A Jesuit Philosopher Who Championed Catholic Orthodoxy


February 27, 2018

Fun Is Not Enough (2017) is the collection of all 125 columns written by the late Father Francis Canavan, S.J., for the monthly catholic eye from April 1983 until November 2008, a couple of months before his death.

The book was edited by Dr. Dawn Eden Goldstein, Assistant Professor of Dogmatic Theology at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Connecticut. Having grown up in a Reformed Jewish household, she was drawn to Christianity, and ultimately Catholicism, by reading G.K. Chesterton’s novel, The Man Who Was Thursday. Father Canavan encouraged her to pursue graduate study in theology and ultimately college teaching.

The author of several books on Edmund Burke, Canavan was a member of the political science department at Fordham University from 1966 to 1988. After his ordination, he studied political science under John Hallowell at Duke University, where he received his doctorate. As a Jesuit scholastic, he earned an M.A. while studying political science under Moorhouse F. X. Millar, S.J., one of the pioneers in Burke studies in the United States. Canavan also studied theology under John Courtney Murray, S.J. at Woodstock College.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

Email subscribe inline (#4)

In the book the columns are organized chronologically, rather than by subject. While they covered more than a quarter of a century, his views remained consistent and the issues they concerned stayed the same and even intensified. Among them were dissent within the Catholic Church, the evolution of rationalist thought from the late Middle Ages to the present, the priority of ordered society, especially the family and church, as the foundation for a free society, and the increasingly legislative character of judicial decisions.

Dissent within the Church takes many forms. It is given a kind of “validity” by a new ecclesiology that the “magisterium … belongs as much to the theologians as to the hierarchy.” While he accepted theologians presenting new interpretations of doctrine and criticism of old interpretations, he opposed contesting “the hierarchy’s rights to decide whether they are acceptable.” Accordingly, many of Canavan’s columns were critical of “dissenting Catholic” priests, including Fathers Charles Curran (originally of Catholic University) and Richard McBrien (of Notre Dame), as well as the general inclination of many clergy to be inhibited in their sermons from asserting church teaching, especially on sexual matters.

As troubling as dissent, in his mind, a bigger problem was the changing character of Catholic colleges and universities. The root of the problem was their letting themselves get too big, and, after World War II, emphasizing professional qualifications in faculty recruitment rather than commitment to the institution’s mission. Gradually, the power to hire and fire which shaped the institution, passed to the “qualified faculty.” Invariably there was less concern “with maintaining the Catholic character of the school.”

In his view, a Catholic university is committed to the truth of the Catholic religion. That does not imply that its primary academic concern should be teaching revealed truth or indoctrination, but rather that various subjects, including the sciences—that is, “rationally known reality”—be understood “in the light of faith.” This is far different from the prevailing liberal idea of a university, which rests “upon no agreed body of truth,” but only on the freedom to pursue “a truth which is never to be attained.”

He drew on the writings of many historians and commentators like Crane Brinton, Peter Gay, Paul Hazard, and R.R. Palmer to conclude that the Enlightenment (the prevailing intellectual atmosphere in Western society for the past half millennium), although “descended from Christianity in several respects,” was “nonetheless an all-out revolt against Christianity,” as it “not only repudiated Christian doctrine but overturned Christian morals.” He suggested that much of what was advanced as the “spirit of Vatican II” was “a renewal of a three-centuries-old effort to accommodate Christianity to the Enlightenment.”

Contemporary Western societies are committed to the enlightenment-fostered ideals of liberty and equality, although liberals and conservatives balance both ideal differently. Canavan argued both ideals should be subordinated to higher norms, as otherwise they “relativize and destroy all other values” and inhibit “the communal beliefs without which in the long run there is no community.” The result is the absence of “what Walter Lippman called the public philosophy.” As a consequence, “the moral and religious capital of our culture … is drained away.”

Canavan regarded the individualist liberalism of John Locke as one of the foundations of contemporary thought. According to it, man is entitled to the rights of life, liberty, and property, and ought to respect the same for others. To settle disputes, men entered compacts with one another and formed governments. However, their relationship is “external, artificial, and contractual” and “not rooted in their nature as social beings.” The same perspective governed the leaders of the French Revolution in the Declaration of the Rights of Man, which proclaimed “ignorance, neglect, or contempt of the rights of men … as the sole causes of public misfortunes and corruptions of Government.” The same spirit prevails in contemporary Western society, including America, as all of society’s issues are being translated into “struggles between conflicting rights.”

In contrast to this Lockean view, which “conceives of man as an independent proprietor whose social relations are only those to which he has freely consented,” Canavan preferred a model of society drawn from Aristotle and Aquinas, which views “man as a social being from whose nature flow relations to his family, neighbors, fellow-workers, the community, and the political order,” which “relations are the foundation of both rights and obligations which are prior to and independent of consent.” The Lockean, French Revolutionary, and Enlightenment thinkers assumed people would see the difference between moral right and wrong and respect such. But those norms were not created in the Enlightenment, but “were inherited from the classical and Christian past.”

Drawing on the work of his Ph.D. mentor, John H. Hallowell, Canavan noted that the original Enlightenment liberalism of the seventeenth century had believed in “certain eternal truths, transcending individuals and independent of either will or desire.” But nowadays liberals have forgotten those norms or regard them “as threats to the liberal idea itself.” They insist on the autonomy of the individual, even “to decide for himself which norms he will obey.” Liberal society has even become less confident in reason as a restraint on “will and appetite” and is more reliant on collective individual will, guided by “enlightened self-interest” and is hateful of authority, especially ecclesiastical.”

Another commentator, contemporary to the French Revolution, who was quoted by Canavan, is Edmund Burke, who asked what would become of us “if the practice of all moral duties, and the foundations of society, rested upon having their reasons made clear and demonstrative to every individual?” To Burke, and to earlier champions of the American constitution, freedom was considered “ordered liberty,” as liberty “not only exists along with order and virtue, but … cannot exist at all without them.”

Another issue that disturbed Canavan was the tendency of the Supreme Court, in its exercise of judicial review, to exaggerated the first clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which bars states from denying equal protection of its laws to all citizens. It has become a blank mandate for determining equality, almost to the degree of the Court (as well as lower and state courts) acting as judicial legislators not having to heed the thoughts of the original framers of the constitution and its amendments. If the courts are not bound by the law, then a constitution has ceased to be law, and “Judges unbound by the law can be as guilty of the arrogance of power as kings ever were.”

Canavan was obviously orthodox in his opposition to contraception and approved the message of the 1968 encyclical, Humane Vitae, by Pope Paul VI. Similarly, he agreed with legal critics of the celebrated Supreme Court decision Griswald vs. Connecticut (1965). The author of that decision, Justice William O. Douglas, argued that while not mentioned in the constitution itself, nor in the Bill of Rights, there were “penumbras,” which are “formed by emanations” from those guarantees of rights in the Constitution, that guaranteed the privacy of buying, selling, and using contraceptives. That decision was followed in relatively short time—eight years—by Roe vs. Wade, which allowed abortion. The court was well on its way toward invalidating other laws that offended privacy, concluding more recently with the approval of same-sex “marriage,” not to mention mandating the removal of any restrictions on consenting sexual behavior or impeding efforts by private agencies to not service activities they found morally offensive, such as homosexuality, contraception, abortion, etc.

Against that tendency, Canavan invoked the dissenting opinion in the Griswald vs. Connecticut case by Justice Hugo L. Black, who found the right of privacy as “a broad, abstract, and ambiguous concept” and not fit for “some constitutional provision.” Its use in effect was a claim for the Supreme Court and the federal judiciary to have “power to invalidate any legislative act the judges find irrational, unreasonable or offensive.”

In one of his last columns, Canavan noted that a recent convert, a university professor, had come to the conclusion that most American Catholics had become Protestants. They had not formally left the Church, but had accepted the Protestant emphasis of private judgement on questions of religious belief. Against that tendency he invoked the words of his colleague, both as Jesuit and member of the Fordham University faculty, Avery Cardinal Dulles: “the magisterium has the right to keep dissent from impairing the unity of the Church and the integrity of the faith.”

This book is a wonderful reinforcement of one’s Catholicism in a time of increasing nominal adherence and/or outright loss of faith. Father Canavan’s life and work epitomized the spirit that characterized Fordham in the time when it was truly the Jesuit University of New York.


  • John P. McCarthy

    John P. McCarthy is Professor Emeritus of History and former director of the Institute of Irish Studies at Fordham University. He is the author of Hilaire Belloc: Edwardian Radical (1978); Kevin O’Higgins: Builder of the Irish State (2006); and Twenty-first Century Ireland: A View from America (2012).

Join the Conversation

Comments are a benefit for financial supporters of Crisis. If you are a monthly or annual supporter, please login to comment. A Crisis account has been created for you using the email address you used to donate.

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...