By Aaron Dome | Special to the Kalamazoo Gazette
KALAMAZOO — James Kavanaugh, whose best-selling critique of the Catholic church and subsequent books of poetry touched the lives of millions, died Dec. 29. He was 81.
The cause of death was complications from surgery Kavanaugh underwent earlier last year, said Katherine Markel, his stepdaughter.
Kavanaugh attended school in Kalamazoo and at the age of 14 went to seminary in Grand Rapids. After serving as a priest in Flint he rose to fame after he wrote an article for the Saturday Evening Post in 1967 entitled “I am a Priest, and I Want to Marry.”
The article, written under a pseudonym, drew criticism and accolades. Kavanaugh later wrote a best-selling book under his own name, “A Modern Priest Looks at His Outdated Church.” The book sold millions and landed the No. 1 position on the New York Times best-seller list.
Before his literary success, Kavanaugh was an ordained priest and actively ministered for nine years in Flint. During his years in Flint, Kavanaugh found a benefactor to sponsor him on an extended trip to further his studies in Germany, where his liberal ideas rattled his teacher, Joseph Ratzinger, who is now Pope Benedict XVI, Markel said.
His personal experience counseling couples, along with frustration with the Catholic church’s inflexibility on issues such as birth control and divorce, led to Kavanaugh’s drafting his first article.
In the book, Kavanaugh gives first-hand accounts of counseling couples who have multiple children and cannot afford any more. He wrote in the book that he felt extreme frustration and confusion about being forced to give advice that was in accordance with the church, but that he felt was not in people’s best interest.
“He was brave for doing that,” said JoAnn Betz, of Kalamazoo, who read Kavanaugh’s books and once met him at a book signing at Gilmore’s department store in downtown Kalamazoo. “Clearly with his background he was raised to be a priest. He was brave to break out of that.”
Kavanaugh wrote the book after departing Michigan for stays in California and Mexico. He spent many years living in California, among other places. After publishing “Priest,” Kavanaugh rejected traditional book offers from publishers, choosing to write poetry instead.
Turned down by many publishing houses, Kavanaugh pressed on and his initial book of poetry, “There Are Men Too Gentle to Live Among Wolves,” ended up selling more than 1 million copies.
Kavanaugh spent the ensuing years writing poetry and reading his works. A constant nomad, Kavanaugh traveled around the country and the world.
Along with more than a dozen volumes of poetry, Kavanaugh published two novels: “A Coward for Them All” and “The Celibates,” which drew from his experiences in the priesthood.
Shortly before the death of his mother, Kavanaugh moved to Chicago in 1992 and shortly thereafter to Kalamazoo to be near his family. In Kalamazoo, Kavanaugh met his future wife, Cathy Markel.
Kavanaugh is survived by his wife, his step-daughter Katherine Markel, and three brothers: Philip Kavanaugh, Thomas (Susan) Kavanaugh and Daniel (Bonnie) Kavanaugh; and many nieces and nephews.
He was preceded in death by 3 brothers: Frank Kavanaugh, John Kavanaugh and the Rev. Robert Kavanaugh.