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Patrick J. Reilly | author
Sep 01, 2009
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Cardinal Newman and Notre Dame

Patrick Reilly writes that Catholic higher education is in urgent need of renewal . . .

Patrick Reilly

Patrick Reilly

The 19th-century convert, theologian and scholar John Henry Cardinal Newman is on the road to sainthood. The Vatican announced on July 3 that Pope Benedict XVI had recognized the miraculous healing of an American deacon through Newman’s intercession. That completes the final step toward his beatification, which is expected to occur next spring.

Newman’s beatification carries great significance for the Church as Catholic higher education faces a difficult crossroads. Newman’s celebrated work, The Idea of a University, declared principles that resonate clearly today: the primacy of theology, the integration of knowledge, and the certainty that all truth comes from God.

Newman was critical of his fellow Oxford intellectuals, many of whom were enthralled with science and had come to distrust any religious truth that could not be proven by observation.

In his Essays Critical and Historical he wrote: “The Rationalist makes himself his own center, not his Maker; he does not go to God, but he implies that God must come to him…. Instead of looking out of ourselves and trying to catch glimpses of God’s workings … we sit at home bringing everything to ourselves, enthroning ourselves in our own views and refusing to believe anything that does not force itself upon us as true.”

Strikingly, Newman’s words written about 150 years ago paint an accurate portrait of contemporary America and American education. For the most part, teachers, professors and students — as well as politicians, physicians and others — sit on the thrones of their own expertise, their own ideas, their own causes with minimal regard for the Truth revealed by God.

Teaching and knowledge have become increasingly fragmented, with emphasis not on understanding reality, but on building expertise in marketable skills and knowledge. Genuine academic discourse and rational debate have given way to issue advocacy and political correctness.

Consider last spring’s spectacle at the University of Notre Dame, which claimed to engage in “dialogue” by publicly honoring the nation’s pro-abortion president. The leaders of the most-celebrated Catholic university in America don’t seem to have a clue anymore as to the meaning and practice of genuine intellectual dialogue, academic freedom or Catholic mission. But they were willing to thumb their noses at the U.S. bishops for a spot on the evening news.

So it’s not surprising that what alarmed Newman in the 19th century also alarms Pope Benedict today. Secularism has overtaken the West, with our schools and colleges leading the charge. During his April 2008 address to Catholic educators at The Catholic University of America, Pope Benedict said “the contemporary ‘crisis of truth’ is rooted in a ‘crisis of faith.’ Only through faith can we freely give our assent to God’s testimony and acknowledge Him as the transcendent guarantor of the truth He reveals.”

But for too many educators, faith is viewed as contrary to reason and truth. “In the United States, Catholic universities have been very apologetic, almost embarrassed by their obligation to adhere to the faith of the Church,” Cardinal Avery Dulles noted in a 2001 address to The Cardinal Newman Society. “For Newman … any university that lacks the guidance of Christian revelation and the oversight of the Catholic Magisterium is, by that very fact, impeded in its mission to find and transmit truth.”

Pope Benedict challenged American educators last year “to evoke among the young the desire for the act of faith, encouraging them to commit themselves to the ecclesial life that follows from this belief.” Is that what we find at Notre Dame? At Georgetown? At the University of San Francisco?

Catholic higher education is in urgent need of renewal — and of a growing cadre of leaders of that renewal. We need the witness of those who — like the 367,000 Catholics who signed our petition opposing Notre Dame’s honor to President Obama — refuse simply to give up on the Catholic colleges and universities that were founded, funded and attended by faithful Catholics for decades and even centuries.

“Now is the time for a ‘second spring’ in Catholic university education in the United States,” Fr. C. John McCloskey wrote in a paper last year for the Center for the Study of Catholic Higher Education. “This reform and renewal will have consequences far beyond our borders — into the universal Church. It is our moment to evangelize and engage and apply the saving balm of the heart and mind of Christ to our society, which suffers much more from internal decay than it ever will from outside terrorists.”

All this will come about by prayer — and the Church would greatly benefit from a modern patron of Catholic colleges and universities, sharing the title with St. Thomas Aquinas. Perhaps it is no small matter that Newman’s approved miracle healed a spine. Cardinal Newman, ora pro nobis!

Patrick J. Reilly is president and founder of The Cardinal Newman Society, a national organization to help renew and strengthen Catholic higher education.

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