Since the goal was to explore the cultural ties that bind, Father John Kavanaugh asked the young Catholics in a St. Louis classroom a basic civics question: How many national and world leaders could they name? The Jesuit didn’t allow the seventh graders to include celebrities and entertainers, which meant that actor Tom Cruise didn’t make the list. In the end, they ended up with 12 names.
"You started off with the pope and the president, of course. Then things got harder after that," said the St. Louis University philosophy professor, describing this scene during a 1990 Denver lecture that I covered for The Rocky Mountain News.
The questions got easier, for youngsters baptized in untold hours of commercials on cable television. When asked to name brands of beer, the list on the chalkboard topped 40. How about designer jeans? The seventh graders came up with more than 50 different brands. They were experts when it came to the shopping-mall facts of life.
The Regis University crowd laughed, but it was nervous laughter, as the author of "Following Christ in a Consumer Society: The Spirituality of Cultural Resistance" walked them through a slideshow demonstrating the power of advertising in shaping the minds of materialistic modern Americans.
Yes, it was funny when the priest offered Freudian interpretations of popular cigarette ads. But no one wanted to laugh at the images demonstrating how professionals were using bleak, depressing, yet erotic images of children in advertising aimed at adults.
Is this, the philosopher asked, what our culture's powers that be think real life is all about? If that is the case, he said, "then let's be freaks. Let's be tourists. ... We must remember this is not our home."
Kavanaugh died on Nov. 5 at age 71, after a career in service and scholarship that took him from St. Louis to India and then back home again. His perspectives on suffering and poverty were shaped by his early work with Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta and then with the Jean Vanier communities for those with disabilities in Bangalore.
In addition to his work as a professor and spiritual director for seminarians, Kavanaugh was known for his columns in America magazine, film criticism in The St. Louis Review and numerous books. "Following Christ in a Consumer Society" was reissued twice in new editions, to keep its cultural criticism up to date.
Kavanaugh pleaded guilty to tilting at his share of conservative windmills, but anyone who was paying close attention knew that he was trying to prod the consciences of Catholics on the left as well as the right.
The priest raised eyebrows with a 2002 column entitled "Goodbye, Democrats" in which he argued that America's political culture had collapsed to the point that it would be wise for believers to cut their partisan political ties by registering as independent voters. He stressed that he thought Catholics in the Republican Party needed to bail out, as well.
Writing to his fellow progressives, Kavanaugh proclaimed: "One thing the Democrats really stand for, however, is abortion -- abortion on demand, abortion without restraint, abortion paid for by all of us, abortion for the poor of the earth. I am not a one-issue voter, but they have become a one-issue party. … If traditional Democrats who are disillusioned with the selling out of the working poor and the unborn simply became registered Independent voters, would not more attention be paid?"
The problem, of course, is that it’s sinfully easy for ministers -- once again, on the left or the right -- to keep preaching easy sermons that they know their flocks want to hear, said Kavanaugh, when I interviewed him once again in 2008. It's easy to keep lashing away at the same familiar straw men, while avoiding topics that could offend the faithful in the home pews.
The Jesuit summed up his message with a quote that rings as true today as it did the final time that I talked with him.
"Whether you are preaching to liberals or conservatives, it's hard to tell people truths that they don't want to hear," he said, in that telephone interview. "It's hard to tell people to love their enemies. It's hard to tell people to repent of their sins and to forgive others. ... It's hard, but this is what good preachers have to do."