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Newman's Idea

I have been following the debate on the Catholic identity of the Ateneo de Manila University and I immediately recalled my English lit class in "Godless" University of the Philippines where we had to read selections from John Henry Newman's "The Idea of a University". Our devout Methodist professor required us to really understand it. Newman is considered as one of the sylists of apologetic literature and the Essay in English.

All the quotes in this post were cut and pasted from Newman's essay. Now that I have made the attribution, I wish to be absolved of the sin of plagiarism!

The Oxford don and Anglican priest, John Henry Newman  is the most famous of Anglican "returnees" to the Roman Church. He is also one of the greatest theologians in 19th Century England.  As a consequence of becoming a Roman Catholic he had to leave Oxford. For those of my friends who are associated with the University of the Philippines, this is like being banished from UP and cutting all ties with alma mater because you chose another idea which almost everyone in UP thinks is ridiculous!


But that was long before the ecumenical movement and Vatican II. Now you have Roman Catholics in Oxford and even Roman Catholic seminaries/colleges are associated with Oxford and grants degrees by authority of Oxford. The present Chancellor of Oxford Chris Patten is a Roman Catholic.


After his conversion, Newman was  suspected of heretical views at worst, or at the mildest, bringing in an Anglican column in the English Catholic Church. This was the charge of cradle Catholics and fellow converts from Anglicanism. His Anglican friends essentially deserted him. Despite all these suffering, the suffering of the intellectual, Newman was made a Cardinal by a pope. Another pope, Benedict XVI declared that he is worthy of veneration as a blessed. As a member of a university albeit a secular one, I will pray to Newman the blessed. Newman once he is declared as a saint should be immediately declared as the Patron Saint of Catholic Universities suspected of Heresy. He also should be made patron of Ateneo de Manila University along with St Ignatius of Loyola!

It was in English 2 class that I read   Newman's "The Idea of a University". My professor wanted to bring home the point what Liberal Education really means and Newman's essay is a good starting point. Since UP's strength is on this liberal education. UP is secular and thus the university is protected by law from the influence of Religion on its administration and teaching. This doesn't mean that students and professors cannot practice their faith. But the relevant question especially with the status of liberal education in Church run or associated universities, is whether there is space for liberal education, even if what is taught goes against Church doctrine. This is the same dilemma that Newman faced when he ran the Catholic University of Ireland.

Newman essentially sided with the fact that the Church is Catholic enough that in a university even these ideas can be taught and debated, free from interference even from bishops and clergy, allows for the discernment of truth. Newman also understood that a university Catholic or otherwise is not a religious seminary or a venue for purely teaching catechism.

"That it is a place of teaching universal knowledge. This implies that its object is, on the one hand, intellectual, not moral; and, on the other, that it is the diffusion and extension of knowledge rather than the advancement. If its object were scientific and philosophical discovery, I do not see why a University should have students; if religious training, I do not see how it can be the seat of literature and science."

Or that non Roman Catholic ideas cannot be taught

"The Church has ever appealed and deferred to witnesses and authorities external to herself, in those matters in which she thought they had means of forming a judgment: and that on the principle, Cuique in arte sua credendum. She has even used unbelievers and pagans in evidence of her truth, as far as their testimony went. She avails herself of scholars, critics, and antiquarians, who are not of her communion. She has worded her theological teaching in the phraseology of Aristotle; Aquila, Symmachus, Theodotion, Origen, Eusebius, and Apollinaris, all more or less heterodox, have supplied materials for primitive exegetics. St. Cyprian called Tertullian his master;  St. Augustin refers to Ticonius; Bossuet, in modern times, complimented the labours of the Anglican Bull; the Benedictine editors of the Fathers are familiar with the labours of Fell, Ussher, Pearson, and Beveridge. Pope Benedict XIV. cites according to the occasion the works of Protestants without reserve, and the late French collection of Christian Apologists contains the writings of Locke, Burnet, Tillotson, and Paley. If, then, I come forward in any degree as borrowing the views of certain Protestant schools on the point which is to be discussed, I do so, Gentlemen, as believing, first, that the Catholic Church has ever, in the plenitude of her divine illumination, made use of whatever truth or wisdom she has found in their teaching or their measures; and next, that in particular places or times her children are likely to profit from external suggestions or lessons, which have not been provided for them by herself."

And if all of these would worry parents that they will damage the Catholic faith of their children. Newman provides the antidote

"Right Reason, that is, Reason rightly exercised, leads the mind to the Catholic Faith, and plants it there, and teaches it in all its religious speculations to act under its guidance."

But Newman cautions about human nature and how it applies reason

"But Reason, considered as a real agent in the world, and as an operative principle in man's nature, with an historical course and with definite results, is far from taking so straight and satisfactory a direction. It considers itself from first to last independent and supreme; it requires no external authority; it makes a religion for itself."

Thus the need for continuing formation in the Catholic faith for Catholics and for those not, formation in their own religious traditions.

This is the idea of any university. In a secular university Catholic, Protestant, Muslim etc students and professors need not worry about losing their faith if they use Reason in the right manner and the secular university need not worry about religious influence eroding its autonomy if it also uses Reason in the same manner. A Catholic university should not be worrying about heresy if the students and the professors have rightly exercised their faculty of Reason.  The problem is when Reason implodes. Then the Devil can do his work, so happily it seems.

And the only defence is that Professors and Students (including the former ones we call alumni) continue to practice the "Discipline of Mind" which is the second to the last section of Newman's "Idea"

Newman's "Idea" is so relevant that in the last selection process for the presidency of the University of the Philippines, one of the nominees quoted lengthily from Newman's essay. It is even more relevant today when we struggle about the goodness inherent with and the usefulness of higher education.



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