American Jesuits Are in a Free Fall, and the Crisis is Getting Worse
[Despite what the National neo-Catholic Register (New Jesuit Priests Enjoy Bonds of Brotherhood: As the Society of Jesus’ numbers in the U.S. and Canada stabilize, a new generation of Millennial priests is coming into its own) and the neo-Catholic World Report (With new ordinations, the Jesuits see hope for the future: In many respects, reports of the death of the Society of Jesus are greatly exaggerated) say]
Patrick Reilly / July 29, 2016 / Cardinal Newman Society
Excitement is building for Jesuits worldwide as their general congregation to elect a new superior general is quickly approaching this fall. The election presents an important opportunity for them to reflect on the future of the Society of Jesus — and to address serious concerns. Even under a Jesuit Pope, the order suffers from a steady decline in membership, dissent and moral confusion within its ranks, and a widening gulf between many Jesuit universities and the Church.
Perhaps that’s why there has been so much attention lately to the announcement that 20 new Jesuit priests were ordained this year in the United States, Canada and Haiti. That’s good news, with the hope that these new priests will be true Soldiers of Christ and embrace the fullness of Church teaching, like their predecessors of old and some notable giants today.
Unfortunately, the ordinations have given rise to misleading claims that the Jesuits’ membership woes are coming to an end. Last month, a Jesuit official told the National Catholic Register that “the trends of new Jesuit entrants show demographic stability is on the horizon.” As best I can determine, that’s fantasy. It’s easy to understand why the Jesuits would look for any sign of hope after decades of decline, but exaggeration is dangerous if it diverts attention away from a very real crisis that is deeper than the numbers alone.
Again, someone seems to have spun a tale to Catholic World Report, which last week declared that, contrary to warnings in recent years, “there never really was an ‘implosion’ of the Jesuits worldwide.”
But there was … and still is. The “implosion” claim was made by Matthew Archbold of The Cardinal Newman Society in 2013, when he cited predictions of “a demographic free fall with declining ordinations and former Jesuits outnumbering active Jesuits in the United States.” Most convincingly, he cited hard data published in 2011 by Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) that clearly supported the forecast.
I checked the CARA data again — including a newer study of Jesuit numbers released in 2015 — as well as both Jesuit and Vatican sources, and the numbers remain dismal. Jesuit membership has been spiraling downward for more than 50 years. It’s possible that new entrants and ordinations during the three-year pontificate of Pope Francis could help slow the rate of decline in the Jesuit order, but that’s yet to be proven. What’s certain is that the Jesuit order has a membership crisis, and there’s no reason to predict stability or growth anytime soon.