From its beginnings, the Society of Jesus has been deeply invested in the academic-spiritual formation of its members, and this formation has been intimately connected with its service to the Church and the world through its collegiate apostolate. The collegium was both where younger Jesuits were carefully prepared for their own mission and where as regents they learned to contribute to the educational work of the Church. From very early on, collegia also constituted a standard “super-ministry” of the Society. Faith-reason-and-culture-based, Jesuit education became, over several centuries, both something integral to its own Institute and something that began to be expected of it by the Church. The responsibility for Catholic education has only become more demanding in these complex times. Popes as well as superiors general have repeatedly called for more rigorous study in the face of contemporary challenges and new apostolic initiatives.
We need to ask ourselves, therefore, questions like these: “How well has the Society as a body taken up these responsibilities? Should the Society confirm, reverse, modify, or re-negotiate certain choices and ways of thinking (such as the Land O’ Lakes statement of 1967 and specific configurations have followed upon the separate incorporations that began in that same year)? How do we deal with the demands and pressures of the State that provides funding but possibly at the cost of unwelcome co-option?”
What follows here is merely one simplified line of thinking that Jesuits may use to enter upon a deeper and more effective reflection about this apostolic and formational enterprise. Not only do these considerations bear upon the core idea of our Institute and its calling today, but they could well provide a way to begin reversing the prospect of extinction of the order. Real success in the collegiate apostolate would almost certainly bring new recruits and new partners to the Society. Students would see and be attracted by the humanizing and divinizing work of the Church being done under the leadership and exemplary involvement of competent Jesuits.
Such success would also allow the Jesuit order to claim that it is responding to one of the most critically urgent needs of all levels of society. Poor, rich, and everyone in-between deserve a way forward (especially spiritually), and that kind of progress will be achieved only through solid faith, stable family life, and edifying education. The Society of Jesus has made notable contributions on all these fronts through its schools over the centuries. It can do so in a striking way again if, in the Lord, the right kind of persistent thought, energy, and resources are brought to bear upon this work. Here is one possible line of thinking that can start us off:
- Every society must face the educational question: what to pass on to the next generation? But now there is all too much to learn and teach, with many all too many options, approaches, agendas, sources, and interpretations.
- Therefore, selection, organization, and diligent oversight are supremely important.
- In our age of specialization, we do not have at hand the general knowledge about how the program ought best be constituted. We lack the large-visioned “experts” who really know how to organize the program (or adjust it on the way). We have rejected (and not equaled) much carried by older educational architectonics.
- Furthermore, there is no general single consensus on what college is / should best be. It is subject to ideological distortions and activist indoctrination into the prejudices of our times. Or it is instrumentalized into vocational preparation. Or it is a free-floating smorgasbord of options as we try to be all things to all people. Or it is at the mercy of professionals who above all want to serve and make their way in their own particular professions. The religious / ethical formational college intentionality is lost or obscured, all the more easily in a hyper-pluralistic secularized world pushing various partisan and other agendas for various interest-groups, many of which are hostile to our traditional religious beliefs.
- So where will we go for formational educational wisdom? For schools with a Christian-humanistic orientation, the most promising path is to re-focus on our core intentionality and to retrieve and adapt to our times the most appealing aspects of now forgotten wisdom. We should spend the majority of the curricular time on the books and ideas and themes that contribute most to our core purpose, items of greatest positive relevant impact (e.g., the Bible, great integrative and spiritual thinkers like Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Dante, C.S. Lewis, and Christopher Dawson, et al.), adding fair but not too extended critiques of the “heresies” of the day (e.g., the anti-religious dimensions of the Enlightenment, the pseudo-scientific elements of Marx, Darwin, Freud).
- A new kind of college and a different path of teacher preparation and qualification seem to be required.
- But who will hire and train its new faculty, set up the (evolving) curriculum, and oversee / tweak the whole operation? What is at stake is not mere technique, not mere mastery of content and method, but the entire disposition and intentionality and vision and commitment of the teacher.
- Something like the Society’s traditional formational path (through the stages of juniorate / philosophate / regency / theologate) and the Society’s boldly directive apostolic leadership could be a major part of a solution. But first some well-thought-out revisions would have to be made, tweaked, supervised. For example, we have long been without any strong consensus on the particulars of what was once known as the philosophy period, and the juniorate has been abolished as a standard period of formation in the United States.
- Society leadership and membership may now be fairly judged to have only a weak interest in or disposition towards this enterprise, despite all documentary protestations to the contrary. At the very least, the effectiveness of our practices can be seriously questioned. We need a greater sense of urgency, a better awareness of our responsibility, and a deeper understanding of the character of the Society’s Institute (docta pietas). We need to commit to a great agere contra, sometimes perhaps even against apparently good things that would pull us from our distinctive calling.
- Some agency external to the Society must take charge of this stream of Catholic education if the Society itself cannot. In that case, the Society could at the very least support some such efforts being made by lay colleagues or by non-Jesuit religious congregations. But if the Jesuit order disengages from this undertaking completely, it does so at risk to its own Institute and at the loss of something the Church has been needing and calling for.