The authors conducted personal interviews with 100 American Jesuits and former Jesuits, and solicited 330 written "essays" (open-ended questions) between November 1994 and April 1998.They then conducted a smaller, follow-up survey from November 1998 to February 1999. While they present some quantitative data, the larger part of the volume gives their reading of the interview transcripts and the written responses. Their research is auspiciously timed; the collective memory of their respondents spans an historical era in which the American Jesuits were transformed from a thriving clerical cadre of militant Catholics to a declining and aging remnant, unsure of their purpose and place in the Church.
Today there are more former American Jesuits (about 5,000) than American Jesuits (about 4,000). The typical former Jesuit rejects the Catholicism of the 1950s, feels distant from the Church hierarchy, feels still close to the Society of Jesus, and is grateful for the start in life as a professional that the Society provided him. Ironically, the typical current Jesuit has the same feelings, though a few a-typical conservatives feel close to the Church hierarchy.
The general thesis that the authors draw from their interview material is that the survival of the Society depends on an avoidance of assimilation into secular life. The "ghetto Catholicism" of the 1950s lost all plausibility on account of American Catholics' geographical mobility and social upward mobility, both of which were assisted by the educational advantages the Jesuits helped provide. The distinctiveness of the Jesuits can therefor no longer depend on an intentional subculture and thus now depends on several rival countercultures: that of a neo-conservative faction, that of advocates of radical social change, that of a gay subcommunity, and that of a faction involved in non-western religions.
McDonough and Bianchi point out repeatedly that the Jesuits' clerical identity has become meaningless. This no doubt reflects what their informants tell them, but it seems peculiar. The Vatican II focus on liturgy, while enhancing the lay Catholic role, certainly made the activity most characteristic of the Catholic clergy significant. It seems that while congregational and sacramental worship is found important, the status of a caste set apart and especially celibacy have become meaningless. Some of the Jesuits spoke and wrote candidly of sexual relationships, heterosexual and homosexual. Many Jesuits and ex-Jesuits alike offer insightful critiques of a dysfunctional church. Current Jesuits who find some happiness do so in spite of the hierarchical church--carrying on careers, promoting Ignatian spirituality, or engaging in pastoral ministry. They lead three lives: a public one (work), a semiprivate one (community), and a private one (with close friends).
I was particularly interested in this volume because I am conducting parallel research with other networks of religious and former-religious. I would like to have had more quantitative information on the Jesuits and former Jesuits than what McDonough and Bianchi provide, but that does not at all detract from the qualitative interpretations that they give the reader. And while as a Catholic I am dismayed at the general tenor of the pontificate of Pope John Paul II, a book such as this one is something of a rude awakening to just what a shambles the clergy and religious have become under the reigning pope. Finally, when I read the questionnaires from the first group in my study (current and former teaching brothers) and review the taped interviews I have conducted with a small number of them, I find myself liking those guys. In the main the former teaching brothers are active in Catholic parishes, accomplished professionals, and great family men. The brothers are dedicated to educational and pastoral works that they want to promote among their fellow Catholics. One does not get this sense of things from the interviews and essays quoted and interpreted by McDonough and Bianchi. The Jesuits and ex-Jesuits come across as overly self-absorbed and fretting too much at losing control of the institutions they have founded. They are most appealing when offering acute but even-handed critiques of the institutional Church. One can only wonder if there are differing institutional cultures at work here, or whether McDonough and Bianchi were particularly unsympathetic reporters.