Father Spitzer: Modern-day Renaissance man

The sheer range and depth of Jesuit Father Robert Spitzer’s activity is breathtaking. 

His most recent book (his sixth) is “Ten Universal Principles: A Brief Philosophy of the Life Issues” (Ignatius, $16.95). The former Gonzaga University president — who has degrees in accounting, theology and philosophy — has founded seven national organizations and is president of the Magis Center of Reason and Faith. He is also president of the Spitzer Center of Catholic Organizations, which helps cultivate cultures of evangelization in Catholic dioceses, parishes, schools and other organizations. 

He has debated scientist/atheist Stephen Hawking on CNN and has produced several series on Eternal Word Television Network. He has a long history as a popular university professor, and currently teaches a distance course offered through Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., to students around the country. OSV spoke with him about his life’s work. 

Our Sunday Visitor: Catholic audiences have seen you address happiness, leadership, suffering and the spiritual life. Last year, you wrote a very high-level book marrying cutting edge science and philosophy, “New Proofs for the Existence of God.” What brought about “Ten Universal Principles”?  

Father Robert Spitzer: As a young man I became very concerned about pro-life issues. I was at Gonzaga when the Roe v. Wade decision happened, and saw the protests that followed.  

I became concerned very early on that innocent life in the womb was being literally genocidally annihilated. It really struck me. I said, “I think I need to get at this issue.” We had to step back two steps and see that the real reason people were not seeing that abortion is wrong was because they have abdicated, fundamentally, the 10 universal principles of civilization. Some people haven’t abdicated them. They’re completely ignorant of them. 

We have swept these great principles under the carpet in order to sweep the issue under the carpet. And in the end it will cause a great cultural decadence.  

OSV: The book covers principles from “Do no harm” to the principle of noncontradiction to natural rights. These are principles that don’t rely on religious beliefs. 

Father Spitzer: I just said: “Let’s start from scratch. Look at these 10 principles of civilization. If you subscribe to them you have to be against abortion — as much against abortion as you are against slavery.” You can’t have it both ways.  

Either we are on a road to greater civilization or we are on a road away from it. In either case, the principles are absolutely determinative.  

OSV: Law, philosophy, physics, business — how did you manage to gain expertise in so many fields? 

Father Spitzer: I have always been interested in the philosophy of science, going back to my undergraduate days. People ask: Then why did you major in business? Because, quite frankly, I didn’t want to be a pauper. I was a very practical kid and I grew up in a practical family. We had businesses. I wanted to support my family. So I ended up majoring in accounting, a very quantitative discipline, obviously, and I loved it. I was going to go on to law school, because I thought I had a gift for argumentation and litigation.  

But then I hit my senior year in college and I began to think, “Wait a minute, what is the most important thing in my life?” I had been auditing as many philosophy and theology courses as I could get. I would sit in a myriad classes intoxicated at getting this information. 

OSV: What captivated you about philosophy? 

Father Spitzer: That happened to me when I was taking a metaphysics course at Gonzaga. I had never heard about the transcendentals (the one, the true, the good, the beautiful) before, and I went home at Christmas vacation told my mother all about them. “I heard the most interesting theory, about the transcendentals,” I said. I kept saying, “It’s the most interesting theory.” 

She said, “It sounds like it’s the most important theory to you.” 

I said, “Well, you’re right. I think this is what life is worth living for.”  

Of course, later on I read the confessions of St. Augustine. What moves him toward the Neoplatonists? The transcendentals. The transcendentals. They’re everywhere present.  

OSV: They are also present throughout your own work. 

Father Spitzer: I am no St. Augustine, but I will tell you I was just as moved by those great ideas as anything. And in my life as a teacher, it has been precisely the transcendentals that have really moved kids. They really grab hold of that idea that we in ourselves have an awareness of unconditional and perfect truth, unconditional and perfect love, unconditional and perfect goodness or justice, unconditional and perfect beauty, unconditional and perfect being — or what I call “home.” That’s the one thing that makes life worth living. Why live for anything less?  

They are at once the description of who God is, and they are the immortal and immaterial component of our natures. They point to our ultimate dignity, that we aren’t just a bunch of atoms.  

We were destined for so much more and we have a dignity that is so much more, and so they have always captivated me.  

OSV: It sounds like the transcendentals also prepared you to be a priest. When did you realize you were called? 

Father Spitzer: It happened on a strange day on my way to work. I really liked my work. I was well paid and I was working for an accountant. But I was going to work this day and I was asking myself, “Why am I doing this?”  

I was about halfway there, halfway between Gonzaga and my office, and this huge rainstorm just hit, with the thunder and lightning and pouring rain. 

I found a little eave, under a building. I couldn’t budge from it, so I stood there, thinking. Should I pursue a religious vocation? Or should I just pursue accounting and law? It occurred to me that I’m pursuing accounting and law because my dad has a law firm and because I’m good at math and good at arguing. But it’s not my heart’s desire. What really caught my heart on fire was teaching and helping the Church and serving the kingdom of God.  

So I’m sitting there and it’s pouring rain, and don’t ask me why I did this. It was a very juvenile sort of thing to do. But I said: “OK Lord, I am stuck here. If it keeps raining like this I’m going to be just drenched. I won’t be able to go to work. I’m going to have to go back to campus anyway, but I’ll tell you what …” 

I said, “If it stops raining in the next three minutes I will go to Father O’Leary’s office at Gonzaga, and I will apply for the Jesuits. If it keeps on raining, I’ll go back to the house and change my clothes and drive to work.” 

Three minutes later, the rain just stopped. I kid you not.  

I generally don’t discern things like that anymore. But boy, I have to tell you, I looked right up at the sky and said, “Are you kidding?” After changing, I went right to Father O’Leary’s office. 

OSV: Did he sign you up? 

Father Spitzer: O’Leary says to me, “Well, how long have you been thinking of this?” I said “a few weeks.” He just laughed. He gave me all these book recommendations and he said, “Do you even know what the vows are?” I said, “There’s one about chastity and something about poverty and maybe another one?” I didn’t know anything. He caught me up.  

But one of the books he gave me was the autobiography of St. Ignatius. I read it and it stunned me. Stunned me. I was very captivated by it.  

OSV: What did you see in him? 

Father Spitzer: I always had an entrepreneurial gene inside me. I always wanted to build things. Build programs, do new things. I was captivated by that very quality in St. Ignatius. He said, “Why not do this?” and he did it. He said, “Why not start this?” And he started it. That’s what moved me to this very idea of building the kingdom. That was me. 

So essentially, that’s been the story of the variety of scholarly works and practical spiritual works. They have just been the three passions in my life and of course my spirituality is a fourth passion.  

Plato once said, “Like a child crying for both …” for me it’s like a child crying for all four. I don’t want to give up any of them. I’ll keep writing in all of these areas, as long as the good Lord allows me to live. 

Tom Hoopes is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan.