Adolfo Nicolas, who holds the title of Jesuit Superior General, and Father Nicolas yesterday came to the Vatican City to meet with the pope.

As he did with Pope Benedict.

And Jesuit Generals have done so with every pope since 1540, because of the close relationship between the Jesuits and the papacy. But it’s never happened on the fourth or fifth day — normally it would be a month or six weeks in. And the report that the Jesuit order sent out on this meeting was that it was warm and cordial.

We have to see what Francis is going to do with appointments to key Vatican offices. Normally, the new pope restores all the previous occupants to their positions. Francis chose not to do that, and it was after three days, that he said that these people were being asked to stay on provisionally. The key appointment to watch is the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith –

– which is what Cardinal Ratz–

– Ratzinger was. If Pope Francis puts someone in that position who is known for being a “culture warrior”, that might spell a continuing trend toward the investigation of more theologians.

Pope Francis I

How would particularly the Catholic clergy react if that were a Jesuit?

Jesuits have been subject to conspiracy theories since the beginning. Jesuits were even accused of plotting to murder Queen Elizabeth I. I imagine there will be, maybe, fewer Jesuits in these positions under Pope Francis than might otherwise have been, to avoid that sense. On the other hand, this is a man who’s so far shown that he’s not particularly concerned what the folk in the Vatican think. The director of the Vatican’s press office, Federico Lombardi, is a Jesuit. He’s been in that position for five or six years now. He’ll stay on, I imagine. And there are a number of other Jesuits who are contenders for these positions. But in comparison to other orders, because the Jesuits have this historic tradition of shying away from high office, there simply aren’t as many Jesuit cardinals, for instance, or Jesuit archbishops, or even diocesan bishops.

So, in this whole conversation, the basic message I’ve been getting from you is that Jesuits are generally pleased that one of them was elected; they didn’t expect anyone who was going to get any reform done anyway, right?

I’m not sure I would go so far. They didn’t expect a Jesuit.

Have you heard any Jesuit criticize Francis?

No. And I probably won’t.

There’s a tradition in the Jesuits of a respect for superiors, and this whole situation is so new, and Jesuits, in my limited experience, are waiting like the rest of us to see what this new pope will do. Jesuits perhaps worry whether Francis will be able to stay true to himself, in the context of this much greater world stage that he’s stepping upon.

In 2010, this same-sex marriage bill came before the Argentine government. Bergoglio opposed it. At first he said he wanted civil unions, and then his fellow bishops rejected that, and so he went and straight out opposed the bill.

That says something about Bergoglio/Francis not being a “culture warrior”. A group of bishops opposed equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender folk in the US, who would even resist civil unions. So it’s important to put him on a spectrum. Also, the position he was holding at the time was the President of the Argentine Bishop’s Conference. And I don’t know what it’s like to be president of something in which your members are voting for a much stronger line than you actually want. And this is not a president in the sense of someone who rules all over them. He serves more as their spokesperson.

So even back then, the question was still open whether he was a Jesuit. Because he was president of the Bishops’ Conference.

That’s a question with a lot of precedent. There have been many Jesuit bishops and cardinals since 1540.

Just to be clear about this, you mean bishops and cardinals who have a Jesuit background.

Who were members of the Society of Jesus.

But once they become a bishop, it’s controversial as to whether we can say that they’re still Jesuits.

That’s a problem that the Jesuit order and Catholic Church have had to resolve, obviously, in all these previous cases. And there’s a bit in Canon Law that talks about this. And what it effectively says is that the man in question is no longer in obedience to his Jesuit superiors. He’s now in a different relationship, because bishops report directly to the pope. Jesuit bishops and cardinals still use S.J. after their names. I don’t want to say it’s purely honorary, but they don’t have the same relationship to the Jesuit hierarchy that they would have had. So it’s sort of a hybrid position.

[Ed.'s note: I then told Hornbeck the story about St. Beuno’s, Ratzinger’s election, and "Lord help us."]

A lot of those Jesuits were seriously disappointed.

Dr. J. Patrick Hornbeck, II

I think that was a position that was held by many theologians who would think of themselves as progressive, or centrist. To a certain extent, some of those fears were realized — like the investigation of the American nuns — in terms of the Vatican’s decree in 2005 banning the admission of gay men to the priesthood, in terms of Yale University ethicist Margaret Farley, a Catholic sister, who published a book on sexual ethics, was condemned by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. All of those things would seem to bear out those fears. But at the same time, there wasn’t a large-scale purge. Many of the really horrific fears about the election of Ratzinger simply didn’t come to pass. And I think that history will look upon Benedict XVI as a pope who was chiefly a theologian. For instance, his encyclical Caritas in Veritate has a lot of wonderful things in it on economic ethics that, in fact, even some traditionalist Catholics felt they had to explain away, because of the encyclical’s critique of the free market. So it’s a bit more complicated than dissecting things in US political party terms.

The press tends to do that.

Those are the terms we’re used to using.

  • Tim

    (a) You’ve reached a conclusion – that Jesuits deep down dislike Pope Francis’s conservativism. You search for evidence. You find none. You stick to your conclusion, convinced that the evidence is there despite finding none. Good job!
    (b) The legendary rivalry in orders is Jesuits and Dominicans not Jesuits and Franciscans. Furthermore Clement XIV resisted suppressing the Jesuit order until the absolutist monarchies in Spain, Portugal, and France, who resented Jesuit influence in education and in their colonies, left him with no option in 1773. The popes thereafter worked to refound the Society, a goal achieved in 1814. Secular rulers and political totalitarianism is to blame for the Jesuit suppression (as again in imperial German from 1870 to 1917, and in anti-clerical France, etc. etc.), not papal conflicts.

    • http://www.columbia.edu/~ejc2165/erikcampano/ Erik Campano

      Hi Tim!

      (a) is an interesting point and made me ponder things for a minute. Well, journalistic enquiry sometimes works like this: we formulate a hypothesis (I’d put my hypothesis this way: some liberal Jesuits are critical of Pope Francis because he’s “conservative” on sexuality and gender issues, by US standards), and then we search for evidence to support that hypothesis, or refute it. In this case, you’re right, I didn’t find the evidence. I don’t agree with you, however, that I conclude that some liberal Jesuits are critical of Pope Francis. I postulate the opposite: “It could also be the case that no Jesuit is critical of the new pope.” [paragraph 6, above] I don’t know. I still don’t have enough evidence to make a determination.

      (b) You’re right that observers have often spoken of a Jesuit-Domincan rivalry. But others have also spoken of a Jesuit-Franciscan rivalry. Here, here, and here.

      As Slate magazine points out, many religious orders have had at least playful rivalries.

      So it could be said that the Jesuits, Dominicans, Franciscans, Benedictines, etc. all feel some kind of rivalry. I know at least at Oxford, where I studied, the various order-affiliated halls (Blackfriars (Dominican), St Benet’s (Benedictine), and Campion (Jesuit)) used to take very seriously their boat races against one another. :) And in defense of your point, Ignatius himself was influenced by Francis.

      As for your further analysis about secular rulers and political totalitarianism being to blame for Jesuit suppression, it’s noted. Some people disagree with you; I’m not an academic historian schooled in this field, so I don’t feel qualified to make a call on it. You may wish to relay your feelings about that to Dr. Hornbeck, who is the one who made the point about Clement XIV.

  • T. B.

    One of the links you give above includes the wonderful line:
    “the Franciscans took pride in flaunting their humility”
    Guess that book was written by a Jesuit.

  • Thinkling

    The whole subworld of religious orders seems really fascinating and is something I should get more acquainted with. Especially interesting are the contrasts among the orders, the fundamental ones based on the differing charisms of their founders as well as the more superficial (but perhaps more exciting) ones based on personalities which lead to rivalries so called.

    One thing I am surprised went unchallenged and am quite alarmed about. Dr. Hornbeck’s statement about bishops opposing equality is incendiary and frankly borderline offensive. I wish he would have fessed up and named names — by not doing so he is tainting the entire US body of bishops with the (alleged) actions of a smaller number, whose complicancy in such actions cannot even be confirmed or denied outside his allegations.

  • James Stagg

    Silly article, not very well researched. For example, go find out what Ignatius of Loyola thought about Francis of Assisi. Very revealing. But this writer will never know. This should be the subject of a GetReligion article.

    • http://www.columbia.edu/~ejc2165/erikcampano/ Erik Campano

      You’re right, I suppose it is kind of silly, in a way. After all, I used the expression, “D’oh!”
      If you’d like to know more about what Ignatius thought about Francis, then you can scroll up about 25 lines.
      Why should this be the subject of a GetReligion article? Do they publish silly things?

  • Theresa

    This article strikes me as a blatant attempt by the author to dig up “scoop” on Pope Francis, particularly by trying to find a Jesuit who will “gossip” anonymously. Having failed at that, the author settles for an academic to interview. I think Pope Francis has begun to demonstrate already that he will not be concerned with liberals or conservatives, only Christ, and it’s about time we had a pope who was Christocentric, a phrase Pope Benedict used often. We must work on being true to the Gospels, rather than getting wrapped up in human agendas–gay marriage, women priests, etc. and if we stick to spreading the Good News by being Christocentric rather than doctrinal, we will attract a lot more people to Christ through Catholicism. And cleaning out the sin, corruption and hypocrisy of the Church ought to be the first priority, because Christ would never have tolerated it. Our Church could use a good dose of humility these days and could do that by emphasizing Christ’s teachings, which is what I am seeing in Pope Francis. God bless him.

    • http://www.columbia.edu/~ejc2165/erikcampano/ Erik Campano

      You’re almost exactly right about the first bit, Theresa. My article here is a blatant attempt to get the scoop (that’s the technical journalistic term), although not precisely about Pope Francis, but about Jesuits, and what they think of him. Because no Jesuit would go on record, I did fail at getting the scoop, so I spoke to an academic. But I wouldn’t call it settling, because Dr. Hornbeck’s a pretty knowledgeable and articulate guy (and he didn’t even know!).

      When you say, “we must work on being true to the Gospels, rather than getting wrapped up in human agendas — gay marriage, women priests, etc.”, whom do you mean by, “we”? Does that include gay people who want to get married, or women who hope to be priests?

  • Austinne

    I heard Fr Groeschel once say that Jesuits have a rule that Jesuits are not to criticize their Jesuit superior. So maybe that is why no one would criticize the new pope.

    • JoFro

      Has to be that. I mean, it can’t be that one of the vows every Jesuit must take is to be loyal to the Pope, whomever he is

  • http://www.acountrypriest.com Fr John Corrigan

    This post didn’t leave much of an impression either way, but your comments certainly have Erik. It’s always refreshing to see charitable and conciliatory replies to comments which could so easily be received as inflammatory and provocative. Thanks for making the Internet a nicer place!

    • http://www.columbia.edu/~ejc2165/erikcampano/ Erik Campano

      Thanks for your kind words, John. My two cents is that everybody’s opinion counts — even if he or she expresses it in a way that might be interpreted as, well, not perfectly mannered. It’s good to respect all voices, whether placating or inflammatory, submissive or provocative. And I’m just flattered anytime anyone reads my material. (And even more so when someone gives feedback.)

  • Rich Perry, S.J.

    Dear Mr. Campano,

    If you would like to get some insight into what Jesuits think about Pope Francis, search out Fr. General Nicolas’ message to the Society of Jesus throughout the world. He speaks for us. As a Jesuit myself, I am proud that Francis is a Jesuit; but what is more important to me is who he is as a person: a man of deep spirituality, grounded in Christ and in our connection with all creation, a humble man who is comfortable with the poor and marginalized and seeks them out, a man with a sense of humor who doesn’t take himself too seriously. That, seems to me, can only bode well for our Church.

    • http://www.columbia.edu/~ejc2165/erikcampano/ Erik Campano

      Thanks so much for your comment, Father Perry. It’s good to hear a Jesuit’s response to my question. For our readers, Father General Nicolas’ message — or at least, what I believe Perry is referring to — is positive in tone:

      …we share the joy of the whole Church, and at the same time, wish to express our renewed availability to be sent into the vineyard of the Lord, according to the spirit of our special vow of obedience, that so distinctively unites us with the Holy Father.

      Nicolas may certainly speak for all Jesuits in an institutional sense, but he may not be echoing the full feelings of every Jesuit individually. I say this in part because after the election of Pope Benedict, the British Jesuits put out a statement that was, similarly, basically positive in tone:

      …we commit ourselves wholeheartedly and with enthusiasm to the leadership of Pope Benedict XVI.

      But that did not express the complete reaction that I saw, in Britain, at St. Beuno’s. It could very well be the case that the priests at St. Beuno’s did indeed commit themselves wholeheartedly and with enthusiasim to Benedict’s leadership, but they also were clearly disappointed at his election. This, of course, was just a statement from a national branch of the order, and not the Superior General at the time, Father General Peter Hans Kolvenbach. I’m still unable to find in my research his reaction to Benedict’s election. It would be interesting to read, though, because then we could compare what he said, in a public statement, to what people witnessed “on the ground”. If there’s a difference, then it would be clearer that at least in one case, a Superior General’s statement spoke for all the Jesuits in a sort of formal, or like I said, institutional way, but was not necessarily a comprehensive statement of the consciences of the order. So if anyone out there has that reaction, it would be wonderful for you to post it.

      Kolvenbach later did comment on Benedict’s first encyclical (Deus Caritas Est), and his support for it is a little ambiguous. Was he speaking then, too, for all Jesuits?

  • JoFro

    Pope Francis just mentioned “moral relativism” and how it threatens co-existence with peoples.

    Also, he didn’t talk about the environment – he talked about creation, which in the Catholic sense, covers everything from one’s relationship with God and his fellow man to the environment and the Earth

    • http://www.columbia.edu/~ejc2165/erikcampano/ Erik Campano

      Thanks for the link, JoFro. I’ve noted your find in the body of the interview, above.

  • edward killilea

    the real question is do the “progressive” Jesuits really believe in the power guidance of the Holy Spirit.

    I for one was dismayed on Benedict’s election that the editor of America promptly resign
    stating He could not “work” with this Pope.
    Holy Spirit one/ Jesuits nil. Your comment regarding the prayer at mass I believe to be true.

    One wonders if I can be a progressive too and return to the motto “erratus non dignum”
    since ad maiorem Dei gloriam does not seem to work anymore

    ed killilea

    kearny nj

  • http://google Owen De Bruyn

    I think that it`s a good resolution of pope Francis to look into environment.The increased unnatural climate disturbings appearances is for me agreat concern. Definitely at the end of the day we cannot lay it at God`s feet.I have a feeling there is been tempering with the atmospheric processes.The pope should look into it.