Father Robert Spitzer, SJ was still celebrating Mass, as he does daily, when I arrived for our interview. It had been a year since our last meeting, which resulted in one of CWR’s most-read articles of 2016. I waited outside his Magis Center office preparing my notes, my book bag overflowing with Spitzerian tomes. I felt like an undergraduate anticipating a professor’s office hours.
These days, the former president of Gonzaga University and philosophy professor still teaches, but his students are spread across the world and are of all ages. Spitzer’s focus is not just helping the believer on a faith journey, but also aiding the agnostic or atheist—many of whom, Spitzer believes, only halfheartedly choose such a path based on the pervading ideological winds of the day. He does not shrink from conversing with those who do not agree with him; he embraces the wonders of science, contrary to those who would oppose scientific knowledge and religious belief; his weekly EWTN show, Father Spitzer’s Universe, is a veritable compendium of the richness of the Catholic faith.
But Father Spitzer knows he has much work to do.
“The best thing the Devil ever has done to undermine the culture is [encourage the belief that] anything which is transcendent or miraculous has been simply replaced by materialism or naturalism,” says Spitzer. “That’s his first victory.” Spitzer is seated in his office under a floor-to-ceiling image of the Patroness of the Americas, Our Lady of Guadalupe. To his left is a painting of the Seven Basilicas of Rome, under a sign that reads, “No Opportunity Left Unseized!”
Not unlike Pope Francis, Father Spitzer has bluntly addressed the vacuous promises of Satan; he has spoken on spiritual warfare across a variety of platforms, including an EWTN program and his forthcoming book, The Light Shines on in the Darkness, which offers tools for combatting the Father of Lies.
The second thing the Devil has done to undermine a culture of faith? “If there is no mystery, no God, then Jesus is a complete myth and you can do whatever you want—use his name in vain, be flippant, make jokes.” It’s a diabolical trick—to reduce Christ to a convenient curse word, thus flattening his transforming love and the power of faith. To Spitzer, it’s a trick with fatal consequences.
“We have to do as much as we can to alert people to the fact—without violating their freedom or forcing them—that ‘you’re making a big mistake! Your elitism and materialism and anti-transcendentalism and anti-Christian viewpoints are not just ill-founded or provably false…they’re hurting you!’” he declares with signature rhetorical flourish.
There is a sense of urgency about Spitzer’s work. In two years he has released four major works, his quartet of books on suffering, happiness, and transcendence.
“I believe with Charles Taylor that the contemporary culture is losing its sense of transcendence,” Spitzer says; he sees this loss in particular among millennials and the succeeding generation. It is an age-group of primary importance to Spitzer’s work. He sees their hunger for truth, but laments the stubborn resistance towards making a transcendental leap of faith. As a result, there follows “the loss of the immortal soul, the loss of their transcendental desires—perfect love, truth, goodness, beauty, and home—their loss of the need for God and to be in communion with God. It’s been drummed out of them by materialists and physicalists.”
But Father Spitzer forges on. He is confident the resources he provides through the Magis Center will aid in reclaiming the metaphysical realm he is convinced makes a person’s life more fruitful and fulfilling.
“We have to talk about this openly, even at the cost of ridicule,” he says. “If not, the devil gets away with murder. He wins because we didn’t show up for the debate.”
Father Spitzer believes that ignorance on godly matters is one thing, and can be easily remedied through education and faith formation. Far more disturbing to him are those who embrace elitist and reductionist views with no room for self-reflection or meditation—the “in-crowd,” he dubs them, for whom “prayer” isn’t a word found in their lexicon. Increasingly, this is the mentality of those in positions of influence, particularly in the West—an elitist cadre who are at odds with their Judeo-Christian heritage and the objective truths it champions.
“With the loss of transcendence follows the loss of dignity of human beings,” Spitzer says. “With no intrinsic dignity, human beings have to earn their worth.” In this view, he says, “It’s all about earning your place in society”—the measure of a man is his fitness for production. The less fit else can be euthanized, aborted, forgotten, dismissed, and ridiculed.
A significant portion of Spitzer’s Christological work God So Loved the World is devoted to the scientific studies performed on the Shroud of Turin. “How could a medieval forger have used vacuum ultraviolet radiation to discolor the cloth on the uppermost surface of the fibrils?” Spitzer posits, questioning the shroud’s much-publicized 1988 carbon 14 dating. Those samples gauged a shroud date-range of 1260-1390 AD. Addressing the testing in true Spitzerian fashion, with mounds of evidence and pointed questions, he writes that the shroud points beyond itself as an interesting curiosity to the historicity of the Resurrection event.
And that historicity is exactly what creates enmity toward Christian claims about the uniqueness of Jesus of Nazareth among secular materialists. Anyone serious about leading a good life will eventually come across Christ’s moral teachings; anyone serious about history cannot deny the substantive historical accounts of Christ’s existence; anyone serious about metaphysics will have to confront Christ’s claims.
Jesus of Nazareth is not merely a friendly rabbi or a teacher who told pleasant stories; the Incarnation demonstrates otherwise. The Mass is more than an hour-long Sunday service; the Eucharist separates it from those services whose central draw is sermonizing. Both the Incarnation and Eucharist are in danger of falling into the superficiality sinkhole—even among Catholics themselves.
I cite examples of the cultural glibness directed towards Jesus Christ. Aren’t Catholics tempted to believe the ridicule rather than their own faith? When it comes to the God preached by Jesus Christ, I ask, do we even know who we’re dealing with?
Father Spitzer launches into an explication of the Trinity. “If God stops thinking about us for one moment we’re all annihilated, we’re all toast,” he says. “It’s not a paradox. It’s Jesus—the one ‘Person’—using his divine nature that is continuing to think all of creation into being, and the one Person of Jesus who simultaneously in his human nature is also entering into the creation which he, through his divine nature, is thinking into existence.”
These truths should cause one to think again about the reality of what goes on in every Mass.
To better appreciate the gravity of the Mass, Father Spitzer explains two different views of time, first noting, “All time is in God’s mind.” He speaks of the scientific view of time in relation to general relativity, and the sacred view of time—“that you can collapse time by telling a story.” Such an understanding is key to the Mass as more than a gathering service of a community, but a far deeper participation.
“God can make time collapse for the sacred event without making physical time collapse,” he explains. “God can literally think the species of the Holy Eucharist all the way back until his Son’s Last Supper. Also, God can think of his Son holding up the bread at the Last Supper going into the future Crucifixion and bringing his crucified body in the Host. So that’s one direction of time.” He raises his voice with enthusiasm, punctuating his remarks with his famous chironomic hand motions.
“And then when the priest today says Mass, he’s going to the past moment to the celebration of the Last Supper of His Son, and His Son is pointing to the prophetic future, collapsing time, bringing His crucified body into the present moment. And when those things coincide—‘This is my body’ really is His crucified body but also His risen body, post factum, and therefore our integration into His mystical body.”
As always, Spitzer points to a resource for further contemplation, in this instance Mircea Eliade’s The Sacred and Profane. Chapter Two of Spitzer’s book The Soul’s Upward Yearning offers a breakdown of Eliade’s arguments, incorporating teachings from Kant, Newman, Tolkien, Jung, Plato, the Neo-Platonists, Aquinas, and transcendental Thomists.
By this point, I had time for one last question. “Someone joins you in the elevator and notes your Roman collar. ‘What’s one good reason why I should be Catholic?’ they ask you. You only have time to answer him before the elevator stops. What do you say?”
He hesitates. “Well, I’d have to say three things.”
“Number one—the Holy Eucharist. Number two—the Church Magisterium. We’ll never be able to overcome the conflicts and the interpretation of Scripture. Sola scriptura is just a recipe for getting 30,000 Protestant denominations in 500 years. You can’t have a biblical canon without a church that’s independent of the Scripture that can actually proclaim it as doctrine, because the Scriptures can’t proclaim their own authenticity from within—that’s a contradiction. You need a Magisterium.”
“Third—the Church is rich! It’s rich in spiritual traditions, it’s rich in religious orders, it’s rich in missionary and charitable traditions, it’s rich in history, it’s rich in ritual, it’s rich in music, it’s rich in worship, it’s rich in architecture, it’s just spiritually rich. That means the Church can offer wisdom, beauty, magnificence in a depth of not just moral prescripts but spiritual and aesthetic prescripts.”
“We’re not just moral and intellectual beings,” Spitzer continues. “But we’re also spiritual beings. And God shuffles the deck constantly—and he emerges in all of it. We’re never going to understand his love, the sacred, his providential work, without that kind of richness of beauty intermingled with morality, intellect, and spirit.”
He goes on: “And then the icing on the cake—how are you ever going to explain the historicity of that commissioning to Peter (Mt. 16:18) without deliberately having to try some sophistical argument for why it isn’t historical or he didn’t mean the office of Peter? How are we going to possibly explain why Clement of Rome thought he was the bishop in charge of all the other bishops, and demanded obedience of the Corinthian bishops and so forth? How? Unless Jesus intended to start that office under Peter—and if he did then he has to have given him the Spirit so that even the jaws of hell manifest in falsity would not prevail against it.”
“I can’t bring it all out in the elevator,” he admits. “But I’d bring it out in five minutes when we’ve reached our destination! I’d follow the guy,” he says with a smile, “I’d complete the answer.”