A truly Catholic university is about so much more than acquiring knowledge

Fr Theodore Hesburgh, the late president of the University of Notre Dame (Photo: CNS)

Fr Theodore Hesburgh, former president of Notre Dame University in the States from 1952 until 1987, died on February 26 aged 97. I knew almost nothing about him and his death would have passed without comment if a friend had not forwarded an article to me out of the blue. Entitled “Looking back at Newman” and published by Fr Hesburgh in America magazine on March 2 1962 – when he already had been president of Notre Dame for a decade – it discussed John Henry Newman’s classic text The Idea of a University and compared it with his own experience.

The article drew my attention for the simple reason that I have been reading Paul Shrimpton’s The Making of Men: The idea and reality of Newman’s university in Oxford and Dublin” (which I blogged about earlier this week) and thus Newman’s theory and practice of higher education have been dominating my thoughts. A little learning is a dangerous thing and I am no Newman scholar, but I did learn a lot from Shrimpton’s erudite, well-argued and sympathetic study. So I read Fr Hesburgh’s article with more than casual interest.

Although Fr Hesburgh describes Newman’s “The Idea of a University” as an “incomparable classic” and its author as “one of my heroes”, he does not seem to have realised that the book was only one aspect of Newman’s life, work and thinking, concerned with the essence of a university rather than the reality of founding an actual institution. If he had thought at all about Newman’s real-life experience of teaching, or his highly practical and administrative gifts in undertaking the enormous workload of founding the Catholic University in Dublin during the 1850s, he could not have written that “Newman, in fact, never did create the university he wrote about, nor did he have to administer it”.

However, the main weakness of the article is not that Newman inhabited an “ivory tower” in his writings about higher education (though Fr Hesburgh’s use of the phrase shows that he does believe this); it is that he has fallen into the trap of assuming that “what needs redeeming today is quite a different kind of world than Newman’s”. Is that true? Newman had the long reach of a saint’s perspective on the world and on human nature and understood men’s immense capacities and gifts, their temptations and their flaws; these don’t change. Translated into the lives of young men about to go to university, Newman recognised the conflicts they would experience, and it is this which informs his extremely practical ideas on the great importance of a pastoral dimension to university life: how to guide and form the moral and spiritual character of students – not just their intellects.

Fr Hesburgh sounds both dazzled and overwhelmed by the proliferation of new subjects, disciplines and research projects that are part of modern university life. He is also overwhelmed by “the monumental and unprecedented problems that face modern man”, asking: “Should we keep the university isolated from the changing times and restrict ourselves to developing the idyll of knowledge for knowledge’s sake envisaged by Newman?” He cites the rise of Communism and two world wars as evidence of a changed world that Newman could not have envisaged or comprehended.

This is again to misunderstand Newman (who, after all, knew well the effects of the industrial revolution when he set about founding the Oratory in a working-class district of the industrial city of Birmingham). His Catholic University was founded and run during his time as rector on the principle, as he put it in his opening speech to the students, of the “making of men” who would flourish in the lecture hall, library and laboratory, yet also in journalism, debating and sport, in order to take their place as educated and well-informed Catholic laymen in the wider world, able to confront its problems from the standpoint of Christian humanism.

How patronising it now sounds to read Fr Hesburgh’s “Let us not chide Cardinal Newman for writing in the middle of the 19th century instead of the middle of the 20th”. This brings me to my final point: Newman knew that the Church does not and cannot change her magisterial teachings in order to accommodate “the modern problems that face man today” that Fr Hesburgh refers to. If necessary she must be counter-cultural – as must a truly Catholic university.

For Fr Hesburgh, however, “the truest boast of the Catholic university is that it is committed to adequacy of knowledge”. Is that all? Five years after writing his article on Newman, he was instrumental in signing, and getting two dozen other Catholic university presidents to sign, the 1967 Land O’Lakes Statement, asserting the Catholic university’s “true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical, external to the academic community itself”. In effect, it was a declaration of independence from the US Catholic hierarchy and would lead, in the case of Notre Dame, to public dissent from Catholic teaching – something Newman would have found abhorrent and unthinkable.

As an article in CNA points out, Fr Hesburgh, who received sponsorship from the Rockefeller and Ford foundations (and who, from 1977 to 1982, served as chairman of the Rockefeller Foundation), was lobbying intensively behind the scenes in favour of artificial birth control at the time of the Land O’Lakes Statement. Falling for the 1960s secular panic over “over-population”, he demonstrated his own failure to resolve “the difficult problem of balancing the university and the times without losing the university in the balance”, as he put it in his article on Newman.

Newman, in his wisdom, insight and practical experience, knew that such a “balance” could only be kept if a Catholic university stayed true to its fundamental mission: teaching its students not just to acquire knowledge, but how to exercise judgement, discrimination and discernment in responding to society’s perennial problems and thus, critically, how to stand firm against the spirit of the times.