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Nunc Dimittis

Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam

On the Jesuit Constitutions.


When Daniel Ortega expelled the Jesuits from Nicaragua in 2023, he took part in a tradition nearly as old as the Society itself. From their inception, the Jesuits have been a polarizing organization, the object of praise and criticism, of admiration and fear. As often as they have been welcomed into territories to spread the faith, they have been persecuted, banished, and martyred for supposedly corrupting it.

This history raises a fundamental question. Who are the Jesuits? Are they faithful sons of Saint Ignatius of Loyola who have spread the faith to the farthest reaches of the world? Or are they conniving charlatans who have wielded influence, wealth, and honor to their own advantage?

Anyone seeking answers to such questions will welcome the new edition of the Jesuit Rule edited by Father Barton Geger, S.J., and published this year by the Institute of Jesuit Sources. The Constitutions of the Society of Jesus tell us a great deal about the nature of the Society and its past, present, and future, a fact of which Father Barton Geger, S.J., of Boston College was keenly aware as he completed this labor of love. The book deserves to be read by friends and critics alike of the Jesuits.

A close reading of the Constitutions shows the Society of Jesus to be oriented to the same end stated in the Spiritual Exercises: ad maiorem Dei gloriam. This greater glory is the key to understanding the Constitutions, and ultimately the Society. It explains not only the virtues Saint Ignatius wished to cultivate in the Jesuits but also why the Jesuits have been so controversial from the beginning.

So why are the Constitutions not better known? The twentieth-century recovery of the early documents of the Society, encouraged by Vatican II, did not initially extend to the retrieval of the Constitutions, Father Geger notes. Jesuits instead initiated a vigorous retrieval and adaptation of the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius, leading to the development of the “Ignatian spirituality” through which many know the Society today.

The Constitutions were neglected for several reasons, some commonplace. But many of the more substantial reasons reflect broader issues in modern Catholicism. While the rediscovery of the Exercises was a great gift to the Church and world, the spirit of individualism and antinomianism in which it was at times received sometimes made it difficult to integrate it with a more communal, juridical notion of the spiritual life. At worst, a false dichotomy was made between the Spiritual Exercises as a deeply personal and mystical experience of God and the Constitutions as a dry and rationalistic legal code for the mechanics of common life. But that, too, was a “sign of the times.” Catholics, who since Trent had had such a keen sense of themselves as a visible community, were in the middle of the last century struggling to live together, especially with respect to the new emphasis on personal religious experience and discernment, and ambient false dualisms between faith and reason, spirit and law, and community and person. We continue to face this problem in our own time.

But this is the genius of the Constitutions, as Father Geger shows over and over again: they offer a way for Christians to live out together their vocation. That vocation is not incidental to their common life but integral to what makes it a mission. Through the Constitutions, A.M.D.G. becomes not just a concept but rather one of the most universalistic visions in Western history, one that cuts across time and space, with a blatant disregard for borders, drawing in a bewildering diversity of ministries. In proposing to reorganize many conventional aspects of religious life in a radical way, re-orienting every dimension to an apostolic community of disciples, the Constitutions call Jesuits to be whatever the Church needs them to be, and wherever and whenever the Church needs them.

This universalism is at the heart of the most intense reactions to the Society. That mission, A.M.D.G., is either praised as analogous to the holy mission of the Catholic Church Herself or pilloried as its hubristic parody.

So who are the Jesuits? By the telling of the Constitutions, they are men striving to live out their Christian vocation in a radical way, ad maiorem Dei gloriam. May their critics hold them to this, and their fans yet more.

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Bill McCormick, S.J., is a contributing editor at America, chief mission officer at St. John’s College in Belize City, and a research fellow in the department of political science at Saint Louis University in Missouri.