What Theodore Hesburgh missed about Catholic universities

St. John Henry Newman and Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C. Composite image by Alison Hamilton. (Original images: Wikimedia).

Editor’s note: This essay is a response to “Theodore Hesburgh on What Cardinal Newman Missed About Catholic Universities,” published in America magazine, March 3, 1962, and reprinted in America on March 23, 2015.

I had the honor of knowing and working with the University of Notre Dame’s longtime president, Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C., when I served as the first tenured woman in the university’s administration. Even so, I tried my best to steer clear of him during the Lenten season, when he gave up cigars and could be quite crabby. Like me, Father Ted especially loved Cardinal John Henry Newman—“one of my heroes,” he said—who was canonized in Rome on Oct. 13. Father Ted was prone to quote Newman or, more frequently, to paraphrase him, with attribution, in many a presidential talk, as well as in informal remarks he often made earnestly about the unparalleled worth of a Catholic liberal education. Father Ted never claimed to be an expert on Newman or a scholar of his work, but his strong attraction to the man and his writings was always in evidence.

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It is most appropriate to look at St. Newman in the same light as Father Ted. Both men were devoted Catholic priests and university presidents, and both were among the most influential figures of their time, especially in higher education and in the Catholic Church.

Since his death in 2015, Father Ted’s remarkable legacy and the controversies associated with his long and prominent public life have been well publicized. These important matters I do not take up here, for I am more interested in Father Ted’s somewhat idiosyncratic relation to Newman’s capacious mind on Catholic higher education. Lest I immediately pounce upon Father Ted for what I see as his occasional misreading of Newman, I mention first his most generous consideration of me among many kindnesses dearly remembered.

At a fancy dinner one evening, Father Ted told me quite seriously, calling on John Jenkins, C.S.C. (now Notre Dame’s president), seated nearby, to be a witness that he was leaving his grand collection of Newman books to me in his will. I was overwhelmed. In the following years, however, when I had left the administration and returned to full-time teaching, I came to think that such a Newman inheritance, probably of first edition books, should not rightfully be mine. For that reason, I wrote to Father Ted thanking him again and declining his precious gift, suggesting the Newman books might better be kept in the possession of the university or of the Holy Cross community. Besides, Father Ted lived so long—for 97 years, until 2015 (and I retired in 2006)—that I wondered if those books would ever come my way in any case.

Both St. John Henry Newman and Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C., were devoted Catholic priests and university presidents, and both were among the most influential figures of their time.

The idea of a university

In his America article about Newman, Father Hesburgh says that “it is easier to write about what a Catholic university should be than to create and administer one in reality—to bring the total idea into being. Newman, in fact, never did create the university he wrote about, nor did he have to administer it.” Au contraire, Father Ted. In 1851 Newman came to Ireland at the invitation of Archbishop Paul Cullen of Dublin to establish the Catholic University of Ireland. There, in the packed rotunda on O’Connell Street, Newman delivered his famous “Discourses on the Idea of a University.” As the Catholic University’s founding rector (president), he hired its faculty, defined its curriculum, built its church and officially administered it from 1854 to 1858. Newman left detailed reports and papers in his My Campaign in Ireland about the decade of the 1850s, when his life and writings revolved almost entirely around the Catholic university’s founding, development and administration.

The main theme Father Hesburgh wished to put forward in his America article was that Newman’s views on university education may have been fine for his time and place, but they are simply not valid for all times and places. Yes and no, I say. Father Ted writes: “Let us not assume that what he had to say then, about a human institution in a particular historical situation, had absolute and unconditioned validity for all such institutions in all times.”Newman was neither ignorant nor neglectful of the history and diversity of institutions.As with the development of Christian doctrine and the church, Newman showed that the idea of the university did not pop up full-blown, but developed historically. He studied the university’s birth in the ancient schools of Greece and Rome, its preservation in the medieval monasteries, and its development and maturation in the schools and universities that followed, as well as in the institutions of his own day at Oxford and Paris—all of them shaped according to the conditions of their times, by their variations further developing the large idea of university.

For Newman, the single extraordinary goal of university education was the development in the student of a “philosophical habit of mind.”

This historical development Newman details chapter by chapter in Rise and Progress of Universities, one of the three “companion” volumes he said he wrote on “university teaching.” (Father Ted was apparently aware, as are most readers, of only one of those books, The Idea of a University—“his incomparable classic on the subject,” Father Ted called it.)In all the historically varied institutions of higher learning that Newman studied and wrote about, one idea did indeed persist and prevail, namely, that teaching and learning are the essential elements of the ideal university—“valid for all times and places.” Accordingly, Newman writes that a university:

is a place of teaching universal knowledge. Thisimplies 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 [emphases in original].

Newman is not writing about the mere imparting and accumulation of factual knowledge, nor “the passive reception of scraps and details,” but rather about “knowledge impregnated by thought,” appropriated and made a personal possession or habit. “It is an acquired faculty of judgment, of clear-sightedness, of sagacity, of wisdom, of philosophical reach of mind and of intellectual self-possession and repose—qualities which do not come of mere acquirement.”

The single extraordinary goal of university education is, then, the development in the student of a “philosophical habit of mind.” This “master view of things” comes to be through the study of, or at least penetrating exposure to, all of the interconnected branches of the complete circle of knowledge. Each portion of the circle corrects and balances every other part. The systematic omission of any discipline, including theology, prejudices the accuracy and completeness of all knowledge, and accordingly distorts the very idea of a university.

The cultivation of the intellect in this broad and general way is not useful knowledge in the sense of immediate training for a vocation or profession. It is not even useful knowledge in the sense of making students better morally or religiously, but simply, directly and only, the cultivation of a healthy and illuminated intellect, “a knowledge worth possessing for what it is, and not merely for what it does.” Liberal education is a worthy and noble good entirely in itself, for it fulfills a direct need of our nature.

The development of “a philosophical habit of mind” or “a master view of things” is attained by the mind’s gradual integration of the various intellectual disciplines of the humanities and the sciences, the traditional arts of the trivium (grammar, logic and rhetoric) and of the quadrivium (arithmetic, music, geometry and astronomy). They are innately part and parcel of the essential classic disciplines and departments of higher education. “That only is true enlargement of mind which is the power of viewing many things at once, as one whole, of referring them severally to their true place in the universal system, of understanding their respective values, and determining their mutual dependence.”

Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C.: "Think of what our world is today in comparison with the world in which Newman wrote. Newman foresaw trouble, but hardly could have imagined all the trouble that actually occurred.”

New universities for a new world

It is certainly true, as Father Ted says, that our complex world is something Newman never dreamed of. “Think of what our world is today in comparison with the world in which Newman wrote. Newman foresaw trouble, but hardly could have imagined all the trouble that actually occurred.” As Father Ted goes on to detail, today’s tumultuous circumstances in which the university finds itself have included two devastating world wars, nations striving for political independence, the Cold War, the inheritances of the Industrial Revolution, the nuclear age and the space age. And with the continual advances of modern science, he notes, we keep adding new disciplines to university study, such as cybernetics, astrophysics, ethnography and molecular biology. Too, the university has expanded globally, with university people from America scattered all around the world. Father Ted concedes, then, “let us not chide Cardinal Newman for writing in the middle of the 19th century instead of the middle of the 20th.”

Hesburgh agrees with Newman that the university does not exist in isolation from this unsettled world, for in Newman’s words: “It is not the way to learn to swim in troubled waters, never to have gone into them.” Fittingly, Father Ted says, “Newman is still with us, for he portrayed the university as ‘not a Convent, not a Seminary; it is a place to fit men of the world for the world.’” But Father Ted belittles “the restrictions” of what he calls Newman’s “idyll” of knowledge for knowledge’s sake, seeing it as serving to isolate the university from the practical issues of the day. What Newman means by “knowledge for its own sake” is that the liberal education of university studies is to be wholeheartedly entered into and personally possessed for its very self; such studies should not be undertaken mainly for utilitarian ends, either professional or vocational. And yet, although these additional goals are not the direct purpose of liberal studies, the side effects of such studies will be an educated and large-minded person fit for any calling or engagement in the world, for “general culture of mind is the best aid to professional and scientific study.” That is:

the man who has learned to think and to reason and to compare and to discriminate and to analyze, who has refined his taste, and formed his judgment, and sharpened his mental vision, will not indeed at once be a lawyer...or a physician, or a good landlord, or a man of business...or a chemist, or a geologist...but he will be placed in that state of intellect in which he can take up any one of the sciences or callings I have referred to, or any other for which he has a taste or special talent, with an ease, a grace, a versatility, and a success, to which another is a stranger.

What Newman calls the bare idea “university-in-itself” does not include Catholicism any more than the essence or idea “human being” includes breathing. But the living university, as it has really developed historically and as it ought to be today, is given an added gift of sustenance and well-being by Catholicism, even as air gives vitality to human beings:

Such is a University in its essence, and independently of its relation to the Church. But, practically speaking, it cannot fulfil its object duly, such as I have described it, without the Church’s assistance…. the Church is necessary for its integrity…. It still has the office of intellectual education; but the Church steadies it in the performance of that office [emphases in original].

Newman elaborates, as did his esteemed mentor Aristotle (“we are his disciples whether we will or no”) what the “integrity” of a thing means. It is what enables that thing’s continued existence and well-being, its completeness. We may still be human beings if deprived of air and water, but we will not be human beings for long! The “essence,” that is, the definition or idea in itself of human being does not include the air we breathe and the water we drink, but these life-sustaining elements are absolutely necessary for the “integrity” of human life, that is, for its sustenance, wholeness and well-being.

As Newman sees it, the church’s main practical presence to the Catholic university resides in the university’s historical development and particular tradition, and in the university’s continuing exercise of ordering discipline—by means of its institutional structures, in its liturgical life and community, and in the individual lives of its members. The study of Catholic theology is, of course, included in “the idea on the whole” assumed as integral (not added on) to the complete circle of learning. The philosophical and theological idea of God is the principle of integration in liberal education, for all subjects presuppose and ultimately refer to God.

Hesburgh agrees with Newman that the university does not exist in isolation from this unsettled world, for in Newman’s words: “It is not the way to learn to swim in troubled waters, never to have gone into them.”

Catholic character

Father Ted writes about the development of strong philosophy and theology departments as the chief reinforcement of the university’s Catholic character, as well as the source of its “redemptive mission” to the world. Newman does not speak of philosophy departments, concerned as he is with the gradual development of a broad “philosophical habit of mind” in the student, who is learning not just from philosophy but from all of the liberal arts of word and number, and from the primary sources of classical thinking, engrossed in what Matthew Arnold called, “the best that has been thought and said.”

After Newman clarifies and insists upon the exclusively intellectual purpose of any university worthy of the name (“Knowledge is one thing, virtue another”), he points out the need of Catholicism’s permeation and superintendence on the student’s personal everyday life, on his moral and religious bearing. For such formation, the idea of a university and its professors are insufficient:

Quarry the granite rock with razors or moor the vessel with a thread of silk; then may you hope with such keen and delicate instruments as human knowledge and human reason to contend against those giants, the passion and pride of man.

Enter, for Newman, the “colleges” (or residence halls) and their “tutors.” The home or residence is the locus of moral and religious formation. After six years as “public tutor” at Oriel College Oxford, Newman was virtually fired because he believed the role of tutor to be primarily pastoral, moral and mission-oriented, not solely to oversee discipline, nor like the professor’s role as exclusively intellectual. Both types of formation, that of moral character and that of intellect, are inseparably united in the living student; intellectual formation by professors as the university’s charge, and moral and religious formation by tutors as the responsibility of the home and, by extension, of the colleges or residence halls.

Newman could assume his students were Catholic. “Religious Truth is not only a portion but a condition of general knowledge.” His university was intentionally established, with papal approval, for the Catholic young men of the English-speaking world, effectively barred as they were (because they could not subscribe to the established church’s Thirty-nine Articles) from the top-flight institutions of Oxford and Cambridge in England and Trinity College Dublin. To state the obvious, today’s pluralistic, secular society and its young people are quite different. Against what Father Ted calls the “strong tide” of secularism, “the Catholic university must demonstrate that all the human problems which it studies are at base philosophical and theological, since they relate ultimately to the nature and destiny of man.”

Father Ted reflects on the fact that the serious problems of the world are “of intellectual content, of urgent consequence, of frightening proportions.” He persuasively asks: “Where are they going to be studied in all of their dimensions, and where are truly ultimate solutions to be elaborated, if not in that one institution that is committed to the mind at work, using all the disciplines and intellectual skills available?” He remarks that these real enough problems are “often overlooked by those content to concede the last word to Cardinal Newman.” But I am happy to give the last word to Father Ted, whose succinct summation says it all: “The truest boast of the Catholic university is that it is committed to adequacy of knowledge.”

Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C.: “The truest boast of the Catholic university is that it is committed to adequacy of knowledge.”

How truth emerges

Before or after some meeting or other, I found myself chatting with Father Ted about a new book on Newman’s Idea of a University—namely, that of the eminent church historian Jaroslav Pelikan, titled The Idea of the University: A Reexamination. Pelikan celebrates the modern research university, favoring the training of graduate students, whereas for Newman, the main mission of the university is the teaching and learning of undergraduates.

I continued to inform Father Ted that Pelikan misunderstood Newman’s Idea by unapologetically excising the contents of Newman’s first three Discourses about the necessity of theology in the university’s curriculum, when it is a theology that, for Newman, permeates and integrates liberal education with its profound insights on the relation of religious faith and the workings of reason. As Newman has it: “How can we investigate any part of any order of Knowledge and stop short of that which enters into every order?” But as Pelikan has it: “it is of course not mandatory to share his theological stance if one wants to engage him in dialogue about the idea of the university.”

Having listened attentively to my critique of Jaroslav Pelikan’s commentary on Newman’s Idea, Father Ted replied very simply and kindly: “Oh, don’t be so hard on poor old Jary.” I only hope my critique has not been too hard on dear old Father Ted, who wrote unassumingly in the preface of the book he edited, The Challenge and Promise ofa Catholic University: “I would welcome [the Notre Dame faculty] agreeing, disagreeing, or refining what I have written because it is through the rigorous examination of ideas that truth best emerges.”

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
JR Cosgrove
3 weeks 2 days ago

Catholic University? Does one exist anymore? There may be only a few universities of any kind left. When most of the professors are atheists and truth is denied as existing. At best most are getting a trade education.

Jim Smith
3 weeks 2 days ago

The Australian Catholic Youth Festival (ACYF) is a national gathering of Catholic young people established by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC). It exists to provide young people with opportunities to deepen their relationship with Jesus, be empowered to be disciples in the world today and encounter and celebrate the vitality of the Church in Australia

Who started it? George Pell, felon, Victoria

CHARLES LOVEJOY JR DEACON
3 weeks 1 day ago

Gratitude to Professor Tillman for her mildly critical remarks about Fr. Ted and Newman's Idea of a University. Notre Dame has changed since I graduated in 1965 and enjoyed the tutorship of the "bachelor dons" like Evans and O'Malley but it has struggled, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, to maintain its Catholic identify described by Newman. My children, three of whom graduated in the '90's were not served well by the lack of success.
In the past decade, however, I sense that ND has done a better job of it. See Fr. Miscamble's book on Fr. Hesburgh for a somewhat more critical view of how well Fr. Ted incorporated the Church into the school's mission.

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