Francis Canavan: A defiantly unfashionable Jesuit

The Crucifixion (by Rembrandt)

An American friend has recommended that I read Fun is Not Enough by Francis Canavan SJ, published by The National Committee of Catholic Laymen, Inc. They comprise his collected columns for the Catholic Eye newsletter, written between 1983 until his death, aged 91, twenty-five years later in 2008. I am glad she did so as they are wise, humorous and Catholic (Catholic writers are not always wise and humour on its own is not enough.) An academic, latterly at Fordham University, Canavan was an authority on the writings of the political philosopher, Edmund Burke.

Only knowing Burke at second-hand, largely through the books of another more modern philosopher, Sir Roger Scruton, I am glad to be reacquainted with him in Father Canavan’s columns. For instance, in “The Ideological Mind” for October 2000, he reminds us that for Burke “The decisions of prudence (contrary to the system of the insane reasoners) [are] almost all… determined on the more or the less, the earlier or the later, and on a balance of advantage and inconvenience, of good and evil.” That admirably sums up why I have a conservative-shaped mind rather than a Momentum-shaped one.

Being a disciple of Burke, Father Canavan would not be popular among large cohorts of opinion-makers today, such as the BBC or feminists. In “Happy Family Ties”, April 2001, he quotes a complaint concerning the New York Police Department, that “only 15% of new officers are women, who are half the population.” Canavan drily adds, “We are a democracy in this country, you see, and the basic rule of democracy is equality. Therefore 50% of the police force ought to be composed of women. The same goes for the armed forces.” He adds, “It would not occur to the ideological mind to ask how many women want to be police officers or soldiers.”

I need only add that the same fervent promotors of rigid, rule-book equality are at work here in the UK, leading to spirited arguments between me and my grandson, a young Oxford graduate who fervently believes the dogma of absolute equality between the sexes.

Father Canavan’s first column, for July 1983, “On Being Personally Opposed”, gives the flavour of all his columns that follow: “Personally opposed” is a code word and a signal to the elect among the electorate…It means “I’m with you; I don’t see anything really wrong in abortion either.” In “Fun is not Enough”, of June 1984, he reflects that “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.”

Just one more sample of this mixture of common sense and truth, wrapped up in Father Canavan’s own pithy conversational style: in “The Spiritual Solution”, July 2008, he relates that a Jesuit friend who was studying for a doctorate at Harvard, was once told by one of his professors, “Father, relax; you guys can’t lose” – a laconic way of observing that the spiritual outlook on life will always trump merely secular remedies to age-old human problems.