Published in A Moral Enterprise: Politics, Reason, and the Human Good  – Essays in Honor of Francis Canavan, eds. Kenneth L. Grasso and Robert P. Hunt (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2002), Chapter XVII, pp. 321-38.


James V. Schall, S. J.

  Georgetown University, DC, 20057-1200




                  “In this our day, one can get a reputation for being conservative merely by being intelligent.”

                                                                    – Francis Canavan, Review of George Will, Statecraft as Soulcraft.1


                  “Unger’s communitarianism, it must be said, approaches the Utopian in that his ideal of community would seem to be realizable only in a religious order  – and how imperfectly it is realized even there only the members of a religious order know.”

                            – Francis Canavan, Review of Roberto Mangabeira Unger, Knowledge and Politics.2



                  What is the “work” of an academic?  Not with total injustice do we measure it in terms of books published, articles in “refereed” journals  – a practice not easily distinguished from censorship even by academics themselves –   number of students taught, theses directed, and faculty meetings attended.  What is most under-rated in academia are the journals of opinion and the book review wherein ideas are more sharply presented and fought about.  The reason for this neglect is that in the occasional essay or column or in the book review, we can often discover something “unscientific” about a professor-person that we might easily have missed in the more academic formats of his existence.  What we miss in this neglect is the wit and the sharp opinion, something, in the case of Francis Canavan, that is often most memorably displayed to his friends and associates by his participation in many, many academic conferences of greater or lesser fame.  Without a tape recorder or video camera on the spot, these latter interchanges have, alas, often passed into the oblivion of post-conference forgetfulness, unless, hopefully, they made their way into the recollections and memoirs of those who heard Canavan giving them.

                  I recall a meeting of exalted academic standing at which Canavan was present in the audience as a spectator.  As usual, the panel consisted of five members, of which I was one.  The panel chairman informed us in the beginning that we each had ten minutes to “summarize” our profound findings, after which there would be about half an hour discussion period.  As is routine in these scholarly affairs, the first couple of speakers took about twenty minutes apiece, then the other three hurried through their findings.  This arrangement left about five minutes for what is piously called “discussion.”  During the presentation of the papers, one of the longer papers was by a professor who earnestly informed us, as he would show us more clearly in his forthcoming book, that St. Augustine and St. Thomas were the major causes of intolerance and absolutism in the modern world.  It was one of those amazing feats of silliness that can only happen at an academic conference.

                  In any case, when it finally came to the few minutes of “discussion,” the chairman asked if any of the panelists had anything to remark on the papers.  I immediately put up my hand, knowing Fr. Canavan could not resist such a temptation, to suggest that we skip comments of panel and go immediately to questions from the floor.  The first question, of course, was from Fr. Canavan directed to the astonishingly wrong-headed idea that this young professor developed in his paper about St. Augustine and St. Thomas.  I am sure that the young man did not know who Father Canavan was, but he is not soon going to forget the lurking danger of offering this ludicrous thesis before attentive academics in clerical garb with clipped New York accents.

                  Next best thing to hearing Father Canavan in action is to read his shorter pieces.  For many years, he did a regular column of about a thousand words every month, maybe every quarter, in an obscure pro-life journal called The Catholic Eye, with its mailing address suspiciously identical with the National Review.   Later most of these columns were published in book form with the unfortunate, but, so to speak, pointed title, Pins the Liberal Balloon.3  The essays in this book are indeed polemical, but they display that clarity of reason that reduces each question taken up to its basic principle.  The essays are more than just “pins” or pricks in an ideological balloon.  They are serious, yet witty ways of establishing a principle, the deviation from which causes the problem at hand. 


                  How did he proceed?  Canavan began his review of Robert George’s book, Making Men Moral, a book that likewise displays the same clear, incisive reasoning that Canavan himself possesses, in this way:  “Aristotle says somewhere that the ability to think largely consists in the ability to make distinctions.  Then in another place, he says that most people are not good at making distinctions.”4  We should be especially attentive when someone makes Aristotle more amusing than he usually appears to be.   The late Henry Veatch was good at this, as is Canavan.  It was, after all, Aristotle himself who points out the intimate relationship between wit and humor, intelligence and metaphysics  – all are questions of seeing the relations existing among things..

                  The value of Canavan’s shorter “views and reviews,” as I call them, is that he makes and spells out the distinctions that “most people” would not be able to accomplish by themselves.  These same ordinary people, however, can see the point when a Canavan makes it explicit.  I do not think, nor I suspect does Canavan, that most people fall into error because they think wrongly.  Usually, they think wrongly because they have already fallen into some moral disorder that they try to justify by argument.  What is most useful for the ordinary person, subject to so much media and academic sophistry, is to see laid out clearly and briefly the arguments that are said to justify a given moral disorder.  In good Aristotelian tradition, it does not take a genius to see the problem.  Anyone can usually grasp the principle unless he is avoiding it to justify some deviation from the norm.

                  Let me, by way of example, follow a typical Canavan column.  I would note that when the erroneous principle is used by a cleric, as in this case, Canavan is especially pert.   So let me begin with the most politically incorrect of all topics, one on which Canavan wrote with especial acuity, namely, that the Pope’s teachings on the illiceity of contraception was in fact quite correct.  Canavan brooches this issue in a chapter in Pins in the Liberal Balloon entitled “The Logic of Contraception.”5  Canavan began the column by recalling an article by a fellow priest (at the time he was a Jesuit moral theologian) John Giles Milhaven.  The article appeared in the March-April 1970 issue of The Critic.  Canavan cited the following passage from Milhaven:

The dissent (among theologians against the teaching of the Church), which was motivated by the practical needs of married people, was justified ethically by the principle that deliberately willed sexual activity need not always be open to procreation.  The principle is a direct contradiction of the classic natural law principle that not only excluded any use of contraception in marriage but was also the key principle prohibiting say deliberate sex outside of marriage.  So far as I know, the theologians who rejected the natural law principle in order to permit contraception have found no convincing one to replace it to prohibit all extramarital sexual behavior.

The first thing that Canavan notes about this intriguing paragraph is that its author “not long afterwards left the priesthood, married a wife, and took upon himself the burdens of married people.”  Canavan adds, with some relish, “it cannot be said, therefore, that he was unsympathetic to their practical needs.”

                  What concerned Canavan in this “logic” article is the last sentence of Milhaven with which Canavan agreed.  In fact, he adds, “very few have even tried to find an argument that allows contraception in marriage but prohibits all sexual activity outside of marriage.”  The key word is “an argument.”  Canavan then zeros in on the principle involved.  He remarks that those theologians, like Charles Curran, who reject the papal position, still try, however illogically, to insist that some “reason” must be given for employing contraceptives in marriage.  Why should they bother?  These theological liberals hold that the sexual “act has no natural and morally obliging structure and purpose.”   The restriction of any use of the act  is only a question of “intention” or “circumstances” that could make the act morally impermissible with contraceptives.  “Intention” and “circumstances,” of course, are either external to the act or outside its central essence.  We should “intend” to do good in the right time and right circumstances, but the “good” is not simply the intention to do it.  It is what is done.  As Aristotle says, we cannot “intend” to commit murder or adultery because they are already not good, that is, the acts themselves.

                  The next step in this argument, Canavan continues, is to realize that it is not just a question of acts inside marriage.  “The logic of contraception calls into question the idea that any particular kind of sexual act is the uniquely normal and permissible one.”  To clarify his argument Canavan proposes a question “seldom confronted by pious liberals.”  At this point, in parentheses, Canavan remarks of the “pious liberals” that “they are the worst kind (of liberals), because they piously refuse to admit unwelcome facts or to face what they regard as shocking and alarmist questions.”  The “unwelcome facts” and the “shocking questions” that are not faced, no doubt, emphasize the ease and rapidity with which we have passed from worrying about acts within marriage to the position that any sort of sexual act is permissible, no matter with whom or by whom or for whom.  The early liberals said this latter consequence would not follow.  Today, everyone sees that this is what happened.  So the questions comes down to this: “why, if it is permissible to sterilize the sexual act while performing it (what contraception does), it is nonetheless necessary to perform it with the organs of procreation, and with them alone.”  The link between the act and its abiding purpose is broken with contraceptive use.  Once broken, anything goes.  This logic is what is at stake in the papal argument which is quite aware that a slight error in principle would lead to vast erroneous consequences.  If sex was to have no relation to generation of offspring, then any sort of sex in any condition was quite reasonable in principle.  If the relation between act and purpose exists, then only that sex related to openness to children is valid.

                  The argument has vast political and practical consequences.  “The issue is whether homosexual relations are wrong in themselves and deserving of no protection by society or are merely the object of popular but irrational disgust.”  Needless to say, some quarter century after Canavan wrote these words, the popular, even legally enforced position, is that there is nothing wrong with homosexual acts or any other kind of sexual acts as such.  It is all a question of personal taste.  Any sort of sexual activity is not merely permitted but it is increasingly considered intolerant and intolerable to disagree in public with its legitimacy, even with its “normalcy.”  A university in England recently prohibited the use in speech of the phrase “normal sex” on campus as discriminatory because there is no such thing as “normal sex.”!  That would imply a purpose, a principle. 

                  Canavan has a certain sympathy for what he calls the “hardnosed” liberal in these matters  – at least he thinks him to be consistent.

Hardnosed liberals say flatly that there is nothing wrong with homosexual relations per se because no sexual relations of any kind are or can be wrong in themselves.  Pious liberals confine themselves to deploring homosexual promiscuity while pleading for understanding for homosexuals.  As between the two of them, we must prefer the hardnosed liberals, because they at least know what they mean and say it.

Thus, if there is no principle involved, no principle of nature or right, then sexual activity with any one, of any gender, of any marital or non-marital status, some even include children, perhaps even bestiality, is permitted.  “Whether it is a morally good thing to do depends entirely on one’s intention and the circumstances, not on the nature of the act.”

                  Canavan concludes this short essay by pointing out that this question first came up in the Church of England in the 1920's, even before the Lambeth Conference in 1930 approved contraception.  At that time, some Anglican thinkers argued that the consequences of accepting contraception would lead to the approval of any sort of sexuality.  The pious liberals would not see it.  But it has come about as those theologians predicted.  “To accept contraception as legitimate, even within marriage and for serious reasons, is to pull out the linchpin that holds the whole structure of Christian sexual morality together.”  The Church of England has the dubious honor of leading the way here.  What is surprising, perhaps, is the degree to which dissenting Catholics have followed this lead.

                  Applying this heritage to the Catholic position, then, Canavan refers to Paul VI’s principle, that “Each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life.”  Granted that not every act actually produces life, in an uncanny way this “openness” remains the key.  “Take it out and the structure of Christian sexual morality falls apart.”  Canavan simply finishes his essay by recalling that the very dissent of the theologians who initially approved contraception gradually led them to approve everything else.  Whatever one chooses to make of this record, Canavan implies, there is a logic to it, both a logic that saves what marriage and begetting are about and a logic that justifies almost anything.  It all depends, as Aristotle said, on a “slight error” in the beginning.  The error was that what counts is not the act but the intention.

                  As a kind of commentary or afterthought on this essay of Canavan, it is amusing to note his review of Jill and Leon Uris’ book, Ireland: A Terrible Beauty.6  This book, Canavan thought, was an expensive coffee table book with photos and text.  I record Canavan’s assessment of this book’s central teaching for its prophetic insight.  “The root of Ireland’s troubles, it appears, is sexual repression,” Canavan records Uris as arguing.

A reactionary hierarchy, trained in a Maynooth Seminary, staffed by Jansenists, foisted an inhuman morality on a downtrodden and obedient people.  The same hierarchy now stands in the way of “desperately needed progressive reforms.”  The essential reforms are these: contraception, abortion, and divorce.  Given these, Uris is confident that Ireland will produce a generation of vigorous, self-confident men and women who will create a new nation of unsurpassed vitality.

The “Irish” in Canavan, with considerable irony, clearly wrote this marvelous prescription of Uris to cure Ireland of its ills.  Impartial observers of Ireland today might legitimately wonder if the country and its bishops have not indeed preferred Uris to the old Maynooth Seminary  -- now no longer Jansenist but subsumed into the Irish university system!  Canavan himself thought that Uris’ is a formula to make the once distinct Ireland “just like Europe.”  If this is progress, we certainly have it.




                  A good portion of Canavan’s book reviewing concerns, not unexpectedly, books on Edmund Burke, about whom Canavan himself has written so much and whose name is a widely respected in the field of Burkean studies.  To give some idea of the flavor of Canavan’s often pungent reviews of books on Burke, let me begin with a book with which Canavan was sympathetic, namely Harvey Mansfield’s Selected Letters of Edmund Burke, which Canavan reviewed in Interpretation.7  Canavan recognized this particular selection to be very good.  But the reason why I want to begin with this particular review is that in it, Canavan reveals both his clear perception of the issues at stake and his own enjoyment of what we might call “making distinctions,” or the unexpected delight of the academic vocation.

One might also question Mansfield’s opinion that in Burke’s thought the authority of the past and the claims of the future “substitute for divine providence to ensure that present government governs with a sense of shame.”  Burke’s appeals to divine law were too explicit and too frequent to admit of that interpretation. 

These may only be the nits that scholars love to pick and which are half the fun of academic life.  They do not, in any case, seriously detract from the value of this well-edited selection of Burke’s letters.8

What is to be admired in this brief comment is not merely its humor but, at the same time, the delicacy with which Canavan deals with a not infrequent view that Burke was not serious about his references to divine law.  That is, there is no substitute for divine providence in Burke, neither the past, nor the future, nor both put together.

                  Canavan’s attention to detail can be seen in another way in his review of Michael Freeman’s Edmund Burke and the Critique of Political Radicalism, in the American Political Science Review.  “The book’s title is a bit misleading,” Canavan remarks, “since it is more a critique of Burke’s conservatism than a presentation of his critique of political radicalism.  It is a curious lacuna in the work that Freeman does not bother to tell us what was the radical political ideology that Burke attacked.”9  Canavan’s phrase “a curious lacuna” serves to alert the reader that the agenda of the author is other than it appears from his title.

                  Canavan has waged a constant battle with interpreters of Burke who refuse to see in him anything more than English empiricism or radical historicism.  Thus of Stephen Browne’s Edmund Burke and the Discourse of Virtue, Canavan wrote, “Browne’s weakness is in his understanding of the foundations of Burke’s political thought.”10  Those weaknesses were pretty basic of course.  What were they?  “They were, at the deepest level, theological, particularly the doctrine of the divine creation of the universe and its governance by divine providence, and philosophical, the doctrine of natural law.  Browne’s limited understanding of natural law appears in the following paragraph (then cited), in which every proposition is simply wrong.”  Two weaknesses are cited, one theological, about creation, one philosophical, about natural law, neither of which the book’s author seems to have understood.  Such astute comments, I think, alert the attentive reader to serious problems in the work cited.

                  Evidently, English scholars in particular have a difficult time understanding the metaphysical side of Burke.  They continually want to make Burke into something like Bentham, into a chronicler of facts.  One of these gentlemen was F. P. Lock in his Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France.  Canavan’s manner of pointing out this problem is again entertaining and crisp.

One of Great Britain’s more unfortunate exports to her far-flung dominions (Lock was from the University of Queensland in Australia) has been the empiricist tradition in philosophy.  It leaves a scholar, even one empowered with a good mind (as Canavan thought to be the case with Lock) incapable of perceiving any intellectually respectable ground for choice between the simple-minded rationalism of Thomas Paine and what appears as the mysticism and irrationalism of Burke’s approach to the transcendent order.  Neither of these is acceptable to the empiricist mind.  But then, the empiricist mind also has its limitations.11

In this passage, Canavan does several useful things.  He underscores a certain blindness usually found in the tradition of British empiricism.  He does not so much argue with it here, but points out in the final rather acerbic sentence that the limitations of empiricism themselves need to be examined.  The problem is with the philosophy of empiricism, not with natural law.

                  Frequently, in reviews of books on Burke, Canavan comes across passages in which he himself is mentioned; often there is a paraphrase of his position in the book.  An example of this is found in Paul Hindson and Tim Gray’s Burke’s Dramatic Theory of Politics.  In this book, evidently, the following description of typical natural law thinkers, Canavan included, is presented:  “Natural law thesis  – a single set of moral principles or natural law informs Burke’s political philosophy and ... he simply applies these fixed principles to all political issues.”  Canavan is pleasingly brusque about this understanding of what he was doing: “But I must say I cannot imagine a more complete misunderstanding than the words quoted above of what those of us who situated Burke within the tradition of national law are saying.”12  What particularly provokes Canavan are those who cite him and then show that they did not understand what he was arguing.

                  One last, and most egregious, misunderstanding of Burke needs to be mentioned, namely that of Isaac Kramnick’s The Rage of Edmund Burke.  Kramnick is a professor at Cornell University.  Kramnick’s evident purpose is to show, on the basis of his psychoanalytic reading of Burke, that those scholars, of which Canavan was cited as one, who use Burke as a thinker to “defend Western Civilization” had in mind mainly “the threat of world communism.”    To counteract this group of conservative thinkers, Kramnick tries to show that Burke himself had an “inner ambivalence” and feeling of doubt about aristocracy.  Burke had no objective purpose.  He had two warring side of his  personality who confused sexual roles and political roles. 

                  Canavan had little patience with this sort of analysis, of course.  “As one of the persons named in that passage (of Kramnick), I may claim the right to comment on it.  I am, as it happens, the world’s leading authority on the subject of what I think, and I can testify that in anything I have written on Burke, Communism was about the last thing on my mind.  I do not recall so much as mentioning it.”  Canavan, no doubt “the world’s leading authority” on what he thinks, finally points out that he could use the same dubious methodology on Kramnick as Kramnick used on Burke. 

Thus, one could ask what there is in Kramnick’s ethnic, social, cultural and religious heritage that makes him read Burke the way he does.  Does his urge to psychoanalyze Burke betray a culturally inducted inability to understand what Burke was talking about?  Does his own personal ambition explain the kind of scholarship he engages in?  What are the sexual hangups that dispose him to find sexual problems lurking everywhere beneath the words and deeds of a public figure?13

Canavan reflects this sort of thing is probably unfair though it is difficult to see on what grounds Kramnick could object to it.  “After all,” Canavan adds, “a mind that can read the writings of Burke from end to end and find little in them beyond ‘the revelation of Burke’s own tortured self’ is the kind of mind that invites speculation about itself.”  Indeed.


                  Another side of Canavan’s mind is revealed in certain longer reviews that enable him to take a look at the whole scope of Western history.  I am thinking here of his review of Ernest Fortin’s very important three volume Collected Essays, of James Hitchcock’s The Decline and Fall of Radical Catholicism, Hans Blumenberg’s The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, and John Lukacs’ The Passing of the Modern Age.14  In his sympathetic review of Fortin, Canavan remarks,

As Fortin himself says, “A number of interlocking themes, all of them controversial, form the warp and woof of these collected essays.”  He is not a man to shun controversy and will not be surprised when he encounters it.  I will conclude by mentioning a few bones that I have to pick with him.

I have never agreed with his insistence that modern papal teaching on natural or, as we now say, human rights is a significant departure from traditional natural-law doctrine, which emphasized duties over rights.  He attributes to Aquinas the view that “even without divine grace [human] nature is complete in itself and possesses its own intrinsic perfection in that it has within itself that by means of which it is capable of attaining its end.”  But this is an understanding of Aquinas that is no longer commonly held.  Finally, Fortin acknowledges that Dante wrote as a Christian, but says that whether he also thought as a Christian is open to question.15

Each of these points, the primacy of duties to rights, the status of the actual supernational intention of God in creating man, and the question of whether Dante was an Averroist, someone who hid his real non-Christian teachings, each deserve a book.  Canavan at least notes the nature of the problem.

                  In the Blumenberg review (this book was originally in German, Canavan reviews a translation), a book designed to nullify any classical or medieval critique of modernity, Canavan again shows his familiarity with the relevant theological and philosophical principles at stake:

Most fundamental to Blumenberg’s thesis is his acceptance of the theory, which was current in certain quarters of the late middle ages, that if an omnipotent God creates, he must create everything possible....  That is to say, that God cannot create unless he creates another God.  That may be where a rigorous thinker ends up if he starts with the premises of nominalist metaphysics and epistemology, but Blumenberg pays insufficient attention to the question of whether one must start there.16

This comment of Canavan is mindful of something that Etienne Gilson once remarked, that we are free to choose our first principles perhaps, but once we choose them, we can no longer think as we want but as we must.  The notions that God must create everything possible or that He must create Himself are among the more bizarre nominalist positions.  The fact is, God need not create anything, but the one thing He cannot do is “re-create” Himself.

                  Looking back after thirty years, Canavan’s reading of the Hitchcock thesis of radical Catholicism still makes very good sense.  Writing on the causes of the failure of the aggiornamento hoped for after Vatican II, Canavan cites Hitchcock’s central thesis: “the radicals have chiefly themselves to blame for the failure....  ‘The official progressive myth,” he (Hitchcock) says, continues to argue that it was ‘not the reformers discovering the inadequacy of their own ideas and programs which brought disillusionment but rather the institutional Church, which refused calls for meaningful reforms.’” Canavan adds, “But the myth is false.”  That is to say, the real problem was indeed in the minds of the reformers and their inability to see themselves or their own presuppositions.

                  At the end of this lengthy review, Canavan adds a sort of comment of his own putting in a broader context Hitchcock’s more narrowly confined discussion.  “The most massive and obvious religious phenomenon in modern society,” Canavan observes, “is the dechristianization of Western culture.  It is not a total dechristianization but it is a profound one, affecting all aspects of social life, and it has been going on for at least three hundred yeas.  It seems to me that any adequate explanation of the situation of the Church in the modern world must account for this mass apostasy from Christianity.17  Canavan rightly points out that this secularization included both Catholic and Protestant churches so it cannot be seen as simply a Catholic thing.  Moreover, this secularization was not carried out by those “disillusioned” with the existing Church structures.  The revolt of modernity was directed at Christianity itself in all its phases, pious or not. 

                  Canavan has a very realistic judgment about what the real problem is.  It is not the structures of the Church. 

To the post-Christian world, Christianity is not the self-revelation of the personal and transcendent God, but a mythological hangover from a more primitive age; Christian morality does not liberate men for the service of God but deforms and oppresses them by its exaggerated and misdirected demands.  The post-Christian mind will not be budged from these convictions bu anything short of a genuine and thorough religious conversion.  No reconciliation through the medium of a progressivist Christianity is really possible.

Canavan notices also that this revolt against Christianity is also a revolt against reason itself.  Canavan’s very positive reflections on Hitchcock’s thesis leads him to the heart of Western atheism which simply replaces God by man minus any divine or rational norms.

                  Canavan’s review of John Lukacs the Passing of the Modern Age is entitled “The New Dark  Ages.”  It was written six months before the Hitchcock review.  He begins the review by citing an  unnamed “cynical Jesuit” who remarked that “we have ... a genius for anticipating the past.”18  This kind of “genius,” Canavan playfully remarks, is not a monopoly of Jesuits but is “a common property of liberal Catholic intellectuals today.”  What is it that this genius proposes?  It is that “the Church’s only hope for the future ... is to adapt herself as rapidly as possible to the modern world.”  But to do this sort of adaptation, Canavan thinks, is to adapt oneself not to the future but to the past. 

                  The crisis of culture that Lukacs deals with is “chiefly an interior one.”  Canavan is sympathetic with Lukacs description of crises in understanding of democracy, in blind faith in the state, in morality, in the Church itself, in art.  Lukacs thinks that the family is the only possible institution to survive this decline of culture.  The Hitchcock review, the Lukacs review, and the Fortin review reveal Canavan in a mode of surveying the broader scope of the Western mind and its various crises. through the eyes of writers with whom he is generally sympathetic and favorable.

                  This same interior crisis of civilization is indicated by Canavan in another way.  “It takes a remarkably unphilosophical mind,” he wrote in his review of Bernard Nathanson’s book, “to think that being human consists in looking human.  But unphilosophical minds are what many Americans have, especially among the opinion making elites.”19   In this review, Canavan in particular noted what happens when we insist in deceiving ourselves about what we are doing.  “Prove to the hilt that the unborn child is a fully human being, and the answer of a substantial number of influential people will be, ‘so what?’  These people have moved beyond denying the humanity of the fetus to questioning the value of human life at any stage if it suffers the misfortune of being ‘unwanted” of ‘not meaningful.’” That is, once the argument is clear, as it is, that unborn children are in fact human beings, those who want to get rid of them anyhow will immediately shift their grounds and find that any reason of deformity, of inconvenience, of too many, of other concerns will serve the purpose.  Philosophy yields to will.


                  In an essay, “We’re Not Executing the Innocent,” Paul Cassell wrote in the Wall Street Journal (June 16, 2000), we find the following paragraph which is something pertinent to what Canavan wrote in Thought in 1977 about punishment.  “Colleen Reed, among many others, serves to be remembered in any discussion of our error rates (ie., number of executions that were in error of facts),” Cassell wrote. 

She was kidnapped, raped, tortured and finally murdered by Kenneth McCuff during the Christmas holidays in 1991.  She would be alive today if McDuff had not narrowly escaped execution three times for two 1966 murders.  His life was spared when the Supreme Court set aside death penalties in 1972, and he was paroled in 1989 because of prison overcrowding in Texas.  After McDuff’s release, Reed and at least eight other women died at his hands.  Gov. George W. Bush approved McDuff’s execution in 1998.

Many believe that modern states can simply keep such types as McDuff in prison all his life.  But the passage shows that theories of prison’s purpose and the natural tendency of the criminal, plus the cost, will often allow decisions that turn such murderers back on society.  Surely some civil officials are responsible for these murders as well as McDuff. 

                  I bring this matter up here because of Canavan’s 1979 review of Walter Berns’ book, For Capital Punishment.  Berns remarked that today prisons are used to keep criminals “off the streets while they corrupt one another behind bars.”  Few ever look at the immoral and corrupting conditions that follow in a prison society.  But in this review, Canavan recalled a personal incident that served to give him a rather realistic outlook on the matter.  Berns had argued that the purpose of punishment is not reeducation or reform, nor is it solely to protect others.  It is also educative both for the prisoner and for the public.  To punish is to announce what things are seriously wrong and at the same time give the prisoner a personal knowledge of the consequences of his act.

                  “My cousin the cop told me some years ago of an armed robber who was shot and wounded while fleeing from the scene of the crime,” Canavan recollected in the review.

Later, lying in his hospital bed, he said to the policeman guarding him: “You know that cop that shot me  – he’s crazy!  – man, crazy!  You don’t shoot people anymore.  You used to do that, but now you don’t shoot people.  That cop’s crazy!”  Having gone on in this vein for some time, he then said: “You know, I’ve done a lot of things and I’ve got away with a lot of things, but I don’t think I’ll try that any more.  I might meet this crazy cop again and he  might just blow me right out of here.”20

Reflecting on his cop cousin’s narrative, Canavan adds, “I remain persuaded that we shall always have with us a certain number of people who need to be convinced that they might just get blown right out of here!”   The McDuff’s of this world evidently pressed their luck as far as it could go even in the most liberal of societies.

                  Canavan then offered the following general reflection on the need and nature of punishment following Berns’ study of the matter:

But we must come to believe again that punishment, regularly and predictably inflicted, will in fact deter, and, moreover, that crime deserves to be punished.  Retribution is not a barbaric reason for punishing; it is the right reason.  For only so can the community affirm the moral order in which it is based and can citizens be satisfied that justice is being done.  By punishing criminals retributively, the law performs the educative function of blaming their deeds and of approving those who do not commit such deeds.  Take that away and you erode society’s faith in itself as a moral community where men are trained to obey the laws, and, if they disobey, are punished as moral agents responsible for their own actions.21

 This is as good a statement of the classical position on the subject that we can find.  It is a combination of Canavan’s cop cousin, of Walter Berns’ logic, of Plato’s theory of justice, and of Aquinas’ theory of law.


                  In conclusion, I think that we have here the wide range of Canavan’s mind and wit.  He catches the little, annoying things.  He explains the broad truths.  Of annoying things, he writes, in a review of The Crisis of Liberal Democracy, actually he thought it a very good book, “It is a pity the book crawls with typographical errors to such an extent that one is forced to wonder if anyone proof-read it.”  But he kindly adds, “I have been assured that the errors have been corrected in a second printing.”22  Of broad truths, he writes in his review of Ellis Sandoz’ excellent A Government of Laws, “The (American) founders wrought their handiwork within an understanding of the world shaped by Biblical, classical, and Christian thought, and their work is intelligible only as having been done in no other view of the world.  It was ultimately the divine moral order that subordinated government itself to law and denied arbitrary power to any human authority: hence a government of laws, not of men.”23  This statement is both an accurate statement of Professor Sandoz’s position and an insightful summary of the principles involved in any theory of government.

                  Canavan’s what? exasperation at dubious thinking is everywhere evident.  He is not annoyed just to be annoyed but because there is a basic principle involved.  Of Robert Nozick’s famous book, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Canavan wrote, “Besides, why should one want to defend the inviolable rights of the individual to do, not what is good in itself or will make him a better human being or will help him to save his soul, but simply what it pleases him to do?”24  Yes, why would anyone want this position?  I suspect that the real reason is that it is the only way to reject the implications of Canavan’s three alternatives  – what is good in itself, what will make us a better human being, therefore knowing the difference between better and worse, and finally the need of saving out souls.

                  In 1987, to conclude this saga of Canavan reviews with an unexpected turn, the Louisiana State University Press published a book of mine entitled, Reason, Revelation, and the Foundations of Political Philosophy.  In looking through the many books that Francis Canavan reviewed, I came across his review of this very book.  Somehow, I do not recall that he had reviewed it at the time.  So, in the light of what I have been saying about Canvavan’s keen wit, it was with some trepidation that I read this review while reading for this essay.  The title of the review is “Politics is Only Politics,” which is a very accurate summation of what I was trying to argue.  Canavan rightly pointed out that the book was not about current political elections.  “Ten years from now,” he asked rhetorically, “who will remember anything about the 1988 campaign, except that the man who got elected ran against what’s-his-name?”  Dukakis is not too memorable for sure.  Canavan understood the audience and the scope of the book.   “It is to make politics be only politics and nothing more, and to keep political thought from turning itself into a metaphysics  – an ‘explanation of all that is  – or pretending to be a divine revelation.”25  That summary is exactly the point.  Canavan too understood the place of revelation in the argument, as a response to a solid philosophy which still does not answer all of its own questions.  Needless to say, there is at least one author who thinks Canavan is a dandy reviewer!

                  Thus, the views and reviews of Francis Canavan are well worth remembering and rereading.  Canavan writes both for those who believe in God and for those who believe that this is the best possible world.  In a column called, “Nearer to the Heart’s Desire,” Canavan wrote the following lines, mindful of what he had said of the Blumenberg book about modernity and addressed to those who think that God somehow “muffed it” in creation:

Particularly in recent centuries, God has had a bad press for not making a better job of the world that He created.  Much of modern atheism is less the result of rigorous intellectual argument than of emotional refusal to believe in the Creator of a world like this one.  People cannot forgive Him for not creating the best of all possible worlds, when He cold have done so.  If we reflect upon the matter, however, it becomes clear that, if there is no God, this is the best of all possible worlds, because it is the only possible world.26  

The essence of the Canavan mind is found in that passage. 

                  We find a certain soberness in Canavan when he reaches the essence of the modern mind that will not  – the words are mindful of Genesis –    accept the dimensions of God creating a free creature who must also seek his own destiny freely, even when it is offered to him freely.  “Men  do not stop believing in God because they have discovered that the world is meaningless,” Canavan writes..  “Rather they conclude that the world is meaningless because they have stopped believing in God.  Their reasons for disbelief, no doubt, are many and various.  But one of the more powerful ones is a sentimentality that will not accept the world that is as God’s world.”27   This “sentimentality that will not accept” is the modern political metaphysics that seeks in every way possible to prove that this is, indeed, the best possible world because it “knows” that God did not create it and therefore men are not responsible for what they do.

                  The last words belong to Canavan.  He did indeed earn a reputation “merely by being intelligent.”  And as “a member of a religious order,” he knew that Utopia, the perfect society, did not exist in this world, even in, especially in perhaps, the religious order.  As far as I can see, this last truth left him with a certain delightful eye that was able to enjoy this less than perfect world in which he lived and, at the same time, he did not blame God but mostly himself if things did not go right.  If Canavan is deserving of any punishment for his worldly and literary deeds, I think it best to call on his cop cousin to administer it.



1. Francis Canavan, Review of George Will, Statecraft as Soulcraft, in America, 149 (July 16, 1983), 34.

2. Francis Canavan, Review of Roberto Mangabeira Unger, Knowledge and Politics, America, 132 (May 3, 1975), 343.

3. Francis Canavan, Pins in the Liberal Balloon (New York: A Catholic Eye Book Published by the National Committee of Catholic Laymen, 1990), 180 pp.

4. Francis Canavan, Review of Robert George’s Making Men Moral, in International Philosophical Quarterly, 34 (December, 1994), 512.  See Robert Sokolowski, “The Method of Philosophy: Making Distinctions,” The Review of Metaphysics LI (March, 1998), 515-32, where this Aristotelian point made by Canavan is further drawn out.

5. Pins, ibid., 76-78.

6. Francis Canavan, Review of Jill and Leon Uris, Ireland: A Terrible Beauty, in America, 134 (Januray 31, 1976), 76.

7. Francis Canavan, Review of Harvey Mansfield, Selected Letters of Edmund Burke, in Interpretation, 13 (September, 1985), 434-35.

8.Ibid., 434-35.  It might be noted that the author of this present essay, on the basis of this review, was tempted to entitle this reflection on Canavan’s work, “Half the Fun of Academic Life.”  “On Merely Being Intelligent,” the title chosen, may in fact, provide most of the other half of the fun..

9. Francis Canavan, Review of Michael Freeman, Edmund Burke and the Critique of Political Radicalism, in The American Political Science Review, 75 (September, 1981), 741.

10. Francis Canavan, Review of Stephen Browne, Edmund Burke and the Discourse of Virtue, in The Review of Politics, 57 (Winter, 1995), 162-64.

11. Francis Canavan, Review of F. Pl Lock, Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, in The Review of Politics, 48 (Fall, 1986), 431.

12. Francis Canavan, Review of Paul Hindson and Tim Gray, Burke’s Dramatic Theory of Politics, in Theological Studies, 50 (September, 1989), 617.

13. Francis Canavan, Review of Isaac Kramnick, The Rage of Edmund Burke, in America, 136 (January 21, 1978),

14. Francis Canavan, Review of Ernest Fortin, Collected Essays, in Interpretation, 25 (Winter, 1998), 257-63.  Review of James Hitchcock, The Decline and Fall of Radical Catholicism, in Triumph, 6 (October, 1971), 32-36.  Review of Hans Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, in Teaching Political Science, 14 (Winter, 1987), 95-97.  Review of John Lukacs, The Passing of the Modern Age, in Triumph, 6 May, 1971), 14-16.

15. Canavan, Fortin, ibid, 262-63.

16. Canavan, Blumenberg, ibid., 97.

17. Canavan, Hitchcock, ibid., 36.

18. Canavan, Lukacs, ibid., 14.

19. Francis Canavan, Review of Bernard Nathanson, The American Papers: Inside the Abortion Mentality, in the New Oxford Review, 51 (December, 1984), 25.

20. Francis Canavan, Review of Walter Berns, For Capital Punishment, in National Review, XXXI (August 17, 1979), 1042

21. Ibid, 1044.

22. Francis Canavan, Review of The Crisis of Liberal Democracy, in International Philosophical Quarterly, 28 (1988), 112.

23. Francis Canavan, Review of Ellis Sandoz, A Government of Laws, in Thought, 51 (December, 1991), 428.

24. Francis Canavan, Review of Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, in America, 133 (July 19, 1975), 37

25. Francis Canavan, Review of James V. Schall, Reason, Revelation, and the Foundations of Political Philosophy, in Homiletic and Pastoral Review, LXXXIX (January, 1989, 69.

26. Francis Canavan, “Nearer to the Heart’s Desire,” Pins, ibid, 25.

27. Ibid., 27.