Life, Hope and Homilies

A conversation with Philosophy Professor John Kavanaugh, S.J.

By Laura Geiser
He literally has taught generations of Saint Louis University students. His classes fill up during the first week of registration. His books are required reading at schools across the country. His monthly column in "America" is routinely among the magazine's most-read articles. He's received numerous awards for his writings, his preaching and his teaching.

In a word, John Kavanaugh, S.J., is legendary.

Even if you never took his class, if you've been around SLU since 1974 you probably know his name. For those who don't, Kavanaugh (A&S '65, Grad '66, '71) is a professor of philosophy, founder of SLU's Ethics Across the Curriculum program and author of several books, including "Following Christ in a Consumer Society" and "Who Count as Persons: Human Identity and the Ethics of Killing."

His homilies, lectures and class presentations cover everything from consumerism to medical ethics to the meaning of life. This interview is no different.

UNIVERSITAS: To what do you attribute your decades of popularity among students?

KAVANAUGH: Well, you know it's lucky if you're able to teach something that you love. That helps. And then if you also care about students, that helps. That doesn't mean you're going to be effective with all of them, but a lot of them will respond to that.

If you're in love with the topic and if you really care about the people you're dealing with, it makes it very easy.

My take on philosophy has always involved the primary questions of human identity and  the meaning of human life. Human behavior and ethics really engage me, and I think they engage many of the students. They're trying to figure out what the arc of their life is all about. Why are they here? What's going to make a meaningful, fulfilled, flourishing life? Those  questions are very close to some philosophical issues.

U: Do you have a personal philosophy?

K: Well, it's a hybrid. I'd say the foundation is the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle. That's what I got studying at Saint Louis U. While working on my doctorate at Washington University, I studied social and political philosophy. So that's a big component - applying the classical foundation of Aquinas and Aristotle to the social, political and cultural world.

In many ways I think philosophy, and all education if it's authentic, has to somehow deprogram a lot of things that are going on in our culture, in terms of what's real, what's important, what lasts, what's worth loving, what's true. I would give my philosophy a general term of "Thomistic personalism" - that'd be Thomas Aquinas combined with personalism. There are a lot of forces at work in the world and in our culture that are depersonalizing.

So, philosophically, you have to engage that. I've spent a lot of time looking at advertising and how it can lead to a depersonalized way of life - where things are more important than people. We're taught to spend less time with people, more with things.

We're taught that you are what you own. So, there's a confluence between a view of the human person that's philosophical and how persons are portrayed in a contemporary world.

U: Why is philosophy so important to the SLU curriculum and to our students?

K: If you haven't spent a certain amount of structured time trying to engage your own understanding of what is important in life and what is valuable - what are the goods worth loving - you could very easily be a dangerous person. Or certainly a very passive person.

So part of the philosophy program, as I see it, is inviting students to engage some of the great questions that have been raised, and we do that in our introduction course. Then to apply that, we study ethics, to see how one can take a moral stance in the world.

For example, Jesuit universities have the notion of forming men and women for others. What's behind that? Why? There have been philosophers who said, "Baloney. Why should we be for others?" Well if you haven't probed the reasons why, it's easy for you to lose that vision entirely. But if you have an understanding of why you hold the beliefs that you hold, you can offer some warranted evidence for your convictions. Then you can engage in a public square, and you can resist dehumanizing forces at work in our culture.

U: How do you keep your classes fresh?

K: Well in the last 15 years it has not been a problem because for my medical ethics course, I have to retool everything almost every summer since so much happens within a year.

Just a few years ago people thought we had 100,000 genes. Now we know the human genome has about 23,000 genes. And then there are all sorts of medical procedures that are developed every year. So you might address the same ethical principles, but you've got to know the new data.

Now, I teach a "Philosophy of the Human Person" course, and I always have to be careful not to run on the same six pistons. But, when you're dealing with the human person, since I have a strong cultural approach, there are cultural issues brought up every year that change the quality of the argument.

Once animal rights, for example, became very big, this became a huge philosophical issue. You've got to deal with the difference between a human animal and other animals.

U: Do the students themselves make every class a little different?

K: Oh, yes. What really changes is their reference points. And this is a challenging thing. Each year loses a little bit more of history because of the knowledge explosion that we have. We've got very, very intelligent students - in fact, among the most gifted we've ever had here - and yet their historical grasp and allusions to literature are not strong. So that's always a challenge.

For example, in the '70s, if I would mention the evacuation of Dunkirk, where the medical procedure of triage first took place, the students knew it because they had studied the history of World War II.

This past semester I'd bring up Dunkirk, and one person would know what it was about. Which does not mean that they're not smart in a lot of other ways, but Dunkirk is ancient history. You can't make allusions to it unless you explain it. You can't even make many allusions to the first Gulf War. So the range of your allusions has to shift. That's why it's important to keep up with the culture.

U: What do you hope that alumni who took your class years ago still remember?

K: The greatest achievement for my teaching would be if, because of their stay here at Saint Louis U., my students are more inclined to be people of hope. More inclined to be open to love. More inclined to faith, not only in God, but in the human person. If they're more inclined to have that, I think their lives are going to be richer, both interpersonally and religiously.

And they'll pass that on, that inclination to be a person of hope, of loving service, of faith. You know, it's like the parable comparing the kingdom of heaven to the mustard plant that has deep roots. When the storms come, it's able to remain, and the sun can't scorch it, and anxieties and cares of the world don't crush it because it's grounded.

Because of their contact with SLU teachers, staff or their courses, our students will have a deeper inclination to hope. They're not only going to have better lives, they're going to influence the lives of other people for the better. And that's what makes them more inclined to be men and women for others.

U: Your book "Following Christ in a Consumer Society" has been around more than 25 years. Why was it necessary to publish a new edition recently? Why is it still relevant?

K: Well the general conflict of personalism with depersonalizing forces at work in the world happens in every culture. And cultures change. So, even after 10 years, in 1990, I had to rewrite the book. First of all, you have 10 years of new literature. Ten years of new evidence, new data.

Now between the update in 1990 and 2005, when the 25th anniversary edition came out, I had to consider computers, Google, John Paul II for 25 years, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Iraq wars, even U2 and YouTube. Advertising has just exponentially grown. So all the data about use of media had to be changed, and I had to update the whole thing. It was a daunting task.

U: For people who have never read your book or heard you discuss consumerism, is there something that you'd like them to know?

K: Yes. The book is about the tendency to treat persons as things, rather than inherently dignified, irreplaceable persons. Capital punishment is literally turning a living human person into a dead object. It's depersonalizing. All murder is. And we do this to classes of people; we literally treat them as things. How do we treat the poor? How do we treat the enemy? How do we treat ourselves? Are we things?

Now notice how this is related to materialism and non-materialism. If you are not just matter, but there is the realm of the spirit or the personal in a human being, then you cannot reduce persons to just mere matter, objects or commodities.

The book emphasizes how consumer culture tends to present us as commodities, as things rather than as persons. And we are taught to relate to things more and more as if they're the personal life, and to treat people like they're objects.

You can see this language of depersonalization whenever people want to terminate others. The enemy, people at war, on death row - you have to depersonalize whatever is your target. "They're vegetables, they're blobs, they're animals."

You can see this in the words calling a country the "Great Satan" or an "Axis of Evil." Of course if you're the "Great Satan," you can be killed. It comes from both sides. And if we do this continually, we're not going to be able to resolve this problem of international violence.

Now the book is not against the world of things. We are bodies. We've got to consume to live, but if consuming becomes the total reality, we're going to destroy personal life.

U: What drew you to the Jesuits? And can you imagine your life any other way?

K: Well when you first commit, and for me, that was when I was about 20, it's like a commitment in marriage - you don't know what you're getting into, but you know enough of yourself to say, "OK, I'm going to grow with you."

So when I entered, I didn't really know fully what I was getting into, but after two years, I was willing to commit to grow in relationship to this brotherhood. And by the time I was ready to be ordained a priest, it became much clearer for me that a vocation allows you to flourish in a way that you could not have flourished if you're not doing it. What calls you forth, that's vocation. You've got to love what you're doing, too.

Now, there were certainly tough times when I thought, "Gee, it'd be great to have a wife and children, or later on grandchildren." There were times when I thought maybe this is going to be a lonely life, but it turned out that being a Jesuit makes you more intimate with people as friends than you'd ever imagine.

It's called friendship in the Lord. And you have that with your community, but I've also been able as a Jesuit to become deeply personal friends with a number of people with whom I wouldn't have that opportunity if I weren't a Jesuit. You get close to people
in a very special way, and it's not the same closeness that you have in a family - you can't pretend that - but you really feel the solidarity. You feel like you're part of their life, they're part of your life, they're part of you.

U: Can you discuss your experiences in India in 1975 and Zimbabwe in 1987, andhow they've affected you?

K: Well they enrich your life. That's why I think for students going abroad is so valuable, as is volunteering abroad. I'd say both international experiences were transformative years for me.

The year in India, since it was a year of prayer and service during my Jesuit formation, really changed my life. I worked with the handicapped in L'Arche communities, and I also worked with Mother Teresa at her Home for the Dying in Calcutta. And then I did a 30-day retreat, prayed, learned other methods of prayer there. It just freed me of a lot of fears. We're always going to have fears, but it's great to get rid of 90 percent of them.

In a way, Zimbabwe did that for me, too. At that time, I was very, very rushed. I was working too much, especially giving talks and traveling. And so in a moment of weakness when I was in Rome, this guy from Africa said he desperately needed a teacher. I said, "I'll do it."

Later I wondered, "Why did I say that?" But I tell you, when I got to Zimbabwe all of the anxiety left me. All the feelings of being rushed, the moment I got out to the countryside, it all left. So that was my second great breakthrough to freedom. I've stopped rushing through life.

I loved Zimbabwe, and I loved the people. It's a heartbreak to read about it everyday because I really thought Robert Mugabe was going to be a wonderful leader, and he's just eaten the country alive.

U: You've been recognized for great preaching. How do you approach a homily?

K: Well there's a little study that just came out. They polled Catholics about what's most important about church for them. First place was receiving Communion; fourth place was the homily, and that's where it belongs.

We Catholics are not big in that tradition, the preaching of the Word. But it has a place, and I think it should serve the liturgy, and it should serve the Gospels. So I think it's important to put your effort into it and to try to engage what you think people are living through. And if you have a number of close friends or people you advise, you know what they're living through, so it's easy to make connections.

Really I think people like homilies when they're short. I aim for seven minutes. So, I would say Catholics prefer a short, good homily. And they'd probably prefer a short mediocre one to a good, long one.

U: What do you do for fun?

K: Well, I love playing handball. If I had my choice, if I were going to die and it's not at Mass, I wouldn't mind it being on a handball court in Forest Park. I love those guys down there; they're the salt of the Earth. It's great comradeship.

U: How has SLU changed in your almost 35 years here?

K: Well, most people think of the physical differences. But I'll tell you, there have been more dramatic differences in the quality of the spiritual life of so many of our students and faculty. The intellectual life is so much improved in so many ways, as is the collegiality among the different schools and departments.

People can't see that like they can see ponds and buildings. But the interior life of this campus has been enhanced just as much as the external.

This interview originally appeared in the Fall, 2008 issue of Universitas.

Higher purpose. Greater good.
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