When Archbishop Cullen appointed Newman as Rector of the proposed Catholic University of Ireland in 1851, it was to spearhead the Church’s response to a scheme designed to enable Catholics to obtain degrees within the secular, utilitarian system devised by Sir Robert Peel: the Queen’s Colleges of Belfast, Cork and Galway. As Newman wrote, the University was intended to attract American as well as Irish students, and to become a centre of Catholic cultural renewal for the whole English-speaking world, “with Great Britain, Malta (perhaps Turkey or Egypt), and India on one side of it, and North America and Australia on the other.” It was an extraordinary vision, and even if this first Irish Catholic university was reabsorbed by the secular system after Newman’s departure, it had provided the occasion for a series of discourses on education (The Idea of a University) which continue to influence Catholic thinking today. John Paul II’s Ex Corde Ecclesiae (1990), defining the basic constitution of a modern Catholic university, clearly bears the mark of Newman’s thought.
Today, Newman’s ideas are more urgent and relevant than ever. Zenit has recently published a useful series of articles on this theme by Fr Juan R. Velez ("Newman's 'Idea' for Catholic Higher Education", Part 1, Part 2). The tensions between “liberal” or progressive and “conservative” or authoritarian elements in the Catholic academic world tend to come to a head over thequestion of whether faculty should be obliged to take an oath of loyalty to the Holy See. In Newman’s vision of a Catholic university, loyalty to the magisterium was presupposed. No one can accuse Newman of infidelity (even if he famously, and rightly, put conscience before the Pope in an after-dinner toast). The insistence on a formal oath may have a function in weeding out dissenters, but it betrays that the essential spirituality of a Catholic institution has already been lost. The mere taking of an oath, by itself, is not the way to restore that spirit.
To understand this, we need to reflect on what the Church (and by extension any Catholic community, including a community of scholars) actually is. A eucharistic ecclesiology views the Church not exclusively from the side of the “people” or from the side of the “authorities”, but from the “inside”; that is to say, as an extension of the Incarnation. It recognizes the Church’s deepest reality in the love which is the source of her unity. In that love is inscribed the Trinitarian dynamic which alone enables us to overcome dualism without falling into monism (totalitarian or socialistic corporatism).
The Church has the nature of a sacrament. The place to start renewing the Catholic spirit of an institution is therefore with the liturgy. Daily Mass and regular opportunities for prayer should be the axis around which the life of the Catholic community turns, cultivating both the sense of the sacred and the sense of the community, the vertical and the horizontal dimensions, the love of God and the love of neighbour, all at the same time. As far as possible, the curriculum should follow the liturgical year. Students should be offered opportunities to participate in a pattern of prayer, meditation, good works and fasting that will assist them in living more in the spirit of the evangelical counsels. The experience of (moderate) asceticism could in fact be seen as an essential component of a Catholic education, since it engages the will in the transformation of a way of life. The advertising industry expends large amounts of energy, creativity and time in manufacturing artificial needs, or channelling natural desires towards particular commodities: education in a Christian institution should assist students to discriminate between true and false needs, even as it strengthens their resolve to pursue creatively the task of fulfilling their own real needs as human persons, through loving service.
Newman emphasized consistently from his Evangelical days that Christianity is much more than a set of doctrines or institutions. At its heart is the love of a Person, Jesus Christ, who alone fully reveals to us the source and purpose of created reality and of our own lives. Ex Corde echoes Newman: “the human being can come to a unified and organic vision of knowledge” (section 85). The healthy human mind aims to see things first in their natural wholeness and integration, and it does so by loving reality or the truth of things per se; by being receptive to it, in such a way as to form a kind of living communion with it. A Catholic education therefore has to be founded on the love of truth, on respect for reality that transcends us, and on the capacity of the human mind to know the “essences” of real things. This stands in contrast to the prevailing philosophy of our age, which makes the choosing self the creator of meaning.
As Christians, we know by faith that it is in Christ that all truth finds its home and fulfilment; but that does not mean that all intellectual problems can be solved with a doctrinal statement. Each and every discipline has its own legitimate autonomy; a Catholic university is not one in which the teachers of physics or biology or history must report to the professor of theology in fear and trembling. Nevertheless, the theology professor in a Catholic university does know a secret. He knows that in the end, if you press physics or biology or history to its own deepest level, if you pursue your intellectual quarry to its ultimate lair, you will find love. What is magnetism, asks the poet Coventry Patmore in The Rod, the Root, and the Flower, “but the echo of the senseless rock to the very voice of far-off Love, and the effect of the kiss of God transmitted through the hierarchies of heaven and earth to the lips of the least of beings?” In some form or expression, the theologian knows that it is love that will turn out to be the force that moves the sun, the stars and the heart of man. It is in this sense that Christ -- who reveals the nature of love -- is implicitly at the centre of the curriculum even of secular studies in a Catholic university.