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,
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
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
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
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
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.