Saturday, January 31, 2015

Pope Francis, Women, and the Band of Brothers: The Ambiguity of the Jesuit Heritage That's Being Ignored by Commentators on Francis as Reformer

Night thoughts: those vague, diffuse, but seemingly (at the time, that is) brilliant aperçus that come to us in the middle of the night, as we suddenly wake from sleep. Especially when we've only half-digested a rumbustious meal. Or article or book . . . .

That's what these are, the following notes. Before bedtime, I did read Eamon Duffy's review essay "Who Is the Pope?" in New York Review of Books.* Duffy discusses three new books about Pope Francis — Austen Ivereigh's The Great Reformer, Antonio Spadaro's A Big Heart Open to God, and Paul Vallely's Pope Francis. His essay — in particular, its question-title — forms the backdrop to the night thoughts I'm recording below, though they aren't in any direct way a response to it. They're far more what bubbled up in my sleep after I read Duffy's essay with its question about who Pope Francis is.

I awake with this sentence in my head: People talk a lot of bosh about Francis as a Jesuit pope, don't they? It seems a barrel full of folks want to claim that Francis will be a different (a better?) pope because he's a Jesuit, that the reformist agenda people have attributed to him from the beginning of his papacy flows from his identity as a Jesuit.

But people making these claims are, to my way of thinking, never willing to deal with the ambiguity that is Jesuit identity itself. In particular, they don't seem willing to engage that strong strain of militarism that is, as far as I'm concerned, part and parcel of the tone-deafness of many Jesuits steeped in Jesuit tradition to women and women's concerns.

2003: Steve and I are attending the high-school graduation of the son of a cousin of mine at a Jesuit high school in Texas. Throughout the graduation ceremony, the refrain on which the school officials constantly bear down, like the drill bit of the dentist as she grinds away one's tooth decay: We're a band of brothers. Brothers! brothers! brothers! These young men who stand before you today constitute a holy comradeship, brothers bound in a sacred bond by the values instilled in them through an Ignatian education.

The gist of the band-brothers-bond blather was this: these young men have been shaped by their Jesuit education in a deliberate way to be a cohesive unit, men who will fight on each other's behalf, who will die for each other. All of this might have been romantically charming, too, this magical-mystical rendering of what Jesuit education means, if one had been able to overlook the reality of the lives these young men were graduating from high school to begin, after they had attended college.

They were, the vast majority of them, heading forth from the halls of their Jesuit academy to become business tycoons, high-powered lawyers, doctors, people who are now keeping the machinery of American capitalism in its highest echelons very well-greased. All of this was the raison d'être of their Jesuit education — the access to knowledge as power and learning as entrée — and anyone attending this graduation surely knew this, and that the magical-mystical talk about bands of brothers was sheer balderdash when viewed against the reality of the lives for which this Jesuit high school had prepared these young men. A romantic religious gloss for something that, at its foundations, was considerably less than gospel . . . .

For all those reasons and more, the band of brothers refrain at this Jesuit high school graduation grated horribly on my ears then, as it still does any time I hear it again (it's echoing strongly through my land right now with the wild success of "American Sniper," for instance). The phrase "band of brothers" has a quite specific military provenance in the Crispin's day speech in Henry V. That provenance was mediated to me decisively as a child (and reinforced and given resonance) by the old Confederate battle song "The Bonnie Blue Flag," which we were taught to sing in school (of course taught in our schools in south Arkansas):

We are a band of brothers and native to the soil,
Fighting for the property we gained by honest toil;
And when our rights were threatened, the cry rose near and far,
Hurrah! for the bonnie blue flag that bears a single star.
Hurrah, hurrah, for Southern rights hurrah,
Hurrah for the bonnie blue flag that bears a single star! 

We hurrahed till the cows came home, singing that song in our grade-school classrooms. So that I didn't turn a hair when Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks took the "band of brothers" slogan as the thematic focus of their 2001 television miniseries about World War II, echoing, as they did so, Stephen Ambrose's 1992 book about the war with the same title.

The phrase "band of brothers" is, to my ears, quintessentially militaristic, and when I heard the officials of the Jesuit high school my cousin's son attended harp on it over and over again in his 2003 graduation — a mere two years after the HBO miniseries aired — how could I possibly not hear it as some kind of military slogan? Education in the Jesuit mold as military formation . . . . 

But, as I say above, it's not exactly the miltary thing I want to get at here: it's the male-bonded thing, the brothers thing: that strong strain of militarism that is, as far as I'm concerned, part and parcel of the tone-deafness of many Jesuits steeped in their miltaristic tradition to women and women's concerns. Here's where, it seems to me, the many commentators who want us to think that Francis's papacy portends real reform of the Catholic church because he's a Jesuit just aren't grappling honestly with the strong, dangerous ambiguity of the Jesuit heritage.

Francis's tone-deafness to women's concerns is not an aberration of his Jesuit heritage: it's part and parcel of that heritage. Francis is tone-deaf to the concerns of women because he's a Jesuit steeped in Jesuit tradition. The Jesuit heritage on which he's said to be drawing for his reformist vision of the church has, built right into its very heart, a magical-mystical notion of what being a Jesuit (being church, being a follower of Jesus) is all about, and that notion excludes women.

Who are not and cannot be part of a band of brothers . . . .

It's not, of course, that Jesuits are uniquely misogynistic in the Catholic tradition. The Catholic tradition as it has long been mediated to the rest of us by the men running things, its clerical elite, is itself inherently misogynistic. What the Jesuit thing adds to the misogyny is a kind of pseudo-intellectual, romantic magic-mystical gloss, the ideology of a band of brothers fighting for each other in the footsteps of Ignatius and Jesus . . . .

As I say, this ideology is not unique in the Catholic church. But it is quite decidedly at the core of the Jesuit tradition from which Pope Francis is said to be drawing as he seeks to reform the church.

And it would be dishonest and unproductive to comment on Francis's Jesuit roots as the fons et origo of his reformism and not to acknowledge that it's there And that it's seriously problematic for anyone who recognizes that the way to the future of a reformed church that really seeks to walk in the footsteps of Jesus is repudiating misogyny. And male entitlement, male power, male privilege. And heterosexism.

Since Ignatius and his band of brothers are a manifestation of the gospel, a historically conditioned way of living the gospel and walking in the footsteps of Jesus, and not the gospel itself. And that historically conditioned way has had exceptionally ambiguous effects in Catholic history from the time of Ignatius forward, and is still having such effects in the papacy of Francis, especially insofar as he addresses the question of women's equality in the Catholic church.

One has to ask: why is all of this being so overlooked by the men — all men, all white, all privileged — who keep interpreting Francis the reformer for the rest of us these days? Why is all of this ambiguity being overlooked by the men who assure us that Francis is a breath of new air for the church, though they themselves are the same old men (old as in firmly ensconced), all white, all privileged, who have been mediating the papacy to us for a long time now? Who cannot possibly bring any kind of new perspective to a new enterprise of reform, because there's nothing in the least new about the journalistic band of brothers whose perspectives they reflect, as they continue their reporting on Rome from one papacy to another . . . .

Night thoughts, night questions. Take them for what they're worth.

*I'm grateful to Jerry Slevin for emailing me a link to the Duffy essay.

The graphic is a painting of the founder of the Jesuits, Ignatius of Loyola, in armor, by an unidentified French artist of the 16th century, which is available for online sharing at Wikimedia Commons.

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