The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

November 17, 2018

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The Achievement of Francis Canavan
Kenneth Grasso and Robert Hunt - 03/02/09
A Moral Enterprise

Excerpt from A Moral Enterprise: Politics, Reason, and the Human Good, Essays in Honor of Francis Canavan (ISI Books, 2002).

At its 1996 annual meeting, the Society of Catholic Social Scientists presented its annual “Pius XI Award for Contributions Toward the Building Up of a True Catholic Social Science” to Francis Canavan, S.J. Several years earlier, the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars had presented Canavan its Cardinal Wright Award. Father Canavan’s political thought has been the subject of roundtable discussions and symposia at the American Political Science (1998) and Christendom College (2000). At the Christendom symposium, he was also honored for his many years of loyal and selfless dedication to his Church and for the important contribution that his work has made to contemporary American intellectual life. All of these accolades represent the well-deserved and long-overdue recognition of a man who in 1995 was described by Gerard V. Bradley (one of the contributors to the present volume) as “one of the great political theorists of the last thirty years.”[1] The other contributors to the present volume—friends, colleagues, and former students of Father Canavan—concur with Bradley.

Born in 1917, Father Canavan received his primary and secondary education in the public schools of New York City and Long Island. (Canavan not only attended the same elementary school that had educated another future Jesuit, John Courtney Murray, some fifteen years earlier; he also graduated from Lawrence High School with Harry V. Jaffa and Joseph Cropsey, both of whom, like Canavan, went on to become prominent political theorists.) He received his B.S. and M.A. degrees from Fordham University in 1939 and 1947, and his Ph.L. from St. Louis University in 1944, where he began to immerse himself in the study of Thomistic philosophy. He earned his S.T.L. from Woodstock College in 1951 (at Woodstock he met his fellow alumnus of the “Jamaica Model School,” John Courtney Murray, who subsequently became his mentor and a major influence on his work) and his Ph.D. from Duke University in 1957. He entered the Society of Jesus the same year he received his B.S. and was ordained in 1950.

Over the course of his career Canavan has taught at Regis High School (1944–1945), Canisius College (1945–1946), St. Peter ‘s College (1950–1956), and Fordham University (1966–1988). From 1960 to 1966 he served as associate editor of the magazine America. Since 1988 he has been professor emeritus of political science at Fordham.

While at Fordham and at Duke, Canavan studied with two men who would have a great impact on his academic interests and development as a political theorist, Moorhouse I. X. Millar, S.J. and John H. Hallowell. It was Millar who first encouraged Canavan to read Edmund Burke, and it was Hallowell who guided Canavan in the writing of his doctoral dissertation on Burke’s conception of political reason. One of the nation’s leading political philosophers, Hallowell, an Episcopalian, wrote from an unapologetically Christian perspective and sought to articulate a theory of politics—and more particularly, of constitutional democracy—that was rooted in the Christian vision of man and society.

Much of Canavan’s subsequent work, including his groundbreaking studies of Burke’s political thought, has elaborated upon a central presupposition that he shared with Hallowell, namely, that “underlying every system of government there is some predominant conception of the nature of man and the meaning of human existence. More often than not, this idea of man is implicit rather than explicit. But if not always explicit, it is always fundamental.”[2] In other words, every society defines itself by how it answers certain basic questions about human nature and the goods that make for human flourishing. The decision not to answer these questions at all is, paradoxically, just as much an answer as any other, and the practical consequences for any constitutional order are profound. In short, politics is an inescapably moral enterprise.

Canavan’s doctoral dissertation on Burke, entitled The Political Reason of Edmund Burke, was published in 1960 by Duke University Press. It was followed by two subsequent volumes on Burke’s thought: Edmund Burke: Prescription and Providence (1987, Carolina Academic Press) and The Political Economy of Edmund Burke (1995, Fordham University Press). No less an authority than Peter J. Stanlis (another contributor to the present volume) has remarked that Canavan’s work has earned him “a very high permanent place of honor among Burke scholars, living or dead.”[3] Each of Canavan’s major works on Burke has attempted to get to the heart of what Canavan sees as central, inescapable questions: What is Burke’s view of human nature and society? Upon what deeper metaphysical framework does Burke’s view of human nature depend for sustenance? And how does all of this impact Burke’s own prescriptions (and animadversions) in the arena of practical politics?

At the risk of oversimplifying matters, Canavan’s writings on Burke might be said to focus on the restoration of Burke to his rightful place in the pantheon of Christian political thinkers. This restoration, Canavan believes, is particularly important in light of the effort of some scholars to portray Burke as a Humean skeptic or historicist precursor to Hegel. For example, some Burke scholars have portrayed Burke as a man skeptical not only of Enlightenment enthusiasms and abstract metaphysical systems but as a principled opponent of any effort to ground political life within a larger metaphysical framework. Others have interpreted Burke’s defense of tradition, convention, and “prejudice” to mean that he was a follower of the historical Zeitgeist in whatever direction it might happen to be moving at the moment. Canavan has argued that each of these interpretations of Burke’s thought is mistaken.

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