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Explorations of a Catholic Mind

February 3, 2022 24 min read
By Rev. Robert J. Spitzer President, The Magis Center
Msgr. James P. Shea President, University of Mary
A tree, a lake, and a stary horizon

Fr. Robert J. Spitzer, S.J., an acclaimed Catholic writer and presenter, President Emeritus of Gonzaga University, and President of the Magis Center, the Napa Institute, and the Spitzer Center, joined Msgr. James P. Shea to discuss apologetics, faith and science, and Catholic higher education.


Monsignor James P. Shea (MShea): Father, the story of your interest in science and how you became a Jesuit is fascinating. Could you give us a general sense for all of that?

Father Robert Spitzer (FSpitzer): I grew up in Honolulu and went to the Punahou School, which had wonderful opportunities in the sciences. I was particularly inspired by a physics course there. But when I went to Gonzaga University, I majored in public accounting and finance. My father was very interested in me taking over his law firm and having the financial background to do that. I loved the math courses that accompanied those studies. In terms of my vocational call, the philosophy courses I took at Gonzaga – particularly a metaphysics course – were eye-openers for me on many different levels. Because of those courses I really wanted to move forward in philosophy, and I felt a call to just immerse myself in Scripture. I started going to daily Mass and began to think that maybe my religion – especially an intellectual approach to my religion – might be able to help people who were also concerned with the evidence for God’s existence and things of that nature. When I was in high school I would ask different people in my life if they had any kind of proof for God’s existence, and they would all point me to Aquinas’s Five Ways, and if I questioned more they would say, “Well, it’s a mystery.” But they never could point to anything more contemporary. So I thought maybe I could contribute something on that level.

As early as my collegiate career, I was already thinking that I might be able to specialize in some area of apologetics, like scientific or philosophical apologetics. I always had a real penchant for philosophy and science – really, abstract thought in general. I didn’t want to abandon the business path I was on, but my real interest was the Faith and trying to help people with intellectual questions come around to faith. That interest sort of confirmed that I had this vocational call before I entered the novitiate, and as they say, the rest is history because when I joined the Jesuits, there was no hindrance to allowing me to pursue philosophy of science and metaphysics, which is what I would have wanted.

I did a master’s degree in Scripture, as well. I love Scripture, but it was also very important for the work I was doing in apologetics. When I went to the Gregorian University in Rome, I realized how the philosophy background I had – especially in philosophy of science – could complement the theology I was learning. And then when I moved onto doctoral studies at the Catholic University of America, I met Dr. Paul Weiss, and we became great friends right away. I loved the Thomism we pursued in the program, but I also loved the contemporary philosophy. Dr. Weiss was a protégé of Alfred North Whitehead, and while I’m no more of a process philosopher than Dr. Weiss was, they were doing some cutting-edge philosophy of science at the time. I really wanted to write my dissertation on time theory, exploring both the philosophy of science area, especially the correspondence with special relativity, and also the philosophical area, trying to answer key questions such as whether time is real, what is it, and how it can be a non-contemporaneous continuum. I looked at what Henri Bergson had to offer, at what the Whiteheadians had to offer, and at what the Thomists had to offer. So I tried to broach that and articulate an ontology of time that would correspond with relativity physics. All that launched me in the direction of becoming a university president. I taught at Georgetown University in DC, and Seattle University, then I became president at Gonzaga. I kept teaching while I was the president: I taught courses on apologetics, the philosophy of God, and faith and science.

In 2009, I left Gonzaga after 11 years and I came down here to Orange County, California, and started the Magis Center for Reason and Faith. The work we do at the Magis Center is not just science-oriented, but it certainly does have a science emphasis. There is also a philosophical emphasis. We’re trying to cover the whole gamut of contemporary apologetics. And all of that goes back to that physics class that first inspired me.

MShea: I have to say that I’m a bit embarrassed that I’m not similarly intellectually accomplished, considering I went to the same schools, Catholic U and the Gregorian! Going back to your life, would you say that you were devout from a young age? In other words, when you were a young man approaching these questions, did you have a serious interest in God and the things of God from the beginning, or was that quickened in you through your studies? Which came first?

FSpitzer: Well my mother was a daily communicant, so throughout elementary school and the first two years of high school I was very devout. Then some of my literature classes, which had philosophical dimensions integrated into them, impacted me a bit. We read things like Albert Camus’ The Stranger and The Fall, and Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit. When we explored Elie Wiesel reflecting on the Holocaust, I started to question why God would abandon all these people in the camps. So I didn’t stop going to church or stop believing or anything like that, but I went through a phase in which I was searching desperately for some objective evidence to ground the existence of God, because I had not been equipped to deal with some of the questions arising from those literature classes. So I just got hit right across the head with a lot of these questions, and all the while I was known as the “religion guy” by my peers!

There weren’t a lot of Catholics at my school, but there were a lot of people interested in religion. I was part of a Christian fellowship group, but they couldn’t help me that much in terms of objective evidence. I was very lucky to find some people in the sciences who helped me out, I had a metaphysics professor who helped me out. Once I was launched in the right direction and knew how to find the possible sources I really got going, and Paul Davies’ book Space and Time in the Modern Universe really got me going full swing.

Basically, I was devout. I had those two years of high school where I was on the hunt for evidence, but I started getting some answers in my freshmen and sophomore years of college. When that hunt for evidence was combined with my philosophic studies and going to daily Mass, I swung out of that phase and was back to being the same old devout Spitzer as I was before! But my mom was the inspiration there. I could see her devotion, which was very fervent and very sincere. That had a huge impact on me. She was a chemist, but in terms of needing proof for God’s existence she didn’t have the same need for objective, scientific evidence that I did. But nevertheless, God pointed me in the right direction. It all unfolded very providentially.

MShea: Father, I want to pick up on this theme of your work in apologetics, science, and the relationship between faith and reason. You’ve spoken and written in respect to the widespread loss of faith in our culture and how that is related to a mentality that science has made these great questions of God and the human person obsolete. Could you summarize what you see when you gaze upon that challenge, and how that challenge can best be met?

FSpitzer: In Pew surveys that go back to 2014, we see that basically 50% of Catholic young people today are going to lose their faith. They’re practicing Catholics now, but they’re going to become nones – unbelievers, agnostics, functional agnostics, and atheists. Of that group, roughly half are expected to leave for reasons of faith and science. So that pretty much means that we’re at a point where 25% of Catholic young people today will eventually leave the faith due to misconceptions around faith and science. There are three primary misconceptions in that area, and there are four other topics beyond those misconceptions that I think are important here, as well. I’ll say something about what those misconceptions are and how to address them.

The first misconception with respect to faith and science is that most scientists are atheists. That’s totally wrong. The last Pew survey of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, one of the largest scientific organizations in the world, found that 51% of scientists are either theists or believe in a higher spiritual power. So I think it’s fair to call them believers in God or higher spiritual power theists in a generic sense. Another 41% were found to be agnostics or atheists. Based on data from medical doctors that show that they have equal proportions of agnostic and atheists, I think we can do the same with this data, which would mean that roughly 20% are agnostics and 20% are atheists. So the misconception that scientists are atheists is dead wrong: instead of atheists making up the vast majority, it’s more likely that they make up something like 20% of that population. With young scientists – so those who are 44 years old and younger – 66% are theistic or believe in a higher spiritual power. That’s two-thirds of young scientists! 76% of medical doctors and physicians are theists or believers in a higher spiritual power, with only 11% being agnostics and 10% atheists. That’s all from a reputable polling organization, and it shows that not only are scientists not generally atheists, but that scientists seem to be moving away from atheism.

The second misconception with respect to faith and science is the belief that science has disproven God’s existence. That’s easy to refute because by its own methodology science can’t disprove God. Essentially, all scientific data has to come from observation, and observation must come from within our universe because we can’t observe anything beyond the event horizon of this universe. But God is beyond our universe – our universe is a thought in the mind of God. So how could someone take evidence from within our universe to disprove the existence of a God who exists beyond our universe? That’s like the cartoon characters inside a cartoon frame trying to assemble all the data from the cartoon to disprove the existence of the cartoonist! It’s methodologically impossible for science to disprove God’s existence. But a lot of young people still mistakenly believe that science has somehow disproven God.

The third great misconception with respect to faith and science is that scientific explanations are basically at variance with a deity that exists outside the universe. Of course science can’t give a conclusive proof for the existence of God due to its methodology – you can only do that in metaphysics with a logical method. But science can show real probative evidence that reasonably and responsibly points to a creation event, because time in our universe or even in a hypothetical multiverse would have to be limited to the finite past. You can actually prove that with reasonable, responsible probative evidence – for instance with the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin theorem and entropy evidence. You can also show that the fine-tuning for life in our universe – especially in the initial conditions and constants of the universe – is so refined that it all points to an intelligent mind. Some have tried to use the multiverse hypothesis to explain that, but in recent times it has been recognized that most finite multiverse hypotheses wound up requiring that the multiverse itself have fine-tuning in its initial conditions and constants, which means that the multiverse can’t even explain its own fine-tuning in its attempt to explain the fine-tuning of our universe! On top of that, physicists postulated an infinite multiverse, but infinite multiverses have much worse problems: it basically means that we would all wind up being Boltzmann brains or brief brains in these infinite multiverses. That is to say that we would be brains that fluctuate into existence – either in a thermal fluctuation or in a quantum fluctuation – fully loaded with all the memories we have of ourselves being carbon-based lifeforms. In the case of an infinite multiverse, the chances would be 10-to-the-40th times higher that you would be a Boltzmann brain or brief brain than that you would be the carbon-based lifeform you perceive yourself to be, which is of course ridiculous. So the infinite multiverse is going to turn out to be a catastrophic failure, I think. In light of all of that, when we put the evidence together, we can begin to show young people that these scientific theories are not going to be able to explain the fine-tuning of the universe on their own. The best explanation for the fine-tuning of the initial conditions and constants of our universe is probably going to be a divine intelligence – a transcendent intelligence.

In addition to those misconceptions, there are four areas or questions that are really important for young people to explore beyond just evidence for God’s existence.

First, the evidence for the soul from contemporary medical peer-reviewed studies of near-death experiences and terminal lucidity is really impressive, and it’s very convincing to young people.

Second, there has been a considerable amount of scientific study on the Shroud of Turin, which I think is probative. The 1988 carbon dating has been completely debunked by the work of Dr. Raymond Rogers and Dr. Tristan Casabianca. We might not be able to say that the Shroud of Turin is conclusive, but we can say that lot of impressive scientific work has been done and I’m really, really convinced of the evidence. Actually, that opens up the area of contemporary scientifically validated miracles in general, like the study of the Guadalupe image and the many miracles studied by the Lourdes’ Medical Commission, some of which have been certified by the International Medical Bureau. Two Eucharistic miracles – one from Buenos Aires in 1996 under Archbishop Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, and another from Sokolka, Poland, in 2008 are also worth exploring. A lot of these miracles have been subjected to scientific scrutiny – some more than others – and it all makes an interesting case for Catholicism.

Third, Catholicism has been involved in science from its very inception and includes so many priests among its most important ranks, including Msgr. Georges Lemaître, who formulated the Big Bang Theory. So the most rigorous contemporary cosmological explanation was formulated by a Catholic priest in 1927. We also have Nicolaus Copernicus, who was a Catholic cleric; Gregor Mendel, a priest and abbot who is the father of quantitative genetic analysis; and Blessed Nicholas Steno, a Danish bishop who is the father of contemporary stratigraphy and geology. If you go to the page “Catholic clergy scientists” in Wikipedia, there’s something like 176 people listed. We have never been strangers to science and certainly have not opposed it.

Fourth, I think we have to focus on moral apologetics. Here at the Magis Center, we’ve been working on creating a moral apologetics course for the senior year of high school. We’re talking about the negative effects of the homosexual lifestyle, transgenderism, etc., on emotional health. So we’re taking secular studies from the archives of general psychiatry and from various universities and presenting their findings. Those findings show that the homosexual lifestyle is correlated to a seven-times increase in suicidal contemplation: 40% of that population reports contemplating suicide. It’s correlated to a three-times increase in substance abuse and a five-times increase in panic disorders. When you go through those numbers, the question arises as to whether those emotional health consequences have anything to do with spiritual health consequences. There are similar numbers with sex-change surgeries: the suicide rate goes up a staggering 19-times for people who have undergone those surgeries! We also look into post-abortion syndrome from an emotional health point of view, then we look at the impacts of pornography on emotional health as well as marriage, the impacts of cohabitation on marriage, the increase in divorce rates, and the breakdown in religion. So we look first at the emotional health and relational health impacts found in secular surveys and compile all that information, and as it turns out, the Catholic Church is dead-on right in its teachings on every controversial issue because Jesus Christ was dead-on right. Now we have the secular statistical evidence to prove it. Obviously moral apologetics and intellectual apologetics are tied, so the course we’re developing with Sophia Press focuses on intellectual apologetics for the first semester then moves into moral apologetics for the second semester.

MShea: Father, you talked earlier about your career in Catholic higher education, teaching at Georgetown and Seattle, and then serving as the president of Gonzaga. I imagine that you had to be a pretty good basketball player to get that position?

FSpitzer: There is no worse basketball player than me! As my brother once said, “How could you, of all people, be the president of a basketball powerhouse?” He couldn’t believe it! It’s definitely proof of divine providence!

MShea: Thankfully Gonzaga isn’t just a basketball powerhouse, but it’s a Catholic university, as well! You’ve been thinking about Catholic education for a long time, and you’ve seen the cultural ground shifting under our feet. As we look at the horizon, there’s a lot that I worry about but there are also causes for hope. What are the sorts of things you think we need to attend to in the renewal of this great gift of Catholic education in our country, and what are the sorts of things we should be focusing on in order to deepen, consolidate, and bolster the Catholic identity of our institutions for the good of the Church and the world?

FSpitzer: In terms of the ground shifting under us, there was a movement toward separate incorporation of universities from any kind of a religious order or diocese for various reasons. In many universities, that movement produced a board of trustees that had clergy and religious representatives, but also a lot of lay people who were really good in terms of business, or organization, or education, but did not have the religious background or charism necessary for bringing together faith and reason. So instead of embedding the spiritual life within the conventions of student life at the university, the spiritual life fell just to the campus ministry department. So those religious foundations started to weaken. And again, that’s because a lot of these boards of trustees were given the ultimate authority over the mission of the university, which included the religious mission, but were not necessarily equipped to know how to approach that or how to enhance it. So for a long time, many Catholic universities didn’t offer the necessary training and hired a lot of people who were not convinced of our religious mission. For a long time, we let things go. For the last 30 years or so, we’ve often let our religious dimension go.

So I think the first thing we need to do is ask our trustees whether they really want to be part of the religious mission of the university, because if they do, we need to equip them. We need to help them to see how a strong religious influence can be of real consequence to the university. We need to find trustees who really want to serve the religious mission of the university and equip them to do so. That mission can’t just fall to the president, because what’s going to happen when you get a president who doesn’t have that fire in his or her belly? If we’re going to move on this renewal, we need to get serious about bringing the religious charism back into trustee education and make sure the people making those decisions and hiring our presidents are equipped to look after the religious mission. Of course we need to have people who have business acumen and people who can work with faculty, but at the same time the idea that people can come into those positions and take care of the fundamental mission of the university without protecting that most precious dimension of the lives of students doesn’t end well.

In conjunction with all that, beyond training the trustees and bringing in trustees and a president who already have that religious impetus and training, we have to go back to hiring for mission. And the board has to help with that project. If the board is fully behind hiring for mission and the president is excited to do it, it will all take off in a good direction. You also have to place mission representatives on hiring committees – you can’t just leave it into the hands of the departments. Frankly, many faculty members could have been hired without having any religious impetus whatsoever, so you need those mission representatives. I can’t overemphasize how important hiring for mission is. Why have we been bringing faculty into religiously oriented colleges and universities who hold viewpoints that are antithetical to the mission of the university? What company hires people opposed to their own mission? A lot of this has been done in the name of pluralism and having a multiplicity of viewpoints represented, but that’s not a good reason for hiring people who aren’t on board. It’s absolutely suicidal to the institution. So we need our institutions to begin hiring for mission and for that to be backed by a board who believes in the religious mission and a president who was hired along those lines. All of that needs to happen to move our colleges and universities back to their original charisms.

Unfortunately, the mission statements of many universities are being made progressively weaker, so that the religious mission of the university is stated as something like, “We are committed to the religious tradition of the Jesuits” or “We recognize that this university was conceived as a religious university,” with a vague commitment to “try to bring that out as best we can in the programs we have.” So the religious element of our universities is often being boiled down to vague commitments in the mission statement, and then the practice of including philosophy and theology amongst the core curriculum requirements has been more or less watered down. There are a lot of good Catholic universities that have strong commitments, and I think some universities will try to regain their religious identity, but I think many universities will continue down a path of watering their religious mission down. A lot of the universities have campus ministry departments, offer Masses, and have some retreats, which of course is better than nothing but will not offer the strong religious impetus necessary to bring the spiritual dimensions of the campus into student life.

When I was president of Gonzaga, I remember a young woman coming up to me after Mass one Sunday to say, “Do you know what I like best about Gonzaga? It’s not uncool to be religious here.” She had waited for something like 15 minutes for everyone else to leave to get the chance to say that to me, and I said, “That’s so wonderful, that’s the best thing I’ve ever heard!” Her religious experience at the university had meant something to her, and that meant a whole lot to me. It meant that something was going right ethos-wise at the university.

It’s going to require strong leadership and strong commitment on the part of our boards to regain and maintain strong religious identity at our universities. I don’t have a crystal ball to see into the future, but I really hope that starts to happen.

MShea: Mission drift is a great problem in our institutions, and when it happens – especially at a university – it’s a tremendous loss for the Church. I think of another university president, the late Father Theodore Hesburgh, who said that the Catholic university is meant to be a place “where the Church does its thinking.” The integration of faith and reason and the handing on of the impressive intellectual ballast of the tradition go beyond the work of campus ministry and really get to the heart of the intellectual mission of a Catholic university. When the Catholic intellectual tradition is absent from the mission of Catholic universities, those universities consign themselves to the realm of insignificance. We can choose to become first-rate universities within the tradition or risk becoming a sort of second-rate, underfunded university of the general kind.

FSpitzer: I agree, and the evidence for that trend is out there. But there are certainly trend-breakers out there, including the University of Mary. I see about 20 universities that are trend-breakers and are strengthening the religious, Catholic ethos on their campuses and embracing the faith and reason tradition in their intellectual missions. Through the Holy Spirit, there always seems to be rebirth when other institutions begin to fade away, and that’s all helped by the commitment of good people and the drive of good leaders.

MShea: The Holy Spirit is always on the move and God is young, in that sense! In terms of renewal – and I’m grateful for your including the University of Mary on your list of universities who are committed to our Catholic foundations – you’ve been a great leader, involved in the founding of numerous institutes for renewal including the Magis Institute and the Napa Institute. Can you say something about your hopes and dreams and intentions for these initiatives? What is their task, and how do you see them shouldering that task into the future?

FSpitzer: As a Church, it’s very important that we get our intellectual apologetics and moral apologetics off the ground and into the hands of young people. That’s one of the most important things we do at the Magis Institute. According to a study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), the median age for young people who are seriously considering leaving the faith is 13 years old. As I mentioned, we’re working on a morality course for seniors in high school, but that all means that we need to be having these discussions with middle schoolers, as well. So the Magis Institute has partnerships with the USCCB, Sophia Press, and Ignatius Press, all in hopes of getting intellectual apologetics and moral apologetics into the hands of students in middle school, high school, and college. We also host a website called Purposeful Universe that allows people to encounter conversations between scientists about their faith. We develop a lot of free curricula and have programs for teachers that are certified through the Catholic Distance University.

When we work in apologetics, a certain layering has to occur. It’s very hard to talk to people who have reduced themselves to being simply atoms and molecules about Jesus and the Catholic Church. Instead, we start first with evidence for God’s existence, then evidence for the human soul, then evidence for Jesus being the Messiah, then evidence for the Catholic Church, and then we can move into more particular teachings from there. So of course we speak plainly and clearly about the Eucharist, Confession, and evil, but there is an order in which to do it. We also offer scientific-evidence-based apologetics on our website Credible Catholic. Even though middle school and high school teachers know how important scientific evidence is for teaching the faith, so many of them feel insecure in it because they don’t know it well enough, so they avoid it. We offer them everything they need.

The Napa Institute has a different ethos altogether. We’re trying to bring together people who have real influence in their dioceses and businesses, but more importantly in their local communities and cultures. These are busy people, so we try to get them all together to interact with one another and to hear some high-powered speakers in order to get the comradery and formation they need. And of course we hold our annual meeting in Napa, California, which is the sort of place people love to visit and bring their spouses. Spouses have an important role to play in all of this, too. When you go to the Napa Institute’s summer conference you see that a lot of important institutions and universities are playing a sponsorship role, and that’s all a great reminder that the Holy Spirit is working!

MShea: And your efforts have been a great source of hope, Father! Many of our readers are high-hearted, intellectually-engaged Catholic university students. As my closing question, I was wondering what your advice or encouragement would be as they prepare for their vocations and their lives?

FSpitzer: I would give three pieces of advice. The first thing I would say to them is, “Get ready for your own children and to be leaders for the schools in your community.” As you are preparing for your life, make sure you are immersed in our intellectual tradition. I might be biased, but we have some great material on CredibleCatholic.com. Our seven essential modules are all available for free, and those provide a great education in apologetics. I know that places like the University of Mary are offering solid education in faith and reason to their students, and that’s so important. Resolve to be a leader, and especially an educational leader.

The second thing I would say is to form a spiritual discipline in your life. In addition to Sunday Mass, maybe you’re going to commit to weekday Mass as often as possible. Going to Eucharistic adoration can be a particularly important practice when you can’t make it to weekday Mass. This spiritual discipline also involves committing to going to Confession a certain number of times per year and setting aside time to pray every day. Someone might commit to carving 30 minutes out of every day for the rosary, prayers of thanksgiving, and reflection. Without that sort of perpetual, constant spiritual disciple, we lose contact with the Lord and everything in our lives begins to drift.

The third thing I would say is to renew yourself each year through retreats. Commit now to going on at least a serious three-day retreat each year. Put it in your calendar and commit to it as time for renewal rather than time for rest, and find a spiritual director who can really help you.

If you do those three things and commit to keeping the loving presence of the Lord in your heart, it will make all the difference.

MShea: Now I know I’m talking to a Jesuit! That’s terrific, Father. It’s very solid advice for people of any age, not just young people. Our minds need to be renewed and we need to establish patterns and practices in our lives that put us in touch with divine reality, and we need to experience sustained renewal. We at the University of Mary admire so much everything you do for the Church. Thanks for your leadership, and thanks for your time today!

FSpitzer: The feeling is mutual and I’m excited by the great work coming out of the University of Mary! The way you’ve extended beyond North Dakota into so many different branch areas, like Arizona, is great for the Church. God bless you richly in all you do!

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