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Suppressing Jesuits, Suppressing Jesus: Fr. Sosa’s surprising words on Christ’s own words

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Theologian C.C. Pecknold on whether the Gospels really need to go to the videotape

In 1773 the Society of Jesus was suppressed. While Jesuits were not without theological critics – Jansenists, Dominicans, and Franciscans – their suppression was not theological but political. As nation-states were forming throughout Europe and the Americas, many monarchs saw the Jesuits not simply as priests attending to the propagation of the Church’s faith, but as political and economic actors with more “global” concerns. Justified or not, in many parts of the world, monarchs accused Jesuits of “inciting the mobs.”

The story is incredibly complicated. It includes difficult land and trade disputes in many parts of the world. Nation-state expansion, as well as the secularizing sentiments of the enlightenment, contributed to the suppression of the Society. Some of the history exonerates Jesuits, some does not.

But the point is that when Pope Clement XIV suppressed the Society through his papal bull Dominus ac Redemptor Noster on July 21, 1773 he was doing so not for theological reasons but for the common good and peace of political order, which serves the peace of the Church. Pope Clement decreed, “we do…suppress and abolish the said company: we deprive it of all activity.” During the suppression and after, Jesuits fled to Protestant and Orthodox nations (Russia) and waited out their suppression through the Napoleonic wars. After the Restoration in 1815, Jesuits were successively re-established throughout the nations. It was a traumatic half-century for the Jesuits during a tumultuous period of geo-political transformation.

This history of the Jesuit’s controversial political and economic influence within early modern political communities came flooding back to me as I read a recent interview with the newly elected Superior General, Father Arturo Sosa, S.J. Trained in political science in Venezuela, Fr. Sosa cuts the perfect image of the modern Jesuit priest who often takes off his collar to be “close to the people,” and puts it back on whenever he takes command of the missions of the Society, as rector of a house of formation, leading social justice centers, or in his prominent appointments in Rome. As the new “black pope,” (the traditional nickname given to the superior general of the Society of Jesus due to his all black vestments) he has taken full command of the Society of Jesus, and in his latest interview demonstrates how that command touches the universal church.

In response to a question about Cardinal Mueller’s statement that “no power in heaven and on earth, neither an angel nor the pope, neither a council nor a law of the bishops has the power to change” the words of Jesus on marriage and divorce, the newly appointed black pope dryly responded that “no one had a recorder.” Sosa says that we must reinterpret his “words” in context, but the clear implication is that they needn’t mean what the Church has always and everywhere understood their meaning. This reflects a profound skepticism about Holy Scripture, thinly veiled by the stated need to “contextualize” the words of Jesus.

When pressed on the implied relativism, Fr. Sosa replied “that is not relativism, but attests that the word is relative, the Gospel is written by human beings, that it is accepted by the Church which is made up of human persons.” This seems an extraordinarily horizontal and sociological view of the authority of the Holy Bible, and the authority of Christ’s words, which, in his view, are simply words “relative” to a particular time and place different than our own. The clear implication is that the same words can mean something completely different, relative to our own time and place.

The interviewer sees the trouble, and asks him directly whether he has put the very words of Jesus into doubt. To this Sosa replies that he does not bring the word of Jesus into doubt “but the word of Jesus as we have interpreted it.” The Superior General drives a sharp wedge between the significance of Jesus’ words, and the Church’s understanding and magisterial teaching on them. In this sense, he seems to separate Christ’s head from his body.

The question of authority naturally follows. If the Church’s understanding of the very words of Jesus is “relative” then who decides the proper and true understanding of his words? To this, Sosa replies simply “The Church has always reiterated the priority of personal conscience.”

The interview details the same logic with doctrine. Sosa says he doesn’t like the word doctrine, which he thinks of as “rock-hard,” something unchangeable, when in fact he sees the Church’s teaching as something softly nuanced, like a body.

It’s amazing how the imaginative power that enriches the Spiritual Exercises can be used to construct equally powerful images capable of undermining the very faith that inspired St. Ignatius of Loyola’s saintly work. But here is the irony presently facing us. Images can be used well or badly. Here the images all work to evoke a sympathetic humanism but in fact undermine the true humanism which has been revealed to us in holy scripture and sacred tradition.

The black popes’ skepticism about the Church’s ability to have a definitive and clear understanding of the words of the Incarnate Word of God in Jesus Christ makes both scripture and doctrine a plaything of desire.

As St. Augustine taught long ago, a great variety of interpretations are fine so long as they fit with the established doctrine of the Church and do not contradict the deposit of the Faith. It is ironic, and troubling, that the leader of the Society of Jesus, which was formed to convert Protestants, appears to be asserting something like a Protestant view of the relation between Scripture and Tradition, and the Magisterium dedicated to safeguarding the Deposit of the Faith.

The Society of Jesus has served the common good of the Church well throughout her history. At times Jesuits have been unjustly accused, suppressed, maligned, and martyred. They now wield an incredible power, not so much within nations but within the Catholic Church. This is true of the successor of St. Peter wearing white as it is of the successor of St. Ignatius wearing black. But just as darkness is only a deprivation of light, I’m afraid that the words of this “black pope” in this interview bring little light, and potential destruction to the deposit of faith entrusted to the apostles. At best, Sosa gives us a gray Catholicism which can survive, and limp along by grace. At worst, his historicist relativizing of scripture and doctrine is a sign that will never illuminate, never enliven, never be counted as true reform.

Jesuits have an enormous political power within the Church. With a Superior General who stands on such shaky theological ground, the faithful should pray for the Jesuits, not that they should be suppressed, but that they would not cut off the branch upon which their whole society rests.

 

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