A reserved but strong-minded Dutch priest with long experience in the Middle East and a reputation as a moderate was elected today as the new leader of the Jesuit order, which in recent years has come under pressure from Pope John Paul II to give greater obedience to the papacy and less attention to secular matters.
The Rev. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, 54, who spent more than 15 years in Beirut before becoming rector of the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome in 1981, was chosen as the 29th superior general of the Society of Jesus, the largest order of Roman Catholic priests, in a quick, one-ballot vote, the Jesuit press office announced.
According to some accounts, the pope had favored another Jesuit, the Rev. Giuseppe Pittau, a Sardinian whom he once publicly described as "a real Jesuit."
John Paul, on the final day of a visit to Austria, was immediately informed of the outcome of the election, a Jesuit spokesman said.
Asked on his flight back to Rome to comment on the election, the pope said he was "happy they have chosen a new superior general," United Press International reported. "I do not know him personally," the pope said. Asked if he approved of the Jesuits' choice, he said, "I never had a candidate of my own."
Jesuit sources described the new superior general as a compromise choice whose largely unexpected election was designed to bridge the gap between liberals and conservatives while maintaining the prestige of an order that has been under attack from the pope and other church conservatives and has suffered a sharp membership drop, to 26,000 from 36,000 in 1965.
Kolvenbach, silver-haired and bearded, is known for his firm line on doctrine and discipline and is believed to share John Paul's belief that priests should stay out of politics.
In this sense, his election was seen as a positive response by the order to John Paul's criticisms of "excessive secularism" and his insistence earlier this month that the Jesuits remain faithful to their special vow of loyalty to the pope.
However, the sources said, the Jesuits' choice of the Dutch cleric over Pittau indicated that the elite corps of theologians, educators and social workers had decided to hold fast to its centuries-old tradition of independence.
Jesuit spokesmen declined to say just how many of the 211 delegates, voting to elect the order's 29th superior general since its establishment in 1534 by St. Ignatius Loyola, had voted for Kolvenbach. He succeeds the Rev. Pedro Arrupe, 75, who stepped down two years ago after being incapacitated by a stroke and was temporarily replaced by the Rev. Paolo Dezza.
In an unprecedented move, John Paul appointed Dezza in October 1981 as a special administrator for the order. The pope had been outspokenly critical of what he saw as inappropriate involvement by some Jesuits in leftist political and theological causes.
Jesuit sources said that the rapidity of the 45-minute election--which required a simple majority--suggested that a widespread consensus had developed around Kolvenbach.
Since December, when the pope authorized the Jesuits to go ahead with plans for the general congregation, there had been speculation that to please John Paul the Jesuits would choose Pittau, 54. The session began Sept. 2.
The pope had made Pittau a special aide to Pittau in a move widely interpreted as an expression of the pope's choice for the Jesuit succession.
But today's vote indicates that the order's autonomy remains a major concern for a majority of senior Jesuits, many of whom reportedly were shocked by the pope's intervention in their internal affairs.
The Jesuits have run into papal criticisms since the mid-1960s, when many members of the order became increasingly involved in issues of political and social justice.
But while problems with popes Paul VI and John Paul I remained muted, the Jesuits' relations with John Paul II rapidly deteriorated. In 1979, after a year in office, he sharply attacked the "secularizing tendencies" of an order originally formed to help defend Roman Catholic orthodoxy against the Reformation. He later asked Arrupe to ask Jesuits throughout the world to correct their "regrettable shortcomings."
The election of Kolvenbach, an ecumenical expert and scholar who speaks eight languages, comes after Dezza's observation two weeks ago that the order now needs "a generalate of reflection" to follow "the dynamic period that preceded it."
Kolvenbach was professor of linguistics from 1968 to 1981 at the Jesuits' St. Joseph University in Beirut, where he also served as the order's Near East provincial, or regional superior. He is said to have a gift for dialogue and compromise.