The Jesuit way today

“Jesuit” has a clone word: “Jesuitical.” The dictionary definition of Jesuitical reads: “practicing casuistry or equivocation; using subtle or oversubtle … Continued

“Jesuit” has a clone word: “Jesuitical.” The dictionary definition of Jesuitical reads: “practicing casuistry or equivocation; using subtle or oversubtle reasoning; crafty; sly; intriguing.” As a graduate of Jesuit schools several times over, I categorically reject the insidious reduction of the intellectual traditions of Jesuit education to selfish intrigue. Resentment of Catholic intellectuality and of the Jesuits’ approach to defending the faith betrays the complainers’ own limitations. Sadly, the Society often gets attacked not only by left-leaning secularists who resent loyalty to doctrine but also by right-wing Catholics who think that defense of the faith precludes respect for one’s opponents.

If any of this description sounds too remote from daily experience, consider a current 30-second promo for Hardball, a political commentary show on MSNBC hosted by Chris Matthews, a Jesuit product from the College of the Holy Cross. The TV ad features the voice of Mr. Matthews explaining the premise of his interviews. He uses phrases like “when they try something on me,” or “when they use an argument that has been successful with others” noting his intention to “nail them.” He says he derives satisfaction from this process of confronting opinion with facts and propaganda with logic. Needless to say, this is considered “Jesuitical” by some and the exercise of Catholic intellectualism by the rest of us.

Thus, for instance, a Jesuit-trained debater would have a field day with the yesterday’s Tea Party placard against Health Care Reform (HRC): “Keep your government hands off my Medicare!” The underlying premise of this slogan holds that government-run programs are harmful, while the current Medicare program needs no fixing. But Medicare IS a government-run program, so exposing this contradiction in the opposing argument destroys the position. Conclusion: If the objections to HCR are faulty, the so too is opposition to HCR.

The essence of the Jesuit approach to truth is to study all sides of a question, with particular emphasis upon the premises of the opposition. Examination of an opponent’s logic is intended as a probe for contradictions. This enables a rebuttal that isolates the syllogism underlying an opposing argument. In the spirit of the military background of St. Ignatius, the Jesuit founder, Catholic intellectualism included “gathering intelligence” on the enemy’s positions and tendencies. It implies respect for their strengths and tactical skills.

For about 500 years now, the Jesuit approach to Catholic intellectualism has generally benefited the Church in the modern world. Let me state here that you don’t have to be Jesuit-trained to be a Catholic intellectual, nor is Jesuit education an absolute guarantee of right thinking. But I would like to see more of it applied to U.S. politics as we enter a new and crucial decade for Catholic America. Whether it is clerical pedophilia, episcopal cover-up of the same, or political lobbying in Washington about current issues from Health Care Reform to Nuclear Disarmament, Catholic America could use a healthy dose of a Jesuit-type approach to intellectual defense of the faith. This would replace a recent and unfortunate turn at blaming others – such as the media — for the Church’s troubles. Neither it is a worthy defense to claim that “others do the same thing,” as if two wrongs make everything alright.

We Catholics need to spend more time studying the logic of the opposition, giving them credit for concern or insight where credit is due. Only then, I think, can we plausibly move on to counter phony arguments. In Jesuit schools through the ages, the books of non-ecclesiastical thinkers like Descartes, Marx and Huxley were read and studied in detail. The purpose was not to replace Thomism, but rather to defend Catholic thought better by thorough examination of opposing viewpoints, separating cogency from faulty logic.

Ironically, if you want to expose the shallowness of the atheists like Christopher Hitchens, the hypocrisy of the secular leftists in the blogs, or the braying of the right-wing anti-Catholicism from media celebrities like Glenn Beck you start with study of their perspectives. Debate them using their own words. Along the way, Catholics learn something about their own failings and simultaneously contribute to the on-going reform of the Church as Jesus wanted.


Anthony M. Stevens-Arroyo Anthony M. Stevens-Arroyo is Professor Emeritus of Puerto Rican and Latino Studies at Brooklyn College and Distinguished Scholar of the City University of New York.
  • FarnazMansouri

    The Jesuits have not been resented for their “intellectuality,” largely a thing of the past.They are resented for their hypocrisy, classism, and racism. In France, they were unilaterally kicked out at the end of the nineteenth century. Here, their pedophilia hasn’t helped much.Liberation theology is dead. As is Oscar Romero, a great exception to typical Jesuit hypocrisy, classism, and racism, who was thrown to the wolves by the former pope.The rest of the Jesuit clan would do well to think on him.

  • FarnazMansouri

    And then there is the everlasting problem of worshiping the image of the corpse of a mythical Jew, aka, Jesus the freeloading water-skiers. Much beloved by aged OCD virgins like Yeal9.

  • FarnazMansouri

    Yeal9 pastes:Many of the 1.5 million Conservative Jews and many of their rabbis have relegated Abraham to the myth pile along with most if not all the OT. Who are these “many” and precisely how many are they? Who are their rabbis? What are their names?

Read More Articles

Screenshot 2014-04-23 11.40.54
Atheists Bad, Christians Good: A Review of “God’s Not Dead”

A smug Christian movie about smug atheists leads to an inevitable happy ending.

Ten Ways to Make Your Church Autism-Friendly

The author of the Church of England’s autism guidelines shares advice any church can follow.

Valle Header Art
My Life Depended on the Very Act of Writing

How I was saved by writing about God and cancer.

Sociologist: Religion Can Predict Sexual Behavior

“Religion and sex are tracking each other like never before,” says sociologist Mark Regnerus.

The Internet Is Not Killing Religion. So What Is?

Why is religion in decline in the modern world? And what can save it?

Why I Want to Be Culturally Evangelical

I’ve lost my faith. Do I have to lose my heritage, too?

What Is a Saint?

How the diversity of saintly lives reveals multiple paths toward God.

An Ayatollah’s Gift to Baha’is, Iran’s Largest Religious Minority

An ayatollah offers a beautiful symbolic gesture against a backdrop of violent persecution.

river dusk
Cleaner, Lighter, Closer

What’s a fella got to do to be baptized?

Magical Thinking and the Canonization of Two Popes

Why Pope Francis is canonizing two popes for all of the world wide web to see.

Pope Francis: Stop the Culture of Waste

What is the human cost of our tendency to throw away?

chapel door
“Sometimes You Find Something Quiet and Holy”: A New York Story

In a hidden, underground sanctuary, we were all together for a few minutes in this sweet and holy mystery.

Mary Magdalene, the Closest Friend of Jesus

She’s been ignored, dismissed, and misunderstood. But the story of Easter makes it clear that Mary was Jesus’ most faithful friend.

From Passover to Easter: Why I’m Grateful to be Jewish, Christian, and Alive

Passover with friends. Easter with family. It’s almost enough to make you believe in God.

Top 10 Reasons We’re Glad A Catholic Colbert Is Taking Over Letterman’s “Late Show”

How might we love Stephen Colbert as the “Late Show” host? Let us count the ways.

God’s Not Dead? Why the Good News Is Better than That

The resurrection of Jesus is not a matter of private faith — it’s a proclamation for the whole world.

The Three Most Surprising Things Jesus Said

Think you know Jesus? Some of his sayings may surprise you.

Jesus, Bunnies, and Colored Eggs: An Explanation of Holy Week and Easter

So, Easter is a one-day celebration of Jesus rising from the dead and turning into a bunny, right? Not exactly.