Just Good Company
A Cyberjournal of Religion and Culture
Link to Text-only Table of Contents


Ignatian Humanism: A Dynamic Spirituality for the Twenty-First Century
by Ronald Modras

Chicago: Loyola Press, 2004

Reviewed by Leonard Swidler

A stunning book! Ronald Modras — who is not a Jesuit, but has taught at a Jesuit university for twenty years — has profiled a number of Jesuit thinkers and activists over the centuries as Humanist role models for our time in a most winsome and moving way — revitalizing committed Humanism as a model for moderns.

Modras begins by reclaiming the term Humanist as a perspective and movement that grew out of the Christian Renaissance. He recalls that Humanism was not agnostic or atheistic in its roots, but rather an embrace of all of God’s creation, preeminently creation’s piece de resistance, Humanity. Humani nil alienum a me puto (I consider nothing human foreign to me), the saying of the pre-Christian Terence, became the watchword of the Renaissance Humanisti , and that viewpoint formed Ignatius's education in the early sixteenth century — and all subsequent Jesuit formation and education.

The reader receives a perceptive overview of Ignatius's dramatic move from a swashbuckling romantic courtier to a man equally passionately committed to pouring out his life for God through serving God's Image, humankind. Modras lifts up Ignatius's humanistic spirituality as a contemplation in action in all the areas of human life. This includes a presentation of the major parts of the Spiritual Exercises (for me, the only part of the book which dragged), pointing out its Humanist orientation.

Five outstanding Jesuits over the centuries are then presented, a chapter at a time. This is really exciting writing! The first Humanist role model focused on is Mateo Ricci, who won over the Chinese Emperor to allow and even protect Christianity. Ricci did this by turning himself into a highly respected Confucian scholar while remaining a committed Christian and a Uomo universale, brimming with the latest Western scientific knowledge.

Within a hundred years of Ricci’s arrival in China there were a quarter of a million Christians, including many high-level scholars and leaders. Tragically, the Jesuit Humanist method of accommodating whatever was not opposed to Christian principles was viciously and constantly attacked by the Franciscans and Dominicans — in this, one surely cannot rule out hateful jealousy at the success of the Jesuits. The result was that in the early 18th century the then Pope was convinced by the Franciscans and Dominicans to formally forbid these successful accommodations (e.g., allowing ceremonies reverencing ancestors, including Confucius — much as are Catholic saints!), with the consequence that Christianity was totally driven out of China. In the 1930s the papacy belatedly repealed the proscription — much too late, of course.

The second Jesuit Modras lifts up is one that is relatively little known, but as Modras points out, surely deserves to be known: Friedrich Spee. Spee lived in Germany during the horror of the witch-burning scourge, and accompanied dozens of them to the scaffold, assuring them that God loved them even though the people around them did not. Most courageously Spee wrote a large book openly attacking the practice of witch-burning and those who perpetrated it, including priests, monks, bishops, politicians, and lay people. Courageous? You bet! Because such protests were considered evidence of conspiring with the devil, which led to the stake. Strenuous efforts were exerted by fellow Jesuits to have him expelled from the Society, which would have meant certain execution. But he was in the end protected by other reason-oriented, that is, Humanist, Jesuits.

Modras then moves to the twentieth century. As he pointed out, there are doubtless many other choices of Jesuit Humanist role models. Still, I personally would recommend that he seriously consider, if there would be a second edition, adding John Carroll, the first bishop in the United States John Carroll was born in the colony of Maryland, became a Jesuit and taught for a number of years in Europe until the Society was suppressed by the pope in 1773, after which he returned to America. There he not only continued his priestly work, but also took an active part in the American Revolution (as an emissary along with Benjamin Franklin on a diplomatic mission to Catholic Canada in 1776) — much as did his cousin Charles Carroll, the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. The Carrolls, including John, were very much at home in America, and the latter set the new church on a course that paralleled and supported what he saw as the virtues of the new nation: religious liberty, democracy, Humanism.

When Rome wanted to make him the first American bishop, he insisted that all the priests of the nation elect their bishop. Rome acceded, and John Carroll was in fact elected by them. Rome also subsequently granted his wish that his two coadjutor bishops also be elected by all the priests of America. Unfortunately, that is where that happy practice was ended as far as America was concerned. Carroll had assumed it would of course continue, and made preparations accordingly — but it was blocked by Rome. When after several years the American Church was divided into several dioceses, Carroll was made the Archbishop of Baltimore in 1810. Already in 1791 he had summoned a national synod, and later as archbishop he laid plans for a national council in 1812. However, these plans were blocked by the War of 1812, shortly after which he died, in 1815, the year the Jesuit Society was reestablished.

It is clear that his legacy included as a top priority governance by consensus, as befitted both the new American democracy and the ancient Church tradition. He wanted American Catholics to make their own decisions as much as possible. Already in 1785 he wrote: “We desire...that whatever can with safety to religion be granted, shall be conceded to American Catholics in ecclesiastical affairs. In this way, we hope that distrust of Protestants, now full of suspicion, will be diminished and that our affairs can be solidly established.” America was most fortunate in having at its very beginning a giant of a leader who was fully committed to both the Catholic Church and the American nation, with its principles of democracy, religious liberty, and separation of Church and State — a perfect role model for 21st century Humanists.

Modras chose three 20th century Jesuit giants, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Karl Rahner, and Pedro Arrupe, as contemporary or near-contemporary Jesuit Humanists. He might have chosen John Courtney Murray (champion of religious freedom), Gus Weigel (pioneer in ecumenism), Jean Daniélou (co-founder of Nouvelle Theologie), Bernard Lonergan (epistemological philosopher par excellence ), or.... But who can fault the three he chose?

With Teilhard the definition of Humanist expands exponentially, embracing not just “civilized humans,” but goes all the way back to the beginning of life and before, billions of years ago, and reaches into the future to Omega Point. Teilhard was a quintessentially Ignatian Humanist by immersing himself in materiality and at the same time stretching toward the spiritually infinite. Like Ignatius, Teilhard ran into a version of the Inquisition which blocked him at almost every turn, so that the only way his revolutionary writings could be made public was to leave his manuscripts to laity to be published posthumously.

Teilhard totally rejected the old dualism which saw matter and spirit as radically disjunctive, and insisted on a continuum, starting with the minutest particle of matter having its dedans , “within,” which urged it on toward ever greater complexity, leading thus to the emergence of life, then sentient life, and finally conscious life. We humans did not come just from monkeys, as the fundamentalists jeered, but before that from rocks, previously molten, and now we can add, back to the Big Bang.

However, as a superb Humanist, Teilhard looks backward only to look forward where evolution is leading us humans ever onward toward a super-consciousness, culminating is what he calls the Omega Point. For him Omega Point is clearly the Cosmic Christ, but today in the pluralistic world of interreligious dialogue, Omega Point (however understood and described) is seen as the goal of all religions — and non-religions, that is, of all Humans, and indeed all reality.

In the late 1950s a German biologist friend of mine asked me if I knew who the most influential Catholic theologian was. I mumbled some response, and he said, no, it was Karl Rahner. Rahner was like a consummate poet who could express his/her thoughts and feelings within particular structures. I think of Shakespeare and his exquisite sonnets. Rahner’s sonnet structure was the official teaching of the Catholic Church. He placed all the statements of Tradition within a greatly expanded context and analyzed and related the issues with such acumen and insight that time and again ancient claims made sense in the contemporary world.

For example, Rahner expanded the rather static medieval doctrine of grace so that it no longer was held captive by the Augustinian narrowness which condemned the great majority of the world as a massa damnata — and seduced Calvin and much of Protestantism into the same abyss. For Rahner, grace was not just something offered to an elect on the level of their making a conscious commitment to Christ. Grace abounded everywhere; it existed on the pre-conscious level for everyone, so that there was no “nature” without grace. The two were completely congruent. We humans need to respond to God’s ubiquitous grace, and if we are so fortunate as to learn about Jesus and the Catholic Church, then more will be accordingly expected.

Pedro Arrupe, the first Basque since Ignatius to head the Jesuits, was novice master just three miles from Hiroshima on August 6 1945. He and his students walked into and worked to save lives in the midst of that horror. Subsequently he was asked to lecture on Hiroshima around the world, and eventually was elected the Jesuit General in 1965, the final year of Vatican Council II, that great watershed even in Catholic, and indeed, world, history.

Arrupe carried Ignatius’s Humanism another step further by committing the Jesuits world-wide to putting the Vatican II Constitution on the Church in the Modern World into practice, and not just on an individual basis. Rather, the commitment was to working for justice everywhere in the world, including the corporate and societal structures. This expansion of Humanism into societal structures was (is) controversial and found resistance both within and outside of the Society. In fact, Arrupe experienced severe pressure from the present pope, pushing him to write to all Jesuits that they were no longer to publicly question a position taken by the papacy — part of John Paul II's process of centralization and internal authoritarianism. Whether this resistance and pressure contributed to his experiencing a crippling stroke in 1981 and his subsequent resignation (the first General to resign)? It is hard to think that it did not.

Modras exquisitely distills the heart of the several models he lifts up and in the process excites the heart — which is precisely what Ignatius would want him to do. He shows himself a consummate Humanist.


Leonard Swidler is professor of Catholic thought and interreligious dialogue at Temple University in Philadelphia, and editor of The Journal of Ecumenical Studies. He is the founder-director of the Center for Global Ethics, a leader of interreligious dialogues in Africa and Asia, and the founder of the Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church. He has edited or authored more than 50 books – among them a hugely relevant work called Toward a Catholic Constitution, a study that shows how a constitutional government for the Church at every level can help bring accountability to the Church.