Newman's Vision of a University: Then and Now

By Heft, James L. | Catholic Education, March 2007 | Go to article overview

Newman's Vision of a University: Then and Now


Heft, James L., Catholic Education


Catholic universities face many challenges today. Increasing secularization, faculty salaries, external funding, Catholic identity, academic freedom, and institutional autonomy are among the most prominent. This essay examines the contributions of John Henry Newman to Catholic higher education and argues for their relevance today.

INTRODUCTION

Is it possible to go from one period of history, one that started over 150 years ago, and make valid connections with the present times? Higher education, which in the United States in 1900 enrolled only 1% of the population, has undergone nothing less than a revolution over the last 100 years. And given the genteel liberal arts tradition of Oxford in 1850, a tradition that shaped John Henry Newman's vision of education profoundly, it is more than likely that Newman's views about education, especially for people in the so-called developed world of the 21st century, will seem to be coming from not just another century and another country, but from another world as well. This article seeks to pay careful attention to the times--Newman's and our own--and then argues that, indeed, some of what was then in education ought also to be now. We begin with a description of Newman's life and times.

NEWMAN AND HIS TIMES

Born into an Anglican family of bankers in London in 1801, John Henry Newman underwent his first conversion at the age of 15 (later in his life he referred to three conversions), one that left him for a while a devout evangelical. He enrolled at Oxford, was ordained an Anglican priest in 1825, and 3 years later was appointed the chaplain of St. Mary the Virgin Church in Oxford. He held that position until 1843 when, as a consequence of his studies of the first 5 centuries of Christianity, his doubts about the Church of England led him to convert to the Roman Catholic Church on October 9, 1845. After studying for a year in Rome, he was ordained a Catholic priest in 1847 and returned to England to found an oratory in Birmingham. For most of his adult life, he was trusted neither by most Anglicans when, as a leader of the Oxford movement in the 1830s, he was one of them, nor by most Catholics after he became one of them. Historian Turner (1996) states that during his Anglican years, Newman

   had been the chief disruptive academic personality in Oxford. In
   point of fact, John Henry Newman had been the kind of faculty
   member whom every university administrator dreads, trustees deplore
   and fail to understand, and more staid alumni find embarrassing,
   but whom students and the young among the faculty and alumni cheer
   toward further extravagances. (p. 285)

All his life, he remained a gifted controversialist who, in the words of theologian Lash (1979), sought "to prove by persuasion rather than to persuade by proof " (p. 12). In all, Newman seemed too Catholic for the Anglicans, and not sufficiently scholastic for most Catholics.

Pope Leo XIII made him a cardinal in 1879, despite the objection of Newman's own archbishop and cardinal, Henry Manning, who himself privately thought Newman to be a heretic. According to Newman, the reception of the red hat lifted forever a cloud that had been hanging over him (Gilley, 1991). He continued to write, mainly revising and polishing a number of his 40 books, and died at the age of 89 on August 11, 1890. In 1975, Pope Paul VI told the participants in a Newman symposium that

   Many of the problems which he treated with wisdom--although he
   himself was frequently misunderstood and misinterpreted in his own
   time--were the subjects of the discussion and study of the Fathers
   of the Second Vatican Council, as for example the questions of
   ecumenism, the relationship between Christianity and the world, the
   emphasis on the role of the laity in the Church and the
   relationship of the Church to non-Christian religions. (as cited in
   Ford, 2005, p. … 

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