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

With the start of the school year, many remember the teachers who formed and transformed us.  This is the second 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. John Kavanaugh, S.J.
Fr. John Kavanaugh, S.J.

Consumerism as Cultural Formation

It’s because of John Kavanaugh that I was never able to look at advertising the same again.

As advertising and products increasingly invade our lives in this age of social media, I think of Fr. Kavanaugh often. What zingers would he have for the Hardees’ executives and their Mile High Club commercials that aired continuously during our viewing of America’s pastime? Perhaps those commercials were so silly and banal that they don’t even merit a discerning response, other than not patronizing their establishments. Kavanaugh knew, of course, that advertising was a necessary part of the contemporary business model. But, he didn’t want to let us off the hook so easily. He fostered in his students a critical consciousness and challenged us to discern the dark side of consumerism – the ways in which consumer culture formed and deformed our vision of human persons as commodities to be bought and sold, to be used and abused. He challenged us to live more intentionally personal forms of life against what he called the commodity form. In a prophetic manner, he warned us to recognize idolatry at the heart of many of our cultural ideologies.

I often wonder what Fr. Kavanaugh would say about his fellow Jesuit, Pope Francis. I remember attending a lecture he gave at the Catholic Student Center at Washington University sometime in the mid-90s on the philosophy of John Paul II, for whom he had great respect. In fact, he often challenged those who wanted to dismiss John Paul II. At this lecture, I recall him remarking that theologians are a dime a dozen, but there is only one pope. But I also remember him hoping at this same venue – as he called to mind John Paul’s deep and important writings on poverty – that the papacy in our contemporary era would reside even more closely to the poor.

He did not say this with a mood of disdain, but out of an abiding hope for greater Gospel simplicity at all levels of the Church. And I wonder what Fr. Kavanaugh would have written about paragraph 2 from Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium: “The great danger in today’s world,” Francis writes, placing front and center themes close to Fr. Kavanaugh’s heart, “pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades.”

On Recovering Solitude

It’s because of John Kavanaugh that I feel guilty about being a slave to technology.

If Hardee’s commercials prompted thoughts of Fr. Kavanaugh, I also wonder what would he have to say about the 2013 film, HER, which features a social recluse who falls in love with the artificial intelligence of his computer operating system, personified in the voice of Scarlett Johansson.  And I relish what he would say about the reports of a science experiment that appeared in Science magazine called “Just think: The Challenges of the Disengaged Mind.” In this study, social psychologists from the University of Virginia in Charlottesville recruited members of the community and undergraduate student volunteers to participate in “thinking periods.” Placed in an isolated room for 15 minutes, participants were given the option to push a button and shock themselves rather than remaining quiet for this short period of time. The results were perhaps surprising: 67% of men and 25% of women chose to shock themselves rather than remain still.[1]

Thomas Merton reflected in one of my favorite passages from New Seeds of Contemplation that “We do not go into the desert to escape people but to learn how to find them; we do not leave them in order to have nothing more to do with them, but to find out the way to do them the most good.”[2]  Kavanaugh’s Christian humanism does not simply challenge us to resist the culture of consumerism; the flipside is to nurture a recovery of solitude.  Periodically, as I walk across campus, I survey who has a cell phone attached to their hand. It is rare to find one who does not – including myself. If you’re tired of both running into people and being run into as we all text and email, Fr. Kavanaugh’s wisdom needs to be recovered. This is not simply because we want to avoid injury as we traverse distractedly across intersections or accomplish our tasks in a swifter, more concentrated way! These motives are far too pragmatic and utilitarian, and Fr. Kavanaugh would not have settled for such paper-thin motives.

Rather, solitude takes us to deeper, often neglected, and undiscovered interior spaces. “Solitude,” Fr. Kavanaugh writes, “generates the unsettling question of what we might be when we are not producing, performing, or consuming. Appearances, comparisons, and achievements mean little in true solitude. How we look will change. What we have produced can be replaced. The ways we have surpassed others will be yet surpassed.”[3] When we meet ourselves in solitude, we are forced to face the vulnerability of our personal being, our very ontological nakedness; we discover not an autonomous self, but a chastened and vulnerable self whose existence itself is a gift. As he says starkly, “We are creatures. We are contingent. We die.” Or perhaps in the words of one of his favorite passages from Thoreau’s Walden as he entered the Massachusetts woods near Concord: “I went into the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to confront only the essential fact of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discovered that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear.”

The Dignity of Human Life

It’s because of John Kavanaugh that I felt heartbroken at Brittany Maynard’s tragic diagnosis and yet cannot support her ultimate decision.  

Kavanaugh’s philosophical project more than any other gave me the resources – at least heuristically – to account for the dignity of the human person against the attractive and continually luring philosophy of utilitarianism: “use value,” “happiness maximization,” “unconstrained personal autonomy and freedom,” “the end justifies the means.”  For him, the crux in all cases of euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide was the very termination of life itself. “The purpose may be to alleviate pain; the motive might be compassion for someone living in misery.”[4] For Kavanaugh, killing out of these motives – however tender – was a cutting into the heart of ethics itself; it was an admission that human vulnerability, our very condition as embodied persons, is degraded and undignified. As he wrote in Who Count as Persons, “The response of an individual or a community that values the intrinsic dignity of human persons…is not to kill the sufferer or eliminate the wounded but to alleviate the suffering and affirm the sufferer’s goodness, regardless of the deprivation, the loss, or the presumed shame of human frailty.”[5]

On Recovering Personal Relationships, especially with the Vulnerable

It’s because of John Kavanaugh that I expose my classes nearly every semester to the L’Arche communities.

As far as I can remember, I first heard about L’Arche from John Kavanaugh; he had lived in a L’Arche community for a brief time. In Who Count as Persons? Kavanaugh reflects on Jean Vanier, a philosopher who left the academic world to live with and write about persons who most consider “degenerate” “handicapped,” “undesirable,” “not productive” and so on. Vanier reflected: “I came to visit them. I was embarrassed, not knowing quite how to communicate with people who couldn’t talk very well, and wondering even if they could, what we would talk about. But I was touched by these men. By some word or gesture or through the look in their eyes they seemed to be saying to me, “Do you love me?” At that time, I was teaching philosophy at the University of Toronto, where my students were interested in my intelligence, in what I could teach them so that they could pass their exams. But these men didn’t care about what was in my head; they were interested in my person, in my heart and in my capacity to relate”[6]

Kavanaugh’s embrace of his own vulnerability – and his challenge to all of us to embrace our own – and his wider societal challenge to affirm human persons “on the margins” gave me language with which to make sense of my experience growing up close to such vulnerable persons. My life from early on was shaped by experiences with my cousin Peggy – one with developmental disabilities who was adopted by Uncle Dan and Aunt Judy and their surrounding community of Sacred Heart in Florissant and the special school housed within. And I think of my good friend, Megan, and my brother-in-law, Andy, both with Down syndrome. These situations are not without their significant and ongoing, and at times, heart-wrenching challenges; this is nothing to idealize or romanticize. Still, Kavanaugh attuned me to the life and the love and the beauty that emerges from an embrace of these persons – or shall I say their embrace of us – people who don’t care about our degrees or our wealth or our accomplishments, but only about our love. Such embraces, for him, were indispensable to an authentic account of the good life – not the superficial good life depicted in the worst of advertisements. John Kavanaugh taught us this with gentle, but relentless and prophetic consistency.

Following Christ inEschatological Humanism: Belief in the Life to Come

If what I have described so far speaks chiefly of Kavanaugh’s deeply incarnational humanism, his humanism was also eschatological – that is, it attended to the end things, to the things that circle around our ultimate destiny. He believed in the life to come.

For Kavanaugh, this eschatological destiny is not only to be to be framed in terms of speculation over and belief in the immortality of the soul and the resurrection of the body, but also the fact that we live our lives under judgment. See his two reflections on “Degradation” and “The Problem of Riches” in Faces of Poverty, Faces of Christ and his prophetic account of “Humanity’s Self-Judgment and End” which treats in part the judgment of nations in Matthew 25 in Following Christ in a Consumer Society.

It has struck me over the years, and more so now as I have spent a significant amount of time in professional academic circles, that he included a section on eschatology in his Philosophy of the Human Person course. He communicated that it was plausible to cross boundaries; disciplines can be integrated; the human situation is one concrete whole. Perhaps even more fundamentally than that, he wanted to give students hope.

Part of this relates to his philosophical account of human reflexive consciousness – the dimension of human being that cannot be explained by material causality. And it also relates to our embodiedness – the “My-Ness” and “Me-Ness” of our personal bodies, as he would say. But the way he challenged us to navigate such issues of the unity of body and soul and immortality is captured more personally in his reflection, “After Life.”[7]

“I have often, over the years, thought about these things, especially when confronted with the diminishments of mind and body in friends once bold and strong, or reminded of an infant dying at birth, or faced with my own mother, once a lovely flapper but after 93 years, not at all a flapper or physically lovely when she died. Do any of us want bodies like that? Eternally?” After describing insights from Thomas Aquinas on the incorruptible soul and the glorified body, he writes, “Our bodies are in effect made glorious: my mother, not that frail filament of a woman, but in her prime; my friend’s infant girl-child, not unfinished but fully formed as a person. That child may have no moral wounds to heal, but she will be gloriously human nonetheless . . . . You may think this column a little nutty. I find these thoughts consoling. They are very close to the promise of Easter.”


When I suggested in Part I that I wanted to get out of Fr. Kavanaugh’s classroom and read Plato and Aristotle and Aquinas and Dostoevsky, that was partially true. The other side of the story is that I wanted the class to go on and on. Only a compelling teacher, gifted with giving language a new life, only one who can breathe vitality into the dusty words of philosophers, can command such a wish. While John Kavanaugh, along with a host of other teachers, nurtured in me the inexhaustible love of reading and learning and asking questions about the nature of the good life, nothing can replace the incarnate meaning of their presence, of his presence: this is what many yearn for as we remember Fr. Kavanaugh in the years following his death. With an eye to our yearning for incarnate presence – for the presence of all our loved ones who have gone before us, it is fitting to end with words from John Henry Newman’s Grammar of Assent: “The heart is commonly reached, not through reason but through the imagination, by means of direct impressions…Persons influence us, voices melt us, looks subdue us, deeds inflame us.”[8]

Read Part One of this reflection.  

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).  


[2] Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions Books, 1972), p. 80.

[3] Kavanaugh, Who Count as Persons? 147.

[4] Kavanaugh, Who Count as Persons? 137.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 157.


[8] John Henry Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (n.p.:  Catholic Publication Society, 1870) 89.