Father Spitzer's 10 Universal Principles

A guide to help you debate your friends on the life issues, without necessarily bringing in religion.

(photo: Courtesy of Ignatius Press)

Father Robert Spitzer, SJ, has written Ten Universal Principles: A Brief Philosophy of the Life Issues, published by Ignatius Press. The book outlines a pro-life philosophy that can be used for thinking and talking about human life and the life issues, especially abortion. Based on the natural law, the 10 principles presented in an easy-to-read format are meant to undergird sound reasoning to guide thoughts, actions, laws and public policies to create a culture of life and love.

Father Spitzer is a former president of Gonzaga University and currently serves as the founding president of the Magis Institute — an organization dedicated to public education on the relationship among the disciplines of physics, philosophy, reason and faith. He heads the Spitzer Center of Ethical Leadership, which provides ethics-education curricula to corporations and individuals and nonprofit organizations.
He spoke with the Register recently about his new book.

The book is a wake-up call for the whole culture, to avoid what you describe as “widespread abuse of human beings and a general decline in culture.” Obviously, abortion is a leading indicator of this decline. How has it caused a decline in our culture?

What becomes legal becomes normal, and because it is legally sanctioned, what becomes normal becomes moral. And that is a problem. Legal sanction leads to normality. Normality leads to some sort of moral sanction — everybody is doing it. So what we have is a general cultural problem.

So I took the 10 principles that ground any healthy civilization and I said: “Here is what civilization rests on and has always rested on.” People know that if you give up objective truth then we are left with the strongest will or influential will, or whoever can get the most money mustered for a campaign win. Might makes right. Anytime you have these 10 principles undermined you have very deep cultural problems.

More than once you call for the overturning of Roe v. Wade in the book, based on these 10 sound principles. Do you think we are getting anywhere close to that possibility?

It is my understanding from friends in the legal establishment … that most judges do not think that Roe v. Wade is good law and the ones who do think so are not that smart. Our judges are seeing a problem with the law. But they like the policy behind the law. So there is an advantage and a disadvantage right now. More and more people see abortion as wrong. One of the key things in the case against abortion is interuterine photography. These are exceedingly good cameras. You are looking right at your baby. It’s hard to say this is not a human being. So technology is in our favor. It is pushing back viability. It is now at 26 weeks, I believe. 

So law and science are working for us, but one missing leg in this three-legged stool is education. I think lawyers are getting antsy, and technology is in our favor, but we are not doing the educational job yet. Our educators are not aware of the 10 principles. I wanted to write a book that would bring all of these things together in a sort of subtle way — the law, the science and the need for greater education on the life principles.

You are a philosopher and a priest, and the pro-life movement listens to you intently, but are the lawyers, the justices and the courts listening at all? How do we get these principles before them, or reasserted before them?

I think that is the key problem. There are three avenues where we need to go. First is to give a copy to every judge that we know. Some will read; some will throw it out. Fine. Secondly, we have to get to our legislators, who are, frankly, people who, frequently enough, do read; they really do read. And they are likely be able to have an influence on the legal establishment. The third thing is that there are a lot of churchgoing people out there, and I think that if clergy read this book they will be more comfortable to take a public position for the pro-life movement. Then they may take these arguments to their congressmen. I think we have to start from there.

It is not starting from a religious grounding. But if you use principles they can’t relegate you to a corner. These principles are what is holding the center together.

The clergy has to start speaking up, but we do need to give them the vocabulary to do it.

Toward the end of the book — after laying out the principles and by showing a way of deeply appropriating them by bringing to life the Golden Rule in one’s own life — you say, “It would be unthinkable and unbearable for someone with authentic empathy and contributive spirit” to violate the 10 principles. “Contributive spirit” is an intriguing and fresh phrase. What does that mean?

It’s a code word for “love,” which is a word that I cannot easily use in this context. And agape is too complex and theological and also Greek. Love has many misleading definitions. So I coined the term “contributive spirit.”

It’s really Christ-like love, but a term that everybody can embrace. I think that the heart liberates the mind, and the mind liberates the heart.

Do you see forums where both sides are willing to come together — and by making use of the 10 principles — to advance the debate on abortion and other life issues? Is there any evidence that the other side will listen to a principled argument?

Every once in a while you do get them. The Rotary Club held a debate between me and Planned Parenthood, and I pulled out the principles right away. The folks there were looking at me in the clerical collar and thinking I am going to pull out the Scripture quotes and that Spitzer will give nothing but moral indignation. But I said, Let’s all find common ground, and I presented the principles.

I have had several talks at universities, but the opposition is not coming. I don’t get it. Maybe we are not advertising it the right way. These are state universities. I was at the University of Washington, and I finished my talk and said, “Surely there must be a question or an argument with me,” but there was not. My strategy is one of using education, starting in the high schools, and getting the teachers converted. We are launching a new project for high schools in the winter. We are hoping that our program will be a model for them.

You have said that the pro-life movement has had a vocabulary problem. How can we rectify that problem?

I said, “Let’s go back to basics. I am going to get on radio, TV and getting into every high school and confirmation program.” If we give them the ammo, they will win. We are going to create a whole different story.

As a philosopher, how do you go about doing your work?  How did you determine that you wanted to give so much of your energy to the pro-life movement?

The work we are doing to try to change legislation, get appeals in the courts are all good, but if you do not have a population that feels the indignation and the wrongness of abortion that is going to back you up, it won’t go anywhere. It’s the rubber-band problem. You might be able to get a Ronald Reagan or George Bush to help you out.  But then you get Obama, and you are back to square one. We need a critical mass of the population who can back these people into a corner and keep the fight going — no matter who is in office. So the solution is education. I want to do it in a way that gets to the profound elements very fast, very quickly.

I decided I am going to bring back principles — and bring back God. We are short on time. We have to reach a lot of people in a hurry. So my tactic is to use media, adult education, high-school curriculum. There is one way to win the argument, and that is on principles. We have to go to principles. Pro-life will win always and every time when we go to principles. The key is to educate people and help them to learn the argument.

Your book is dedicated in part to the memory of a fellow Jesuit, Father Thomas King, for his commitment in the academy to the intrinsic dignity of every human being. Who was he?

Father King was a Jesuit at Georgetown and a remarkable guy who had a great sense of the Church and a great sense of the intrinsic dignity of every human being. A Jesuit through and through. He was very pro-life. Together we started American Collegians for Life. Later, we started a new group called University Faculty for Life. It is on its 18th season.

Father King was always bringing a pro-life philosophy and theology to the movement. He was helping to orchestrate these things during the March for Life days in Washington, D.C. He was very much motivated by love for human beings. He was appalled by the heartlessness of a culture which could not see that abortion and euthanasia are intrinsically wrong. He was always a support to me in every way.

You provide names of groups where readers of the book can continue their education on the pro-life philosophy and the movement. The book calls for some action. What other recommendations do you have for people to help them manifest their pro-life commitments?

I would say that if people have an interest in them, then go to high schools, especially Catholic schools, or talk to confirmation classes in their parishes. They should go to the Healing the Culture website, and they will have tools to bring with them to the younger generation. For those who want to get involved in the academic world, they can go to University Faculty of Life. We have proceedings that are just unparalleled.

Overall, I think that education is what we can do. We can try to reach the legislators. I recommend that everyone who reads this book and believes in it get a copy and get it to their legislator. I would like every single Catholic who reads this book to send it to their legislator.

Register correspondent Father Matthew T. Gamber writes from Chicago.