The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

November 20, 2018

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.

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]   

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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