Newman's "Idea" for Catholic Higher Education (Part 1)

Fostering Love for Learning, Promoting the Liberal Arts

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry

By Father Juan R. Vélez

SAN FRANCISCO, FEB. 22, 2011 ( Blessed John Henry Newman (1801-1890), an Anglican convert to Catholicism, made many notable contributions to theology, philosophy and literature, but one of his most significant was to the understanding of higher education contained in his «The Idea of a University.»

During this week in which we celebrate Cardinal Newman’s birthday — Feb. 21 — it seems worthwhile to recall some of the basic principles of his educational philosophy. Applying some of Newman’s ideas to the current situation of Catholic colleges and universities in the United States, one could postulate what Newman’s proposals would be for the renewal of the Catholic identity of these institutions.

Universities originated as cathedral schools in medieval Europe and soon became important places of learning for not only clerics, but also for laymen. In these centers of learning, theology and philosophy were studied together with rhetoric and mathematics. Soon other sciences developed and it was in the Catholic universities that modern science was born in Europe.

Pope John Paul II wrote: «Born from the heart of the Church, a Catholic University is located in that course of tradition which may be traced back to the very origin of the University as an institution. It has always been recognized as an incomparable centre of creativity and dissemination of knowledge for the good of humanity.»[1] Yet today, most people are not aware of the great tradition of Catholic education.

Many Catholic institutions of higher education have lost their Catholic identity. In these institutions, as in almost all universities, there is a complete fragmentation of learning. For the most part the moral and spiritual life of students is neglected, and often science is pitted against religion and theology, even in Catholic institutions.

As described in a recent essay published in ZENIT by Kevin M. Clarke, the Land O’Lakes Conference had a very harmful effect on Catholic education in North America [2] to the point that most Catholic institutions of higher education resemble secular universities except for some religious buildings and disembodied traditions.

At the O’Lakes Conference, 26 presidents of Catholic universities subscribed to the idea that: «To perform its teaching and research functions effectively, the Catholic university must have a true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical, external to the academic community itself.»

The notion of «academic freedom» as the right and duty to dissent from Catholic teaching and obedience to the bishops as teachers of the faith has created confusion among Catholics and weakened the Church’s power to evangelize. Today a renewal of the Catholic identity Catholic higher education is of paramount importance for the vitality of the Catholic Church and the life of society.

Six proposals

In his lifetime, Newman only dealt directly with some problems regarding the Catholicity of a university and moral life of its students, but there is much that can be learned from his writings and work as an educator. The following are six proposals, which are at the core of his educational philosophy.

1. University education should foster love for learning. In the «Idea of a University,» Newman defended the notion that knowledge is an important good in itself. The knowledge of philosophical truths and history are a great good even when there are no immediate applications. Without ignoring that society needs people trained in professions and practical skills, universities must maintain an ideal of learning that fosters knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Otherwise the notion of God, the person, good and evil, truth and beauty are impoverished and sacrificed to expediency and material outcomes.

To advance this end, Newman would propose that Catholic schools should have obligatory courses in Western civilization and thought, which in the past were common in the curricula of universities. Secular universities such as Princeton and Columbia offer survey courses in Western civilization as electives. In these courses students can become familiar with key ideas in history, philosophy, literature and political science. So many students graduate from Catholic universities ignorant of basic knowledge of the lights and shadows of Western civilization and the Catholic contribution to thought. Newman resisted the trend in the England of his time to neglect studies in the liberal arts and moral philosophy.

As a keen observer of human nature, Newman argued against the idea that material sciences make men moral: By itself knowledge does not make people good. This is the province of moral virtue: «Quarry the granite rock with razors, or moor the vessel with a thread of silk; then may you hope with such keen and delicate instruments as human knowledge and human reason to contend against those giants, the passion and the pride of man.»[3]

2. Catholic universities must teach theology to all its students and help students to see the relationship between theology and different sciences. Newman explained that natural theology, as the study of God, is the highest science. The exclusion of this science at the university would negate the claim to the pursuit of «universal knowledge» at a university. He explained that theology has a bearing on every discipline and other disciplines have a bearing on theology. Knowledge is a whole and no part of it can be rejected without detriment to the whole.

Newman wrote: «In a word, Religious Truth is not only a portion, but a condition of general knowledge. To blot it out is nothing short, if I may so speak, of unraveling (sic) the web of university teaching.»[4]

In addition to natural theology, students need to have basic knowledge of revealed theology. Instead, in many Catholic colleges students are offered courses in comparative religions, and left with poor or no knowledge of Catholicism and Christianity.  For a college to have a true Catholic identity it must be connected with its rich Catholic Tradition and teach theology in obedience to the bishops and the Holy See. A correct understanding of academic freedom should not justify positions that contradict the faith and dissent from revealed teaching of which the hierarchy, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, is the authentic interpreter.

Blessed John Henry Newman offers four other proposals for a renewal of the Catholic identity of Catholic higher education: insistence of the harmony between faith and reason; an ardent commitment to Catholic truths; pursuit of virtue within a catholic culture; and a proper assimilation of thought outside Catholic tradition. We will discuss these in part II of this essay.


[1] Pope John Paul II, apostolic constitution «Ex Corde Ecclesiae,» Aug. 15, 1990, No. 1

[2] Kevin M. Clark, «Benedict’s XVI’s Call to ‘Intellectual Charity,'» ZENIT, Feb. 11, 2011.

[3] John Henry Newman, «Idea of a University,» p. 121.

[4] Ibid, p. 70.

* * *

Father Juan R. Vélez is Catholic priest residing in San Francisco. He is co-author of «Take Five, Meditations with John Henry Newman» and author of a forthcoming biography on Newman. For information on this and Newman visit

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry


Support ZENIT

If you liked this article, support ZENIT now with a donation