A Discussion with Paul Schweitzer, S.J., Professor of Mathematics at Pontifical Catholic University, Rio de Janeiro
December 3, 2013
Background: In this exchange on December 3, 2013, in Rio de Janeiro, Fr. Paul Schweitzer, S.J., and Erin Shevlin discussed the implications of globalization for the Jesuit order and its work around the world. The conversation touched on the unique intersection of mathematics and religion as well as the role of Brazil, the rest of South America, and Pope Francis in the Jesuit enterprise.
Could you tell me a little about your vocation and how you entered the order?
I grew up in New York and I went to Holy Cross College when I graduated from high school. Up until that time, all I knew about the Jesuits was about Pere Marquette and his investigation of the Louisiana Purchase. I just knew about Jesuits from history, and I had never thought about being a priest. But as an undergraduate, the idea came about and it seemed more and more reasonable. I decided that I was interested in becoming a priest and the Society of Jesus was very attractive. I must say that at the time I didn’t realize all of the good reasons to be a Jesuit, but there were sufficient ones. I didn’t really appreciate the nature of Ignatian spirituality at that point, but I felt it would be a good thing to have a joint career as a priest and as a professor in academia. First, I went to Princeton and did my doctorate there. I then accepted a job for one year at Notre Dame and I entered the Jesuits at Shadowbrook in Lenox, Massachusetts.
In terms of being both a mathematician and a Jesuit, is that common in the order?
It’s becoming very rare, but the history of the Society of Jesus has an enormous presence in the sciences. The first real academy of science was the Jesuit order, founded before all of the great European societies. With the work of Jesuits in universities, many went into the sciences. And when I was at Holy Cross, the number of Jesuits was immense; there were more than a hundred Jesuits at Holy Cross and the majority of faculty were Jesuit. There have been Jesuits that have made very important contributions in the history of science. For example Roger Boscovich in the eighteenth century was an extraordinary scientist who developed the first modern atomic theory and made major contributions to mathematics. The Vatican Astronomical Observatory has, I think, six young Jesuits from different continents who are preparing to become researchers in astronomy. So the tradition is continuing, but with a diminished number.
How do you view globalization?
From my personal standpoint, I have believed since I was an undergraduate that we need more international organization law. I was a member of United World Federalists as an undergraduate working for a world government. That never came about; the UN has such limitations that it’s not really very effective. It does a lot of good—much better than the world would be without it, but it’s far short of where it should be. The world is of course inevitably much smaller; we have immediate transmission of information from one part of the world to another. So globalization is not a choice, it’s just a fact that has come about. And I think that no way in the future can it be ended—it’s going to continue. I think that Europe is an interesting example of globalization with the European Union, which involves ceding a lot of sovereign rights to a central authority. I think that this is very positive, but at the same time there is a greater appreciation of local cultures, such as in the diverse regions of Spain. And I think that this respect for local cultures is wonderful; inevitably, it’s difficult to maintain a local culture when you have television and the Internet spreading ideas, but I think that it’s basically a good thing. It’s interesting to note that this fits in very well with the view of Teilhard de Chardin because he saw the evolution of the world and of life as having steps in which some new level was reached and then that new level would multiply until it became a platform for the next step. He really predicted that there would be much greater contact on a worldwide level. So I think that globalization is a fact, and that it is a very positive thing. But like so many advances, it can be used for good or for evil, and there comes in the key question of values and of ethics.
Do you think that globalization has exacerbated moral issues?
I think that what has happened is that it makes it easier for multinational organizations and corporations to escape from the local laws because of the lack of international legislation. Of course we are progressing with that: the International Criminal Court at the Hague is taking great steps forward, but the ability to veto in the UN Security Council is an obstacle to progress.
Do you think that the perspective on globalization of the order as a whole is similar or different to your own?
I think that Jesuits would agree that first of all that it is something that has happened as part of the evolution of human society, that it was not a choice that was made. Secondly, I think that it has both good and bad effects although basically it has very good effects. With globalization it’s harder to have a big war because of communication; people in all countries know what’s going on in other countries.
What do you see as challenges that globalization has brought about?
I can mention a young Jesuit, Brother Davidson Braga, who has been working with youth here in Rio. He is leaving Rio to direct a national organization that the Brazilian Jesuits are organizing for migrants. We have a large number of Haitians who have immigrated to Brazil. The Brazilian army helped in Haiti after the terrible earthquake so there was a lot of contact. There are also many illegal immigrants from Haiti as well. Brother Davidson is taking on this job to organize this new mission of the Jesuits. The Jesuit Refugee Service, started by the Superior General Father Arrupe, has done marvelous work with thousands of refugees as well.
Do you agree with the notion that Brazil is a microcosm of what’s happening in the rest of the world? What lessons can be taken from Brazil’s experience?
Yes, I think that Brazil is in many ways a microcosm of what is going on in the rest of the world. I think we can look at the velocity of change—Europe is very traditional, the velocity there is very slow; the United States is intermediate; here things change extremely rapidly. I think the reason for this is partly because Brazil was behind in many ways and so we’re trying to catch up.
How do Jesuit institutions help to bring education to the poor?
We [Pontifical Catholic University, PUC] have a larger percentage of the very poorest than the federal universities do, and the reason is very simple. A student that goes to a federal university doesn’t pay anything, but he doesn’t get any money. We have a fund that is largely paid for by the Jesuits but a number of other people contribute: an emergency fund for service to the poor. About 800 students at PUC receive monthly grants in addition to 100 percent tuition scholarship. This money is for meals, for transportation, and for books. They still can’t contribute to their family, but they aren’t a burden on the family. I think we have about five or six percent of the very poorest here. And about 50 percent of the students have a full or partial scholarship.
Do you see any particular changes for the Jesuits due to globalization?
I would say that we were the first international organization—we were globalized in the sixteenth century. It’s interesting for example that the position of Jesuits in seismology is important—there were Jesuit missionaries all over the world and it was easy to install seismographs. So there was information coming in from all over the world because of the Jesuits. We have had a long tradition of Jesuits studying in different countries. Globalization is sort of natural for the Jesuit order. It’s also important to note that while a young man enters a certain province, he is also entering the Society of Jesus as a whole. We’re still the largest male missionary order in the Church and we move from one country to another.
What impact do you feel Pope Francis as a Jesuit has had on the order and the Church as a whole?
First, Pope John Paul II was rather contrary to the Jesuits. He heard a lot of slanders and halftruths that he believed. This was a difficult time for the Society of Jesus. Under Benedict XVI, this changed—he was not pro-Jesuit, but he wasn’t anti-Jesuit either. I never expected that we’d ever have a Jesuit pope. And when Pope Francis was elected, his way of speaking and his choice of the name Francis, gave me the impression that he was much more Franciscan than Jesuit. But a few days later, I perceived that Ignatian discernment was key in the way he was acting. The spirituality of the Society of Jesus comes from St. Ignatius—he said that he was taught by the Holy Spirit the way children are taught by a school teacher. He realized how in one’s prayer to sense the spiritual motions that take place and to see whether they come from a good or evil spirit. The discernment of spirits in the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius is fundamental. I can see that Pope Francis is attuned to this spiritual discernment in the Ignatian tradition and this helps him to see what God is asking for. I am very happy with the election of Pope Francis and I think he’s going to have a very important effect on the Church. I don’t think he’s going to be changing doctrinal positions but the whole point of a pastoral pontificate is fundamental. He shows that Christian life should be joyful. And we already see many people coming back to the Church.
Is the fact that Pope Francis is from Latin America significant?
Definitely. Latin America has almost half of the Catholics in the world and until now Europe has run the Church, so this is a major change. When he was elected, the first thing he said was to ask people to pray for him, and this shows a basic attitude that is marvelous. And the fact that he doesn’t live in the papal apartments and wants to be near people is wonderful.
How do you view the future of the order?
First of all, it’s obvious that we have decreased in numbers, especially the number of young men coming into the Society has decreased. That is distressing. On the other hand, it’s good to remember that the Society of Jesus started as ten men and they rapidly had an enormous effect. So I think that quality is more important than quantity. And I do believe that the young men being admitted to the order have high quality. So in that sense I am sanguine about the future of the order. One thing that disturbs me besides the small number of Jesuits entering is the number of of fine young men leaving the Society of Jesus. Partly it’s due to the general attitude that nothing is permanent and real commitment is difficult. How to keep our work going is a big problem with smaller numbers. This makes Ignatian discernment especially important.
Do you see non-Jesuits and laypeople having larger involvement with the order?
I hope so but I don’t have a clear answer. The 34th General Congregation spoke about collaboration with laypeople and opened up the possibility of Jesuit Lay Associates with a special relationship to the Society, but the 35th General Congregation closed that possibility. I have never understood the reason for that and I think that was a big step backward. But there are many ways of collaborating; for example I am involved in Christian Life Communities which seek to involve the laity in living the spirituality of the Society of Jesus.