John Henry Newman

John Henry Newman, a Saint for Students

Here is an important saint for our times — and with a special love for students! Any student or parent seeking intercession would do well to pray to St. John Henry Newman (1801-1890), who was canonized last year and is celebrated on his feast day, Oct. 9.

Newman has had such a big impact on my life, and so I speak about him from the heart. I discovered him only after graduating from college and wish I had his example much earlier. Across nearly 30 years of promoting faithful Catholic education, I have looked to Newman as a patron because of his lifelong devotion to teaching and his important writings on education. Newman has also been important to my family; my wife and children joined me at both his beatification in England and his canonization in Rome.

Newman’s writings are voluminous, and the average Catholic will probably find his theological and philosophical works abstract and difficult to comprehend. But his prayers, sermons and poetry are eloquent and inspirational. They invite the reader to share in his passion and fervent devotion to Jesus Christ, especially in the Eucharist, and to Mary. Students will also find abundant hope in Newman’s unwavering trust in Providence.

St. John Henry can be a valuable spiritual guide to students determined to deepen their relationship with God despite the toxic campus environment at most colleges. At faithful Catholic colleges, Newman’s vision for Catholic education will resonate across the curriculum and campus life. The wisdom of his sermons can help set young adults on the narrow path to heaven.

Newman is perhaps best known in the United States as patron of the “Newman Centers” at secular colleges, which are patterned after the student organization at Oxford University, England, that was founded in Newman’s honor. Today, campus ministries across the U.S. often pray to Newman, although Americans often confuse him with St. John Neumann of Philadelphia, also a champion of education and founder of Catholic parochial schools.

Both saints, in fact, were critical of secular education, and after his conversion from Anglicanism in 1845, St. John Henry focused his efforts on Catholic formation. He was founding rector of a Catholic university in Dublin, where he delivered the lectures that were later compiled into his Idea of a University — one of the most important and influential works on higher education ever written. He spent the remainder of his life as founding leader of the Oratory School, a reputable boarding school for Catholic students who were barred from attending England’s other top schools.

Every high-school senior and college freshman should read Idea of a University, a persuasive defense of liberal education for its own sake — not simply for the utilitarian objective of securing a first job. Some have tried to box Newman into the liberal arts, which he wholly embraced, but Newman was less concerned about which academic disciplines a student pursued and more interested in cultivating “philosophical” thinking across education. By this, he meant the skills and experience of “ascending” above knowledge, contemplating how it relates to other knowledge and coming to a larger view of reality — ultimately rising all the way to the Creator, if not for the imperfections of human reasoning and virtue.

In its essence, Newman argued, education is about cultivating the mind — not moral or religious formation. But herein lies the great danger of secular education, as we see so often in today’s universities: The scholar becomes prideful, enamored by the accomplishments of science and creativity, making a “religion” of human reason and ignoring the truth of God. A student comes to school or college with the intellect, conscience and appetites all “warring in his breast,” warns Newman; likewise, education quickly falls prey to the disintegration of reality that began with the first sin. Without the Church to provide true moral formation, and without the grace of God found in the sacraments and in prayer, secular education loses its “integrity” and becomes distorted and even dangerous.

Moreover, Newman famously argued, the knowledge of God is the most important discipline of study, because it is foundational to every other art and science. A secular education is incomplete because it rejects theology. It can distort rather than form the student to be fully human.

St. John Henry would then advise Catholic high-school students today to seek a truly Catholic education that is focused not purely on job training but on cultivating the mind. But Newman’s insights are valuable even for a student who attends a secular college. Every student needs sound moral formation, frequent prayer and the sacraments. If a student lacks teaching that integrates the Catholic faith into every course of study, then additional reading and lectures that supplement regular coursework are necessary to gain some portion of the authentic education that Newman proposed.

Newman was a great intellect, and his greatness was rooted in fervent prayer and meditation. Students would flock to hear his sermons at Oxford, in Dublin and at his oratory in Birmingham. He loved his books but was also known as a loving pastor, as indicated by his episcopal motto, “Heart speaks to heart.”

Newman’s personality and devotion come through clearly in his many prayers, sermons, poetry and even his letters, which he carefully preserved by handwriting a copy before sending them off.

Students will benefit from a few minutes or a few hours of reading Newman, perhaps in the evening or at Eucharistic adoration. (Newman himself wrote many of his works in front of the Eucharist.) The National Institute for Newman Studies in Pittsburgh, in partnership with the Birmingham Oratory in England, has generously provided many of Newman’s key writings free of charge at You might begin with selections from Sermons Preached on Various OccasionsMeditations and Devotions and Verses on Various Occasions — but every Newman-phile has a different recommendation.

Students will be moved by Newman’s tender love for the Holy Mother and his sense of divine Providence working throughout his life. Newman was certain that “God has created me to do Him some definite service,” and that if he would only commit to do good, God would make him “a preacher of truth in my own place.” (Those lines are from a Newman meditation that I prayed with my children when they were younger; it’s probably even more appropriate for a teenager or young adult looking to the future.)

Another of Newman’s works — his most famous poem, Lead, Kindly Light — should resonate with students who are striving for God’s wisdom and calling amid the fog of contemporary American life. Do a student a favor: Share just a few lines and bring him or her into a lifelong friendship with one of the Church’s greatest inspirations.

Lead, Kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom,

Lead Thou me on;

The night is dark, and I am far from home, Lead Thou me on.

Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see the distant scene;

one step enough for me.

… O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till

The night is gone;

And with the morn those angel faces smile,

Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile.


This article first appeared at the National Catholic Register.

St. John Henry Newman’s Battle for the Church Continues

Three weeks ago, my family and a group of Cardinal Newman Society pilgrims were newly arrived in Rome — and what a contradiction we seemed!

The whole world was watching the Vatican, anxious to know whether the Amazon Synod would preserve or rupture Catholic tradition.

And yet there we were at the center of it all, full of joy and excitement, eager to celebrate the canonization of the great educator and convert, Cardinal John Henry Newman — much like the Americans who, 140 years earlier, had come to Rome to celebrate Newman’s elevation to cardinal and represent the jubilant Catholics back home.

Now we prepare for the Feast of All Saints, celebrating the greatest of all promises given by Jesus to believers, amid so much unbelief across the West.

While in Rome, I reflected on this irony with our pilgrims. I realized something very important: the timing of Newman’s canonization amid the ugly synod was just right, because Newman is just right for these times.

Specifically, it seems to me that Saint John Henry’s devotion to both teaching and defending truth, together with his beloved manner of “heart speaking to heart,” provide a powerful response to those who imagine that tending to the practicalities and particularities of pastoral care must be somehow opposed to upholding the timeless truths and traditions of our faith.

Some have even warned of schism over this error, but Newman’s example could help heal the rift — or if not, then at least the unassailable reason and precision of his many writings provide a mighty defense of doctrine. In this sense, our newly declared saint promises to be more a “doctor” of the Church than we might have anticipated.

Pope Francis has called the Church a “field hospital,” and today indeed there are many wounded — in part because of the Holy Father’s own inexplicable harshness toward those who would preserve ritual and reverence while embracing the reason that is married to faith. Today’s wounded also include young people — to whom Saint John Henry devoted his educational efforts — who have been greatly harmed by the lack of a strong Christian formation and by dissent, abuse and betrayal from within and without the Church.

After his conversion, Newman saw no conflict between his popularity as a pastor and his battle for truth. Despite being one of the Church’s greatest intellectuals and theologians, the Saint’s focus was always on the immediate concerns and controversies of the people under his care. His primary interest was the authentic formation of the souls right in front of him, always speaking heart to heart, always speaking truth. He was both a loving pastor and a champion of orthodoxy.

His life’s work, Newman said, was the fight against relativism — what he called “liberalism in religion.” He insisted on the unity of faith and reason, the intellect and morality, subjective and objective reality. He proposed faithful Catholic education, precisely because he wished to “reunite” the faculties of conscience and intellect that “man had put asunder” by original sin.

With this heart of an educator, Saint John Henry Newman was devoted to truth and to bringing others to the truth. That is what the word today so greatly needs!

Newman was also, at times, prophetic about the challenges we face today. Already in 19th century Europe, Newman saw the makings of what would be the “age of infidelity,” when the Church would be confronted by a culture unlike anything it had ever seen before: a culture that simply does not tolerate religious belief, except as a private matter. Newman also predicted increased scrutiny of Catholics by secularists, who eagerly seek evidence of hypocrisy. The sins of our priests, he predicted, would become a spectacle to the news media and disbelievers.

That’s surely where we are today — and yet, truly, Newman’s canonization was also a happy moment! One of the Church’s greatest intellectuals and a beloved convert is certainly in heaven. Saint John Henry Newman encourages and inspires the Church at a time when it is under sustained assault.

Sainthood itself refreshes our hope in the mercy of God and the promise of heaven. It is a great blessing to know that a dutiful and faithful man has received God’s great mercy and the reward of heaven.

By his canonization, Newman has become even more capable, by his example and because of our prayers for intercession, to help us once again follow the Kindly Light of Christ. Saint John Henry Newman, pray for us!

(This article is adapted from comments delivered in Rome on the day of Saint John Henry Newman’s canonization, Oct. 13, 2019.)

This article first appeared at The National Catholic Register.

Where is Newman’s University?

John Henry Cardinal Newman’s vision of higher education has been celebrated for more than 160 years, and it will hopefully get renewed attention after he is canonized this Sunday, Oct. 13.

Still, few colleges today closely resemble his Idea of a University.

If anything comes close to Newman’s vision today, it would have to be those faithful Catholic colleges recognized in The Newman Guide and the National Catholic Register’s College Guide. These are models for the renewal of Catholic education—largely according to Newman’s vision—and their continued efforts toward bringing his “idea” to fruition are a blessing to the entire Church.

I look forward to seeing many representatives of these colleges in Rome this week. Celebrating together with The Cardinal Newman Society’s supporters and friends will be leaders of Christendom College, Thomas Aquinas College and University of Mary, and key faculty members from Thomas More College of Liberal Arts and University of Dallas. We will gather also with friends from the faithful Pontifical University of the Holy Cross and Pontifical North American College.

The students and faculty of Belmont Abbey College got a head start on celebrating last week, with a lecture by Dr. Paul Griffiths. They gathered to rejoice in Newman’s sainthood, but also to embrace his vision for an academic and residential community shared by both students and mentors.

“Newman was deeply formed by his own experience as a student and as a professor,” Griffiths said. Newman expected tutors to be involved in students’ “moral and spiritual” formation and intellectual growth, in addition to students’ engagement with university lecturers and preachers.

On the same Thursday evening as the Abbey lecture, The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., held a conference on “Newman’s Idea of a University—What It Is and Why It Matters.” The event included a panel discussion with President John Garvey and professors from a variety of disciplines, highlighting Newman’s concern for dialogue and integration across a wide variety of studies.

A Catholic college unites “intellect and virtue, which man’s fallen nature has allowed to drift apart,” Garvey wrote in a 2010 article in First Things. He cited one of Newman’s university sermons:

It will not satisfy me, what satisfies so many, to have two independent systems, intellectual and religious, going at once side by side, by a sort of division of labour, and only accidentally brought together. …I want the same roof to contain both the intellectual and moral discipline. Devotion is not a sort of finish given to the sciences; nor is science a sort of feather in the cap… an ornament and set-off to devotion. I want the intellectual layman to be religious, and the devout ecclesiastic to be intellectual.

Although Newman is often associated with Catholic centers on secular campuses, he was primarily an advocate for Catholic, liberal arts education. The first “Newman Society” was established at Oxford University for Catholics seeking a higher education, only after the Irish bishops thwarted Newman’s plans for a truly Catholic Dublin university and the English bishops rejected his designs for an Oxford Oratory.

For Newman, only a Catholic college has full claim to authentic higher education, because a commitment to truth means that no branch of knowledge can be excluded, including the truths of our Catholic faith. To “withdraw Theology” from colleges is to “impair the completeness and to invalidate the trustworthiness of all that is actually taught in them,” Newman wrote in his Idea of a University.

Higher learning “educates the intellect to reason well in all matters, to reach out towards truth, and to grasp it,” Newman wrote. The “cultivation of the intellect” is “an end which may reasonably be pursued for its own sake.” It helps form a “habit of mind” which “lasts through life” and brings “freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom.”

This type of education ends up being practical, too, although that is not its first objective. Cardinal Avery Dulles explained Newman’s thought during a 2001 address to The Cardinal Newman Society: “Whether one becomes a soldier, a statesman, a lawyer, or a physician, one will need the ability to think clearly, to organize one’s knowledge, and to articulate one’s ideas so as to deal effectively with the questions at hand.”

Newman saw in Catholic education “the incomparable advantage” over secular education of “being able to integrate all truth in relation to Christ, the incarnate Logos,” Dulles said.

At Newman Guide colleges, the difference is striking—and encouraging for a Catholic who is yearning for renewal in the Church and culture. At Christendom College, the entire community has been invited to join in a novena praying for “an outpouring of grace in the world” through Newman’s canonization, several faculty lectures on Newman’s conversion and Idea of a University, and a “watch party” on Oct. 13 to celebrate the canonization from afar. It is this integration of spirituality, academics and joy in God and his creation that marks a true Catholic education.

Faithful Catholic colleges that strive for intellectual and spiritual formation and not simply career preparation are the true heirs of Newman’s vision for higher education. May his vision continue to take hold worldwide, and may Catholic educators everywhere pray for his intercession in asking God’s favor upon the renewal of faithful Catholic education.

This article first appeared at The National Catholic Register.

John Henry Newman

To Restore Integrity: Newman’s Idea of Education

Over the course of his lifetime, John Henry Newman was many things: scholar, reformer, preacher, convert, theologian, priest, and cardinal. Through it all, however, he was an educator. Cor ad cor loquitur (“Heart speaks to heart”) was his motto, and he believed strongly that “personal influence” is the best means of teaching the truths of our Catholic faith.

“Speaking from heart to heart” was so much his manner that students at Oxford and later Dublin’s Catholic University would flock to hear his sermons. His guidance inspired the high-school boys at the Oratory School in Birmingham, England, including Hilaire Belloc. And Newman met personally with parents to forge genuine partnerships in the care of souls – an unusual practice at the time for English boarding schools.

The practical schoolmaster was also a great visionary, whose Idea of a University and University Sketches helped define the Catholic university at a time when education was splintering into diverse models and objectives. Amid many pastoral works, Newman also wrote numerous texts of devotion and theology on topics such as the Blessed Virgin Mary, development of doctrine, the role of the laity in the Church, and the nature of conscience.

It is extraordinary to find so many achievements in one man. And how do we reconcile the private Newman with the public intellectual, who eagerly battled “liberalism in religion”?

Continue reading at The Catholic Thing

Talk to Newman Guide College Presidents and Senior Staff

This talk was originally given at The Cardinal Newman Society Presidents’ Meeting in Washington, D.C. on January 20, 2016

Mr. Reilly, esteemed university presidents, dear friends in Christ,

I want to thank you for inviting me to join you for dinner this evening, and to offer a few remarks to you. This is an esteemed, august, and distinguished group, and I’m very humbled that you’ve invited me to offer a few remarks to you this evening.

I have been asked to speak to you about celebrating Catholic identity in the context of your universities and colleges. And in some ways, I feel ill equipped for that task—your institutions already represent some of the most Catholic places in our country—places where Catholic culture, intellectual life, and sacramental life flourishes in beautiful ways.

I am a graduate of a large, land-grant public university. (Rock Chalk Jayhawk!) And my diocese, the Diocese of Lincoln, does not have a Catholic university. But I do hope that I can offer a few thoughts that might be helpful to you in the important work you undertake.

I’d like to talk for a few moments about the Catholic University of Ireland, the university founded by my spiritual patron, Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman.

Most of you know that Newman is probably the most famous English convert to the faith, a prolific writer and thinker, and most of you are very familiar with Newman’s Idea of a University. In fact, most of your institutions probably draw wisdom and guidance from Newman’s work. But you might not be as familiar with Newman’s term as the founding president of the Catholic University of Ireland. And the story might be instructive for you today.

In 1852, Newman was asked by the bishops of Ireland to be the founding rector of the Catholic University of Ireland.

He didn’t want the job. The Catholic University of Ireland was founded to compete with the anti-Catholic Queen’s University of Ireland, which forbade theology and undermined the Church’s mission. But Newman wasn’t sure the Irish bishops really understood what a Catholic university should be. He took the job, and began in 1854, only after the Holy Father asked him personally.

His first biographer, William Philip Ward, says that “the story of the next three or four years is a long drawn-out history of apparent failure.”

Newman clashed with the Irish bishops—especially Cardinal Cullen, the Archbishop of Dublin. Newman’s vision was a well-educated laity, formed in the humanities, as described in Idea of a University, which he developed as he began the project. But he felt the bishops wanted to found a sort of pre-seminary, whose sole focus would be training for future priests. They clashed over faculty appointments, curriculum, and authority. Newman felt that their promises were often broken. The bishops refused to allow him to accredit the college, which he thought it guaranteed its failure.

Newman’s work in Ireland, says Ward, “made no difference, and wasted his time.”

The clashes between Cardinal Cullen and Newman put the university in dire straits. Its enrollment was too low, its funding was unclear, and its episcopal leadership, at least from Newman’s perspective, expected him to “pick up the crumbs.”

In October of 1858, these frustrations came to a head. Cardinal Cullen had failed to approve Newman’s appointment of a vice-rector. A dean had been appointed without Newman’s approval. It was clear that he had been sidelined. In November, after a period of reflection, Newman tendered his resignation

The bishops of Ireland felt he had failed. Newman felt, in some ways, they had failed him. Some felt that he had failed the Holy Father. The faculty felt that his departure would lead to the University’s demise. And, in fact, the Catholic University of Ireland lasted only 50 years before it was absorbed in to the secular university it had originally sought to defeat.

Newman’s time in Ireland might be seen as a spectacular failure. But Newman believed that the Lord had called him there for a purpose, and had used his service there to further the Kingdom. He had honed and articulated a vision for education—and a vision for the Church—while he was in Ireland. He was now passionate about well-formed and active Catholic laity. And he believed the Lord had wanted that vision, and would use it.

He wrote to a friend. Resignation, he said, “does not prove that what I have written and planned will not take effect some time and somewhere, because it does not at once. For twenty years my book on the Arians was not heard of …

My Oxford University Sermons, preached out as long ago as seventeen years, are now attracting attention at Oxford. When I am gone something may come of what I have done at Dublin. And since I hope I did what I did not for the sake of man, not for the sake of the Irish hierarchy, not even for the Pope’s praise, but for the sake of God’s Church and God’s glory, I have nothing to regret and nothing to desire different from what is.”

The path of Providence, as he had seen before, had been dimly lit. But he believed that for all his failure, the Lord would use his work for great and beautiful good.

I want to make three points about Newman’s experience at the Catholic University of Ireland, and about your role in contemporary Catholic education.

The first point is that Providence is utilizing your faithfulness even when you cannot see it. Many of your colleges and universities are in precarious and difficult situations today. Many of you face real and clear threats because of your fidelity to the Gospel. For some of you, it is no exaggeration to say that your survival is at stake, in the face of threats to religious freedom. And some of you may wonder why the Lord is calling you to persevere in a culture so hostile to your mission and ministry. But, dear brothers and sisters, Providence is utilizing your faithfulness.

Whether your colleges are able to weather the storms, or whether you’re capsized by the winds of persecution, the Lord is utilizing your work, and calling you to faithfulness. Newman’s university did not survive. But the work that came out of his time there—especially Idea of a University—laid the groundwork for faithful and dynamic Catholic university education across the globe. The so-called “failure” of the Catholic University of Ireland was the catalyst for the good work that you’re now doing.

Newman wrote: “God has created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission—I never may know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. Somehow I am necessary for His purposes….a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good, I shall do His work.”

God has created and called your institutions to do some definite service. And in the tribulations that many of you face, you may not see what the purpose is. None of us see clearly the movement and intentions of the Holy Spirit.

But Providence lays the groundwork of the Lord’s will over time. And your work—whether blessed with worldly success or not—is guided by the hand of Providence. And the Church thanks you for your fidelity.

My second point is that our contemporary situation requires new and creative approaches to the mission of orthodox and dynamic Catholic higher education.

The Catholic University of Ireland, as Newman envisioned it, was a new approach to Catholic higher education. The idea of founding a university whose principal mission was the formation of a “well-educated laity,” seemed novel. To us, with the benefit of hindsight, the mission and methodology seems obvious. But consider that the bishops of Ireland had such difficulty envisioning the primacy of the liberal arts, and the role of lay faculty and administrators. At the time, Newman’s thoughts were considered revolutionary, and maybe even subversive.

We need a continued renaissance in our approaches to Catholic higher education. As an example, I should mention that some estimate 90% of American Catholic college students attend public universities. Some of them are poor, or new to this country, or the first in a family to attend college. Some of them are disinterested or poorly formed in the faith. Some of them are studying in programs that small colleges and universities cannot offer. And you know, far better than I, that their education and formation is not only bereft of a Catholic character, it is often hostile to the truths of the Gospel.

Catholic colleges and universities, if they are true to their mission, might spend time asking how they can support the Catholic intellectual and personal formation of these students.

My good friend Steve Minnis, president of Benedictine College, is here with us tonight. Benedictine has formed a partnership with the St. Lawrence Catholic Center to support Humanitas, a program of intellectual formation for freshman and sophomores at the University of Kansas. The University of Mary, under the leadership of Msgr. Shea, offers accredited courses at the University of Arizona.

In the Diocese of Lincoln, in partnership with our college seminary, we’ve begun the Newman Institute for Catholic Thought and Culture, which will offer accredited courses in the humanities to undergraduates at the University of Nebraska.

These partnerships and projects are not easy. They require an investment of time and financial resources. But they are evangelical, they have life-long impact on students, and they bring the mission of Catholic universities to students most in need of the Gospel. Graduates of these programs have a Catholic foundation, through which to understand their education in areas you might not offer: engineering, technology, biomedical sciences, etc.

Each of you has opportunities to serve and reach students who might never attend Cardinal Newman Society colleges. And in so doing, you’ll be instrumental in forming the network of “well-educated laity” who will build a culture of life.

My third point is that the Church needs you, even when she doesn’t realize it.

Newman bears witness to the challenges and difficulties an institution can face when the hierarchy does not understand or support its mission. He carried the feelings of mutual distrust, disappointment, and disenchantment with the local hierarchy—especially his bishop, Cardinal Cullen.

Many of the institutions represented in this room bear battle scars from difficult relationships with bishops or dioceses that have not always understood your mission. Many of you are, for understandable reasons, wary of collaboration with the local Church. But fidelity to the Gospel requires service to the universal Church and to the particular Church in which you operate. The Lord is calling you to serve the Church in precisely the places in which you are located.

And as a bishop, I can tell you that the Church, and the bishops in the United States especially, increasingly have an understanding and appreciation for what it is that you are doing.

I am 60 years old, and I’ve been a bishop for almost 8 years.  There was a time when I could call myself a young bishop—but increasingly, those days have passed me by!

In dioceses across the country, bishops younger than me, with an even greater appreciation for your mission, are being entrusted with important leadership positions. And the Lord, truly, is calling you to foster and cultivate relationships with them. Ex Corde Ecclessiae calls every Catholic college to “be in close communion with the local Church and in particular with the diocesan bishops of the region or nation in which it is located.”

Newman reminds us of the importance of fostering this communion. Of course, many of you are wondering how to go about this. And some of you have better ideas than I do. But I can tell you that bishops everywhere are concerned with the ongoing formation of their priests, teachers, and lay collaborators. And bishops are eager to find partners in advocating for the faith in the public square. And of course, bishops are concerned with fostering vocations. And finally, I can tell you something that you’ll identify with—most bishops are trying to fulfill their responsibilities while recognizing the reality that there never seems to enough money to get things done!

I’m being sincere when I say that your bishops are in need of the work that you’re doing. And I’m sincere when I say that many of you will experience real and authentic openness to communion and collaboration.

The question for you to consider is what service you can offer to the needs of the particular Church. Can you foster an interest in vocations to the diocesan priesthood, among your students and among other young men? Can you offer training and educational opportunities for diocesan priests, teachers, and leaders? Can you develop authentically Catholic schools of education? Can your accounting and finance faculty offer workshops on parish management and finance for pastors? Can you be a voice for the richness of the Church’s life in your own dioceses?

In the face of ever-greater secularization, bishops are searching for partners. And they’re eager for help. Now, more than ever, the imperative of communion with the local Church is critical to your success, and to the success of the Church’s mission.

Providence is guiding your work, dear brothers and sisters, even in the face of trials and difficulties. Providence is leading even when you cannot see the outcome. You can be at the forefront of continued renaissance in faithful Catholic higher education. You can be of great service to the particular Church. And you can be, and will be, blessed abundantly by the Father for your fidelity and generosity to the Gospel.

Thank you for your good work. May almighty God bless you, +

Ex corde Ecclesiae: Echoes of Newman’s The Idea of a University

Having taught courses in the philosophy of education in two of the largest Catholic universities of the country for twenty years, I have more than a passing interest in the field. When the invitation came to consider presenting a paper to a conference sponsored by The Cardinal Newman Society to commemorate the bicentennial of Cardinal Newman’s birth,1 I immediately thought of his magisterial work, The Idea of a University, written exactly 150 years ago, referred to by Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua as “a work of great subtlety.”2 Fresh in my mind also was that United States episcopal conference had just completed a decade-long effort to bring Pope John Paul II’s Ex corde Ecclesiae to life in our nation. Could there be a connection between the visions of Newman and Wojtyla?

Both men spent considerable portions of their lives as university professors and chaplains. Both wrote only one major work on the nature of a Catholic university: Newman to prepare for the opening of the Catholic University of Ireland; John Paul II to prevent the collapse of Catholic higher education worldwide. Both struggled to see their vision implemented: Newman failed; the jury is still out on Wojtyla.

Many have noted that Cardinal Newman was the “unseen father” at Vatican II, and I don’t think that is much of an exaggeration. The late Holy Father, like every single one of his predecessors from the nineteenth century forward, and now also his successor, Pope Benedict XVI, made no secret of his esteem for the Venerable convert on numerous occasions. One could highlight the fact, for instance, that aside from popes, councils, and the beatified or canonized, Newman is the only person cited in the Catechism of the Catholic Church—and on three occasions, no less. Of course, the Pope also concluded his homily at the latest consistory by evoking the memory of Cardinal Newman and by presenting him as a model for cardinals of the third millennium; interestingly, that was also the consistory at which the recently late Father Avery Dulles, S.J. entered the College of Cardinals—another theologian-cardinal and convert.

So, I don’t think it far-fetched to suppose a Newmanian influence on the composition of Ex corde; in fact, a glance at the footnotes surfaces three direct quotes. I submit, however, that closer examination of the document reveals distinct and loud echoes of Newman’s voice, as well as a tone which is unmistakably suffused with the thought and spirit of John Henry Newman. Permit me to serve as your guide through this investigation by moving back and forth between the Cardinal and Pope John Paul II, asking not too irreverently, “Was Newman the ghostwriter for Ex corde Ecclesiae?”

1. What Is a Catholic University?

Newman launches into this matter with all deliberateness: “. . . when the Church founds a University,” he says, “she is not cherishing talent, genius or knowledge, for their own sake, but for the sake of her children, with a view to their spiritual welfare and their religious influence and usefulness, with the object of training them to fill their respective posts in life better, and of making them more intelligent, capable, active members of society.”3

The title of Pope John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation is carefully chosen; in fact, he has been referring to Catholic schools as “the very heart of the Church” at least since 1981, if my tracking has been accurate.4 The Holy Father sets the stage by locating the university as having been “born from the heart of the Church.” Indeed, he makes a point which most commentators, Catholic and secular alike, fail to recall: that it was the Catholic Church which created not Catholic universities but the entire concept and system of university education. So much for George Bernard Shaw’s snide remark that speaking of “a Catholic university is a contradiction in terms.”

“It is the honor and responsibility of a Catholic university to consecrate itself without reserve to the cause of truth,” teaches the Pope.5 And then, directly quoting Cardinal Newman, he speaks of the Church’s “intimate conviction that truth is its real ally . . . and that knowledge and reason are sure ministers to faith.”6

One cannot gainsay the centrality of truth in the educational process, and here the Pope’s admiration for Newman knows no bounds, having referred to him as an “ardent disciple of truth.”7 Indeed, Newman made the battle for truth the cause célèbre of his life, fighting against “liberalism” in religion, which he defined as the belief that “there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another.” 8 Quite movingly does Cardinal Bevilacqua describe Newman’s commitment to this cause:

Cardinal Newman’s life is a testimony to the liberating power of the truth and a warning about the slavery awaiting those who exalt freedom above all. Unless our freedom is built on the rock of truth, our poor wills will be, as the Apostle says, “tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness in deceitful wiles” [Eph 4:14]. Without the kindly light of truth, human freedom gets lost amid the encircling gloom.9

The Holy Father goes on to identify four “essential characteristics,” to use his terminology, qualities that must be present in any university which wishes to be known as Catholic; they are worth citing in full:

  1. A Christian inspiration not only of individuals but of the university community as such;
  2. A continuing reflection in the light of the Catholic Faith upon the growing treasury of human knowledge, to which it seeks to contribute by its own research;
  3. Fidelity to the Christian message as it comes to us through the Church;
  4. An institutional commitment to the service of the People of God and of the human family in their pilgrimage to the transcendent goal which gives meaning to life.10

Then follows counsel for all who make up the university community, which community must be, he says, “animated by the Spirit of Christ.” The Pope further argues that no true community can exist without “a common dedication to the truth, a common vision of the dignity of the human person and, ultimately, the person and message of Christ.” This last element, he maintains, is precisely what “gives the institution its distinctive character” (no. 21). University teachers are thus not merely providers of academic formation; they are called to be “witnesses and educators of authentic Christian life.” Most importantly, the Holy Father says, it should be evident that these men and women have achieved an “integration between faith and life and between professional competence and Christian wisdom” (no. 22). Nor should one expect that because many of them are members of the laity that this dimension would be less apparent or even totally lacking (no. 25).

Students, having been introduced to the meaning of Christian wisdom and having seen clear, consistent, and living examples of it in their professors, will logically be able to assume their roles as “the trained ‘leaders’ of tomorrow, of being witnesses to Christ in whatever place they may exercise their profession” (no. 24).

2. Why a Catholic University?

Cardinal Newman explains it thus: “. . . it is a matter of deep solicitude to Catholic prelates that their people should be taught a wisdom, safe from the excesses and vagaries of individuals, embodied in institutions which have stood the trial and received the sanction of ages. . . .” 11

Ex corde puts it this way: “In the world today, characterized by such rapid developments in science and technology, the tasks of a Catholic university assume an ever greater importance and urgency. . . . Its Christian inspiration enables it to include the moral, spiritual and religious dimension in its research and to evaluate the attainments of science and technology in the perspective of the totality of the human person” (no. 7). John Paul II continues:

. . . I turn to the whole Church, convinced that Catholic universities are essential to her growth and to the development of Christian culture and human progress. For this reason, the entire ecclesial community is invited to give its support to [them] and to assist them in their process of development and renewal. It is invited in a special way to guard the rights and freedoms of these institutions in civil society . . . (no. 11).

Along similar lines, it has been noted that Newman “urges the priority of literature over science in education,” lest the Church’s educational institutions produce little more than a generation of “technocrats”.12 That does not mean that Newman was opposed to science; by no means. In fact, following in the mentality of his fellow-Oratorian of the sixteenth century, Cardinal Baronius, Newman—like Wojtyla today—had a profound respect for science and its autonomy and even contended that “many scientists have been hostile to religion because theologians have often overstepped their mark.”13

The Pope goes on with very practical applications of these general principles, talking about the “integration of knowledge” (no. 16) and the need to promote “dialogue between faith and reason” (no. 17). He underscores the critical necessity for all research to be grounded in ethical and moral standards, both in “its methods and discoveries” (no. 18) because of the requirement to safeguard the dignity of the human person in all circumstances.

3. Does a Catholic University Have a Distinctive Curriculum?

John Paul II would seem to think so, and it is what we might call “the humanum.” Sounding an awful lot like the old pagan Roman poet Terence, with his “nihil humanum mihi alienum est,” the Holy Father argues that “there is only one culture: that of man, by man and for man.” He goes on: “And thanks to her Catholic universities and their humanistic and scientific inheritance, the Church, expert in humanity, . . . explores the mysteries of humanity and of the world, clarifying them in the light of Revelation” (no. 3). Even more boldly, he declares: “By means of a kind of universal humanism, a Catholic university is completely dedicated to the research of all aspects of truth in their essential connection with the supreme Truth, Who is God” (no. 4), with the result that Catholic institutions of higher learning “are called to explore courageously the riches of Revelation and of nature, so that the united endeavor of intelligence and faith will enable people to come to the full measure of their humanity” (no. 5). And here the Pope sounds a great deal like Irenæus, with his “gloria Dei vivens homo.”

Having mentioned Irenæus, one is immediately led to consider Newman. What does he envision for a Catholic university curriculum? The Cardinal observes that, although Pope St. Gregory the Great was not particularly fond of the literature of the pagan Greeks and Romans (although he knew it all very well), he was said by his biographer “to have supported the hall of the Apostolic See upon the columns of the Seven Liberal Arts.”14

As Newman presented his ideas for the founding of the Catholic University of Ireland, he applied this generic concept to a model for a curriculum:

. . . Civilization too has its common principles, and views, and teaching, and especially its books, which have more or less been given from the earliest of times. . . . In a word, the classics, and the subjects of thought and the studies to which they give rise, or, to use the term most dear to our present purpose, the Arts, have ever, on the whole, been the instruments of education which the civilized orbis terrarum has adopted; just as inspired works, and the lives of the saints, and the articles of faith, and the catechism, have ever been the instrument of education in the case of Christianity. And this consideration, you see, . . . invests [our project] with a solemnity and moment of a peculiar kind, for we are but reiterating an old tradition, and carrying on those august methods of enlarging the mind, and cultivating the intellect, and refining the feelings, in which the process of civilization has ever consisted.15

The venerable Cardinal also spoke specifically about “Catholic literature,” for which he offers a definition: “. . . by ‘Catholic literature’ is not to be understood a literature which treats exclusively or even primarily of Catholic matters, of Catholic doctrine, controversy, history, persons, or politics; but it includes all subjects of literature whatever, treated as a Catholic would treat them, and as he only can treat them.”16

Newman is advocating an approach to education grounded in the classics. How does one determine whether an author fits the bill? “A great author,” he says, “is not one who merely has a copia verborum, whether in prose or verse, and can, as it were, turn on at his will any number of splendid phrases and swelling sentences; but he is one who has something to say and knows how to say it.”17 He gets even more specific and even lyrical in expounding his vision:

. . . if by means of words the secrets of the heart are brought to light, pain of soul is relieved, hidden grief is carried off, sympathy conveyed, counsel imparted, experience recorded, and wisdom perpetuated,—if by great authors the many are drawn up into unity, national character is fixed, a people speaks, the past and the future, the East and the West are brought into communication with each other,—if such men are, in a word, the spokesmen and prophets of the human family,—it will not answer to make light of literature or to neglect its study; rather we may be sure that, in proportion as we master in whatever language, and imbibe its spirit, we shall ourselves become in our own measure ministers of like benefits to others, be they many or few, be they in the obscurer or the more distinguished walks of life,—who are united to us by social ties, and are within the sphere of our personal influence.18

Few commentators have missed how Newman was most impressed by the role “personal influence” played in the lives of people, as is the Pope, who stresses the critical importance of having faculty and administrators provide appropriate role models for the student population. John Paul II also underscores the “irreplaceable lay vocation” in the university apostolate (no. 25). Yet again, the Holy Father relies on Newman’s apprehension here: “Cardinal Newman describes the ideal to be sought in this way: ‘A habit of mind is formed which lasts through life, of which the attributes are freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom.’ ”19 “The humanum” comes across loud and clear again.

4. What Is the Place of Theology Within the Curriculum?

Is there a place? Cardinal Newman framed it as a syllogism:

A university, I should lay down, by its very name professes to teach universal knowledge. Theology is surely a branch of knowledge: how then is it possible to profess all branches of knowledge, and yet to exclude from the subjects of its teaching one which, to say the least, is as important and as large as any of them? I do not see that either premiss of this argument is open to exception.20

He presses the point the point even further: “Religious doctrine is knowledge, in as full a sense as Newton’s doctrine is knowledge. University teaching without theology is simply unphilosophical. Theology has at least as good a right to claim a place there as astronomy.”21

When Newman tries to understand and explain why theology found itself being slowly but surely driven to the margins of academia, he offers a fascinating insight. He suggests the reason was rather simple, namely, that theology had become classified as little more than “taste and sentiment,”22 with everything reduced to subjectivity. In other words, the great irony is that theology’s Enlightenment-influenced movement away from objective truth has been its own undoing.

Cardinal Newman also realized the possibility for excessive claims on the part of theology, and so he warned theologians and other scholars as well: “ . . . according as we are only physiologists, or only politicians, or only moralists, so is our idea of man more or less unreal.”23 Tunnel vision is bad for everyone, which is why he went on to say that what would make him a poor academic would be if “I carried out my science irrespectively of other sciences.”24 Why? Because “all knowledge forms one whole, because its subject-matter is one.”25 Without fear of contradiction, Newman maintains “that the systematic omission of any one science from the catalogue prejudices the accuracy and completeness of our knowledge altogether.”26 And were we to make such an omission, we should see without a doubt how theology is “the soul of the university.” Here he waxes eloquent:

In a word, religious truth is not only a portion, but a condition of general knowledge. To blot it out is nothing short, if I may so speak, of unravelling the web of university teaching. It is, according to the Greek proverb, to take the Spring from out of the year; it is to imitate the preposterous proceeding of those tragedians who represented a drama with the omission of its principal part.27

Ex corde notes the central place for theology in a Catholic institution of higher learning and the importance of interdisciplinary approaches to the various subjects, such that the unity of all truth is acknowledged and becomes apparent. Therefore, we read that theology “serves all other disciplines in their search for meaning, not only by helping them to investigate how their discoveries will affect individuals and society but also by bringing a perspective and an orientation not contained within their own methodologies.” However, this is not a one-way street, for the “interaction with these other disciplines and their discoveries enriches theology, offering it a better understanding of the world today, and making theological research more relevant to current needs” (no. 19). Hence, the need for every Catholic university to “have a faculty, or at least a chair, of theology.” Needless to say, the Pope observes that Catholic theology must be “taught in a manner faithful to Scripture, Tradition and the Church’s Magisterium” (no. 20).

5. What Is the Relationship Between the Catholic University and the Church?

The Pope tackles this core problem of the past few decades, begun with the Land o’ Lakes Statement in 1967.28 In the most unequivocal terms possible, he asserts that such a relationship “is essential to [the university’s] institutional identity.” Furthermore, he declares that non-Catholic members of the university community “are required to respect the Catholic character” of the institution, even as the university “respects their religious liberty” (no. 27). Bishops have an indispensable role to play in Catholic colleges, engaging in “close and consistent cooperation and continuing dialogue” with the university authorities. Because of the nature of this relationship, bishops cannot under any circumstances be regarded “as external agents” to the life of a university which wishes to be Catholic; in truth, they are active “participants in [its] life” (no. 28). John Paul II also reminds us that Catholic theologians have a right to academic freedom, like all other professors. A critical part of that right, however, is also concerned with being faithful to the principles and methods proper to the discipline of theology, which is to say, fidelity to the Church’s Scripture, Tradition, and Magisterium (no. 29).

Rightly, then, does the Code of Canon Law stipulate: “In Catholic universities it is the duty of the competent statutory authority to ensure that there be appointed teachers who are not only qualified in scientific and pedagogical expertise, but are also outstanding in their integrity of doctrine and uprightness of life” (can. 810). The Code goes on to require of presidents and those entrusted with teaching in areas related to faith and morals a profession of faith, which has been drawn up by the Apostolic See (see can. 833).

But more than a century before the present Holy Father, Cardinal Newman—that great advocate of academic freedom—was capable of stating in the strongest language: “Hence a direct and active jurisdiction of the Church over [a Catholic university] and in it is necessary, lest it should become the rival of the Church with the community at large in those theological matters which to the Church are exclusively committed.”29 And there is more: “It is no sufficient security for the Catholicity of a university, even that the whole of Catholic theology should be professed in it, unless the Church breathes her own pure and unearthly spirit into it, and fashions and molds its organization, and watches over its teaching, and knits together its pupils, and superintends its action.”30 Interestingly, Newman brings forth as an example of an institution which ran amok, precisely because of the lack of a direct link to the institutional Church, the Spanish Inquisition.31

A theology of communio32 underlies Ex corde’s notions of how everything fits together in a Catholic university. In this regard, the Pope once more cites Newman directly as he writes: “Cardinal Newman observes that a university ‘professes to assign to each study which it receives its proper place and its just boundaries; to define the rights, to establish the mutual relations and to effect the intercommunion of one and all.’ ”33 Was it Cardinal George of Chicago who suggested that the issue was not the place of the Church in the university but the place of the university in the Church?

6. Some Concluding Considerations

The Holy Father has much more to say on other significant issues, but time does not permit adequate attention to be given to such things as how the Catholic university serves both the Church and society; what kind of pastoral ministry should be exercised on campus; the unique contribution which should be made to contemporary culture by Catholic colleges; and the central place of evangelization in university priorities, goals, and objectives. In this context, it is worth looking to Newman’s thoughts on university preaching, for they are reflective of his overall approach to pastoral ministry for university students.

Allow me now to highlight a few of the more salient points of Ex corde Ecclesiae and The Idea of a University.

  1. Notice that Pope John Paul II, like Newman a century earlier, stresses the existence of the Catholic university for the advancement of truth. That should be the case for any institution of higher learning, but in this post-Enlightenment period in which we find ourselves, academia has lost its moorings in its abandonment of belief in truth. Truth has been replaced by opinion and/or ideology—at least as far as religious matters are concerned, although we note with fascination that in math class two plus two still equals four, regardless of personal opinion or fancy and regardless of anyone’s suggestion that such a position might be “authoritarian.”
  2. I hope you did not miss the Pope’s appeal to an interdisciplinary approach to learning—another “Newmanian” echo. Indeed, the Catholic philosophy of education is rooted in our belief that all truth is one, causing us to operate from a unified vision of reality. No unhealthy compartmentalization for us! For we recall that the word “university” itself means that the various disciplines are presented and studied in such a manner as to “turn toward the one,” converging in what the Pope calls “a single reality,”34 that is, bringing all the little truths of the several sciences into unity in the one great Truth, Who is the Inspiration and Source of all academic inquiry. Therefore, what is learned in one department of a university should eventually mesh in a holistic way with what is gained in another. And while there is no such thing as a Catholic brand of math or a Catholic take on science, our ethical and moral reflection must necessarily undergird it all. Therefore, we should be able to say with confidence that in a truly Catholic university the truths of the Catholic Faith will never be contradicted in any forum, if for no other reason than the simple fact that all truth is one and mutually reinforcing. Way back in the third century, Tertullian asked what he thought was a rhetorical question: “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” By which he meant to imply that theology and humanistic sciences had little or nothing to do with each other. The Church disagreed in a definitive fashion, and, in the midst of the Age of Faith, she began the university system.
  3. Both Newman and Wojtyla place in clear relief the fact that in a Catholic university the local bishop and the teaching authority of the Church can never be perceived as extrinsic, let alone oppressive, realities. Since the Catholic educational institution comes into existence because of faith, is sustained because of faith, and has its only valid rationale because of faith, it is patently absurd to regard matters of faith as foreign or alien to its life.
  4. The Pope obviously expects great things from Catholic colleges, something besides mere cosmetic changes, in many instances. More than crucifixes on classroom walls and collars on the clergy is being sought—although these two are certainly steps in the right direction. What the Pontiff has in mind is an educational establishment which breathes Catholic air, and that can come from nothing less than a total permeation of the curriculum and every other program with a fully Catholic spirit. And this philosophy of education jumps off every page of Cardinal Newman’s The Idea of a University.

In sum, could we argue, basing ourselves on Newman and Wojtyla, that the only true university is a Catholic university, pace George Bernard Shaw?

If we take our time-machine up to the present, we might ask what the current Pope has to offer on this topic. It is interesting to note that in the massive corpus of Joseph Ratzinger, one finds very little on Catholic education. Since he changed his name to Benedict XVI, however, he has dealt with the topic extensively. Not surprisingly, all eyes and ears were focused on him as he was to meet with Catholic educators in Washington, D.C. on April 17, 2008. The encounter was originally billed as an address to the presidents of America’s Catholic colleges and universities. Word has it that the interest-level of most of the intended audience was so low that the event was re-fashioned into a more generic grouping.

I am going to offer a decidedly minority opinion about the papal talk. First, it cannot be ignored that Ex corde was not mentioned even once—not even as a footnote. Secondly, of a four-page discourse, less than a quarter of the document could be considered as directed specifically to institutions of higher learning and actually, only one paragraph was uniquely suited to colleges and universities. Why did this turn of events occur?

I want to suggest that Pope Benedict has come to the conclusion that the vast majority of Catholic colleges and universities in the United States are beyond repair and sees no reason to expend time and energy on a lost cause. I think Pope John Paul had come to a similar judgment on American religious life and so just dropped the entire project, turning his attention to encouraging new religious communities, rather than focusing on the reform of existing ones. I suspect the present Holy Father has determined to adopt a like course in regard to American colleges and universities that once were rooted in a strong ecclesial identity and no longer are. Simply put: Don’t waste effort on institutions that will die; support new ones that have a truly Catholic ethos and sensibility. Time will tell whether that is the precise course he is charting and, if so, how wise such a course might be.

Pope John Paul II issued Ex corde on the Solemnity of the Assumption in 1990. Throughout his pontificate, he consistently presented the Sedes Sapientiæ as the model for Catholic scholars. Once more, we find a connection to Cardinal Newman here, for it was Newman who headed each of his University essays with the invocation “Sedes Sapientiæ, Ora pro nobis,” and actually dedicated the University to Our Lady under this very title.35 But why? Because, Newman asserted, the Seat of Wisdom was a model for simple believers and for theologians alike because she operates from faith and reason at one and the same time. The great convert wrote:

Thus, St. Mary is our pattern of faith, both in the reception and the study of Divine Truth. She does not think it enough to accept, she dwells upon it; not enough to submit to the Reason, she reasons upon it; and not indeed reasoning first, and believing afterwards, with Zacharias, yet first believing without reasoning, next from love and reverence, reasoning after believing. And thus she symbolizes to us, not only the faith of the unlearned, but of the doctors of the Church also, who have to investigate, and weigh, and define, as well as to profess the Gospel; to draw the line between truth and heresy; to anticipate or remedy the various aberrations of wrong reason; to combat pride and recklessness with their own arms; and thus to triumph over the sophist and the innovator.36

May the Virgin who guided the steps of Cardinal Newman to the fullness of truth, as she guided Pope John Paul II and now guides Pope Benedict XVI, ensure for us a Catholic Academy of the third millennium which is wholly directed toward her Son, Who is Truth Incarnate.




Newman on Education

In 1863, sixty-two-year-old John Henry Newman wrote, “from first to last, education … has been my line.”  His career at Oxford had begun with his election in 1822 to a fellowship at Oriel College, “at that time the object of ambition of all rising men in Oxford.”  After that he “never wished any thing better or higher than … ‘to live and die a fellow of Oriel.’”[1]  In fact, the Oxford or Tractarian Movement might never have begun but for Newman’s dispute with the Provost of Oriel over the role of a college tutor, Newman wanting, as a pioneer of the Oxford tutorial system that was to develop later, a more direct, personal teaching relationship with undergraduates.  As a result of being deprived of his tutorship, his teaching career at Oxford—in which his “heart was wrapped up”—came to an end, and he turned to research into the Church Fathers and the history of the early Church.  After becoming a Catholic, he was opposed to the restoration of the English hierarchy on the ground that “we want seminaries far more than sees.  We want education.”[2]

So when the chance came of helping to found the Catholic University of Ireland in Dublin, he jumped at it, since he had “from the very first month of my Catholic existence … wished for a Catholic University.”  Later, he was naturally attracted by the idea of founding the Oratory School in Birmingham; as an educational work, it fell “under those objects, to which I have especially given my time and thought.”  And as an old man of sixty-three, he so enjoyed filling in for an absent teacher that he declared that, “if I could believe it to be God’s will, [I] would turn away my thoughts from ever writing any thing, and should see, in the superintendence of these boys, the nearest return to my Oxford life.”  He was proud to claim that the school had “led the way in a system of educational improvement on a large scale through the Catholic community.”[3]

Liberal Education

Newman’s The Idea of a University (1873) is, like most of his books, an “occasional” work.  It is certainly not a systematic treatise.  Indeed, it consists of two books: Discourses on the Scope and Nature of University Education (1852), a book which is often confused with The Idea of a University and which comprises the lectures Newman was asked to deliver as a prelude to launching the Catholic University of Ireland; and Lectures and Essays on University Subjects (1859), a collection of lectures and articles that Newman wrote as the founding president of the university.  These Lectures and Essays are more practical and less theoretical than the Discourses which they usefully supplement.

The Idea of a University is still the one classic work on university education.  And it is famous for its advocacy of a “liberal education” as the principal purpose of a university.  However, the nature of what Newman meant by a liberal education has often been misunderstood.  What he calls “special Philosophy” or “Liberal or Philosophical Knowledge” he sees as “the end of University Education,” which he defines as “a comprehensive view of truth in all its branches, of the relations of science to science, of their mutual bearings, and their respective values.” This can be very misleading to a modern reader who may suppose that what Newman means is that the heart of the curriculum will be courses in philosophy or, alternatively, some rather mysterious “special” kind of philosophy.  But in reality Newman’s “philosophy of an imperial intellect,” as he rather grandiloquently terms it in the second half of The Idea, is not some super-philosophy but simply what he calls in the Preface to the Discourses that “real cultivation of mind” which he defines as “the intellect … properly trained and formed to have a connected view or grasp of things.”[4]  This is shown by his definition of this “special Philosophy”:  “In default of a recognized term, I have called the perfection or virtue of the intellect by the name of philosophy, philosophical knowledge, enlargement of mind, or illumination.”  By this he does not mean the academic subject we now call philosophy, but “Knowledge … when it is acted upon, informed … impregnated by Reason,” in other words knowledge which “grasps what it perceives through the senses … which takes a view of things; which sees more than the senses convey; which reasons upon what it sees, and while it sees; which invests it with an idea.”  And Newman implicitly acknowledges a rhetorical exaggeration when he remarks, “to have mapped out the Universe is the boast, or at least the ambition, of Philosophy.”[5]  The fact is that at the heart of his philosophy of education is simply the capacity to think.

Another misunderstanding of Newman’s idea of a liberal education is that he was advocating the study of the liberal arts for the usual kind of reasons.  But it is striking that in his several discussions of literature, for example, in The Idea he does not at all stress its cultural value.  It is true that he acknowledges that literature is the “history” of man, “his Life and Remains,” “the manifestation of human nature in human language.”  And he also points out that if “the power of speech is a gift as great as any that can be named … it will not answer to make light of Literature or to neglect its study.”  But there is no attempt to argue for the cultural value of studying literature, or even that a knowledge of literature is an essential part of education.  What he does argue in his lecture “Christianity and Letters” in the second half of The Idea is that traditionally “the Classics, and the subjects of thought and the studies to which they give rise, or … the Arts, have ever, on the whole, been the instruments of education.”

This could be very misleading for a modern reader who will understand by the Classics the languages and literature of ancient Greece and Rome.  But, in fact, Newman is thinking of the seven liberal arts of the medieval university, which, as he explains in the same lecture, comprised grammar, rhetoric, logic and mathematics, which was subdivided into geometry, arithmetic, astronomy and music. Grammar certainly involved literature, the literature of Greece and Rome, but this education in the arts was hardly what we would mean by an education either in the arts or the Classics.

Consequently, when Newman says that these liberal arts were able in the Middle Ages to withstand the challenge of the new subjects of theology, law and medicine, because they were “acknowledged, as before, to be the best instruments of mental cultivation, and the best guarantees for intellectual progress”—is certainly not talking only of about linguistic and literary studies.  And when later in the lecture he declares that the “simple question to be considered is, how best to strengthen, refine, and enrich the intellectual powers,” but then goes on to say that the “the perusal of the poets, historians, and philosophers of Greece and Rome will accomplish this purpose, as long experience has shown”—he is including the study of Greek mathematics.[6]

Newman himself studied both classics and mathematics at Oxford, and among the set texts for the latter were both Euclid and Newton, as well as modern mathematicians.[7]  It was quite common then to study both subjects at Oxford, and this combination represented for Newman a continuation of the medieval liberal arts.  At the Catholic University of Ireland all students were required to follow a course of liberal studies that included Latin, mathematics and even science.  But since the students were only aged sixteen on entry to the university and this course of liberal arts only lasted for two years, these were in effect the last two years of the secondary education that was presumably not easily available to Catholics in Ireland at the time.  Thereafter, it should be noted in view of the common assumption that Newman was only interested in providing a liberal education at the university, that students could proceed immediately to a professional degree such as medicine, although of course they could also proceed to what we could call an arts degree—but even then both mathematics and theology were included in this “Liberal Education.”[8]  It is clear that at Newman’s university the medieval concept of the liberal arts was modified by the inclusion of both science and theology.

Newman seems in The Idea of a University to equivocate somewhat over both science and theology.  On the one hand, he supported in theory the traditional view that the medieval liberal arts were the staple of a liberal education.  On the other hand, his actual practice was more flexible.  In his lecture “Christianity and Letters,” he considers the contemporary threat from the rise of modern science to the traditional liberal arts, wondering whether it can educate the mind as well, since “it is proved to us as yet by no experience whatever.”  For “the question is not what department of study contains the more wonderful facts, or promises the more brilliant discoveries, and which is in the higher and which in an inferior rank; but simply which out of all provides the most robust and invigorating discipline for the unformed mind.”[9]  The reference to the “rank” of a department of study is clearly a reference to theology, which for Newman is the most important branch of study from the point of view of knowledge, but not of education.

Educationally, he is as cautious about theology as he is about science.  It seems that he is not maintaining that science and theology are necessarily unfit to be part of a liberal education, but only that they are not part of the essential, core subjects, that is, the traditional liberal arts.  Certainly, in the Discourses he allows that the study of theology may form part of a liberal education provided it rises above the level of knowledge in the sense of mere information needed for preaching or catechesis.  Again, in the last of the Discourses, after speaking of the faculty of science, he turns to the faculty of letters, which, he says, constitutes “the other main constituent portion of the subject-matter of Liberal Education.”[10]  It looks as if Newman was simply accepting what had come to pass in universities and recognized that the study of science was a perfectly respectable intellectual pursuit.  And that after all was all he was concerned about:  the “mental cultivation” which results from a proper intellectual “discipline.”  For whatever the cultural value inherent in studying certain arts subjects may be, that is not Newman’s primary concern:  it is not “culture” in the modern sense of the word that he is concerned with, but rather “mental cultivation” in the sense of the education or training of the mind.

It is not, then, a knowledge and appreciation of the arts that constitutes for Newman the end of a liberal education, desirable, of course, as he would have deemed that to be.  But rather, as he states quite unequivocally in the Preface to the Discourses, it is that “real cultivation of mind” which enables a person “to have a connected view or grasp of things” and which manifests itself in “good sense, sobriety of thought, reasonableness, candour, self-command, and steadiness of view.”  It is “the force, the steadiness, the comprehensiveness and the versatility of intellect, the command over our own powers, the instinctive just estimate of things as they pass before us” that is the object of a liberal education.  And this liberal education has a distinctively useful function for it gives its recipient the “faculty of entering with comparative ease into any subject of thought, and of taking up with aptitude any science or profession.”  Far from Newman’s  “science of sciences” or “Philosophy” being a special subject of study, a kind of super-general science which embraces all the other branches of knowledge, it is not a subject you can study at all, but rather it is by learning to think properly that one is “gradually initiated into the largest and truest philosophical views.”  The more the mind is formed and trained, the more “philosophical” in Newman’s sense it becomes.[11]

Because Newman thinks that “Liberal Education … is simply the cultivation of the intellect … and its object is nothing more or less than intellectual excellence,” he regrets the fact that there is no recognized English word to express the idea of intellectual cultivation or the cultivated intellect:

It were well if the English, like the Greek language, possessed some definite word to express, simply and generally, intellectual proficiency or perfection, such as “health,” as used with reference to the animal frame, and “virtue,” with reference to our moral nature.  I am not able to find such a term;—talent, ability, genius, belong distinctly to the raw material, which is the subject-matter, not to that excellence which is the result of exercise and training.  When we turn, indeed, to the particular kinds of intellectual perfection, words are forthcoming for our purpose, as, for instance, judgment, taste, and skill; yet even these belong, for the most part, to powers or habits bearing upon practice or upon art, and not to any perfect condition of the intellect, considered in itself.  Wisdom, again, is certainly a more comprehensive word than any other, but it has a direct relation to conduct, and to human life.  Knowledge, indeed, and Science express purely intellectual ideas, but still not a state or quality of the intellect; for knowledge, in its ordinary sense, is but one of its circumstances, denoting a possession or a habit; and science has been appropriated to the subject-matter of the intellect, instead of belonging in English, as it ought to do, to the intellect itself.[12]

Now surprise has been expressed that “Newman does not meet the want of ‘some definite word’ with the word ‘culture.’   Elsewhere, he in fact made the essential connexion with ‘culture.’”[13]  In the passage referred to, Newman does indeed speak of “intellectual culture,” but it is synonymous with what he calls “the culture of the intellect,” whereby the intellect is “exercised in order to its perfect state.”  Certainly Matthew Arnold, from whom the word culture in its modern sense derives, did not define culture as a state of “intellectual perfection,” but rather as “a pursuit of our total perfection.”  The word culture for Arnold not only meant a “pursuit” rather than a “state,” but its connotations are not even primarily, let alone exclusively, intellectual:  “culture being a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know … the best which has been thought and said in the world.”[14]  This no doubt is what is generally meant by a liberal education, but it is not what Newman meant:  for him “intellectual culture” did not mean reading “great books,” but learning how to think.  Newman ‘s failure, then, to use the word culture was not an oversight on his part because the word did not signify what he had in mind, which he was forced to describe thus:  “In default of a recognized term, I have called the perfection or virtue of the intellect by the name of philosophy, philosophical knowledge, enlargement of mind, or illumination …”[15]

The training of the mind for Newman does not consist either in studying logic (though it may include that) or in the study of “how to think”:  one learns to think not by learning a science of thinking but by thinking about the ordinary objects of knowledge.  This is why, Newman says, “philosophy presupposes knowledge” and “requires a great deal of reading,” for knowledge “is the indispensable condition of expansion of mind, and the instrument of attaining to it.”  But the knowledge is strictly distinguished from the philosophy: merely to know is not to be educated.  He writes:

The enlargement consists, not merely in the passive reception into the mind of a number of ideas hitherto unknown to it, but in the mind’s energetic and simultaneous action upon and towards and among those new ideas, which are rushing in upon it….There is no enlargement, unless there be a comparison of ideas one with another, as they come before the mind, and a systematizing of them.…It is not the mere addition to our knowledge that is the illumination; but the locomotion, the movement onwards, of that mental centre, to which both what we know, and what we are learning, the accumulating mass of our acquirements, gravitates.[16]

This enlargement of mind reaches its highest point in “a truly great intellect,” which “possesses the knowledge, not only of things, but also of their mutual and true relations.”  As Newman notes:

That only is true enlargement of mind which is the power of viewing many things at once as one whole, of referring them severally to their true place in the universal system, of understanding their respective values, and determining their mutual dependence. … Possessed of this real illumination, the mind never views any part of the extended subject-matter of Knowledge without recollecting that it is but a part, or without the associations which spring from this recollection.  It makes every thing in some sort lead to every thing else; it would communicate the image of the whole to every separate portion, till that whole becomes in imagination like a spirit, every where pervading and penetrating its component parts, and giving them one definite meaning.

Newman’s “Philosopher” is not a “genius,” originating “vast ideas or dazzling projects.”  For “genius … is the exhibition of a natural gift, which no culture can teach, at which no Institution can aim.”  On the other hand, the “perfection of the intellect,” which is the aim of a liberal education, “is the clear, calm, accurate vision and comprehension of all things, as far as the finite mind can embrace them, each in its place, and with its own characteristics upon it.”  The mind of a genius is “possessed with some one object,” takes “exaggerated views of its own importance,” is “feverish in the pursuit of it,” and makes “it the measure of things which are utterly foreign to it.”  By contract, the liberally educated mind, “which has been disciplined to the perfection of its powers, which knows, and thinks while it knows, which has learned to leaven the dense mass of facts and events with the elastic force of reason, such an intellect cannot be partial, cannot be exclusive, cannot be impetuous, cannot be at a loss, cannot but be patient, collected, and majestically calm …”[17]

Newman is emphatic that acquisition of knowledge is not the same as education.  To “improve the intellect, first of all, we must ascend; we cannot gain real knowledge on a level; we must generalize, we must reduce to method, we must have a grasp of principles, and group and shape our acquisitions by means of them.”  Memory can be “over-stimulated,” so that “reason acts almost as feebly and madly as in the madman,” when the mind is “the prey … of barren facts, of random intrusions from without.”  The “practical error, he complains, of modern education is, “not to load the memory of the student with a mass of undigested knowledge, but to force upon him so much that he has rejected it all.  It has been the error of distracting and enfeebling the mind by an unmeaning profusion of subjects; of implying that a smattering in a dozen branches of study is not shallowness, which it really is, but enlargement, which it is not …”

And Newman makes it clear that he prefers specialization to a general course of studies if there has to be a choice between a “thorough knowledge of one science” and “a superficial acquaintance with many,” for “a smattering of a hundred things” does not lead to a “philosophical or comprehensive view” (any more than does mere “memory for detail”).  Long before the arrival of the internet, Newman is very aware of the dangers of modern technology that makes information available on a scale unknown before:  “What the steam engine does with matter, the printing press is to do with mind; it is to act mechanically, and the population is to be passively, almost unconsciously enlightened, by the mere multiplication and dissemination of volumes.”  The opposite of the mechanical is the “individual” element—“the power of initiation”—that Newman regards as essential to education.  For one can only become educated by actively using one’s own mind oneself as opposed to passively absorbing information:  “Learning is to be without exertion, without attention, without toil; without grounding, without advance, without finishing.”  It is not that Newman is opposed to the spread of popular education through “the cheap publication of scientific and literary works, which is now in vogue,” and as for that “superficial” general knowledge “which periodical literature and occasional lectures and scientific institutions diffuse through the community,” he accepts that it is even “a necessary accomplishment, in the case of educated men.”  What he does not accept is that such a proliferation of information actually educates people:  “accomplishments are not education” for they do not “form or cultivate the intellect.”[18]

By the training of the mind to think, Newman is not only referring to the ability to think clearly and logically.  A liberal education for him means the education of the whole mind.  What he calls the “cultivation of the intellect” or the “scientific formation of mind” is certainly intended to result in the ability to “grasp things as they are” and the “power of discriminating between truth and falsehood”; but it also includes the capacity “of arranging things according to their real value.”  It is not only a matter of “clearsightedness,” since the “sagacity” or “wisdom” which the educated person is meant to possess involves too “an acquired faculty of judgment.”

In other words, the power of evaluating and making normative judgments is also a part of the educational process.  Far from the mind only consisting in the logical faculty, Newman warns that just “as some member or organ of the body may be inordinately used and developed, so may memory, or imagination, or the reasoning faculty.”  And “this,” he insists, “is not intellectual culture.”  But rather, “as the body may be tended, cherished, and exercised with a simple view to its general health, so may the intellect also be generally exercised in order to its perfect state; and this is its cultivation.”  The ideal recipient of this holistic liberal education knows “where he and his science stand” because “he has come to it, as it were, from a height, he has taken a survey of all knowledge … and he treats his own in consequence with a philosophy and a resource, which belongs not to the study itself, but to his liberal education.”  But clarity and judgment are not the only fruits of a liberal education, which “gives a man a clear conscious view of his own opinions and judgments, a truth in developing them, an eloquence in expressing them, and a force in urging them.”  Articulate expression and imagination, for example, are also fostered by a liberal education.[19]

The University

Newman does not see the teachers as alone responsible for the liberal education of students.  On the contrary, he sees the students themselves as part of the teaching process.  This is why the residential side of a college or university is so important to him.  And to make his point in an extreme way he contrasts the new London University which “dispensed with residence and tutorial superintendence,” giving “its degrees to any person who passed an examination,” with the Oxford of the eighteenth century which is said to have “merely brought a number of young men together for three or four years, and then sent them away.”  And he says flatly, “if I were asked which of these two methods were the better discipline of the intellect … if I must determine which of the two courses was the more successful in training, moulding, enlarging the mind … I have no hesitation in giving the preference to that University which did nothing, over that which exacted of its members an acquaintance with every science under the sun.”

Of course, part of Newman’s preference lies in the fact that London University did not profess to offer a coherent liberal education and also lacked the tutorial system with its close contact between teachers and taught; but in addition a non-residential university does not provide the kind of intellectual community that Newman deemed necessary for a truly liberal education:  “When a multitude of young men … come together and freely mix with each other, they are sure to learn from one another, even if there be no one to teach them; the conversation of all is a series of lectures to each, and they gain for themselves new ideas and views, fresh matter of thought, and distinct principles for judging and acting …”  Such a teacher-less university, Newman dares to maintain, is preferable to a non-residential university that offers no liberal education or the personal contact between students and teachers:

Here then is a real teaching … it at least tends towards cultivation of the intellect; it at least recognizes that knowledge is something more than a sort of passive reception of scraps and details; it is a something, and it does a something, which never will issue from the most strenuous efforts of a set of teachers, with no mutual sympathies and no intercommunion, of a set of examiners with no opinions which they dare profess, and with no common principles, who are teaching or questioning a set of youths who do not know them, and do not know each other, on a large number of subjects, different in kind, and connected by no wide philosophy …

A university or college where there is a “youthful community,” even if there is no proper teaching, gives birth to “a living teaching” or “tradition.”   And such a “self-education” offers to the students “more philosophy, more true enlargement” than the impersonal lectures of a non-residential university offer students “forced to load their minds with a score of subjects against an examination, who have too much on their hands to indulge themselves in thinking or investigation, who devour premiss and conclusion together with indiscriminate greediness, who hold whole sciences on faith …” It would be better for an “independent mind … to range through a library at random, taking down books as they meet him, and pursuing the trains of thought which his mother wit suggests!”  Even such private studies would provide a “more genuine” education.[20]

Naturally, Newman did not think that such a university was the ideal one.  On the contrary, as he states at the beginning of the Preface to the Discourses, “a University … is a place of teaching universal knowledge,” its “object” being “the diffusion and extension of knowledge rather than the advancement”:  “If its object were scientific and philosophical discovery, I do not see why a University should have students.”[21]  Now if Newman were a systematic kind of writer and The Idea of a University a systematic treatise on education, he would at this point have made the qualification that he goes on to make with regard to the other possible object of a university which he wishes to counter.  But because Newman is not writing in the abstract but in the context of a very concrete and controversial situation he musters all the resources of his rhetoric.  For the fact of the matter is that Newman’s opening insistence that a university is necessarily an institution for teaching is a rhetorical device to introduce the crucial point he really wants to make in the heavily clerical context of Catholic Dublin and Ireland.

For the burning issue was not about teaching versus research, but about whether the Irish bishops really wanted a university at all, or whether as many lay Catholics (for whom the University was intended and who were being asked to pay for it) suspected, the hierarchy in fact had in mind a kind of glorified seminary where Catholics could be shielded from the malign influences of both Protestant Trinity College, Dublin, and the newly founded secular Queen’s Colleges.  Archbishop Cullen of Dublin had asked Newman to justify a Catholic university and the teaching of Catholic theology; for his part Newman was determined to make it crystal clear that it was a university he was founding, a university like those non-Catholic universities that Catholics were to be protected from.

And so, although he italicizes both “teaching” and “knowledge” in his opening proposition, it is really the latter that he wants to emphasise, which is perhaps why the next sentence explaining his thesis reverses the order of the preceding sentence by stressing not “teaching” but “knowledge”:  “This implies that its object is, on the one hand, intellectual, not moral; and, on the other hand, that it is the diffusion and extension of  knowledge rather than the advancement.”  True, the succeeding and final sentence of the paragraph returns to the original order:  “If its object were scientific and philosophical discovery, I do not see why a University should have students; if religious training, I do not see how it can be the seat of literature and science.”

But the fact is that nobody in Ireland or England was suggesting that universities should be research rather than teaching institutions, nor did Newman foresee that what he intended as a merely “academic” point, to balance the real point he wanted to make, would much later become a source of reproach.  For if there is one thing that educationists think they know about Newman’s Idea of a University, it is that the book is hostile to research.  In fact, a few pages later in the Preface Newman, while again insisting that the “great object” of a university must be education, adds, however, “and not simply to protect the interests and advance the dominion of Science.”  Research, then, is not, after all, apparently to be excluded from the university.

But again Newman’s concern is to argue that a university is for education, not as opposed to research, but as opposed to moral and spiritual formation.  But far from research not being the business of a university, Newman actually thought the opposite, as he makes clear in a lecture in the second half of The Idea of a University where he is no longer preoccupied with establishing that a university is not a seminary.  There he states unequivocally:  “What an empire is in political history, such is a University in the sphere of … research.”[22]  But because the Discourses are often equated with The Idea of a University and the second half of the book is not read, this ringing endorsement of the place of research in the university is unknown to educational writers.

Newman’s actual practice at the Catholic University of Ireland was totally consistent with this.  Unable to carry out all his objectives during his frustrated presidency, he nevertheless set out plans for research institutes in science, technology, archaeology, and medicine, “institutions,” he declared, “which will have their value intrinsically, whether students are present or not.”  His categorical insistence on the research duties of the University’s professors would at the time have caused some surprise at his own old University of Oxford, where the professors were not unduly given either to teaching or to research prior to the reforms of 1854.  And he founded a “literary and scientific journal” called the Atlantis “for depositing professorial work.”[23]  Corresponding to the colleges at Oxford were collegiate houses headed by priests with tutors who were, like the fellows of Oxford colleges then, unmarried graduates.  These tutors and fellows were not permanent members of the teaching staff and would leave on getting married.  But while Newman wished to preserve the collegiate, tutorial dimension in Dublin, he also wanted to supplement it with the university and professorial dimension which was then very weak at Oxford.

To deal with another common misunderstanding, Newman had no intention of simply setting up a replica of Oxford in Dublin, but he was clear that the constitution of the new university should be modelled upon “the pattern of the University of Louvain.”[24]  This was not only because the recently founded Belgian university provided a model for a Catholic university, but because it offered a continental corrective to the Oxford collegiate system.  For the originality of Newman’s conception of his university was that it would combine the advantages of both systems:  that is, he wanted a “University seated and living in Colleges,” which he hoped would be “a perfect institution, as possessing excellences of opposite kinds.”  Given that he thought that “the critical evil in the present state of the English Universities” was, “not that the Colleges are strong, but that the University has no practical or real jurisdiction over them,”[25] it is not surprising that in Dublin he ensured that, as at Louvain, the government of the University lay in the hands of the president and professors rather than the heads of the collegiate houses.  And it is surely the case that Newman’s concern was not only with effective administration but also with the quality of teaching and the need for research in a university.

In the second of the Discourses, Newman repeats his point in the Preface that a university “by its very name professes to teach universal knowledge,” that is, “all branches of knowledge.”  This would seem impractical, not to say undesirable.  But Newman should not be taken too literally.  The Catholic University of Ireland did not teach, nor did it aspire to teach, all conceivable branches of knowledge.  Newman’s point is that a university should in principle be open to teaching anything that is knowable:  “all branches of knowledge are, at least implicitly, the subject-matter of its teaching.” It should not refuse to do so on some discriminatory ground “through the systematic omission of any one science.”

Clearly some subjects were more important and some indispensable.  But in principle, a university must be hospitable to any kind of genuine knowledge.  He corrects any misunderstanding in an explanatory appendix to the Discourses:  “Though I have spoken of a University as a place for cultivating all knowledge, yet this does not imply that in matter of fact a particular University might not be deficient in this or that branch, or that it might not give especial attention to one branch over the rest; but only that all branches of knowledge were presupposed or implied, and none omitted on principle.”  There must be no restrictions reflecting any ideological conceptions of the range of human knowledge:  “For instance, are we to limit our idea of University Knowledge by the evidence of our senses? then we exclude ethics; by intuition? we exclude history; by testimony? we exclude metaphysics; by abstract reasoning?  We exclude physics.”  Instead, Newman insists not only on the fullness but on the wholeness and unity of knowledge:

All that exists, as contemplated by the human mind, forms one large system or complex fact, and this of course resolves itself into an indefinite number of particular facts, which, as being portions of a whole, have countless relations of every kind, one towards another.  Knowledge is the apprehension of these facts, whether in themselves, or in their mutual positions and bearings.  And, as all taken together form one integral subject for contemplation, so there are no natural or real limits between part and part; one is ever running into another; all, as viewed by the mind, are combined together, and possess a correlative character one with another …

The reason why “all knowledge forms one whole” is that its subject-matter is one; for the universe in its length and breadth is so intimately knit together, that we cannot separate off portion from portion, and operation from operation, except by a mental abstraction. … Next, sciences are the results of that mental abstraction … being the logical record of this or that aspect of the whole subject-matter of knowledge.  As they all belong to one and the same circle of objects, they are one and all connected together; as they are but aspects of things, they are severally incomplete in their relation to the things themselves, though complete in their own idea and for their own respective purposes; on both accounts they at once need and subserve each other.

A university will not in practice teach every conceivable branch of knowledge, but in theory it must be open to doing so, for if they “all relate to one and the same integral subject-matter … none can safely be omitted, if we would obtain the exactest knowledge possible of things as they are, and … the omission is more or less important, in proportion to the field which each covers, and the depth to which it penetrates, and the order to which it belongs; for its loss is a positive privation of an influence which exerts itself in the correction and completion of the rest.”[26]

Newman’s view of the interaction and interdependence of the various branches of knowledge is important both for his idea of a university as an institution and for his conception of a liberal education.  His conviction of the integrity of knowledge makes him sensitive to the danger of one branch of knowledge intruding into the sphere of another.  Different branches of knowledge “differ in importance; and according to their importance will be their influence, not only on the mass of knowledge to which they all converge and contribute, but on each other.”  And the danger is that specialists in a particular branch of knowledge that is important, may become “bigots and quacks, scorning all principles and reported facts which do not belong to their own pursuit.”  For in the “whole circle of sciences, one corrects another for purposes of fact, and one without the other cannot dogmatize, except hypothetically and upon its own abstract principles.”  Against the tendency of whatever branch of knowledge at any given time to regard itself as the key to all knowledge Newman insists that each branch of knowledge only studies its own aspect of reality.  And he emphasizes that the neglect or omission of any branch of knowledge, particularly if it is important and likely to impinge on other branches, does not mean that that subject simply slips out of the totality of knowledge—for:

If you drop any science out of the circle of knowledge, you cannot keep its place vacant for it; that science is forgotten; the other sciences close up, or, in other words, they exceed their proper bounds, and intrude where they have no right.  For instance, I suppose, if ethics were went into banishment, its territory would soon disappear, under a treaty of partition, as it may be called, between law, political economy, and physiology …

The more ignorant the specialist in a particular subject is the more likely they are to be tempted by academic imperialism:

In proportion to the narrowness of his knowledge, is, not his distrust of it, but the deep hold it has upon him, his absolute conviction of his own conclusions, and his positiveness in maintaining them. … Thus he becomes, what is commonly called, a man of one idea; which properly means a man of one science, and of the view, partly true, but subordinate, partly false, which is all that can proceed out of any thing so partial.  Hence it is that we have the principles of utility, of combination, of progress, of philanthropy, or, in material sciences, comparative anatomy, phrenology, electricity, exalted into leading ideas, and keys, if not of all knowledge, at least of many things more than belong to them …

Such narrow specialists “have made their own science … the centre of all truth, and view every part or the chief parts of knowledge as if developed from it, and to be tested and determined by its principles.”[27]

No subject is competent to evaluate its own importance as a branch of knowledge:  for example, “if there is a science of wealth, it must give rules for gaining wealth and disposing of wealth,” but it “can do nothing more; it cannot itself declare that it is a subordinate science.”  For the economist has no business “to recommend the science of wealth, by claiming for it an ethical quality, viz., by extolling it as the road to virtue and happiness.”  Such an evaluation must either come from one of those branches of knowledge whose province it is to deal with ethical and teleological questions or it must be made not by any particular branch of knowledge but by the “philosophical” mind trained by a liberal education:

The objection that Political Economy is inferior to the science of virtue, or does not conduce to happiness, is an ethical or theological objection; the question of its “rank” belongs to that Architectonic Science or Philosophy, whatever it be, which is itself the arbiter of all truth, and which disposes of the claims and arranges the places of all the departments of knowledge which man is able to master.

Then again, ethical or political questions inevitably impinge on economics because “the various branches of science are intimately connected with each other.”  But they cannot be determined by economic criteria, nor should they be covertly settled by the economist’s own private ethical or political views which are quite independent of his economics.  The fundamental principle is clearly stated by Newman:  “What is true in one science is dictated to us indeed according to that science, but not according to another science, or in another department.”  Military science, for example, “must ever be subordinate to political considerations or maxims of government, which is a higher science with higher objects.”[28]

The danger of academic imperialism is accentuated when the specialist is working outside the community of a university, because then he is in danger of being absorbed and narrowed by his pursuit, and of giving Lectures which are the Lectures of nothing more than a lawyer, physician, geologist, or political economist; whereas in a University he will just know where he and his science stand, he has come to it, as it were, from a height, he has taken a survey of all knowledge, he is kept from extravagance by the very rivalry of other studies, he has gained from them a special illumination and largeness of mind and freedom and self-possession, and he treats his own in consequence with a philosophy and a resource, which belongs not to the study itself, but to his liberal education.

Similarly, the student is made aware at a university of other subjects than he happens to be studying:  “There is no science but tells a different tale, when viewed as a portion of a whole, from what it is likely to suggest when taken by itself, without the safeguard, as I may call it, of others.”  Although Newman would prefer a more specialized education to a general education involving a smattering of knowledge in a number of subjects, there is a danger in specialization or over-specialization:  “If his reading is confined simply to one subject … certainly it has a tendency to contract his mind.”  But since “the drift and meaning of a branch of knowledge varies with the company in which it is introduced to the student,” it is important that a student in his studies should be made aware of as many other branches of study as possible.  This, then, is the kind of university where a student will gain a liberal education and where his teachers will be saved from academic imperialism:

It is a great point then to enlarge the range of studies which a University professes, even for the sake of the students; and, though they cannot pursue every subject which is open to them, they will be the gainers by living among those and under those who represent the whole circle. … An assemblage of learned men, zealous for their own sciences, and rivals of each other, are brought, by familiar intercourse and for the sake of intellectual peace, to adjust together the claims and relations of their respective subjects of education.  They learn to respect, to consult, to aid each other.  Thus is created a pure and clear atmosphere of thought, which the student also breathes, though in his own case he only pursues a few sciences out of the multitude.  He profits by an intellectual tradition, which is independent of particular teachers, which guides him in his choice of subjects, and duly interprets for him those which he chooses.  He apprehends the great outlines of knowledge, the principles on which it rests, the scale of its parts, its lights and its shades, its great points and its little, as he otherwise cannot apprehend them.  Hence it is that his education is called “liberal.”  A habit of mind is formed which lasts through life, of which the attributes are, freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom; or what … I have ventured to call a philosophical habit.[29]

The Catholic University

The implication of Newman’s idea of a liberal education is that only a Catholic university can provide a fully liberal education.  For if Catholicism is true, then Catholic theology is not only a genuine branch of knowledge, but it is the crucial branch that bears upon a number of other branches.  And if it is omitted from the circle of knowledge, then the result is not only a serious vacuum, but the inevitable encroachment of another branch of knowledge where it has no competence.  The result for students is that such a defective university can only offer a defective form of liberal education.  No university in fact can offer a wholly “neutral” view of reality.  For the very claim to do so is itself a “theory,” “a moving principle.”  Furthermore, the argument that “there need not be, and that there should not be, any system or philosophy in knowledge and its transmission, but that Liberal Education henceforth should be a mere fortuitous heap of acquisitions and accomplishments” will not in fact lead to neutrality:  for if there is a refusal to embrace any “general principles and constituent ideas,” then in the resulting vacuum “Private Judgment moves forward with the implements of this or that science, to do a work imperative indeed, but beyond its powers”—“Usurpers and tyrants are the successors to legitimate rulers sent into exile.”[30]

The logical conclusion of Newman’s argument, then, is that only a Catholic university is a real university that can offer a truly liberal education:  “If the Catholic Faith is true, a University cannot exist externally to the Catholic pale, for it cannot teach Universal Knowledge if it does not teach Catholic theology.”[31]  What, in conclusion, is Newman’s idea of a Catholic university?

First, it must of course teach Catholic theology, and in Newman’s Catholic University of Ireland all students were required to study it in their first two years.  Not only the teachers of theology but all the teachers in a Catholic university are apparently to be Catholic, given that it was impossible to “have Professors who were mere abstractions and phantoms, marrowless in their bones, and without speculation in their eyes …” For, in reality, “no subject of teaching is really indifferent in fact, though it may be in itself; because it takes a colour from the whole system to which it belongs, and has one character when viewed in that system, and another viewed out of it.”  However, Newman’s words do not necessarily rule out non-Catholics if they are sympathetic to the Catholic character of the university:  “According then as a teacher is under the influence, or in the service, of this system or that, so does the drift, or at least the practical effect of his teaching vary …” Speaking theoretically, Newman may say in a letter that, “while you have professors of different religions, you can never have a genius loci – and the place is no longer a genuine university.”[32]  But Newman was a great realist when it came to practicalities, and, while he would certainly have thought that the majority of a Catholic university’s teachers should be Catholic in order to safeguard its Catholic ‘tradition, or … genius loci,”[33] he would have been very realistic and pragmatic in realizing, for example, that a non-Catholic well disposed to the Church and to the idea of a Catholic university is greatly preferable to a lapsed and unsympathetic or dissident Catholic teacher.

Any conception that a so-called Catholic university can be detached from the wider Church community was totally unacceptable to Newman, even if such a university were absolutely Catholic both in its teaching of theology and in its spirit and tradition.  He was very forthright indeed.  A Catholic university, he maintained, “though it had ever so many theological Chairs, that would not suffice to make it a Catholic university; for theology would be included in its teaching only as a branch of knowledge …” Without the active presence of the Church, it would not be a real Catholic university:  “Hence a direct and active jurisdiction of the Church over it and in it is necessary, lest it should become the rival of the Church with the community a large in those theological matters which to the Church are exclusively committed,—acting as the representative of the intellect, as the Church is the representative of the religious principle.”  The example Newman chooses to show how the most (apparently) Catholic institution will not be truly Catholic, indeed may be anti-Catholic, “without the direct presence of the Church” is very cleverly chosen.  The Spanish Inquisition, he points out, “was a purely Catholic establishment, devoted to the maintenance, or rather the ascendancy of Catholicism, keenly zealous for theological truth, the stern foe of every anti-Catholic idea, and administered by Catholic theologians; yet it in no proper sense belonged to the Church.  It was simply and entirely a State institution … it was an instrument of the State … in its warfare against the Holy See.”  However ostensibly Catholic in its aims, “its spirit and form were earthly and secular.”  A Catholic university, therefore, cannot fulfil its function properly “without the Church’s assistance; or, to use the theological term, the Church is necessary for its integrity.”[34]

Finally, Newman was very insistent on the Church’s pastoral role in a Catholic university.  The building of a church for the Catholic University of Ireland was so much a priority for him that he had even at the beginning offered to pay for one himself.  Such a church would symbolize “the great principle of the University, the indissoluble union of philosophy with religion.”[35]  Moreover, the presence of priests was not to be restricted to the church or chapel but was prominent in the life of the University, for the small student hostels, out of which Newman hoped that full-scale colleges would grow, were headed by priests.



[1] Autobiographical Writings, ed. Henry Tristram (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1957), 259, 49, 63.

[2] The Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman, ed. Charles Stephen Dessain et al. (London: Nelson, 1961-72; Oxford:      Clarendon Press, 1973-), Vol.  XIV, p. 213.  Hereafter cited as LD.

[3] LD xxvi.58; xix.464; xxi.51; xxiii.117.

[4] The Idea of a University, ed. I. T. Ker (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976), 10-11.  Hereafter cited as Idea.

[5] Idea, 103-4, 114.

[6] Idea, 193-4, 197, 216, 221-2, 245.

[7] See A. Dwight Culler, The Imperial Intellect:  A Study of Newman’s Educational Ideal (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1955), 16.

[8] See Idea, pp. xxv-vi.

[9] Idea, 221-2

[10] Idea, 193.

[11] Idea, 10-13, 57.

[12] Idea, 113.

[13] Raymond Williams, Culture and Society 1780-1950 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1958), 110-11.

[14] Matthew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy with Friendship’s Garland and Some Literary Essays, ed. R. H. Super (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1965), 233.

[15] Idea, 114.

[16] Idea, 116-7, 120-1.

[17] Idea, 122-4.

[18] Idea, 125-8.

[19] Idea, 134-5, 145-6, 154.

[20] Idea, 129-32.

[21] Idea, 5.

[22] Idea, 9, 370.

[23] William Neville, ed., My Campaign in Ireland, Part I (privately printed, 1896), 96-7, 110-11.

[24] Ibid, p. 58.

[25] Historical Sketches  (London: Longmans, Green, 1872), vol. III, pp. 229, 235.

[26] Idea, 33, 57, 183, 38, 52, 57.

[27] Idea, 54-7, 73-4, 76, 81.

[28] Idea, 84, 86-7, 73, 407.

[29] Idea, 145-6, 94-6.

[30] Idea, 421-2.

[31] Idea, 184.

[32] Idea, 251, 427, 635.

[33] Idea, 130.

[34] Idea, 184-5.

[35] My Campaign in Ireland, 290.

Newman’s Idea of a University: Still Relevant to Catholic Higher Education

John Henry Newman, writing in England in the mid-nineteenth century, proposed a vision of Catholic higher education that takes account of major difficulties that were prevalent in his day and are no less prevalent in ours. Although his proposals are for the most part framed in positive terms, I shall summarize them in contrast to four tendencies that Newman found unacceptable. I shall call these tendencies utilitarianism, fragmentation, secularism, and rationalism.

By utilitarianism, Newman meant the philosophical movement associated with the name of Jeremy Bentham. The editors of the Edinburgh Review, together with influential figures such as Lord Henry Brougham and Sydney Smith, proposed to dethrone the classics from the position of supremacy they held at Oxford and Cambridge and to replace them with “useful” knowledge leading to a trade or profession. Newman contended, on the contrary, that the primary end of education was not the acquisition of useful information or skills needed for a particular occupation in life, but cultivation of the mind. The special fruit of university education, as he saw it, was to produce what he called the “philosophical habit of mind.” The study of the classics, he believed, had proved its capacity to “strengthen, refine, and enrich the intellectual powers” and to enter into the rich heritage that modern Europe had acquired from the providential confluence of biblical revelation and classical civilization.

Newman was convinced that the mental refinement that comes from literary and philosophical training is something good in itself, quite part from its utility. But he added that, far from being useless, an education of this sort would equip the student to enter many walks of life. Whether one becomes a soldier, a statesman, a lawyer, or a physician, one will need the ability to think clearly, to organize one’s knowledge, and to articulate one’s ideas so as to deal effectively with the questions at hand. A narrowly professional or vocational program of training would therefore fail the test of pragmatic usefulness, not to mention the additional test of liberal knowledge as its own end.

The second threat was fragmentation. Newman was troubled by the increasing compartmentalization of education. He was not against the multiplication of disciplines. In his Irish University he set up not only a school of arts and sciences but also schools of medicine and engineering. He made provision for a chemical laboratory and an astronomical observatory. All these elements, in his view, had a rightful place in the university as a place of universal learning. But the very multiplicity of disciplines increased the necessity of a principle of order, governing the whole, so that the student would be able to perceive the significance of each particular branch of knowledge in relation to the rest.

Philosophy, as Newman used the term, was not so much a special discipline as a meta-discipline. Understanding philosophy as the exercise of reason upon knowledge, he maintained that it is unlimited in its horizon. From its own perspective, it embraces truth of every kind and locates every method of attaining it. In this way the study of philosophy overcomes the threat of fragmentation.

The third danger was secularism: the exclusion of religious knowledge from higher education. A good share of the blame, Newman believed, fell upon the Evangelicals, who depicted religion not as knowledge but as a matter of feeling and emotion. If religion were no more than this, Newman granted, it could not properly claim to merit a chair in the university. But for him religion was a matter of truth. Through reason and revelation, the mind could attain genuine knowledge about God, and the knowledge so attained could be built into a system.

The university must obviously take account of truths about God that are accessible to all thoughtful persons, such as the articles of natural religion. But it should not omit revealed truth, since Divine Revelation is necessary to keep reason from going astray. The university, as Newman conceived of it, was not a seminary, and for that reason it would not explore in depth questions of dogmatic and sacramental theology, but it would seek to impart what he called “general religious knowledge.” No part of Catholic truth could properly be excluded from the university.

The absence of theology, Newman contended, would throw the other branches of knowledge out of balance. Eager to fill the void left by that absence, these disciplines would seek to answer by their own methods questions that cannot be rightly answered except by theology. All of us have probably experienced how professors of physics or economics, medicine or psychology—to give a few examples— tend to operate as though their specialization qualified them to give a complete account of reality and of what it means to be human. Theology is needed, therefore, to keep the secular disciplines within their proper limits and to deal with questions that lie beyond their scope.

Rationalism, in Newman’s view, was the fourth great threat. The university, as a place of intellectual cultivation, tends to treat the human mind as the measure of all things. Absolutizing its own standards and goals, the university aspires to complete autonomy and becomes a rival of the Church even in the Church’s own sphere of competence. To prevent this encroachment, the Church must exercise what Newman calls “a direct and active jurisdiction” over the university. This should not be seen as a hindrance but as a help to the university. Ecclesiastical supervision prevents the university from falling into the kinds of skepticism and unbelief that have plagued seats of learning since the time of Abelard. Because the university cannot fulfill its mission without revealed truth, and because the Church has full authority to teach the contents of Revelation, the university must accept the Church’s guidance.

Newman was quite aware that the results of science sometimes seemed to conflict with Christian doctrine. He counseled patience and restraint on the part of hierarchical authorities and scientists alike. Both should proceed with the assurance that reconciliation can eventually be attained, for it is impossible that the truth of Revelation could be contrary to that of reason and of science.

A decade after writing The Idea of a University, Newman had an opportunity to witness a mighty effort of German Catholic university faculties, under the leadership of Ignaz von Döllinger, to assert their autonomy against the Magisterium. Similar struggles arise whenever Catholic universities seek to absolutize their own freedom and their own methods. Newman saw this tendency as a normal but regrettable expression of the inherent dynamism of the university as such. The higher authority of the Church was necessary to rescue freedom of thought from what Newman called its own “suicidal excesses.”

If Newman were alive today, he would enthusiastically embrace the principles set forth by John Paul II in Ex Corde Ecclesiæ. In that Apostolic Constitution the Holy Father sets forth the same general principles that I have tried to highlight in Newman’s treatise. He teaches that university education should not be content to produce an efficient work force for the factory or the marketplace; it should not exalt the technical over the spiritual. He strongly opposes the multiplication of separate departments and institutes, which he sees as harmful to a rich human formation. He calls for a universal humanism and an organic vision of reality. He likewise holds that Catholic universities have the incomparable advantage of being able to integrate all truth in relation to Christ, the incarnate Logos, Whom Christians recognize as the Way, the Truth, and the Life for the whole world. On these and many other points, the nineteenth-century English cardinal and the present Polish pope may be said to share a common point of view.

In the United States, Catholic universities have been very apologetic, almost embarrassed, by their obligation to adhere to the Faith of the Church. For Newman and for John Paul II, any university that lacks the guidance of Christian Revelation and the oversight of the Catholic Magisterium is, by that very fact, impeded in its mission to find and transmit truth. It fails to make use of an important resource that God in His Providence has bestowed.

Surrounded by powerful institutions constructed on principles of metaphysical and religious agnosticism, the Catholic universities of this nation have too long been on the defensive. They have tried too hard to prove that they are not committed to any truth that cannot be established by objective scientific scholarship. While making certain necessary adaptations to the needs of our own day, they should proudly reaffirm the essentials of their own tradition, so brilliantly synthesized by Newman in his classic work. Shifting the burden of proof to their secular counterparts, they should challenge the other universities to defend themselves and to show how they think it possible to cultivate the mind and transmit the fullness of truth if they neglect or marginalize humanistic, philosophical, and theological studies.

Cardinal Dulles presented this address on November 11, 2001, upon receiving the Cardinal Newman Society’s John Henry Newman Award for distinguished service to Catholic higher education.