After entries about the theological disputes that created enemies for the Jesuits from within the Church today we have a reflection from Fr Paul Nicholson on thinking with the church.
Towards the end of his book The Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius offers a series of guidelines. Presented in the context of the retreat, they help retreatants think through different aspects of their subsequent Christian living. In the light of the profound prayer experience that they have undergone, what might they do in regard to charitable giving, or what they choose to eat and drink daily? How can they continue to discern God’s will in their lives, and how avoid falling into scrupulosity? And, most famously, how should they live as members of a visible, institutional church community? “What seems to me to be white, I will believe to be black, if the hierarchical Church thus determines it.” Many have rejected this as a call to blind obedience of the most extreme and slavish kind. Then, if understood in this way, the other guidelines Ignatius offers – praising relics, indulgences, pilgrimages and sacred images for instance – can look like attempts to lock one into a rigid adherence to each and every structure of the post-Reformation Roman Catholic church.
But two principles underlie what Ignatius says here, and they are as valid and helpful today as they were in the sixteenth century. The first is that God’s Spirit is at work in the whole People of God, as well as in each individual. The second is usually expressed in the shorthand phrase “a good construction”. Broadly that means that if you say something that initially seems to me objectionable or just plain stupid, I should do my best to understand in a positive light what you mean by it and what led you to say it, before I resort to condemnation. Taken together, these principles suggest that if I have an opinion contrary to that professed by the Church, I should take the time to discover why the Church speaks as it does on this matter, and trust that somehow that the work of God’s Spirit can be uncovered by this process.
Those who were members of the Society of Jesus when the Jesuits were suppressed in 1773 were challenged to see God working through the destruction or confiscation of all the institutions that they had created. Those who joined (or re-joined) the Society after its Restoration had to, in Kipling’s phrase, “stoop, and build ‘em up with worn-out tools”. The records we have don’t reveal a group of men who spent those decades railing at the injustices done to them, or plotting agianst those responsible. Many, perhaps most, simply got on with lives of service within the Church, and gratefully seized the opportunities offered them in the restored Society. In our day, when divisions of opinion within and between parts of the Christian church are often as deep as ever, the thinking behind the Ignatian guidelines for thinking with(in) the church has lost none of its relevance.