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Father Robert Spitzer, A Jesuit Theologian, Reflects On Pope Francis

Thursday, March 14, 2013

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HH: I’m joined now by our friend, Father Robert Spitzer, Jesuit who is a former president of Gonzaga University, president of the Magis Institute for Faith and Reason. Father Spitzer, welcome back. A Jesuit, one of your own, is now the Pope.

RS: Yeah, who could have known? You know, Jesuits take a vow against pursuing higher office in the Church, and so I think the fact that he was bishop and cardinal was already highly unusual. And to be a Pope, of course, he’s the first one to be a Jesuit. But unusual selection in one sense, but boy, you know, exceedingly qualified to be a leader of the Church in the next upcoming era.

HH: Father Spitzer, just tell us, obviously you are a Jesuit yourself, and you’ve led big institutions, and you’re an accomplished theologian and philosopher on the philosophy of science. What are your reactions to this? And what should people know? Or what do you know about Francis?

RS: Well, he is extremely orthodox on the life issues and on homosexuality. And in 2010, he went, he opposed the Argentinian prime minister on gay adoption. And he also opposed her legalization of homosexual marriages. And later on, he even said in that particular opposition that he felt that it was an anthropological throwback. And so he thought it was a dire and a real danger to contemporary culture. So he’s, and of course, and his stance on abortion and contraception very clear. He has especially rallied the clergy there in Argentina to oppose the culture of death, and has been a forerunner in that for a long, long time. So from that point of view, he’s certainly won the approval of many of the cardinals. He is extremely orthodox in his theological teaching. At the same time, he is truly a person of the poor, and concerned with poverty and inequalities throughout the world, especially inequalities of resources. I think everybody knows he picked Francis not simply because of the Francis Xavier reference, but principally because of St. Francis of Assisi, who loved the poor. And so at the same time he opposes homosexuality, he would go to a gay hospice and wash the feet of the people who are truly sick on Holy Thursday. And he at the same time never takes a chauffeured, he will now, but previously, he always took mass transportation, and lived in a very modest apartment.

HH: Now he follows two great intellects – John Paul II and of course, Benedict XVI. Some people believe he will be a doctor of the Church, he’s so immensely intellectual. What about that side of him? Do you expect to have a writer and a teacher in the…

RS: Oh, absolutely. I mean, here is a fellow who studies chemistry, right, prior to becoming a priest, and through the graduate level. Here’s a fellow who does his theology in Europe, outside of Argentina. His grasp of languages is fantastic. He was a chancellor, which is equivalent of a president of the Catholic University of Argentina, which is a large university of 18,000 students. And so he has real administrative potential with academics, and not just with, as it were, ecclesiastical or ecclesial officials. Plus rumor has it, the guy’s politically astute on top of it all. So let’s say he does not have a dearth of IQ. And I think he will obviously gather people around himself of similar quality, with similar respect for the natural sciences, with similar respect for also the humanities, but at the same time, with deep theological conviction and orthodoxy, or orthodoxy meaning faithful to the Church teaching. And so I think you’re going to find a person, if you really wanted to find somebody with deep orthodoxy and theological conviction, extremely holy and spiritual himself, very intellectual, with very good administrative gifts and political astuteness, and at the same time, the intellectual capacity that ranges from the sciences to the humanities. You’ve really got somebody here who I think is extraordinary. I mean, he’s in good health, thank God, but you know, he is 76, and so we would sure like him to be our leader for more than ten years. But I think does he have the capacity to make a strong statement? Yes. Does he, is he going to get bullied around by intellectuals? No. Is he going to be able to take a firm leadership pattern? And he has already done this in Argentina, right? I mean, he opposes Kirchner whenever he wants. You know, he’s not a wimp. And so he says what he wants to say, and as far as being an intellectual leader, I do think he has that capacity. And let’s face it, as Jesuits, you can’t sit down at a dinner table in the Society Of Jesus without having a debate half the time.

HH: Now Father, tell us a little bit about that. He was, I think the prefect of the Jesuits in Argentina for a while. Am I right about that?

RS: Yes, that’s correct.

HH: What’s that mean?

RS: Well, that means you’re basically, it’s not like a provincial, where you would be the boss per se, but you know, it is a job of high responsibility that means you’re dealing with human issues and human affairs. So he’s dug down into the, as it were, into all the various problems that can take place. And of course, more importantly, all the differences that exist. And like I said, the Jesuits, a highly intellectual society or priests, you’re very likely to get a diversity of opinion. They always say sit down at a table with ten Jesuits, there are eleven opinions, because someone is likely to change their mind.

HH: They also always say sit down with ten Jesuits, and you’ll have twelve liberals. And that’s what I’m really worried. You know, a lot of people will say Jesuit, liberation theology, you know, Georgetown, Father Drinan. You’re a Jesuit. What should they know?

RS: Well, I’d say, you know, first of all, not all Jesuits are of that ilk. I think there are a lot of Jesuits who are very committed. I think you know, of course, Father James Schall and so many others who…

HH: Father Fessio, you bet.

RS: Yeah, who are just people who certainly have another political view and another view of Church orthodoxy and magisterium. So I think you have all kinds of different Jesuits. I mean, there is a real wide variety of opinions. I think he’s used to dealing with all of them, and I think that’s why Cardinal Dolan said here’s a guy who can really be a source of unity, because he really truly is capable of bringing together diverse opinions without backing down on the things that really matter. Do I think he’s going to play the liberation theology card? No, not per se, because if it has a deeply Marxist foundation, that is not his particular bent at all. But he is going to try and help definitely to modify globalization’s effects on the poor, and he is going to very much be concerned with trying to relieve some of the real poverty, and some of the real distress of the poor, especially in countries of immigrants. And so you’re going to see a person of tremendous heart and compassion and intelligence in social issues, but not necessarily at all with a Marxist flair, if I could put it that way.

HH: So with a minute left, Father Spitzer, when this name was announced today, what did you instantly think?

RS: I was at Mass. Somebody walked in and said Francis I, Bergoglio, Jesuit. And I just went oh, and I, honestly, I was shocked. I had heard about him, but never considered him as a forerunner, because first, a Jesuit, taking a vow against higher office in the Church, and secondly, Argentinian, didn’t know that the Church was ready to go in that direction right at this moment. But all in all, I can see why he was rumored to be number two on the conclave ballot when Pope Benedict was elected.

HH: Shocked but at peace with this?

RS: I’m sorry?

HH: Shocked, but are you at peace with this?

RS: Oh, yeah. Shocked, but very much at peace. No, I think this guy is exceedingly qualified to lead the Church to be a source of unity, but also to be a source of strength. And frankly, I think he has enough administrative background both in the university and in the Church to do some probably necessary reorganization, if I can put it in the weak words of clean up.

HH: Thank you so much. Father Robert Spitzer of the Magis Institute, thank you so much for joining us.

End of interview.

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