Sloppiness or spin?

This morning I read what would have to be one of the worst pieces of “analysis” I have come across. Dated Tuesday and found online at The Tablet, it is shoutingly entitled ‘POPE FRANCIS EFFECT’ CAUSES SURGE IN NUMBERS OF JESUIT PRIESTS. In it Rose Gamble tells us that an increase in Jesuit ordinations is due to the “Francis effect”. Really?

Certainly Francis is The Tablet‘s sort of pope, and the Jesuits The Tablet‘s sort of order. This double preference is not clouding its logic, is it?

Francis has been pope for less than 3.5 years; it would normally take double that time at least to get through to ordination in the Jesuits, barring the odd rare exception. So surely all these ordinands joined the Jesuits in the pontificates of either Benedict XVI or St John Paul II. How can their ordinations be put down in any way to a “Francis effect”?
At some point the author does get to the one measure that might actually have some validity, the number of novices. Let’s quote her statistics in full, for they are an example of spin, poorly done. Ms Gamble says that the Jesuits “announced the ordination of 20 new priests in the US, Canada and Haiti during 2016. In 2015, 28 new priests were ordained in the US and Canada, becoming the largest group to be ordained in 15 years. The same year, the order took on a class of 44 novices.”
Let’s work backwards. The “order” took in 44 novices? The worldwide order?! The order in “the US and Canada”? Or the order in “the US, Canada and Haiti”? Judging by the entries for the last two years on the Jesuit vocations’ website, it is for the US, Canada and Haiti. Last year there were 40 entrants, 34 for the 6 US provinces, 3 for the English Canadian province, 2 for Haiti (technically under the French Canadian province) and 1 for Puerto Rico (technically under the Central and Southern US province). The year before there were 31 entrants for the same geographical spread. So with the novices there is indeed growth, an increase of 10% from 2015 to 2016.

But did you notice that the number of ordinands this year is almost one-third lower than last year, even after adding in Haiti? It was last year’s crop that was hailed as the largest for 15 years. But this year they are down on that high. So where is this “surge” in “numbers of Jesuit priests” that the headline trumpets and ascribes to a “Pope Francis effect”?

Checking the numbers for this year, we find that only 15 were for the US, 1 was for English Canada and 4 for Haiti. One of the US candidates is actually for Puerto Rico. So for the 6 provinces of the continental United States, there were 14 ordinations.

This is not saying much for a “Francis effect”. Yet any Francis effect, as suggested above, is not in any way relevant. Trawling through the article’s links to the individual ordinands I found that of the 20 ordinands this year,
  • 1 joined the Jesuits in 2002
  • 1 joined in 2003
  • 6 joined in 2004
  • 6 joined in 2005
  • 4 joined in 2006
  • 2 joined in 2007

All of them had entered at least 6 years before Francis became pope. For last year, with the highest ordination crop for 15 years, this would be just as true. A “Francis effect”? Did the ordinands have clairvoyant dreams about him years before he was elected to the Chair of St Peter?

Perhaps the author knows very little about her subject as she seems to confuse ordinations with novitiate entries without batting an eyelid. Look at the extract below, given without any cuts or amendments: say that young men in America and Canada are bucking the trend, with 2016’s ordinands showing “a real excitement about being a part of the order and an appreciation for the calling they received from God.”

“They’re excited about the Catholic Church and, because of the example of Pope Francis, they want to learn more about the Jesuits,” wrote Fr Frederico.

Amongst the 20 new Jesuit priests are a former physician, a nurse, Navy officer, fire and explosives investigator, and one who had worked as an assistant to a brewmaster at a local brewery, as well as several teachers and businessmen.

Paragraphs 1 and 3 refer to the ordinands who formally began pursuing their vocation between 2002 and 2007. Paragraph 2 can only refer to the 44 novitiate entrants, for one assumes that by now the ordinands do not need “to learn more about the Jesuits”! There is nothing to distinguish this middle paragraph from the two either side of it, yet clearly they refer to different groups. This is either extreme sloppiness or deliberate obfuscation designed to prop up an already tenuous headline.

To the 20 ordinands of the US, Canada, Puerto Rico and Haiti: ad multos annos! To the 44 novices of who knows where exactly (but probably the US, Canada and Haiti), Godspeed!

To the rest of us: let’s be careful about what we read, and take time to distinguish between fact and propaganda.


19 thoughts on “Sloppiness or spin?

  1. speaking of this Francis effect—I read with interest yesterday the article about Pope Francis claiming that we are at war–yet it is not of religion over which we fight….
    Well, I think we, the faithful, have been a war for quite sometime now….a spiritual war that has been raging since the fall.
    The current global war, which most world leaders and politician wish to ignore, is but an extension of the initial war.
    It seems even Francis has a difficult time calling the duck a duck—Our Judaeo /Christian western civilization is at war with radical Islam—one day somebody may just get it right and call the duck what it is, a duck!!!


    1. I wonder if Pope Francis is grappling with the perceived need to balance what we all see—militant Islam seeking to eradicate Christianity and compel the world to submit to its understanding of Islam—with the need not inflame tensions in lands already tense. The last thing we need is for the mob to start lynching Muslims, or even harassing them.

      That said I think he avoided the issue by reducing it to a war over “interests, money, resources”. In fact, he undercut his point quite seriously. When he effects to identify what we see, and then does not identify it, he loses credibility. If he desperately does not want to inflame anti-Muslim sentiment then he could have at least spoken in traditional Christian terms, of a war against Satan and the forces of evil. He has St Paul to the Ephesians, 6:12, to support him:

      For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.


      Liked by 1 person

      1. “That said I think he avoided the issue by reducing it to a war over “interests, money, resources.”
        That was a standard Marxist analysis of the issue and the Holy Father should not be associating himself with such sentiments.


  2. Walking a fine line is true of his position— and I recall the difficulties of one of his predecessors— Pius, as he seemingly failed on the obvious global front to fully address Hitler and the Nazi decimation of both the Church and the Jews as each time he’d open his mouth the repercussions were enormous— so he learned to work silently and covertly-a great book Father, Church of Spies by Mark Riebling—The Pope’s Secret War Against Hitler… But I wonder of Francis’s silent works and battles…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Indeed he may be doing things behind the scenes we know not of. Insofar as I have any right of judgment, I am suspending it for the time being. I need to see where he is going with this. Unless of course it was another off-the-cuff remark that is not part of any systematic approach. At the moment I do not know.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. How can we not seem at war with Islam (not Muslims)? Surely the faith of Islam preaches that unbelievers must be converted or killed? Thankfully the majority of Muslims do not toe this line but witnessing the martyrdom of Fr Jacques in France – patently by extreme Muslims – should make us & them appreciate that whatever they preach the Koran still calls for death to infidels.


    1. The distinction between Islam and Muslims is one which we understand well enough, but I am not sure the mob does. By mob, I mean the sort of person who will throw rocks, abuse foreigners on public transport, daub graffiti on cultural centres, firebomb mosques, and such like. They are the lowest common denominator to which we must orient our discourse. We cannot afford to be Trumps.

      But you will see I am not disagreeing. Everything I have seen and heard suggests that Islam, judged by its own scriptures, seeks the forcible suppression of any faith not its own.


  4. Father Hugh,

    As a Jesuit from the United States, I was nonplused by the piece in The Tablet. I entered the novitiate in 2004, under Pope John Paul II, and I was ordained to the priesthood in 2015, under Pope Francis. Most of my formation took place under Pope Benedict XVI, and his example and teaching exercised a profound impact on me and many of the other young Jesuits with whom I studied and prepared for ordination; in that sense, many young Jesuits benefitted from a very real “Benedict Effect” before there was a “Francis Effect.”

    The number of men entering Jesuit novitiates in North America fluctuates from year to year, sometimes significantly. When I entered the novitiate in 2004, 58 men entered the Jesuits across the U.S. and Canada. In my own novitiate, we had fourteen enter that year, of whom nine took vows and six remain in the Society (one is a coadjutor brother; the other five have been ordained). That group of 58 was the largest to enter the Society in North America in a decade, and even with departures along the way it remained a big cohort going through formation, which is part of why last year’s ordination class of 28 was the largest in 15 years (thus the drop-off in ordinations you observe between 2015 and 2016 is linked to the fact that the 2015 cohort of ordinandi was larger than usual).

    Numbers have gone up and down a bit in the years following my entrance, but in a general sense there has been an increase in the number of men entering the novitiate over the last few years. It began under Pope Benedict and has continued under Pope Francis, and the reasons for it are sufficiently complex not to be easily reduced to any kind of “Effect.” Jesuits come in all shapes and sizes, and every vocation is unique; having a pope with a Jesuit background may lead a few more men to contact the vocation director, as Fr. Frederico notes, but it takes much more than that for them to enter the novitiate and to persevere through the decade-long course of formation for priesthood.


    1. Fr Joseph,


      Thank you for writing. I hope it was clear that my issue was not with the Jesuits but with the article. Having been 10 years in a Jesuit school and 2 years a novice I have great affection for the Jesuits who taught me and in many cases inspired me.

      The article, I can only presume, was a cack-handed attempt to put a positive spin on both the Jesuits and the Jesuit pope. The fact that the attempt does not bear much inspection effectively makes for a negative spin, and so is quite the unwelcome gift for you.

      It was interesting that you point to a degree of “Benedict effect”, which certainly I have seen in others on this side of the pond. Benedict having been pope for 8 years there was a little more time for an “effect” to mature. A “Francis effect” has not really manifested itself on vocations in any way that I can discern. This is not to say it might not happen, but it has not as yet.

      My suspicion is that the consolidation of the Jesuits in some parts of the world is due to a more complex mix of factors, many of them to do with changes in the Church the last 10 to 15 years (or more). Moreover I am aware that to some degree the Jesuits have been renewing themselves and no doubt this has had a significant effect. Even in my time with the Australian Jesuits back in the late 80s (with several American tertians in residence with us) I was aware that some provinces in the US were faring better than others.

      And indeed we would all have to agree that while a papal “effect” might get young men to knock at the doors, if it is not of God then they will not stay the course. I should have thought 6 persevering out of 14 was pretty good, by the way. Of the 8 in my year, none have persevered.

      So my cry of ad multos annos for the 20 new ordinandi was quite sincere, and I trust you find yourself in a happy and rewarding apostolate.



      1. Fr. Hugh,

        Yes, I understood that your critique was directed towards the article and not the Society itself. As for the differences between provinces that you observed in the 1980s, the same holds true today; even though the number of men entering the Society in the United States has gone up a bit in recent years, the effects have not been uniformly distributed – some provinces have seen a great increase and others have not, and some that were doing well a few years ago have fewer men entering today. The dynamics are fairly complex, which is perhaps another reason why I found the Tablet article so disappointing.

        Blessings upon your work – and particularly upon this blog!


      2. Complex indeed. As it is for the Benedictines. Though I can spy some fixable causes for decline in our case, but since few are ready to listen I push my line discreetly. No doubt that is a common experience.

        I have seen that you write a little too, indeed on Fr Hamel. But no blog per se? A pity.


        Liked by 1 person

  5. “A “Francis effect” has not really manifested itself on vocations in any way that I can discern. This is not to say it might not happen, but it has not as yet.”

    Beyond all the excellent reasons noted for why it’s not possible to discern such an effect (after such a brief period of time for this pontificate, in which, in all fairness, he could likewise hardly be blamed had there been marked dropoff) already noted by Fr. Hugh, I do have to wonder how much wishful thinking on the part of some (Tabletistas, etc.) is working to prevent the asking of harder questions.

    For example: If there is a natural Francis Effect, one would think there would be at least the plausible chance of one being discernible in previous phases of Pope Francis’s ecclesiastical career – at least, barring extrinsic factors beyond his control. In his first hierarchical position, he spent over a decade (1973-1985) as novice master, provincial, and rector of the Colegio Máximo, inheriting an increasingly divided province – and leaving behind even deeper division (one which left him effectively isolated and ousted), and a drop in vocations, admittedly largely during a period of military dictatorship. At the moment of his advent as Archbishop of Buenos Aires in 1997, ordinations averaged 40-50 per year according to John Allen; when he left for the papacy after fifteen years, the ordination class was down to ten; in 2016, only three men were ordained.

    Of course, the inspirational effect any man might exercise as pope is on a far larger scale and in a different role than any other – and of course, at a remove. Likewise, a variety of factors interact in determining how vocations appear, and not all of them may be under the control of an ordinary. Yet it is also true that previous popes (none, admittedly, during the age of the Internet) noted for being vocationally inspiring have almost invariably had previous measurable successes when they were in any position to cultivate same.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.