Newman's Great Idea

Feast of St. Gregory of Nyssa

Newman_square_2.jpegIN OCTOBER of 2016, coinciding with the memorial (in England) of Blessed John Henry Newman, I wrote a blog post for the National Catholic Register about how my view of Newman has changed over the years. As I noted,

When I first learned about Newman as a sophomore in college, he was just Cardinal Newman. In many ways, he and his works were academic subjects to me. Newman’s life and even his spiritual autobiography, the Apologia pro via sua, was a story of misunderstanding, potential, failure, and sensitivity.

Since I was an English Literature major, I read his great work on education, The Idea of a University and lamented that I would not receive a true liberal arts education according to his terms. Without theology, forbidden as a subject in a state university curriculum, there was a gap in my education.

So now with my symposium presentation on Newman’s view of The Idea of a University and Theology’s essential role in a university curriculum, it might seem I’ve come full circle.

But as Heraclitus stated, you don’t step in the same river twice. You don’t read the same book twice, either. Reading The Idea while I was in a university, I was all excited about obtaining a liberal arts education and becoming a life-long learner. I had little notion about what I would do with that education—what job I could get after graduation—but I did recognize I had to fill the gap of Theology to come close to achieving Newman’s goals.

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Fortunately, my group of like-minded friends had the WSU Newman Center-St. Paul’s Parish. The pastors there recognized our need for theological formation. Having attended Catholic elementary and secondary high schools, we had learned the doctrines and morality of our faith through catechism classes (and there were programs for Catholic students attending public schools at every parish for the same purpose). But as university students, we needed education on a higher level.

It wasn’t always systematic, but our pastors, like Monsignor William Carr, offered classes, brought in guest speakers, hosted symposiums, and recommended books. They gave us the foundation to continue learning about and practicing our faith throughout our adult lives.

Eighth Day Books, the Eighth Day Institute—with this annual Symposium, the Inklings Festival, and so many other programs—and other organizations like the Spiritual Life Center’s Adult Education program for the Catholic Diocese of Wichita help me to continue this process of life-long learning and thinking about the content of my faith. I’m sure other churches and organizations help many of those attending these EDI events in the development of their knowledge of the Christian faith too.

Reading Newman’s Idea and his vision of university education now, so many years later, I am struck by how timely his defense of Theology as a field of study with a body of knowledge is for us today. In the mid-nineteenth century he saw that if Theology was not accepted as an academic subject, with content and knowledge to impart, religious doctrine and practice would devolve into mere feeling. Then religious doctrine and morality will be “based, not on argument, but on taste and sentiment” and “nothing [is] objective”; in fact “everything [is] subjective”. Newman saw that if Theology is only a matter of “taste and sentiment” and Christian doctrine “the bane of true knowledge”, theologians will be rejected. Theologians—the watchmen—will face “a feeling, not merely of contempt, but of absolute hatred” if they dare state that what they say is true and based not on opinion or affection, but on knowledge and experience. Newman seems a prophet in that vision, as in many other things.    

Stephanie Mann is the author of Supremacy and Survival: How Catholics Endured the English Reformation, available from Scepter Publishers and at Eighth Day Books. She resides in Wichita, Kansas and blogs at

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