William C. Spohn
died: August 3, 2005
William Costello Spohn died on August 3, 2005, as a result of the brain cancer with which he struggled for close to two years. Not a few in this society first met Bill over thirty years ago in the seminars of James Gustafson at the University of Chicago Divinity School, from which Bill received his Ph.D. in 1978. In the last year of his life, Bill became a spiritual pathfinder, for whom intractable illness became an avenue of grace along which he could light the way for the many of his friends who began to confront their own mortality in his.
At the time of his death, at age 61, Bill was theology professor and director of the Bannan Center for Jesuit Education at Santa Clara University, where he also held the Augustin Cardinal Bea Chair in theology and Christian ethics. Bill also taught at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley (1979-92), and served on the editorial board of Theological Studies (1990-95).
Bill grew up in San Francisco in a large family of six brothers and sisters, and graduated from St. Ignatius Preparatory School (1962), before receiving his B.A. from Gonzaga University (1968). Judging from Bill’s stories, it was from his parents and siblings that he derived his style, intellect, eloquence, energy, competitiveness, wit, deep religious feeling and creativity, and zest for the good life. In his wife, Martha Ellen Stortz, professor of historical theology and ethics at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, Bill found a personal, theological, and spiritual companion. Marty’s solicitude, constancy, humour and joy led Bill to remark, “One lesson I take away from all this is: Marry the right person. It makes all the difference in the world.”
Bill was a Jesuit from the early 1960’s until the mid-90’s. The inspiration he found in St. Ignatius, his friendship with the Society of Jesus, and his commitment to Jesuit higher education and college student formation were to be life-long. He directed the Discover Program of the Lilly Endowment for Theological Reflection on Vocation (2003 until his death). His best known scholarly works, Go and Do Likewise; Jesus and Ethics (Continuum, 1999) and What Are They Saying About Scripture and Ethics? (Paulist, 1984, rev. 1995), combine his interests in spirituality, virtue, the bible, Christian community and the preferential option for the poor to brilliant effect. Bill also had a longstanding interest in Jonathan Edwards, especially the role of the religious affections in attuning us to the transformative realities of God’s grace and goodness.
In the months Bill lived with cancer, many email messages and phone calls made present to those who loved him his irrepressible religious sensitivity and his gift for words. In one message Bill wrote, “The last six months have been nothing like I feared the encounter with death would be. We are not called to summon up a great act of hope, but rather to turn our attention to the one who is faithful. As a professional student, I guess I imagined that this would be the ultimate final exam, and I’d better get it right. We have found that there is more gift than accomplishment in all this.” We will remember Bill on a note of hope rather than mourning if we recall an assurance he made as he approached death: “the grace is there when you need it.”
Lisa Sowle Cahill
Monan Professor of Theology, Boston College