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Why a Catholic University Matters

On Sept. 19, 2010, Monsignor Richard M. Liddy, director of the Center for Catholic Studies, along with Father Stanley Gomes, M.Div. ’95, director of campus ministry, and Monsignor Thomas Ivory ’60, retired pastor of the Church of the Presentation in Upper Saddle River, traveled to Birmingham, England, for the beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman.

There, before an audience of 70,000, Pope Benedict XVI paid tribute to Newman’s contributions to Catholic education. Among other achievements, in the mid-1850s Newman famously penned “The Idea of a University,” a groundbreaking series of lectures laying
out his views on education that remain relevant today. At the time, Newman was founding the Catholic University of Ireland, now University College, Dublin.

When Monsignor Liddy returned from England last fall, he, along with Professor James P. McGlone ’54, invited the Seton Hall community to reflect on the purpose of a Catholic university as seen through the lens of Cardinal Newman’s work. Excerpts from the day’s presentations follow.

For John Henry Newman, the aim of a university education is an enlargement of mind that makes a person a full and open member of human society. Such is a liberal education: it frees the mind. In his University Sketches, Newman gives wonderful descriptions of the founding of universities: how ancient teachers would enter a city and set up their tents, to which pupils would flock from all over. To learn what? To learn about the world — its shape, its contours; to learn what others had learned and understood. They came for wisdom.

A university, then, for Newman, answers a need of our very nature. He says that we are always in the process of educating, one generation forming another, and the present generation is ever acting and reacting upon itself through its individual members. [Here at Seton Hall a great deal of education goes on in the dorm room and in the cafeteria.]

But, according to Newman, the essential principle of the university as we know it is “the professorial system,” that is, the living influence of one person on another, the teacher on the taught. Books are important instruments in the consolidation and communication of this knowledge, but the influence of a teacher provides what books never can.

The general principles of any study you amy learn by books at home; but the detail, the color, the tone, the air, the life which makes it live in us, you must catch all these from those in whom it lives already.

Hence, Newman’s famous motto: Cor ad cor loquitur. Heart speaks to heart. Speak from the heart and you will speak to the heart. Furthermore, a university is a collection of a number of teachers in one place.

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.

The circle of courses itself teaches:

[The student] 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 shades, its great points and little. … Hence it is that his education is called “liberal.” A habit of thought is formed which lasts through life, of which the attributes are freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom.

In addition, Newman wrote that something else is necessary in the university. For besides the college of professors, there is also need for small communities. In Oxford he knew it was the small college with its tutorial system. Other universities have other types of small communities that can help their young people. Why? Because young people need these small communities when they leave home. For at times the world can be a dangerous place.

And that is the point of an alma mater, a loving mother to keep an eye on us — a club, a small group of friends, our night prayer group — a place where our best selves are encouraged. In a Catholic university, a community where faith and the practice of religion are fostered.

Finally, the university needs something more — something on the intellectual level itself. For ideas can be dangerous when they do not fall into a proper order — when they become gods in themselves — little silos — one area becoming the be-all and end-all that pushes out any questions from other disciplines as well as questions of human morality and religion.

And so for Newman a philosophical or theological attitude or openness pertains to the idea of a university. For if theology does not exist in a university — the science of the question of God (“the questions central but not exclusive to the Catholic intellectual tradition,” as we say in our core curriculum) — then other areas rush in to become gods in themselves. Newman uses the example of medicine, knowledge that heals the body. But there are also questions about the goal of physical health and questions about the fuller, wider and deeper health of the human person as such. Such questions arise in theology and philosophy classes and in any class that wisely sets its own content within the question of “the whole” — the greater wisdom about the human person who raises these questions and, on occasion, as did Newman, comes up with some answers.

For Newman, the university needs a “science of the sciences.” We might think of it as developed critical thinking, that is, a developed philosophical view of how all the sciences and professions taught in the university relate to each other. Thomas Aquinas called it a natural wisdom. Supernatural wisdom is the gift of the Holy Spirit, the soul’s movement by the Spirit of God. But besides that we need a natural wisdom, some way of locating the disciplines in relation to each other and to the human person and to the human person’s orientation toward the whole of the universe, including the question of God. In a real way, that question is within us, and atheist, agnostic or obscurantist attitudes toward the question presupposes, as Father Bernard Lonergan once put it, “the spark in our clod, our native orientation to the divine.”

To quote from Pope Benedict’s prayer on Sept. 19 before the 70,000 people that gathered on the hillside outside Birmingham for Newman’s beatification:

O God, who bestowed on the priest, Blessed John Henry Newman, the grace to follow your kindly light and find peace in your Church, graciously grant that, through his intercession and example, we may be led out of the shadows and images into the fullness of your truth …

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