The Christian Humanism of John Kavanaugh, S.J. (Part I)

With the start of the school year, many remember the teachers who formed and transformed us.  This is the first of two posts from Randall S. Rosenberg on his teacher, John Kavanaugh, S.J., who passed away in November 2012.  Fr. Kavanaugh was a professor of philosophy at St. Louis University and longtime author of the “Ethics Notebook” for America Magazine.    

Fr. Kavanaugh at work.

The Mystery of a Teacher

Two of America’s great 20th century writers – the Catholic novelist and philosopher Walker Percy and the Civil War historian Shelby Foote (the influence behind the Ken Burns documentary) – met and began developing a lifelong friendship at an early age. Percy had tragically lost both of his parents in his teens and Shelby had lost his father. Much could be said about their story, but I highlight this only to point out that they both came under the tutelage of one man who, according to Percy, had “the enormous capacity for communicating enthusiasm for beauty,” Percy’s cousin and eventually adopted father – William Alexander Percy – “Uncle Will” as they called him.[1]

Percy remarked in an interview, “Reading aloud, he could communicate that there was something here, which is something you rarely get in school from a teacher. But he had this extraordinary capacity for excitement. It was unique in my experience, seeing somebody truly excited and experiencing real pleasure at reading Shakespeare or listening to Brahms…To answer your question, that was the gift he gave me. He gave me the excitement of reading.”[2]  Shelby Foote put it more succinctly:  When Will started talking about poets and writers like Keats, you wanted to get the hell out of the room and go read some Keats.[3]

Many knew John Kavanaugh more intimately than I knew him, perhaps as a member of his family, a classmate, a Jesuit brother, a member of the intentional communities dear to his heart, a colleague, maybe even a handball partner.  I was none of these. I was his student and my aim is to reflect on the inestimable power of a teacher to invade the imagination of a student, to haunt his presuppositions, to shape his convictions. From my introduction to his critique of consumerism as a senior in high school at St. Louis University High School, to taking his course on the philosophy of the human person as a sophomore in college, to spotting Fr. Kavanaugh walking up campus from the window of my room in Fusz Hall. I remember running outside to greet him, pretending that our meeting on the quad was simply a chance encounter. In Percy and Foote fashion, I wanted, as a student, to get out of the classroom and read Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas, Hume and Descartes, Kant and Mill, Kierkegaard and Merleau-Ponty, Skinner and Sartre, but also Dostoevsky, Thoreau, and Annie Dillard. Though I couldn’t quite wrap my mind around these thinkers yet, he opened up my imagination – offered me a glimpse – of both the profundity of their thinking but also to the possibility that their insights – for good or ill – had real bearing on the concrete details of life. He taught that way and he wrote that way.

Christian Humanism

Fr. Kavanaugh’s Christian humanism is expressed in his critique of consumerism, in his plea for protecting vulnerable life, in his challenge to spend more time in solitude – all things I will address below. But his Christian humanism as teacher was also expressed in simple ways, notably in the fact that he took all of our pictures on the first day of class, so he could remember our names.

So what is Christian Humanism? It can be considered, of course, from many angles. But I associate it here with the popes of the second half of the 20th century – John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul II – and into the 21st – Benedict XVI and Francis. Within the frame of Christian humanism, the dignity of the human person and the common good of persons reside at the center of economic, political, and cultural life, over and against inadequate accounts of personal and communal flourishing.  Christian humanism reflects – within the matrix of faith and reason – on human persons in a holistic manner:  as created, as embodied spirit, as endowed with intellectual and volitional powers, as vulnerable, as called to joy, suffering and love, as having an eschatological destiny.

Perhaps the spirit of Christian humanism is captured in letter that Cardinal Karol Wojtyla (who would become John Paul II) wrote to his friend, the Jesuit theologian Henri de Lubac, in the tumultuous year of 1968:

I devote my very rare free moments to a work that is close to my heart and devoted to the metaphysical sense and mystery of the person. It seems to me that the debate today is being played out on that level. The evil of our times consists in the first place in a kind of degradation, indeed in a pulverization, of the fundamental uniqueness of each human person.”[4]

Wojtyla’s words capture the heart of John Kavanaugh’s philosophical project. While he certainly wrote about ethics, Fr. Kavanaugh grounded his ethical claims in a metaphysical account of the person:  the human person is a kind of being with certain potentialities to be actualized. What gave the person dignity was not whether all these potentialities were in fact being actualized, but that they were endowed with this kind of being, with a human nature:   they were persons. His existential and scholarly commitment to the mystery of the person served as his response to a century of false humanisms which had created mountains of corpses and an ocean of blood:  Auschwitz and the Gulag, Srebrenica and Prijedor, widespread assault on human life from conception to natural death, war, widespread poverty, and the dark side of unbridled capitalism. The face of Christ must be sought, Fr. Kavanaugh insisted, in the mystery of every human person. This was his Christian Humanism.

The Mystery of a Priest: Eucharistic Humanism

If the title teacher comes close to capturing John Kavanaugh’s mission and identity, at least as many of us experienced him, surely the title priest is even more central. As Fr. Ted Vitali, the chair of SLU’s philosophy department, reflected upon his death, “First and foremost, John was a Catholic priest…” He believed the Catholic faith, Vitale said, and “he did so with depth, power, and courage. He never let the theological and or philosophical trends of the time sway him away from his deepest held beliefs.” But, John, he adds, “was also a vanguard thinker so much evident among the great Jesuits of our times and times before. He not only believed in the Gospel of Christ, he believed in the suffering Body of Christ, all those marginalized and poor people of the world…he believed in their sacredness and sought to serve them with all the gifts he possessed.”

Kavanaugh and Mother Teresa
Fr. Kavanaugh with Mother Teresa in 1975.

Fr. Kavanaugh possessed what we might be called a “Eucharistic Humanism,” beautifully expressed in his reflection on giving communion to Mother Teresa in Calcutta. Here he relays the twofold meaning of receiving the Eucharist: holding the body of Christ under the sign of bread and wine and holding the body of Christ in the dying person.  He first met Mother Teresa at 6 a.m. while saying mass in the Calcutta motherhouse.[5] “Wait till they hear about this back home. I gave Communion to Mother Teresa,” he mused. When she gazed at the host to receive it, he relays, “I forgot about back home. Her intensity and presence literally made me feel that I was holding the Body of Christ. I had always thought I believed it. But now, believing it was another matter.”

Fr. Kavanaugh goes on to describe a “shriveled old Hindu” at the House of Dying. The old man was near death, “collapsed into a fetal hug,” unresponsive, unable to eat. “It was this man that Mother Teresa first visited upon a return to Calcutta.” She would always go first to the house of the dying. Kavanaugh then describes her Eucharistic act: “She knelt down. She took his face into her hands. Her movements could only be compared to those when receiving Communion. He opened his eyes. He smiled at her. She fed him.” Kavanaugh reflects, “There are two sacraments of transubstantiation, each incomprehensible to empiricism, each an assault upon received pragmatic wisdom, each devastating to utilitarian sensibilities.”

“‘This is my Body.’ And we humans, so hungry for existence, are fed with the life of God.”

“‘This is my Body.’ And we humans, so blessed with existence, are empowered to feed God – now, no longer under the appearance of bread and wine, but of flesh and blood” human persons.

The second part of this reflection will be posted on September 9.  

Randall S. Rosenberg teaches in the Department of Theological Studies at Saint Louis University and is author of The Vision of Saint John XXIII (Paulist Press).  

[1] Conversations with Walker Percy, ed. Lewis A. Lawson and Victor A. Kramer (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1985), 258.

[2] Conversations with Walker Percy, 258.

[3] This is a paraphrase from Walker Percy: A Documentary Film

[4] This was cited in George Weigel, “John Paul II and the Crisis of Humanism” in

[5] This remainder of this section is based on his reflection on Mother Theresa in Faces of Poverty, Faces of Christ.