by Matthew Higgins

 There appears to be an identity crisis in higher Education the United States, and within it,  Catholic higher education. As institutions evaluate their place in the ever-transitioning world of higher learning, they encounter both crisis and wide-ranging opinions on the matter abound. In the center of Catholic Education one only needs to search the hashtag “CatholicTwitter” to understand how complexly divided opinions are on all things Catholic. One could glean from reading comments and digital arguments that the Catholic world often holds Catholic leaders, influential people, and institutions under a microscope. There appears to be somewhat of a litmus test or scale of Catholic Identity. A person or institution can easily be labeled either “too Catholic” or “not Catholic enough.”

As someone who has worked in parish and diocesan ministries I know individuals often struggle with what it means to be Catholic. For many Catholics, the search to understand and know who they are or what it means to be a Catholic can be a taxing journey marred by confusion, tension, and doubt. The common phrase, “I am Catholic, but…” or “I was raised Catholic, but…” often precedes a personal disconnect or disagreement with part of what it means to be Catholic, often stemming from one’s decisions or experiences. One could argue that Catholic colleges and universities might use similar language in describing their history. Some institutions once considered models of Catholic higher education have made a series of decisions over decades resulting in a fading Catholicity. Consequently, their Catholic identity becomes only a part of their history (I was raised Catholic, but…). Other Catholic colleges and universities faced what James Heft calls the “commercialization” and “secularization” of Catholic higher education.[1] For these institutions, Catholic identity is part of a brand, and something handled solely by campus ministry departments (I am Catholic but). For still others Catholic identity is an idea that struggles to come to fruition.

The Idea of a Catholic University was explored in the Summer Faculty Seminar, offered by the Center for Catholic Studies at Seton Hall University, facilitated by Dr. Kenneth Parker. Participants read through specific discourses and discussed topics from St. John Henry Newman’s Idea of a University. In addition, Dr. Parker outlined Newman’s personal experience of higher education and posed questions wherein participants engaged Newman’s thoughts and writing with their experiences in higher education. Such questions led participants to consider their own motivations for pursuing education and compare them to their current reality as faculty. It was also apparent that many Catholic colleges and universities are in the midst of soul searching, discerning this “idea” of a Catholic university contrasted with their own reality. The discussions helped blend my academic and professional life.

First, as someone whose research focused primarily on Catholic higher education, formation, and leadership, I was struck by others’ perceptions of higher education and the evident similarities to the life of St. John Henry Newman. Most notably was his approach to education, especially its aim to form the entire person through interdisciplinary relationships in and outside of the classroom. Second, as someone whose professional life has been in ministry, archdiocesan administration, and higher education program management, I was amazed by Newman’s ability to make the idea of a university a reality, which is something that appears to be a struggle for so many institutions today. In my work, I have served as a bridge between ideas and reality, often taking complex or vague ideas for programs and finding ways to bring them to concrete fruition. In fact, where so many individuals and institutions miss the mark lies in their perception that being Catholic is simply a part of a whole, rather than something that permeates the whole. Yet the idea of a Catholic university, or the idea of Catholic education in general, cannot remain an idea or something on the sideline. As Parker stated on the second day of the seminar, “Newman was not strictly an idealist; he was practical.” Newman was able to make his idea a reality.

According to Newman, education is much more than learning facts, but involves formation in line with living out religious truth. As Newman stated,

But education is a higher word; it implies an action upon our mental nature, and the formation of a character; it is something individual and permanent, and is commonly spoken of in connection with religion and virtue.[2]

This concept is very much at the heart of Catholic education and makes one’s Catholic identity distinct. It is something set apart from simply learning for exams or vocational training. The foundation of Catholic education is the formation of persons. It is committed to the formation of the entire person, not simply one part of an individual. Seton Hall refers to this in her motto—A place for the mind, heart, and spirit. The interwoven nature of the various aspects of human life—human, spiritual, intellectual, and relational—are all fostered through Catholic education. Through this approach, students develop transcendental capacities such as seeking what is good, true, and beautiful and openness to transformation. Newman alludes to this in his Idea, when he states,

What we contemplate, then, what we aim at, when we give a religious Education, is, it seems, not to impart any knowledge whatever, but to satisfy anyhow desires after the Unseen which will arise in our minds in spite of ourselves, to provide the mind with a means of self-command, to impress on it the beautiful ideas which saints and sages have struck out, to embellish it with the bright hues of a celestial piety, to teach it the poetry of devotion, the music of well-ordered affections, and the luxury of doing good. As for the intellect, its exercise happens to be unavoidable, whenever moral impressions are made, from the constitution of the human mind, but it varies in the results of that exercise, in the conclusions which it draws from our impression, according to the peculiarities of the individual.[3]

With respect to this relationship between education and formation, Newman underscored the importance of community and relationship as a primary factor in forming the entire person. In a way, he links co-curricular formation of the mind, heart, and spirit to one’s ability to learn. Moreover, Newman insisted that accompaniment on the part of both teachers and students living in community fostered what he calls “living teaching.” [4]

With living teaching, or “accompaniment,” students walk with each other in fraternity and communal living, wherein likeminded individuals studying different majors teach each other in the context of organic relationship. In this model, students are not pigeonholed into one way of thinking, nor are their studies so specialized that they become persons of “one idea” who are convinced of their own conclusions and cannot open their mind to abstract thought or discourse.[5] Conversely, students also learn invaluable traits within a liberal curriculum.

The curriculum should be aimed toward liberal knowledge, or what Newman calls “special Philosophy,” which is “a comprehensive view of truth in all its branches, of the relations of science to science, of their mutual bearings, and their respective values.”[6] This interdisciplinary approach affords students the right to everything that has been thought, written down, and passed on through generations. Providing a balanced education, through discourse and living in community with others in various fields, yet all seeking the same end leads students to Truth. As Newman describes,

all branches of knowledge are connected together, because the subject-matter of knowledge is intimately united in itself, as being the acts and the work of the Creator… They complete, correct, balance each other…attainment of truth…is their common end…[7]

Moreover, the intangible or organic subject matter taught through community and accompaniment is what forms character; it develops a “habit of mind…which lasts through life, of which the attributes are freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom…”[8]

What Newman describes in his Idea is a blueprint for Catholic colleges and universities that struggle to find their identity today. Heft goes as far as calling Newman a “north star” in one’s search for defining and identifying higher education institutions as Catholic.[9] Based on Newman’s Idea, it can be argued that what makes an institution Catholic is not only the names on buildings, its history, or the number of priests or religious present on campus. Catholic identity is rooted rather in the education received and the culture experienced by each person on campus. It is known by its fruit, namely the type of graduates it produces. Catholic Education and the education described by Newman prepare students for life regardless of their career. As the Congregation for Catholic Education stated,

Education must guide students to face reality, to enter the world with a sense of awareness and responsibility and, in order for this to happen, knowledge acquisition is always necessary. However, the real expected result is not the acquisition of information or knowledge but, rather, personal transformation…Catholic higher education aims at forming men and women who are able to engage in critical thinking, who are endowed with high-level professionalism but also with rich humaneness, through which their skills are put to the service of the common good.[10]

Catholic identity in higher education cannot simply remain an idea, it is not a unit or subsection of campus culture, but fully integrated throughout the entirety of campus life.  To make this idea reality, an institution like Seton Hall needs people who subscribe to and live out Catholic mission and identity. As St. John Paul II expressed in Ex Corde Ecclesiae,

In a word, being both a University and Catholic, it must be both a community of scholars representing various branches of human knowledge, and an academic institution in which Catholicism is vitally present and operative.[11]

Of course, this does not mean that every single person on campus needs to be Catholic. In fact, Newman would argue against that. However, to create a culture of Catholic mission and Identity, it is essential to recruit for mission and place key individuals in all units who embody it, those who live, share and deepen it. In doing so, everyone who steps foot on campus understands that Catholic identity is not just an idea, but a reality woven into the very fabric of the university. Furthermore, when our graduates enter the world, they will exude the same culture in their homes, in their workplace, and in their communities. Impressing upon the world not just knowledge or vocational skill, but a lifelong love of learning, character, commitment to the common good, and the relentless pursuit of the good, true, and beautiful. In the same way in which St. John Henry Newman’s Idea is still living and attractive more than a century after its composition, so will the reality of Catholic universities live on if they embrace the idea and make it a reality.


[1] Heft, J., The Future of Catholic Higher Education: The Open Circle, (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2021).
[2] Newman, J.H., and Ed. Martin J. Svaglic, The Idea of a University (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982), p. 86.
[3] Newman, J.H., and Ed. Martin J. Svaglic, The Idea of a University (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982), p. 24.
[4] Newman, J.H., and Ed. Martin J. Svaglic, The Idea of a University (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982), p. 111 Discourse 6 (9).
[5] Newman, J.H., and Ed. Martin J. Svaglic, The Idea of a University (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982), p. 57.
[6] Newman, J.H., and Ed. Martin J. Svaglic, The Idea of a University (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982), p. 77.
[7] Newman, J.H., and Ed. Martin J. Svaglic, The Idea of a University (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982), p. 75.
[8] Newman, J.H., and Ed. Martin J. Svaglic, The Idea of a University (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982), p. 76.
[9] Heft, J., The Future of Catholic Higher Education: The Open Circle (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2021)
[10] Congregation for Catholic Education, Educating Today and Tomorrow: A Renewing Passion, (Vatican City State: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2014), no. 2f.
[11] John Paul II, Pope, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, (Vatican City State: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1990), no. 14.