Something about the Jesuits keeps rankling Pope John Paul II. I think it's that they understand him.

If a chip is on the papal shoulder about Jesuit involvement in politics--or Jesuit activism in Latin America, or Jesuit progressivism in theology--the order appears content to leave it there. Other popes have disliked Jesuits, even to the point of disbanding the order. What else is new?

Last week, John Paul II, suggesting that the chip on his shoulder was becoming a weight on his back, followed up on his criticism of 21/2 years ago in which he rebuked the Jesuits for their "regrettable shortcomings." This time he was specific. He warned against "tendencies to secularize the priest's service and reduce it to a function that is purely philanthropic. His service is not that of the physician, the social worker, the politician or the trade unionist. They must not take the place of laymen and even less neglect the task which is specifically theirs."

If Jesuits suddenly said amen to that call to inaction, an unprecedented thinning of the 26,600-member Society of Jesus would occur. Of some 100 Jesuit priests I know, few are only priests. One is a Jesuit psychiatrist who took such pride in his double calling that he put personalized license plates on his car: SJ-MD. I was taught in college by a Jesuit sociologist, a Jesuit seismologist, a Jesuit poet, a Jesuit mathematician and a Jesuit archconservative who seemed to give As and Bs to students who took his advice to subscribe to the National Review and Cs and Ds to the rest of us.

Since college, I've been educated, edified, charmed and forgiven by dozens more of the nation's 5,600 Jesuits. A few of them, particularly those who minister to the poor, shine in the sun of the Gospels. Some, in the shadows, behave as if their order were an upper-class men's club.

Whatever their virtues or failings, Jesuits can't escape the conspicuousness of their modern forms of service. That's where the pope's case against the order is weak. He is taking on Jesuit history. Ignatius Loyola, the Basque who founded the order in the mid-16th century, was a believer in diversity. He wrote in the order's "Constitutions" that if his followers "direct everything to the divine service, everything is prayer." He never intended his priests to be limited to the priestly ministry. The "everything" of St. Ignatius included the diverse professionalism that the current pope dislikes.

If the 20th century has trouble understanding the order, so did the faithful 400 years ago. In "The First Jesuit," a biography of Ignatius, the Irish historian Mary Purcell writes: "His order was such a novel departure from accepted 16th century ideas of the religious life that the more traditionally minded, and even some very holy people, were greatly scandalized when the pope approved an order that had no office in choir and showed other deviations from the rules and practices of the older orders."

The innovative Jesuits of the 16th century were sent forth as "soldiers of the pope" to renew the church against the abuses that led to the Reformation. Loyola's contemporaries were Luther, Zwingli and Henry VIII. The innovations of the Jesuits under John Paul II range from a defense of religion against Western materialism to carrying out the social teachings of the modern popes.

With his desk in Rome but his mind on Poland, it is natural that the pope fails to value the full contributions of the Jesuits. They are a worldwide order, not one merely of Eastern Europe. The fear is rising--and the pope's warnings to the Jesuits support it-- that John Paul sees the strength of the Polish church as the only kind of spiritual strength.

It isn't. What Jesuits have been doing to organize the poor in Central America, or speak out publicly when one of them is elected to lead the Americans for Democratic Action, or apply theology to the late 20th century, or educate the young in some of the world's best high schools and colleges--all this is religious power, too.

John Paul could as easily nurture it with fatherly leadership as cut it down with a show of authority.