Fun is Not Enough: The Complete Catholic Eye Columns
by francis canavan, s.j., edited by dawn eden goldstein; introduction by stephen m. fields, s.j.; national committee of catholic laymen;
en route books, 382 pages, $14.95
When Francis Canavan died in 2009, the Society of Jesus lost one of its finest men, as did America. Fr. Canavan loved his Church and his country deeply. He demonstrated that love in his ministry as a faithful Jesuit priest, teacher and counselor; and second, as a brilliant interpreter of the American republic.
An authority on Edmund Burke and a professor of political science at Fordham for over twenty years, Canavan appealed to academics and laymen alike. Nowhere did he synthesize his talents better than in his many contributions to the Catholic Eye, which published his social and political commentaries for over twenty-five years. These writings have now been collected in Fun is Not Enough, and they are as lively and powerful now as when they first appeared. American Catholics who are confused and distressed by the ongoing tumult in Church and state will be invigorated by them.
Canavan’s writings are steeped in the Judeo-Christian tradition, and they concentrate on what Russell Kirk called “the permanent things.” The book’s title is taken from Canavan’s column on secular progressives, in which he criticized their frivolities and described the bleak universe they inhabit:
The young and foolish may rejoice in the thought that horrified Dostoyevsky, that if there is no God, everything is permitted. Fools see only that, if there is no divine judge, there is no one to stop the fun, but older heads understand that fun is not enough.
Fun is for kids, continues Canavan, but “it eventually palls on adults.” The more mature skeptics “follow Bertrand Russell’s advice to build their lives on the foundation of a firm and unyielding despair. Being intelligent, they see that despair is the necessary response to a godless universe.”
Here, skeptics might reply that they at least have the courage to look upon the universe with an unflinching eye—without illusions about the supernatural. Canavan, however, contends that skeptics haven’t come close to disproving the existence of God, much less recognized how trapped they are in their own illusions.
Among them is the idea that liberty and equality should be the highest goals of a democracy. Yet liberty and equality cannot be the supreme values of a political system, writes Canavan, “because they relativize and ultimately destroy all other values” by subordinating them to these quasi-sacred goals. Further, to assert that liberty and equality should reign supreme only begs the question about their meaning and influence on American democracy. As Canavan remarks:
Without some ordering principle that specifies the content of liberty and equality, we cannot harmonize the two goals. The ordering principle, to work effectively, must be outside and above liberty and equality. It cannot be a vague “fraternity” but must be some commonly held judgment on what human beings are and what is truly good for them.
Historically, America’s “ordering principle” has largely, albeit not exclusively, been drawn from the West’s biblical heritage. But since certain organizations, politicians, and judges began making it their purpose to upend that heritage, the nation has been shaken from its foundations. The result, writes Canavan, is that “American society now lacks what Walter Lippmann called the public philosophy. We shall lack it increasingly as the moral and religious capital of our culture, on which liberalism has always traded even as it eroded it, is drained away.”
Liberals say they stand for “pluralism,” “tolerance,” and “diversity” in an open society, but these words have become empty slogans, as the Left abandons any pretense of tolerance by relentlessly attacking conservative Americans and their religious liberty. Canavan warned this would happen in two prophetic works, The Pluralist Game and Freedom of Expression. He did not, though, limit his criticism to liberals and secularists—he held his own Church accountable, too.
Canavan laments that American Catholics, as much as any of their fellow Christians, have accelerated the pace of secularization. Instead of serving as leaven for the Gospel, they’ve retreated from it, and endlessly accommodated its most determined opponents. Worse, a good number of them have enthusiastically joined the revolution against faith and morals—even as they insist on being called Catholic. Dissenting theologians, fashionable religious, and celebrity academics have all played their part, but Canavan believed that Catholic pastors bore the heaviest responsibility. In “Preaching by Silence,” his sharpest column on the subject, he examines priests who scrupulously avoid any topic that might make their parishioners feel uncomfortable—such as sin, heaven, hell, and judgment—and thus deliver homilies no more challenging than a Hallmark greeting card.
“This technique makes for popularity,” writes Canavan, but it also masks the loss of faith of those clergymen who practice it. The faithless preacher
does not contradict the doctrine of his Church. He just doesn’t mention it, and concentrates on those themes and causes, usually of a “progressive” nature, which he judges to be true and important. He thus succeeds in preaching heresy, so to speak, by silence. No one can lay a glove on him, because he has denied no essential doctrine of faith.
But by his sins of omission, he empties Christianity of its spiritual dynamism and its very reason for being. Against this subtle apostasy, Canavan rebels. If we hope to save our souls, we dare not fail to proclaim the Gospel.
In contrast to the silent preachers, Canavan found no topic too hot to handle. Fun is Not Enough is filled with columns presenting the arguments for contraception, abortion, unrestricted sex, pornography, euthanasia, and the redefinition of marriage—each of which Canavan answers with clear and decisive blows.
Lest anyone think Canavan wrote only about culture-war issues, this collection shows him defending the Sermon on the Mount and the Church’s social teachings on behalf of the poor. He does so with aplomb, drawing on his knowledge of history, law, theology, and politics—and without resorting to invective or over-heated polemics. Canavan had a rare ability to refute error, and expose deception, with charity and wit. This quip is an example: “Our contemporary culture, officially at least, does not care what kind of sexual activity you engage in so long as you don’t smoke cigarettes doing it.” More examples appear in his column “Losing the Faith,” in which Canavan explains why he has lost all belief—not in God or Holy Scripture, but in the skeptics.
One thing Canavan never lost faith in was the United States. It is not that he was naïve about America’s promise, or unaware of the capacity of Americans to turn it into a wreck—far from it, as these sobering essays reveal. But like a Jesuit he knew and admired, John Courtney Murray, Canavan consistently maintained that it need not be so. He believed that America had the ability to heal itself. To assert, as some disillusioned Christians have, that America was “ill-founded,” and has been rotten from the start, not only misrepresents America’s founding vision and documents, according to Canavan, but leaves American Christians in despair.
That is no way for Christians to live, in the United States or anywhere. Always the happy warrior, Canavan encouraged American Christians to fight the good fight, defend truth, decency, and life, and trust in God to work out the rest.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine.