Newman’s Vocation and the Vocation of Newman Centers

When John Henry Newman was on the island of Sicily in 1833 in a semi-delirious state, he uttered words he himself did not understand, “I shall not die for I have not sinned against light, I have not sinned against light.” Later when trying to grasp his own meaning, all he could manage was, “I have a work to do in England.” 

Newman indeed had a work to do greater than he could ever imagine. Like a golden thread running through all his work was the delicate balance of faith and reason. Newman sought to defend the intellectual credibility of Christian truth against the notion that religion was only opinion or sentiment. 

From his days in the Oxford movement to his only truly self-constructed work, the Grammar of Assent, Newman was a relentless pursuer of truth in the real world. Newman grasped with clarity that the exercise of the intellect alone could not qualify as real assent to truth. Genuine knowledge in the real world consisted of real assent that involved the entire human person: intellect, emotion and will; in short, the whole person. 

The relevance of Newman’s nuanced but potent view of knowledge has been all but lost in the modern university. The secular university, often supported by taxpayers’ dollars, has evolved into a place of sophisticated vocational-technical training. The demise of a truly liberal education where integrated thinking and disciplinary interaction are the norm has produced an “educated” public with no taste for or ability to recognize truth in its multifaceted manifestations. 

The modern research university now consists of islands of knowledge with few who know how various areas of knowledge relate to one another. Newman foresaw that this disparate and unconnected archipelago of disciplines opens the door to battles for disciplinary hegemony, a frequent occurrence in the modern university. 

Newman Centers at non-Catholic universities are the Catholic Church’s ministry in today’s academic world. What is understood by ministry, however, often falls far short of Newman’s ideals. Newman Centers frequently provide Catholic students with a sacramental ministry. More often than not, these centers do not engage the students of the university in the integration of faith and reason. Ministering to the “spiritual” needs of students, Newman Centers often fail to challenge the fideistic conception of faith advanced by the secular culture of the university. Many Catholic students will adopt this idea that faith is nothing more than a matter of subjective opinion, the very notion that Newman called “liberalism,” and which he himself fought his entire life. If the Church’s presence at non-Catholic universities is to have any long-term and transformative impact, the centers that bear Newman’s name must develop programs that address the interaction of faith and reason. 

Newman’s Vocation of Faith and Reason

One of the most enduring aspects of Newman’s vocation was to explicate the role of knowledge in human development, a project that involved two simultaneous pursuits. One was to show that revelation in the Bible and natural knowledge were not in conflict. Revelation, given and gradually understood through 19 centuries of Christian history, constituted a genuine claim to knowledge that could not be summarily dismissed by any institution that claimed to treat all human knowledge. Theology had a place in the university because it contained truth claims. Theology was not fideistic. In this, as in other aspects of Newman’s thought, there was nothing new. 

One of the great achievements of the early Church, as emphasized by Pope Benedict, was the hellenization of the Gospel. The early apologists of the second century, for example, struck a fine balance between insisting on the uniqueness of Christ and assimilating what was good in the best of the Greek philosophical traditions. 

However, it was Augustine who was the most articulate in expounding the different senses of faith and its relation to truth outside Sacred Scripture. In his Literal Commentary on Genesis, the Bishop of Hippo warned Christians more than once not to reject bona fide knowledge simply because it came from pagan mouths. If faith in the Divine Word was not to be fideistic, it had to be reconciled with knowledge from outside Scripture. 

The second aspect of Newman’s insistence was that truth made a claim on the whole person and could not be cordoned off by intellectual or bureaucratic conventions. In his most mature reflections in the Grammar of Assent, Newman described real assent as that which took place in concrete persons who transcended the strict requirements of logical deduction. He insisted that knowledge was justified even though it could not be explicated exhaustively. This implied a delicate interaction between a person’s faith and his pursuit of knowledge as both mutually reinforced one another. Reason without faith was barren but faith without reason was fideistic. Therein lies the relevance of Newman to our situation. Today’s university culture views faith as fideistic, based on nothing but a subjective faith (fides qua creditur). 

Newman loved the life of the mind but his passion was for the soul of each person. This is why in his mind a university must be concerned about students. He believed that a university was distinguished from a research institute by the presence of students. The advancement of knowledge doesn’t necessarily require its transmission to younger generations. A university should focus on the formation of students in their intellectual development. And therein lies its shared interest with Newman Centers, the welfare of young adults who need formation in both reason and faith. 

The Vocation of Newman Centers

Newman Centers are primarily ministries of pastoral care to students. What interest then does the Church have in the knowledge transmitted and learned in the university? Newman pondered this very question in the preface of his Idea of a University. Acknowledging the Pope’s primary concern as pastoral, he nevertheless insisted that the Pope “rejoices in the widest and most philosophical systems of intellectual education, from an intimate conviction that Truth is his real ally, as it is his profession; Knowledge and Reason are sure ministers to Faith.” 

If Newman Centers focus mainly on “spiritual” concerns or pastoral ministry, they may miss two of their intended objects. Students who are studying at universities are engaging questions of knowledge, a process that inevitably involves distinguishing between bona fide and bogus knowledge claims. A ministry that concentrates only on the moral or spiritual development of students is disconnected from the larger world of those students. 

A Christian student at a university cannot experience a renewal of the mind in the likeness of Christ if the knowledge claims made in the university are not examined under the microscope of historic Christianity. In most cases, modern universities are ill equipped to foster this examination. If Newman Centers do not foster the integration of faith and reason, the Christian student will most likely develop intellectual schizophrenia. 

A Newman Center that fails to address the intellectual content of faith and its relations to university disciplines also fails the Church it serves. If students are to become productive contributors to the life of the Church, they must understand the complex philosophical questions hidden under the practice of various disciplines. Even more, students who have never engaged these questions will most likely view the Church as many secular academics do, namely, as an outside entity ready to impose its dogmas of faith on a secular world. Unconsciously, they may see the Church as an entity opposed to knowledge rather than what it has been historically: the promoter of liberal learning. If they imbibe the secular academy’s viewpoint, they may fail to understand that the faith and morals of the Church are designed for the health and sanity of humankind. 

Promising signs are on the horizon. There seems to be a new breed of Newman chaplains who express the desire to educate students in the content of their inherited faith so that they may move beyond inheritance to self-possession. This desire, good in and of itself, must set its goals beyond catechetical programs. Knowing the content of the Christian faith is one thing. Knowing how it relates to other kinds of knowledge being encountered in the university is another. 

What must Newman Centers do to live up to their birthright as heirs of the learned Blessed Newman? The first essential component is the chaplain himself. A priest needs to value and understand the life of the mind, especially in its classic liberal form. He doesn’t need to be actively engaged in teaching or research; he only needs to understand and support it. Like Newman said of the Pope, a priest–chaplain must “rejoice in the widest and most philosophical systems of intellectual education.” His homilies do not need to be academic in the narrow sense; his preaching should be edificatory. But over the long haul, a priest’s preaching and instruction in a university context must have two elements. It must be forthright and even courageous; he should not shrink back from proclaiming the Church’s message. Msgr. Stuart Swetland, who for nine years was one of the most effective Newman chaplains in the country at the University of Illinois, once told me, “we’re only doing what the Church asks us to do.” Young people of the millennial generation are looking for authenticity. Honest proclamation in an aura of loving pastoral care will do much to engage the hearts and minds of students. 

The second essential feature of a good chaplain’s preaching is in his ability to explain the Church’s teachings from reason and from revelation. Too often, priests proclaim the Church’s teachings without displaying its grounding in rational thought. And most of all, a good chaplain must be a seeker himself who can accompany the students on their journey of mind and heart. 

Systematic engagement with the issues of faith and reason is also essential. While many Newman Centers offer occasional lectures on topics of timely interest to their universities and surrounding communities, much more is needed. Formation of the minds of the young requires more than sporadic exposure. Some type of regular engagement with issues of faith and reason is necessary, issues that are necessarily philosophical in the classic sense of the term. 

My own experience for over a decade in this context indicates that “the philosophical habit of mind” that Newman considered the heart of liberal learning is achieved only with hard work and repeated exposure. 

The most effective way to ensure repeated engagement and formative exposure is to employ a staff theologian or philosopher. Most priests will simply be too busy to fulfill that role, but dioceses are in a fortunate position. There is an abundance of such scholars with terminal degrees and an academic track record who can serve in this capacity. Most people will naturally think of those trained in theology as a natural candidate. The kind of theology needed at Newman centers differs from that needed in a seminary devoted to priestly formation. What is needed is more a kind of public theology. 

Such a public theologian must display a wide range of learning because he/she will no doubt encounter a wide range of topics in the students. Complete faithfulness to the Church’s teaching is a sine qua non, but without an extensive engagement with the liberal disciplines, such a theologian is not likely to be capable of helping students think through the various problems they encounter within the university. In short, such a theologian or philosopher must possess what Newman argued was at the core of liberal learning, a philosophical habit of mind. That habit of mind draws data from diverse fields into an integrated understanding of reality that allows the student to grasp the relevance of classical philosophy and theology to those fields. 

The challenge for the Church’s work in the context of the university in this new millennium resides in its willingness to expose students to the classic questions of faith and reason. Under divine providence, the resources are already waiting to be mined in Newman’s writings and in the history of Christian thought that he so highly valued. TP

DR. HOWELL, Ph.D., is Senior Fellow, School of Catholic Thought, John Paul II Newman Center, at the University of Illinois, Chicago.