Father John Kavanaugh, S.J., was the Habiger Scholar in Residence for the week of Sept. 22-28 at the University of St. Thomas. Kavanaugh was hosted by Catholic Studies and participated in several forums during his stay on campus, including his lecture “Following Christ in a Consumer Society”; conversations with the faculty; as well as student discussions on two different themes: “Christ in a Consumer Society, Still,” and “Who Count as Persons?”
On Sept. 23, Kavanaugh gave a presentation on “Following Christ in a Consumer Society.” This talk was the product of decades of analysis of the mass media, advertising in particular, and trying to better understand how the media shape the popular psyche. Beginning his lecture with the warning, “Whatever informs you, forms you,” Kavanaugh proceeded to discuss, by means of a visual slide-show presentation, the various methods and attitudes apparent in advertising. Since the ethical, physical and even religious value-system aroused and created by mass media has the ability to shape ours minds and spirits, it is necessary that a counter-force, grounded in authentic spiritual life in Christ, is maintained to resist and break free from the values presented by it. Since so much – from the way we view our bodies to the things we deliberately choose as objects of our love – is shaped by the mass media, we must be aware of certain evils perpetrated by the consumerist culture. Furthermore, Kavanaugh argued, we also must assert our true freedom and true values through our religious lives, that will in turn order our wills properly, so that we may see the true dignity of people who are inestimably superior to things.
In addition to his public lecture, Kavanaugh was the guest speaker for two different groups of students on Sept. 26. The first group consisted of students from the class taught by Michael Naughton and Rich Rexeisen called Christian Faith and the Management Profession. Here students entered into discussion with Kavanaugh on the subject of “Christ in a Consumer Society, Still.” The students were taken by Kavanaugh’s philosophical depth and pastoral sensitivity, as well as by his real-world examples of commodity-driven markets that depersonalize people, and of person-centered and Christ-centered individuals who seek to live their vocations within a market economy.
Later in the evening Kavanaugh spoke to a group of graduate and undergraduate Catholic Studies students. The theme for this discussion was “Who Count as Persons?” a title taken from a book written by Kavanaugh regarding the essence of personhood. In this discussion, Kavanaugh stressed the philosophical and scientific reasons for asserting the true personhood of all human beings, which therefore makes all the possessors of inalienable rights. With the advance of medical science and knowledge, the philosophical claims of the immaterial element in man are not defeated, but rather supported even more, since experts are continually finding that there are processes in man which simply cannot be referred back to mere matter. One of the most fundamental processes or qualities that exhibits this personhood is the “awareness of awareness” or concomitant consciousness which human beings have, either potentially or in actuality, since it is intrinsic to their nature. Kavanaugh claimed that since the essence of personhood is proper to human nature, the human person deserves to be protected at all stages of life and in all conditions.
Kavanaugh ended his week in residence by presiding at Mass on Friday, Sept. 27, at the Chapel of St. Thomas Aquinas. Certainly, all are grateful who had a chance to hear Kavanaugh speak on a variety of issues, and his presence on campus served to stimulate and enlighten a variety of issues dear to the Catholic Studies program.