The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

November 12, 2018

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

To put the matter simply, the Catholic intellectual tradition supplies this “better theoretical foundation” for constitutional democracy, human rights, and religious freedom. Unlike the “confessionalists,” who either reject or minimize the social teachings of the Second Vatican Council, Canavan insists that the far-reaching developments in the Church’s social magisterium over the past five decades have their roots in a new and deeper understanding of the ideas that lie at the heart of the Catholic intellectual tradition. For example, Dignitatis Humanae’s defense of religious freedom is rooted in a new understanding of the implications of one of Catholic social thought’s foundational principles, namely, the principle of limited government. The modern popes have “made both the protection of the rights and the fulfillment of the obligations of the person the natural and God-given purposes of society. Both the rights and the obligations depend upon the teleology inherent in man’s nature and supernatural destiny; the obligations are derived not from the rights but from the goods that are the goals of human nature.”[15]

The Church’s embrace of constitutional democracy cannot and must not be seen, however, as effecting some sort of rapprochement with liberalism. At the heart of the Church’s principled defense of constitutional democracy lies a substantively different model of man and society than that which lies at the heart of liberalism. Rather than seeing “man as a sovereign will free to make of itself and the world as it pleases,” Catholicism “envisions a person who is obliged to frame his life through free choices in accordance with a law built into our common human nature by the Creator, who is the first truth and supreme good, and by Christ’s call to a higher, supernatural life.”[16] Catholic social ontology envisions man not as a sovereign self but as a social being who “realizes and develops himself through communion with other persons” in a wide array of institutions and associations that have come to be called intermediary groups.[17] In sharp contrast with liberalism, the Catholic mind sees “human society as a community of communities . . . not as a collection of individuals who contracted with each other to set up a mutual-protection association called the state.”[18]

Canavan does not argue that our American experiment in self-government must be a Catholic experiment. Rather, he argues that the American experiment depends upon resources that liberalism cannot now (and, arguably, never could) provide. The Catholic intellectual tradition, shorn of accomodationism or triumphalism, supplies some of those resources in its deeper and richer personal and social ontology, and it would be well for our fellow Americans to tap into that ontology in reconstituting a viable public philosophy.


  1. Bradley’s remark appears on the back cover of the paperback edition of The Pluralist Game: Pluralism, Liberalism, and the Moral Conscience (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1995), a book that contains a number of Father Canavan’s most important essays on law, religious pluralism, and public morality.
  2. John Hallowell, The Moral Foundation of Democracy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, Midway reprint, 1973), p. 89.
  3. Peter J. Stanlis, review of Edmund Burke: Prescription and Providence, in Review of Politics 50 (Fall, 1988): 743-747.
  4. Francis Canavan, Edmund Burke: Prescription and Providence, xiii.
  5. Ibid., 4, 13.
  6. Francis Canavan, Editor’s Foreword to Select Works of Edmund Burke: A New Imprint of the Payne Edition, Volume 1 (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1999), xii.
  7. Francis Canavan, The Political Reason of Edmund Burke, 95.
  8. Francis Canavan, “The Relevance of the Burke-Paine Controversy to American Thought,” Review of Politics 49 (1987): 175.
  9. The Political Reason of Edmund Burke, 194.
  10. “The Relevance of the Burke-Paine Controversy”: 175.
  11. See George Weigel, Catholicism and the Renewal of American Democracy (New York: Paulist Press, 1989).
  12. The Pluralist Game, 115, 118.
  13. Ibid., 132-133.
  14. Ibid., 134, 133, 137.
  15. Francis Canavan, “The Image of Man in Catholic Social Thought,” in Catholicism, Liberalism, and Communitarianism: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition and the Moral Foundations of Democracy, edited by Kenneth L. Grasso, Gerard V. Bradley, and Robert P. Hunt (Lanham, MD: Rowman&Littlefield, 1995), 20.
  16. Ibid., 18.
  17. Ibid., 22.
  18. Francis Canavan, “The Popes and the Economy,” First Things 16 (October 1991): 35-41.
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