For many Jesuits, the concept of one being at the helm of the Catholic Church has required some mental gymnastics.
“I’m in shock that we have a Jesuit pope. This is just not our mind-set. We don’t look for these kinds of offices,” the Rev. Thomas Smolich, president of the Jesuit Conference of the United States, said Friday. “The idea that — it blows the mind.”
The largest Catholic order, the Jesuits were founded by Saint Ignatius of Loyola, a 16th-
century Spanish warrior-turned-priest. In recent decades, they have made building up their network of schools in Latin America and India a top priority, but for centuries their base had been high-quality universities in Europe and the United States, including Washington’s Georgetown University.
Within the confines of Catholicism, Jesuits are generally seen as left-leaning and have burnished a reputation as questioning intellectuals who are open to debate. They are famous for the intensive education they undergo (it can take a decade to become a Jesuit), their required month-long silent retreats and their theology of “finding God in all things.” That idea has attracted progressives but turned off some conservatives who think it sounds relativist.
Strict adherence to doctrine is not typically a focus of Jesuits, and Jesuit institutions are magnets for Catholics who disagree openly with church orthodoxy on issues such as celibacy or female priests. But neither do Jesuits tend to rally publicly against church teaching.
Politically speaking, Francis is an atypical Jesuit. As a cardinal in Argentina, he led a public fight against same-sex marriage — reportedly after failing to broker a deal supporting civil unions — and has said that gay adoption is a form of discrimination against children.
There are no data on whether the typical Jesuit disagrees with the new pope (and official church teaching) on matters such as gay marriage. But questioning a Jesuit on hot-button sexual topics usually elicits a nonjudgmental response.
“We are called to encounter Christ in the people we meet. The typical Jesuit starting point is the experience of people,” Smolich said. “Out of that, we might be more nuanced or more sensitive or more compassionate, in terms of how various church teachings are experienced by people in the pews.”
On the other hand, the new pontiff’s emphasis on uplifting the poor and marginalized is very much in keeping with the Jesuit mission: They take a vow of poverty and have been focused in recent decades on Latin America, home to the world’s largest economic inequality gap.