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A lesson for nurses from the Jesuits?

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So we have the first ever Jesuit Pope. It may surprise those unfamiliar with Catholic theology and history to hear that nursing might benefit from having its own version of a Jesuit Order.

Although Jorge Bergoglio has taken his name from St Francis Xavier, one of the Jesuits’ founders, the elite Order was led by Ignatious of Loyola, a former soldier and nobleman from the Basque region.

Organised by Ignatious on military lines, they came to be known as God’s soldiers.

He insisted on absolute obedience to the Church, writing: “If the Church shall have defined anything to be black which to our eyes appears to be white, we ought in like manner to pronounce it to be black.”

The Order was focused on education, using a variety of methods to get across their evangelical message and, above all, being practical – doing things that were helpful - in supporting their congregation and their commitment to God.

However, Loyola and his fellow Jesuits couldn’t tolerate the corruption within the sixteenth century Church and the subsequent conflict with the pope and church hierarchy came to characterise the relationship over the following centuries.

By the 1980s, this manifested in the shape of liberation theology, which saw Jesuit priests siding with the poor, dispossessed and powerless in Latin and South America, in the fight against ruthless dictatorships.

This movement, as with others the Jesuits have been involved with, has led to suspicion in the wider Church and their suppression.

Nursing has its own historic links to a military tradition, reflected in its hierarchy, the older style uniforms and strict rules that once governed nurses’ work.

Unlike Jesuits, nurses never took vows of obedience but were expected to subordinate their needs to the patient (though this actually meant being subservient to the people who ran the service i.e. doctors and administrators).

It was almost a century before nurses shook off the shackles of their history.

In the 1980s – just as Liberation Theology was taking root in Latin America – groups of nurses who had benefited from improved education and the sweeping social and political changes of the preceding two decades, took part in what I termed clinical militancy when I studied the period for the book, “Nurses and Politics”.

In the same way the Jesuits rebuffed the Church to do what they saw as God’s will, these nurses defied their managers and senior nurses – and even, in some cases, their own unions – in taking industrial action that, for the first time, was in protest against widespread cuts and to demand to be allowed to nurse patients properly.

If ever there was an equivalent to a Jesuit approach to nursing this was it, as a relatively few nurses responded to a higher call than that of those they believed had let them and patients down.

Their considerable success in the shape of winning an average 15% pay rise for nurses and an extra £2 billion pounds in funding for the NHS was short lived and we now find ourselves in a situation infinitely worse than the one against which our predecessors rebelled.

As we’ve seen from Mid Staffs, it’s actually costing patients’ lives, as well as the toll on nurses’ integrity, dignity and morale.

One of the Jesuits great strengths has been their ability to return from periods of suppression.

Since the 1980s, nurses have never looked like rekindling the independence of thought and radicalism that produced such spectacular results.

Nurses who remain obedient to those in charge of the NHS, whether it be their local trust or the national leadership, find themselves having to accept that black is white.

No nursing organisations appear to have the will or ability to enable nurses to resist. A new Order is required.

The question is: where is our Ignatious Loyola and where are those nurses willing to respond to a higher calling and make a stand?


Chris Hart is nurse consultant and principal lecturer at Kingston and St George, University of London

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Readers' comments (1)

  • I agree to some extent, but we nurses do not control the narrative. It's rare to hear an ordinary nurses point of view. When media do decide to ask our opinion, it's usually Carter et al who do the talking. Or even worse, the CNO. I do believe we should shake off our military style ranks and become less conformist in our attitudes. After all we have voluntarily worked ourselves into this present position. It time to dig ourselves out of this mess, of our own making. So Chris, are you to be at the forefront? Remember being a Jesuit is all about sacrifice.

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