Culture

Capturing a Spiritual Father’s Freedom and Wisdom

Father Francis Canavan
A Jesuit for our times

Here’s how I endorsed the new collection Fun Is Not Enough — a compilation of columns Father Francis Canavan, S.J., wrote for the old Catholic Eye newsletter — which was published by the same people responsible for The Human Life Review: “In a world that often fails to recognize true values, those of us who seek to evangelize the culture run the risk of drowning in incoherence or submitting to the temptations of worldly idols. Here, a wise Jesuit Father will help you have none of it! This book empowers the reader to see beyond the daily distractions of politics, culture, and our overstimulated lives, and keep the focus on the truth in Christ.”

Dawn Eden Goldstein is assistant professor of dogmatic theology at Holy Apostles Seminary and author of Remembering God’s Mercy and My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints, among other books. Her life was deeply affected by Father Canavan and his wisdom, and she edited Fun Is Not Enough: The Complete Catholic Eye Columns and talks about it here.

Kathryn Jean Lopez: Why did you put the collection together?

Dawn Eden Goldstein: When I was in my twenties — well before I was Catholic or even Christian — I was a rock historian, which is to say that I interviewed artists such as Harry Nilsson, Brian Wilson, Lesley Gore, and Del Shannon and wrote about their lives and music. I also collected records and would spend hours combing dusty shops to find the one disc that was necessary to complete my collection of a particular artist.

Although I went on to become a Catholic author and academic, I never stopped being a completist. Only now, my completist craving has been transferred to books: I must read everything by my favorite authors. Father Canavan is one such author, and he is particularly special to me as I was blessed to have him as a friend and mentor.

From the time when I discovered Canavan’s work in 2006 until his death at 91 in February 2009, I was among the many Catholic Eye readers who looked forward to reading his column. His writing was brilliant, funny, sensitive, and always thought-provoking. But although an anthology of his Catholic Eye columns, Pins in the Liberal Balloon, was published in 1990, Canavan continued writing columns for nearly 20 years after that book was published, and none of those later columns were anthologized. Moreover, even Pins didn’t contain all the columns he had written up to that point.

So, when you ask me why I approached the owner of the now-defunct Catholic Eye newsletter and offered to edit an anthology of the columns Canavan wrote for that publication, the first answer is that I wanted to read such an anthology. I felt there was a need for Canavan’s Catholic Eye output to be made available in a single book. Given that October 27, 2017 would mark the centenary of Canavan’s birth, the time seemed right for a revival — especially given how relevant his writings are to our present time.

Lopez: What was prophetic about Father Francis Canavan?

Goldstein: Canavan had a gift of discernment that enabled him to rightly judge the signs of the times. He also read the literal signs of the Times — the New York Times, that is — along with bumper stickers, everyday conversations, and other things that clued him in to what people were talking about and thinking about. In that way, he was able to identify trends in popular sentiment that were not adequately understood by many of his peers in the world of academia.

In particular, Canavan dissected the philosophical errors that have led contemporary culture not only to embrace radical individualism but also take it to its logical conclusion in utilitarianism. Writing years before the Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, he had the foresight to observe that “the primacy of choice is wrecking our sexual morality, but not only that. At a deeper level, it is destroying our ability to have a social morality that goes beyond sexual conduct to question the right of any society to establish and maintain social standards on any other than utilitarian grounds.”

Lopez: What was Chestertonian about him?

Goldstein: Canavan was often called an American G. K. Chesterton. I would say it was because of his love of paradox, his wit directed at himself as much as others, and his ability to write about complex issues in language accessible to the common man.

Lopez: How did you end up getting to spend so much time getting to know Father Canavan?

Goldstein: I was blessed to know all my grandparents and have always enjoyed being around wise older people. Father Canavan had that ageless quality that one finds in every great university professor; he was a lifelong learner who believed that everyone had something to teach him. He taught not merely with his words but even more so with his personal presence.

There was no affectation about Father Canavan. Despite his high intellectual gifts, he never acted as though he believed others should defer to him. He was a humble, gentle soul, and I was thankful for every moment I was in his presence.

Lopez: Why did he believe that fun is not enough, as the collection’s title notes?

Goldstein: Canavan invites that question in his column “Nearer to the Heart’s Desire.” There, he observes, “The young and foolish may rejoice in the thought that horrified Dostoevsky, 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 does not satisfy because a philosophy based on unbridled imagination results in detachment from the reality that is given to us in creation. As Canavan says,

All rational thinking must begin with this world, the one that is. We have a choice only between this world without God, in which case we despair, or this world with God, in which case life has a purpose, and therefore a meaning and a ground for hope. For the worst thing that can happen to us is not to endure this world’s natural catastrophes or even man’s inhumanity to man. The ultimate horror is to stare, eyes wide open, into the void.

Lopez: What would a priest like him know about “Women’s Hearts,” the title one of the chapters?

Goldstein: I believe Canavan wrote “Women’s Hearts” in part as a tribute to the female nurses who cared for him during a hospital stay. After he returned home, he told me that even though there were male nurses at the hospital who were just as capable as the female nurses, the female nurses had the most comforting presence. He tried to capture that feeling when he wrote,

There are people who seem to be incapable of understanding that generalizations (statements that are generally true but admit of exceptions) can be valid. If one says, as I am saying, that women are generally more caring than men, these people hasten to tell you that their fathers really loved them. I don’t doubt that, but I am glad that my mother was a woman.

Lopez: What is Christian freedom in his eyes?

Goldstein: Canavan expresses his idea of “Christian Freedom” in a beautiful column of that title. He identifies it as the freedom that God gives to human persons through Christ to choose for themselves whether they will cooperate with grace and so accept the divine offer of eternal life. In this way, he says, “God’s judgment on us registers what we have chosen to make of ourselves.”

Lopez: What’s your favorite essay in the book?

Goldstein: It changes every day. Right now, my favorite is one that he wrote shortly before his death, in which he argues that “the basic problem of our modern culture is spiritual and cannot be remedied by secular solutions.”

Lopez: Who are these essays perfect for?

Goldstein: The columns’ brief length — each one is just five pages — makes them ideal for people who are looking to enliven their daily commute or lunch hour with thought-provoking insights on the intersection between faith, life, and culture. They are also a godsend for professors such as myself who are looking for good discussion starters for courses having to do with religion in the public square.

Lopez: How can Father Canavan helps us hit restart on marriage and the family and maybe even the Church?

Goldstein: It is striking to witness the peaceful tone that Canavan has, even when writing about some of the most distressing issues of our time. There is a calm about him that is a refreshing counter to the polemic and hyperbole that characterizes discussion of culture-war issues in this age of social media.

Canavan doesn’t sugarcoat the truth, nor does he deny the urgency of correcting injustices. But through it all he possesses the serenity of one who recognizes that the ultimate battle has already been won by Jesus Christ.

Lopez: How can Father Canavan help us take Christmas seriously, another essay topic in the collection?

Goldstein: He points out that Christmas puts the reality of the Incarnation front and center. In Canavan’s words, ”People do not go to midnight Mass to celebrate a birth that is merely symbolic of whatever philosophical beliefs happen to be fashionable in theological faculties.”

Lopez: How can Father Canavan help us take our lives more seriously? With more reason? And more joy?

Goldstein: Canavan was a chaplain to a local chapter of the Calix Society, a Catholic fellowship for people who are maintaining their sobriety through Alcoholics Anonymous, and I think that experience helped him to see that all true spirituality deals with the existential question. He is very direct in speaking about what we are meant to become during our time on earth and why we should care about the world to come. He has no patience for what he calls “the therapeutic God, for whom no one really lives, and certainly no one is willing to die.” For Canavan, God is rather “Absolute Truth, Absolute Beauty, and Absolute Good.”

Lopez: Parting words of wisdom from your spiritual father you’ll never forget?

Goldstein: Canavan often spoke of an exchange he had in the late 1960s with his friend Father Brian McGrath, S.J., then the administrative vice president of Georgetown University. It was a time when Georgetown was becoming a hotbed of radicalism. Canavan, who was at the time an associate editor for America magazine, was concerned about the spirit of dissent, and he shared with McGrath his concerns about the direction things were going.

McGrath responded by telling Canavan that a layman who was a professor at Georgetown had said to him, “What are you worried about, Father? You guys can’t lose.”

Canavan explained to me that McGrath’s message was that even a Georgetown professor could see that the secular culture had nothing to offer in comparison to the Church. The liberalism that fueled the decline of morality had no real substance. Human hearts could find their fulfillment only in what the Church had to offer — only in Christ.

To understand what that story meant to Father Canavan, and why he felt compelled to share it, is to understand the joy that was essential to his makeup, as well as his deep desire to inspire others to keep fighting the good fight.

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