Fr. Nicolas having an audience with the Pope. Photo from Jesuit Headquarters.
[Have you noticed that in almost all the photos, Fr. Nico-las is smiling? In Japanese we say of a smiling face nico nico!]
Since his election as the General of the Society of Jesus, Fr. Adolfo Nicolas has been covered widely by the mass media, and there are now articles on him in Wikipedia, Time, New York Times, etc., etc. Overall he is rated favorably for his erudition, cheerfulness, missionary experience, and maturity. Most people who know him personally in Japan too think that he will do an excellent job.
There is also a section of Catholic netizens who are alarmed or worried about his election. These are the same ones who are alarmed and worried about persons like Jon Sobrino, Jacques du Puis, Roger Haight, Anthony de Mello, Balasurya, Bermejo, Phan, and such theologians. Obviously they expect Jesuits to be not only obedient, but also docile, cooperative, non-confrontational, and traditional. Although I don't like to direct readers to some extravagant Jesuit accusers, here is one that is, shall I say, moderately accusatory. A certain Samuel Gregg, writing for the National Review on January 25, sets his theological tone by saying, '"the divinity of Jesus, the Trinity . . . and the resurrection of Jesus." These are hardly debatable subjects for Catholics.' Then he praises the achievements of the Jesuits throughout history... with an unpleasant truth.
The Jesuits, after all, played a major role in the Counter-Reformation that rolled back Protestantism's frontiers in Europe. For almost 500 years they have imparted a superb education to thousands of people. Famous Jesuit alumni include Cervantes, Descartes, de Gaulle, Moliere, and Scalia ? as well as Castro, Diderot, and Voltaire.
The Jesuits themselves were no intellectual slouches. In How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, Thomas Woods notes that Isaac Newton counted Jesuits as among his most prized scientific correspondents. Thirty-five lunar craters are named after Jesuit mathematicians and scientists. Jesuits helped identify key concepts underlying market economics 200 years before Adam Smith.
These are no small achievements. Yet it's hard to deny today's Jesuits are in trouble. In raw numbers, the Jesuits have dropped from 36,000 in 1965 to about 19,000 today.
Then he goes into criticizing Jesuits like Sobrino and Haight, and expressing his evaluation of Nicolas as follows.
In his first homily as Jesuit Father-General this past Sunday, Nicolas did little to assuage fears that muddled theology remains ascendant in the Society of Jesus: "In this globalized world of ours the number of those excluded by all is increasing," the new Father-General intoned, "since our society only has room for the big and not the small."
More troubling than this 1970s boilerplate, Nicolas seemed to imply that the order would seek to further relativize the gospel to accommodate non-Christians: "[W]hat is the color, the tone, the image of salvation today for those many people who are in need of it, those human non-geographic nations that demand salvation." He's off to an inauspicious start.
Gregg is just one example of the concerned. Providentially, on the same day, the National Catholic Reporter Conversation Cafe and Catholic News published articles to assure the world that the new Jesuit General will be humbly obedient to the Pope. The interesting article in CNS begins:
The obedience, affection and common mission binding the Society of Jesus to the pope are solid, unchanging and the reason why differences can be so painful, said the new superior general of the Jesuits.
Father Adolfo Nicolas, elected Jan. 19 to head the world's largest Catholic men's order, told reporters, "The Society of Jesus has always been, from the beginning, and always will be in communion with the Holy Father, and we are happy to be so."
Meeting journalists Jan. 25, he said, "If there are difficulties, it is precisely because we are so close."
Like a married couple, he said, the Jesuits and the pope are bound to one another and committed to working together for the good of the church and the world.
"Only those who love each other can hurt each other," he said.
As to the existence of any personal tension between him and the Pope, the article reports the following:
"The Society of Jesus wants to cooperate with the Vatican and obey the Holy Father. This has not and will not change. We were born in this context, and this is the context that will determine our decisions," the superior said....
Other newspapers, he said, have tried to imply that there is "a theological distance between me and (Pope) Benedict XVI," when, in fact, Father Nicolas' theological studies included the then-Father Joseph Ratzinger's textbooks, which "were very interesting and had a newness and an inspiration that all of us recognized."
"The distance is a theory in the imagination of those who have written it," the superior general said.
This is a highly readable article and will assure those who worry about Nico's orthodoxy. The article also reports on how Nico was influenced by Japan and the East. The concluding paragraph must be quoted:
Father Nicolas said he hoped the Jesuits would follow the principles of Mohandas Gandhi, "who said that when you speak of something you must first ask, 'Is it true?' because if it is not true, then it is not interesting. Second, 'Is it gentle, charitable, kind?' and third, 'Is it good for others?'"Read the full article here.
The NCRCafe article by John Allen covers the same ground in a more dramatic way.
Writing under the title "New Jesuit leader: Theology is a dialogue, but we will obey," Allen reports:
"The Society of Jesus from the very beginning has always been in communion with the Holy Father, and it will continue to be," Nicolas said. Referring to impressions of a split between the order and the Vatican, Nicolas said this is "an artificial tension that comes from outside of us."...
"We want to collaborate with the Holy See and to obey the Holy Father," Nicolas said. "That has not changed, and it will not change. This is the context in which we will make decisions."
In a similar spirit, Nicolas also rejected reports of any theological tension between himself and Pope Benedict XVI.
"This is false," he insisted, saying that as a young theology student he read the books of then-Professor Joseph Ratzinger.
"There was a newness, an exhilaration that engaged all of us" in Ratzinger's writings, Nicolas said. "Any distance [between himself and Benedict] is more theoretical in the minds of those who imagine it," he said.
This highly interesting artilce too has a lengthy presentation of Nico's views on Japan and Asia, and how he was changed as a result of his experiences here.
"I believe that Asia changed me, I hope for the better," Nicolas said. "I came to better understand others, to accept what's different about them, trying to understand these differences and what we can learn from them."
"This may be hard for you to believe, but in Spain I was a little intolerant," Nicolas said. "Religion was understood as fidelity to a series of practices, and I was very demanding."
"In Japan, I saw that true religiosity goes deeper … I learned to smile at differences that in Spain would have made me very nervous. I also learned that imperfection is natural, and we have to accept it on principle."
"For the Japanese, it's often a scandal that we are so intolerant, not accepting of differences," he said. "This is a challenge for us."
"Asia is a challenge for the universal church," he said. "Asia can give us much," later citing especially the "deep humanism" of the region.
You can read the entire article here, at NCR Conversation Cafe