ROBERT BLAIR KAISER. Inside the Jesuits. How Pope Francis is Changing the Church and the World. Lanham, MD. Rowman and Littlefield. 2014, pp. 210. $31.99 Cloth ISBN978-1-4422-2901-3. Reviewed by Daniel H. LEVINE, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor MMI 48109-1045
Robert Kaiser is an ex Jesuit and experienced journalist with considerable knowledge of church affairs. He puts this knowledge and experience to work in this breezy and informal account of what he calls “Jesuit DNA” that shapes the outlook of all Jesuits, including Francis, the first Jesuit Pope. According to the author, Jesuit DNA is created during the long and rigorous training for which the order is well known. Once in place, in his view, it produces a characteristic pattern and style of action which is open to anything, questioning of rules, given to engaging with the world—all for the greater glory of God.
The discussion is lively and occasionally informative but as a general principle, the notion of a determining “Jesuit DNA” is, well, very general. Readers looking for a systematic analysis of some kind (historical, sociological, theological) that might shed light on the Jesuits or on the Pope will be disappointed. What they will find is lots of stories and anecdotes (many autobiographical) and snippets about famous Jesuits in history (from China to the reductions of Paraguay). These are interlaced with quotations from individuals, including the legendary Jesuit General Pedro Arrupe, and of course, Pope Francis himself.
The argument is spirited and relies on the idea that attention to “Jesuit DNA” can explain who Pope Francis is, and why and how he has done what he has done. The author makes these dispositions central to his view of Francis’s public stance (open, focused on actions over rules, centered on mercy and acceptance), his reform initiatives within, and how the Church positions itself in the world. He draws sharp contrasts between this orientation and the Euro centric, rule and loyalty focus, and concept of a perfect and unchanging church in an imperfect world that marked many of Francis’ predecessors.
Kaiser takes pains to defend Pope Francis against charges that he did not do enough to oppose the Argentine military dictatorship, or to protect two Jesuits active in community work at the time, who were arrested and tortured. This argument is found in Chapter 8 (“Liberation Theology”) which is a once over lightly account of liberation theology, and of the pope’s actions or non actions in this case. This is paired with exaggerated statements about Francis’ role in critical meetings of the organization of Latin American Catholic Bishops, CELAM. In the case of the two Jesuits, Pope Francis himself has acknowledged that he did not do enough to protect his two colleagues. The simplest way to understand the evolution of his positions and actions is not in reference to his Jesuit DNA (have there been no rigid and authoritarian Jesuits?) but rather by acknowledging that he has learned and changed in many ways. Bergoglio’s meteoric career brought him to high office while still young (Jesuit Provincial at age 36) His general position has evolved from an early focus on enforcing conventional rules and regulations to one that prizes immersion in daily life (a church of the poor that is itself poor) with notable openness to persons of all orientations (“who am I to judge”?) He has acknowledged his own mistakes. Kaiser speculates that this change of heart may have its origins in a possible love affair, but presents no evidence to support this notion, other than inference from the Pope’s insistence that he is a sinner. Aren’t we all?
In short, this is a lively and at times engaging, but ultimately unsatisfying book. Both the title and the sub title are profoundly misleading.