The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

December 14, 2017

FEATURE ARTICLES
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The Achievement of Francis Canavan
Kenneth Grasso and Robert Hunt - 03/02/09

On the contrary, according to Canavan, “Burke did his political thinking within the framework of a ‘realistic’ metaphysics derived from the biblical and Christian doctrine of creation.”[4] At the heart of Burke’s thought is the vision of a divinely created and “teleologically” ordered universe, “composed of creatures with distinct natures serving natural ends, subject to natural laws, and all directed to the ultimate purpose of the Creator,” and whose “intelligible order [was] accessible to human reason.”[5] Or, as Canavan argues elsewhere,

Burke believed in a common human nature created by God as the supreme norm of politics. But he knew that human nature realizes itself in history through conventional forms, customs, and traditions, which constitute what he called the second nature of a particular people. Convention can and often enough does distort our nature, but it is not opposed to it. . . . Convention, made as it should be to satisfy the needs of nature, is not its enemy, but its necessary clothing. The statesman must therefore frame his policies with a practical wisdom that understands his people, their history, their traditions, their inherited rights and liberties, and their present circumstances. To do otherwise is to court disaster.[6]

The focus of Canavan’s work has been the recovery of the authentic Burke. At the same time, it is obvious that his interest in Burke is not purely historical in nature. He shares Alfred Cobban’s view that “as a school of statesmanship,” Burke’s work possesses “permanent value.”[7] Burke’s writings, he contends, offer us “a richer and fuller way of understanding” political life “than one founded on the sovereign individual and his rights.”[8] Burke’s “profound and luminous mind” offers us “a way of thinking about politics . . . and its problems which makes it possible to approach them rationally, while avoiding both unprincipled expediency and doctrinaire idealism.”[9] Thus, even though “Burke is not a major figure in the history of political philosophy” (and even though he is most certainly not a defender of constitutional democracy in the modern sense), his work nevertheless teaches many lessons that contemporary America needs badly to learn if it is to sustain its experiment in democratic self-government.[10]

If Burke’s work has been Canavan’s primary interest, it has hardly been his only one. His writings include an acclaimed study of the political theory of freedom of speech (which was named to Choice’s “Outstanding Academic Book List for 1985”), in which Canavan criticizes the approach to freedom of speech adopted by a number of leading civil libertarians. He has also written numerous essays exploring the problem of law, religious pluralism, and public morality in contemporary America, various aspects of contemporary Catholic social thought, the American Catholic scene, and the interaction between Catholicism and American culture. In many of these works, Canavan (like his mentor John Courtney Murray) attempts to outline a public philosophy for contemporary America rooted in a richer and sounder model of man and society than that which informs the liberal intellectual tradition.

This effort has prompted Canavan to examine the relationship between Catholicism, liberalism, and the Western constitutional tradition. Canavan’s work rejects at least three readings of that relationship. First, he rejects the effort to effect a quasi-Hegelian synthesis of Catholicism and liberalism that brackets the Catholic tradition’s spiritual and moral commitments in the name of a political modus vivendi with the liberal model of man and society. Second, he rejects the “neoconservative” argument that sees the liberal tradition of politics as little more than a political orientation in favor of limited government and a free economy which is separable from certain subjectivist variations of contemporary liberalism. Third, he rejects the “confessionalist” effort to restore the Church to its pre–Vatican II political commitments, an effort that makes the Catholic intellectual tradition an opponent not only of liberalism, but of human rights and religious freedom, however narrowly or broadly defined.

For more than thirty years, Canavan has argued—perhaps even more clearly and cogently than John Courtney Murray himself—for a different view of the relationship between Catholicism and liberalism. Twenty years before Alasdair MacIntyre asked liberal “anti-perfectionists” to tell us about their (undiscussed) telos, and thirty years before Michael Sandel warned of the dangers of the procedural republic, Canavan became one of the most incisive critics of liberal secularism and its narrow sectarian agenda. Rather than blurring the distinction between the Catholic and liberal intellectual traditions, Canavan has highlighted them. Unlike the “neoconservatives,” he has argued that the contemporary “retheoretization” (Murray’s term) of American (and Western) constitutionalism is a product not of a deformation of the liberal tradition of politics but rather is a flowering of that tradition’s model of man and society. But unlike the “confessionalists,” Canavan has affirmed the legitimacy, in principle, of what George Weigel has called “the Catholic human rights revolution” and its defense of constitutional democracy and religious freedom.[11]

Canavan’s account of the genesis and development of the liberal intellectual tradition builds upon Hallowell’s work. For Canavan, as for Hallowell, liberalism was never just a political movement. It was informed by a revolutionary and distinctively modern epistemology and metaphysics that emphasized the principle of the atomic, autonomous individual. Thus, subjectivism “is the essence of liberalism” and “the subjectivity of all values . . . is the direction in which the inner dynamism of liberal thought has moved from the beginning.”[12] However much “we may applaud the historical achievements of liberalism”—its role in breaking “the power of absolute monarchs” and fostering the rise of “limited, constitutional government”—the liberal model of man and society, Canavan is convinced, embodies an irremediably flawed theory of politics and “is now a menace rather than a support of constitutional democracy.”[13] “The corrosive acid of [liberalism’s] individualism” threatens to dissolve the matrix of institutions, virtues, and convictions on which a free society depends for its vitality and viability. The “better theoretical foundation” that our public life “so badly needs,” Canavan insists, must take its bearings from an anthropology that sees man “as a social being from whose nature flow relations to his family, neighbors, fellow workers, the community and the political order.” These relations “are the foundation of both rights and obligations that are prior to and independent of consent.”[14]   

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