Newman Centers- Lighthouses of Grace in Secular Education

Newman Centers- Lighthouses of Grace in Secular Education

“If then a practical end must be assigned to a University course, I say it is that of training good members of society… It is the education which gives a man a clear, conscious view of their own opinions and judgements, a truth in developing them, an eloquence in expressing them, and a force in urging them. It teaches him to see things as they are, to go right to the point, to disentangle a skein of thought to detect what is sophistical and to discard what is irrelevant.”

Although Newman wrote these words over a century ago, their wisdom  transcends time. Many years before I became a Catholic I ‘met’ Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman. Intrigued by comments like this definition of the practical use of education, Newman represented intelligent scholarship and rigorous thought…along with a core of attractive rebelliousness. (To one who had left the Episcopalian Church as a teen.)

When John Henry Newman converted from the Church of England to Roman Catholicism, it was to a storm of derision and controversy. Primary spokesman for the Oxford Movement of the Anglican Church, Newman’s study of church history convinced him that the true home of Christianity was the Roman Catholic Church. He published a document titled Tract Ninety which argued the Thirty-Nine Articles or the main doctrinal bases of the Anglican Church, could be interpreted in a way that supported the Roman Catholic Church. Barely two weeks after after Newman’s manuscript was published, Oxford University authorities censured it. A man for our times.

Because of a recent talk at the vigil Mass of St. Patrick’s Church in Arroyo Grande, California, Cardinal John Henry Newman comes to my mind and heart once again, more fully, this time.

“My name is Matthew and I am a senior at Cal Poly. Four years ago when I arrived at the college, I found the ‘freedom’ of being away from home, intoxicating…too much so, in fact.” 

The good-looking Hispanic young man looked out at the parishioners and explained, “In my family, church was a Sunday morning event without any impact on the rest of the week… We talked about ‘Church’, never about Jesus…It was at the Newman Center where I first encountered Christ… there where I have developed the strength to thwart the merciless pounding of the world about sex, abortion, alcohol and drugs…At the Newman Center, we have begun weekly student chastity and pro-life discussion groups…One of my favorite St. Francis quotes is the one that he uses to describe our church as a ‘field hospital.’ ”

Matthew’s talk was gripping, even startling. I was not the only listener who was transfixed by this young man. Each of us seemed riveted by Matthew’s frank and faith-filled counter cultural story. The college senior credits the two priests who serve at the Cal Poly and Cuesta College Newman Center, Fathers John and Kevin, as the catalysts for a life now back on track as a devout Catholic and the Newman Center for his development of an intimate relationship with Christ. 

Newman Centers were started in American Universities during the late 1800’s, following Cardinal John Henry Newman‘s conviction that religious truth was critical in the formation and general education of all individuals. The centers number exist at many hundreds of secular campuses all over the world. A man for all times, certainly our own, Newman was undeniably courageous, albeit provocative, in writing statements like the following:

“Nothing is more common than for men to think that because they are familiar with words they understand the ideas they stand for.”

“To be deep in history, is to cease to be Protestant.”

“We can believe what we choose. We are answerable for what we choose to believe.”

“It is as absurd to argue men, as to torture them, into believing.”

About our duty to think, ponder and reflect about all things as a ‘warfare of ideas’:

“The development then of an idea is not like an investigation worked out on paper, in which each successive advance is a pure evolution from a foregoing, but it is carried on through and by means of communities of men and their leaders and guides; and it employs their minds as its instruments, and depends upon them, while it uses them. And so, as regards existing opinions, principles, measures, and institutions of the community which it has invaded; it developes by establishing relations between itself and them; it employs itself, in giving them a new meaning and direction, in creating what may be called a jurisdiction over them, in throwing off whatever in them it cannot assimilate. It grows when it incorporates, and its identity is found, not in isolation, but in continuity and sovereignty. This it is that imparts to the history both of states and of religions, its specially turbulent and polemical character. Such is the explanation of the wranglings, whether of schools or of parliaments.  It is the warfare of ideas under their various aspects striving for the mastery, each of them enterprising, engrossing, imperious, more or less incompatible with the rest, and rallying followers or rousing foes, according as it acts upon the faith, the prejudices, or the interest of parties or classes.”

Newman’s controversial writings about the doctrine of papal infallibility have caused consternation about the canonization process begun by Pope Benedict. Too argumentative, contentious opine the nay-sayers. To me, comments such as the following observations about papal infallibility are tailor-made for this twenty-first century:

“Was St. Peter infallible on that occasion at Antioch when St. Paul withstood him? was St. Victor infallible when he separated from his communion the Asiatic Churches? or Liberius when in like manner he excommunicated Athanasius? And, to come to later times, was Gregory XIII, when he had a medal struck in honor of the Bartholomew massacre? or Paul IV, in his conduct towards Elizabeth? or Sextus V when he blessed the Armada? or Urban VIII when he persecuted Galileo?  No Catholic ever pretends that these Popes were infallible in these acts.  Since then infallibility alone could block the exercise of conscience, and the Pope is not infallible in that subject-matter in which conscience is of supreme authority, no dead-lock, such as implied in the objection which I am answering, can take place between conscience and the Pope.”
From Newman’s Letter to the Duke of Norfolk.

What a gift it was to hear the witness of this college senior! And what a consolation it is to know of these centers which shine like lighthouses for young people in search of truth. I hope that John Henry Newman is pleased with his legacy.

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