No Heart for Newman’s University

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In the midst of all the recent praise lavished on now-Saint John Henry Newman, there was perhaps not enough soul-searching about why we aren’t living up to his standards.  People were falling all over themselves in praise of Newman.  That’s good.  But how many are falling all over themselves to work for the kinds of educational institution Newman founded in Dublin and describes in The Idea of a University?

Some parents were so dead-set on sending their kids to Harvard, Princeton, and USC that they paid bribes to get them in.  How many parents would go to equally great lengths honestly to ensure that their son or daughter gets into a Catholic liberal arts university of the sort Newman envisioned?

How many administrators of Catholic institutions take Newman’s vision of Catholic education as anything more than a source for advertising slogans that have little or no relationship to the curriculum the school actually provides?  Even the Catholic bishops of Ireland threw Newman out after four years.  Even they didn’t believe in Newman’s vision.  A similar lack of faith animates much of contemporary Catholic education.

What has dominated instead of Newman’s “Catholic liberal arts” vision is a crudely “instrumental” view of education.  On this view, one goal of Catholic education is simply to “get kids into heaven.”  “And you don’t need a lot of book learnin’ for that,” it is claimed.  Indeed, there often seems to be an anti-intellectual bias among some Catholic educators. They don’t want Catholics to become too “intellectual.”

Serious thinking – real theology with the kind of sapiential thrust and metaphysical depth Pope John Paul II called for in Fides et Ratio – will, it is feared, detract from the spirituality of feelings that it is assumed ought to rule the Church. Better to remain “down-to-earth,” someone who can “speak the language of the workers.”

Which brings us to the other major goal of most Catholic universities.  After we give our students a smattering of Catholic catechism and/or Catholic social justice, the primary goal is to train them to get good jobs and have successful careers.

The trick is, we can’t let these two goals overlap overmuch.  If we fail to give them the necessary smattering of Catholic thought and practice, we will lose them from the Church.  And yet if we give them too much Catholic thought and practice – if it bleeds over too much into the other disciplines – then we might: (a) lose respect among the mainstream secularized institutions we so desperately want to impress; and (b) our students might not become the successful professionals who can donate the money we need to keep up with our richer secular counterparts.

I can’t tell you how many lectures I have attended on social justice in wealthy, well-appointed universities (some Catholic) financed by the donations of those who made their multi-millions off of the labors of the working class. The “Catholic” ones advertised themselves as “Catholic” because (a) they had a Catholic chapel on campus and (b) they still had one department or center on campus dedicated to Catholic thought and practice they could show to donors.


As for every other program or discipline on campus, the suggestion that they should be “Catholic” in the sense of a continual deep, serious engagement with the Catholic intellectual tradition was considered an “unwarranted intrusion,” a “burden that they should not have to bear,” rather than a benefit we Catholics have that others don’t, and/or a “violation” of proper boundaries.

Newman had different ideas for a university.

Then again, Newman was fired from the university he founded, likely because the bishops were suspicious that his style and his educational vision were just too “British.” He was too much the Oxford-educated Anglican cleric for their tastes.  Just teach them their catechism and get them ready for a job.

One finds a similar anti-intellectual bias at many American Catholic institutions.  People praise Newman, but it’s rare to find a campus where they believe the chaplain should preach like Newman.  The prejudice seems to be that the chaplain should be “earthy” and “non-intellectual” as a sort of corrective to the dangerous “intellectualism” that might take over student’s lives.

Heaven forbid that they start thinking like Aquinas or writing like Newman!

The students are rarely “corrected” by this sort of preaching, however.  What they need is a St. Basil, St. Augustine, or St. Philip Neri – someone who blows them away with his own love of learning and shows them that “learning” and “faith” need not be contraries.

In a culture such as ours, where we enjoy high levels of secular education, we need more than ever Newmanesque chaplains to preach, and Newmanesque institutions to teach.  For the most part, we have neither.

Given the truly stunning educational vision bequeathed to us, and the importance of our calling, why are our Catholic educational institutions not the best in the country – and in the world?  We must be honest with ourselves: they’re not.

You may have a favorite school.  I do, too.  But loving them as I do, I am aware of how far short they fall from the goals Newman envisioned in The Idea of a University and those John Paul II was seeking to foster when he wrote Ex Corde Ecclesiae and Fides et Ratio.

Praises are great, but talk is cheap.  We will honor these men if and when we seriously try to educate the young in accord with the exalted vision of a truly Catholic education bequeathed to us.  Right now, very few people even want to try.

It was never easy, never popular.  But these men had the wisdom to know that the easy paths, the short-cuts to “holiness” on the one hand and worldly “success” on the other, would leave the Church without men and women in the pews and without the wisdom the faithful need to serve as a leaven in secular society.

Sts. John Henry Newman and John Paul II, pray for us.

*Image: Thomas Aquinas College, Santa Paula, CA

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.