Read an excerpt FROM PASSIONATE UNCERTAINTY: THE TRANSFORMATION OF THE JESUITS by Peter McDonough and Eugene C. Bianchi, University of California Press, 2003:
The story of the Jesuits falls into three acts. The first ended abruptly in 1773, when the pope issued an edict to suppress the Society. The Jesuits, celebrated not only for their schools and their missionary work but also for their activities as court advisors, had aroused the hostility of absolutist monarchs and the enmity of rivals within the church. Except in Russia, whose rulers declined to receive the papal edict, the Jesuits were disbanded and their property confiscated. Many became secular priests, and the superior general of the order languished and died in a papal prison in Rome.
After a forty-year hiatus, a papacy alarmed by upheavals attendant on the French Revolution restored the Society of Jesus. The period from 1814 until the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s constitutes the second act in the saga of the Jesuits. Once again on the upswing, the restored Society was associated with conservative, anti-democratic elements through much of the nineteenth and the first part of the twentieth centuries in Europe. The order was identified with "ultramontane" support for the universal, transnational supremacy of the pope.
Jesuits in the United States, though growing rapidly, had a lower political profile than their counterparts in Europe. Georgetown University, the country's oldest Catholic institution of higher learning, was inaugurated in 1789 under the auspices of Bishop John Carroll, a former Jesuit who had become a secular priest with the suppression of the order. American Jesuits catered to a burgeoning clientele of Catholic immigrants and their offspring. More than Jesuits elsewhere, the American branch deployed its manpower through a network of high schools, colleges, and universities. The high schools especially became a major source of recruits. By the end of the 1930s the Society of Jesus in the United States had overtaken Spanish Jesuits to form the largest regional contingent in the worldwide order.
In the years following World War II the energy of the Jesuits was expressed not only in their colleges and universities, expanding exponentially under the stimulus of the GI Bill, but in the emergence of daring intellectuals. Next to the French archaeologist and mystic Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the most celebrated of these was the theologian and political theorist John Courtney Murray, who pushed the boundaries of Catholic orthodoxy. In the late 1950s Murray's advocacy of religious toleration and political pluralism earned him the opprobrium of reactionaries in the Vatican, and his superiors were compelled to silence him.
The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) touched off the third act of the Jesuit drama, one whose scenario has yet to be completed. The promulgation of Vatican II's decree on religious freedom, drafted by Murray, vindicated his views. Pedro Arrupe, the first Basque to head the order since its founding, was elected superior general and undertook a program of change in line with the reformist shift in Catholicism. The training of Jesuits became less regimented, and greater priority was placed on social justice. By 1965, when the council drew to a close, the Jesuits were at their peak, with more than 35,000 men across the globe, about 8,500 of whom were Americans.
Even then, however, signs of trouble were detectable. As early as the mid-1950s the number of entrants had begun to stagnate and then to drift downward in Europe and soon after in the United States. In the wake of Vatican II, which left the identity and the role of the priesthood unclear, the volume of recruits shrank practically everywhere. Jesuits left in droves. Thirty years after the council, global membership had fallen to the low-20,000 mark. Concurrently, with the drop in entrants, the average age of Jesuits soared. The decline in membership was especially sharp in advanced industrial societies. Toward the end of the nineties, the number of American Jesuits had dropped from above eight to below four thousand, and they were overtaken as the biggest regional bloc by the Jesuits of India.