Sunday, February 1, 2015

A Reader Writes: About Pope Francis and the Jesuits, "Many of the Origin Stories of Religious Orders Do Look a Lot Like a Spectacularly Successful Effort at Prolonged Adolescence"

Not to be missed: Brian Gallagher's stellar response to my posting yesterday about the ambiguity of Pope Francis's Jesuit roots, as Francis deals with women's issues:

In the four centuries since Cervantes wrote Don Quixote, many readers have been struck by the similarities between the title character and Ignatius of Loyola who died fifty years earlier. Ignatius advised to obediently follow the Church, even if it meant believing "that the white I see is black, if the church hierarchy says so" — or words to that effect (it's at the end of the Spiritual Exercises). Quixote remained obedient to a comforting fantasy of a Golden Age of piety and chivalry. If he saw windmills but his fantasy required giants, then he believed he saw giants.  
[As you no doubt know...] Before his conversion, Ignatius was obsessed with pulp tales of chivalry and sought out opportunities for military glory including an insane attempt to defend the fortress at Pamplona against a French army — and this even after the Duke in whose service Ignatius fought had wisely evacuated his forces. Ignatius was struck in the leg with a cannonball. During his convalescence, he had only a second-rate 'Life of Christ' biography to read. His conversion then, might be seen (at least initially) as a shift in content rather than a radical change of form. He renounced his earlier direction but maintained the same modus operandi — dramatic gestures, lofty goals, and anti-social piety (he was a nuisance to the Franciscan caretakers of Jerusalem holy sites — I mean 'anti-social' in that new convert zeal way. He did later give the Exercises for many years).  
It's a serious crisis: the confusion and frustration of discovering that our world and our own self-image don't correspond to the shallow fantasies of our youth. How do we deal with it? I think Ignatius, like Don Quixote, doubled down on the manufactured nostalgia of the knight-errant. He and his original 'band of brothers' were considered to be nutty enthusiasts. And now I wonder; I had once considered them to be in the tradition of the 'holy fool' but now I'm not so sure. Since my reading of a couple biographies of Ignatius years ago (I confess to enjoying the retelling of his more Quixotic episodes) I've seen too many 'enthusiastic nuts' inspired by a narrow reading list and embracing a pseudo-nostalgic fable — and they certainly don't believe themselves fools. I'm really speculating here and I'm aware that no matter where we want to go, we have to begin with the tools at hand, with the personal formation and conditioning we have undergone up to that point. Nevertheless, many of the origin stories of religious orders do look a lot like a spectacularly successful effort at prolonged adolescence and/or repression —conspicuously, there are 'no girls allowed' in the Jesuits. 
Now, what does this mean for the Jesuits and Pope Francis four hundred years later? I don't know. Pope Benedict is arguably pseudo-nostalgic, especially in a liturgical sense. Pope Francis sometimes sounds like he holds a pseudo-nostalgia for social relations as if the solution to today's challenges is say, "Why is this such a big deal nowadays? In the past, we were happy."

As I tell Brian in my response to him at yesterday's thread, I'm especially struck by his observation that, though we have to start somewhere in our spiritual journeys, and that means starting with ourselves and our formation and conditioning, even so, "many of the origin stories of religious orders do look a lot like a spectacularly successful effort at prolonged adolescence and/or repression — conspicuously, there are 'no girls allowed' in the Jesuits." It does seem to me that there's a stuck-in-adolescence quality about the band of brothers mythology that seems especially strong in Jesuit tradition, Jesuit piety, the Jesuit reading of the community's origins.

It may be harder for many cultures to see any of this, however, when the leadership structures of the Catholic church itself are so deeply committed to misogyny, and when many cultures glorify the same kind of adolescent military fantasies that are celebrated in these myths of Jesuit origin. Andrew O'Hehir, commenting yesterday on why "American Sniper" is now enthralling U.S. audiences:

For the Chris Kyle fanbase, with their F-150s and "Terrorist Hunting Permits" and curiously restricted conception of American identity, maybe it was a World War II-style "band of brothers" sense of national purpose that eluded us, or was undermined by the handwringing pantywaist liberalism of the latte-drinking classes. 

In short, the band of brothers idea is everywhere. As I said yesterday, it's front and center in the band of journalistic brothers — all men, all white, all heterosexual in their public personas (since the world of Catholic journalism seems totally unwilling to entertain the possibility of openly gay male Catholic journalists) — who are now assuring us that Pope Francis is a breath of fresh air for the church. Assuring us that everything's being made new, though there's nothing new about the commentators themselves, about the band of brothers interpreting the meaning of this papacy for us — no opening to the new in the form of women, openly gay folks, black and brown people, etc. Same old same old in the world of top Catholic journalists, top Catholic Vaticanologists: white, male, ostensibly heterosexual.

In a sense, adolescence is us, isn't it? We're so committed to the band of brothers mythology throughout our social and religious institutions that we hardly even notice it's there. Not until someone, some marginalized group, comes along and tries to point this out to us.

And when that happens, we start yelling — in a quintessentially adolescent way — about political correctness, about the new dogmatism of the left, about how straight white men are being unfairly victimized.

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