“Jesuit” has a clone word: “Jesuitical.” The dictionary definition of Jesuitical reads: “practicing casuistry or equivocation; using subtle or oversubtle reasoning; crafty; sly; intriguing.” As a graduate of Jesuit schools several times over, I categorically reject the insidious reduction of the intellectual traditions of Jesuit education to selfish intrigue. Resentment of Catholic intellectuality and of the Jesuits’ approach to defending the faith betrays the complainers’ own limitations. Sadly, the Society often gets attacked not only by left-leaning secularists who resent loyalty to doctrine but also by right-wing Catholics who think that defense of the faith precludes respect for one’s opponents.
If any of this description sounds too remote from daily experience, consider a current 30-second promo for Hardball, a political commentary show on MSNBC hosted by Chris Matthews, a Jesuit product from the College of the Holy Cross. The TV ad features the voice of Mr. Matthews explaining the premise of his interviews. He uses phrases like “when they try something on me,” or “when they use an argument that has been successful with others” noting his intention to “nail them.” He says he derives satisfaction from this process of confronting opinion with facts and propaganda with logic. Needless to say, this is considered “Jesuitical” by some and the exercise of Catholic intellectualism by the rest of us.
Thus, for instance, a Jesuit-trained debater would have a field day with the yesterday’s Tea Party placard against Health Care Reform (HRC): “Keep your government hands off my Medicare!” The underlying premise of this slogan holds that government-run programs are harmful, while the current Medicare program needs no fixing. But Medicare IS a government-run program, so exposing this contradiction in the opposing argument destroys the position. Conclusion: If the objections to HCR are faulty, the so too is opposition to HCR.
The essence of the Jesuit approach to truth is to study all sides of a question, with particular emphasis upon the premises of the opposition. Examination of an opponent’s logic is intended as a probe for contradictions. This enables a rebuttal that isolates the syllogism underlying an opposing argument. In the spirit of the military background of St. Ignatius, the Jesuit founder, Catholic intellectualism included “gathering intelligence” on the enemy’s positions and tendencies. It implies respect for their strengths and tactical skills.
For about 500 years now, the Jesuit approach to Catholic intellectualism has generally benefited the Church in the modern world. Let me state here that you don’t have to be Jesuit-trained to be a Catholic intellectual, nor is Jesuit education an absolute guarantee of right thinking. But I would like to see more of it applied to U.S. politics as we enter a new and crucial decade for Catholic America. Whether it is clerical pedophilia, episcopal cover-up of the same, or political lobbying in Washington about current issues from Health Care Reform to Nuclear Disarmament, Catholic America could use a healthy dose of a Jesuit-type approach to intellectual defense of the faith. This would replace a recent and unfortunate turn at blaming others – such as the media — for the Church’s troubles. Neither it is a worthy defense to claim that “others do the same thing,” as if two wrongs make everything alright.
We Catholics need to spend more time studying the logic of the opposition, giving them credit for concern or insight where credit is due. Only then, I think, can we plausibly move on to counter phony arguments. In Jesuit schools through the ages, the books of non-ecclesiastical thinkers like Descartes, Marx and Huxley were read and studied in detail. The purpose was not to replace Thomism, but rather to defend Catholic thought better by thorough examination of opposing viewpoints, separating cogency from faulty logic.
Ironically, if you want to expose the shallowness of the atheists like Christopher Hitchens, the hypocrisy of the secular leftists in the blogs, or the braying of the right-wing anti-Catholicism from media celebrities like Glenn Beck you start with study of their perspectives. Debate them using their own words. Along the way, Catholics learn something about their own failings and simultaneously contribute to the on-going reform of the Church as Jesus wanted.