Nathan O’Halloran: “Jesuit Obedience and the Legionaries of Christ” []

Jesuit Obedience and the Legionaries of Christ

Although many people on many different blogs have weighed in about the Legionaries of Christ and their current crisis, I thought I would throw in a few Jesuit reflections that come to mind.

Meaning what. Well, before entering the Society of Jesus, I was told by many at my alma mater that I should instead enter the Legion. Why? Well, because they are the new Jesuits of course. They are the real Jesuits, what the Jesuits used to be, what the Jesuits were meant to be. I heard this from no less than priests from the Legion. It struck me as a bit odd and arrogant, and had the cumulative effect of pushing me far away from them. My own suspicions were confirmed when they were thrown off campus and not invited back to Franciscan University of Steubenville. But for a while, to criticize the Legion was to criticize orthodoxy for many, since the two terms were considered synonymous. This annoyed me to no end, but it was unavoidable. If I didn’t like them, it was probably because I could not follow their rigorous lifestyle.

I won’t go into the many wounded individuals I have met who left the Legion or RC and continue to struggle to live normal lives. My point here is different. Many told me that I should join the Legion rather than the Jesuits because they practiced the true form of Jesuit obedience. Ignatius told Jesuits to pride themselves on their observance above all of obedience. This vow, he said, separates us from other orders. We live a strict form of obedience. And so I was told by Legionaries, since this form of obedience is best found in Ignatius’ letter to Simon Rodrigues, SJ living at the time in Portugal, and since many Jesuits these days notoriously do not follow such a notion of obedience, therefore, Jesuits no longer know how to live obedience.

A couple of distinctions are in order. Yes, there are several high profile Jesuits who do or did not live obedience very well. Robert Drinan, SJ, former congressman, is one of those. No doubt about that. And his disobedience to Rome and his own order is to be rejected as an example of a proper living out of Jesuit obedience.

Next, the well known letter on obedience to Simon Rodrigues was precisely that: a letter. It was written to a Jesuit in Portugal who was at the time living in the king’s court and nurturing a rather devoted following of Jesuits. Ignatius was attempting to bring him under reign, trying to curb his sumptuous living and his predilection to get his way. We learn: Rodrigues’ method of government had erred on the side of mildness and softness, with the result that, when he was removed, these subjects refused obedience to any other superior than himself or one appointed by him. And so his letter is written with very strong language. Some famous quotes include: But he who aims at making an entire and perfect oblation of himself besides his will must offer his understanding [which is a further and the highest degree of obedience], not only willing, but thinking the same as the Superior, submitting his own judgment to his, so far as a devout will can bend the understanding. Therefore, each Jesuit is to submit his “judgment which must approve the command of the Superior, in so far [as has been said] as it can, through the energy of the will, bring itself to this.”

After talking to several ex-Legionaries, I began to understand that a.) this was the only item on the topic of obedience from Ignatius that they ever read, and b.) they read it in excerpts, as I was told by an ex-Legionary. Ignatius is careful to mention twice above the proviso “in so far as it can.” He understands that the will can only bend the intellect so much. Each Jesuit must do his best.

But he can do more than just his best. Another part of the letter mentions something called Representation. In spite of this, you should feel free to propose a difficulty should something occur to you different from his opinion, provided you pray and it seems to you in God’s presence that you ought to make the representation to the Superior.

This was a part of the letter that many Legionaries apparently never saw. They received their instructions under their door in letter form, and were not allowed to discuss their assignments. This, coupled with their well known Vow of Charity by which they were never allowed to criticize or even second guess a superior created, as we know now, a very poisonous atmosphere.

Jesuit obedience is not blind. It has as its pre-requisite a praying, discerning man in conversation with his provincial. Ignatius allowed for a man to Represent up to three times to his superior before submitting himself. A regular Account of Conscience also provides a Jesuit ample chance to share about his own personal prayer and discernment. There is a reason that all young Jesuits spend 30 days of prayer learning how to discern spirits, and that reason is not so that they can never do it again in their lives.

Rather, this discernment is written into the very core of Jesuit obedience. It is for good reason that GC 35 quoted a famous letter that Ignatius wrote to a Jesuit appointed patriarch of Ethiopia. In the letter he states: All this is proposed under the heading of advice. The patriarch should not consider himself obliged to comply with it. Rather, he should be guided by discreta caritas, taking into account the circumstances of the moment and the unction of the Holy Spirit which should be his principal guide in everything.

But this is not an isolated letter. One only need to read the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus — or re-read them as I am doing now (and finding lots of wonderful things too!) — to find repeated over and over again a common Ignatian phrase, stated in various ways: according to persons, places and circumstances; as circumstances permit, etc. All over the Constitutions, one finds Ignatius making constant provision for circumstances, places, persons. While he is writing the rules, he wants there to be the requisite flexibility for individual Jesuits to use their own discreet charity and discernment in specific cases.

To bring this all back around then, did the Legion just sort of go wrong? Did they have most things right and just mess a few things up? I feel like going back to those people in college who told me that the Legionaries had it right and demanding that they now look at the present situation, caused in large part precisely because they misunderstood Ignatian obedience. As a Legionary, one could not represent, could not discern, could not manifest. And so within this atmosphere, the poison spread. This is not a situation where for the most part, they have an intact spirituality, with all the “good parts” of Jesuit life — as I was so often told. Where are all those people who said those things now? I wish they would come out and admit they were wrong. Admit that Ignatius knew what he was talking about and did not need to be modified t be even stricter than he ever intended to be. “Strict” is actually not even the question. Rather, psychologically destructive. Ignatius was a good psychologist, a reader of men’s hearts and minds. He knew better than to propose an obedience that the Legionaries impose. And wisely so.

I’m not going to ask people to stop criticizing the Jesuits. That is healthy, and we learn a lot from it. But if all those “orthodox” people out there had been willing to criticize the Legion more, maybe we would have uncovered this stuff a lot earlier. Tom Hoopes of the Register has done a noble thing by apologizing. The Legionaries themselves, well, my thinking right now is that of a colleague at work: Rome should make them a group devoted exclusively to caring for the sexually abused.

But that aside, let’s remember not to cut off bits and pieces of a spirituality that we like. The “good parts” by themselves are only parts, not the whole. The whole is a rich spirituality that cannot be gleaned from one letter. It must be pulled together from the writings and the lives of a whole religious family, the Society of Jesus.

A good quote to end with from the GC 35 document on obedience:

37. We encourage Jesuits in formation to grow in the spirituality of obedience and in availability for placing their lives and freedom at the service of the mission of Christ throughout the stages of formation. It will be good for them to take advantage of the opportunities for self-abnegation that community life, constant and rigorous dedication to studies, and other aspects of their experience will doubtless provide. Self-abnegation, “the fruit of our joy at the approach of the Kingdom and the result of a progressive identification with Christ,” is a virtue Jesuits need if they are going to take on the sometimes difficult demands of obedience.

38. We encourage formators to help Jesuits in formation understand and live the mystical source of obedience: an unconditional love for the Lord which will bring them to a desire to serve him in fulfilling the Father’s will. We ask formators to help Jesuits in formation become progressively aware of the demands of a life of obedience: transparency with superiors, esteem for the account of conscience, the responsible exercise of personal initiative, and a spirit of discernment which accepts the decisions of the superior with good grace.

39. The spirituality and tradition of the Society require that Jesuits in formation and their formators be filled with a spirit of obedience to the pope as something essential to the mission and identity of the Society. Jesuit spiritual and ecclesial formation should emphasize availability for mission and “the proper attitude we ought to have in the Church” established by the Thirty-Fourth General Congregation.

Nathan O’Halloran, SJ

Posted by Nathan O’Halloran, SJ / Mason Slidell at 2:56 PM

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