I read what I thought was an essay in a high school literature class: “The Idea of the University” (1852) by John Henry Cardinal Newman. It was something that, at one time, high school seniors read in literature class, and might show more than casual interest in because college was imminent, at least for many of them.
It turned out that what we were reading was only an excerpt; the work is a full-length book. For a long time, possibly until the time of post-modernism in literature, Newman’s work had great influence on our collective understanding of what a university was supposed to be. (It also took me a while to realize that the Newman Center at my university, LSU, took its name from the Cardinal, as did the Newman Centers at universities across the United States, from the man who wrote The Idea of a University.) (I was raised Protestant, so I had a slight excuse for my ignorance.)
At the heart of the work was that the purpose of the university was intellectual and pedagogical, not religious or moral. And he believed that the discussion of controversial topics was important in discerning truth. (And this, of course, would set the stage for conflict with church authorities.)
What I did not know much about was who Cardinal Newman (1801-1890) was. And then, in the shop at Westminster Cathedral (not the Abbey) in London, I saw a paperback copy of John Henry Newman: A Mind Alive by Roderick Strange. Home it came to St. Louis.
The work is both an intellectual biography of Newman as well as something of a memoir by Strange, rector of the Pontifical Beda College at the Vatican. Strange describes how he came to discover and study Newman, and how the works of the cardinal became a lifelong interest and passion.
Newman didn’t start out as a Catholic. He was originally Church of England, and an ordained C of E priest. He was assigned to a post at Oxford University, and there became interested in Catholicism. He became known as a leader of the Oxford Movement, which aimed to return the Church of England to its Catholic roots. He eventually left the church, embraced Catholicism, and became a Catholic priest.
For many years, life in the Catholic Church did not go smoothly for Newman. The man had a brilliant, inquisitive, almost restless mind. He questioned. Occasionally he was suspected of heresy. He resigned (out of frustration) as the rector of Catholic University of Ireland. In 1859, he was named editor of the Catholic newspaper The Rambler, replacing someone considered a bit too liberal. He wrote and published an article that suggested that there were times and circumstances when the laity should be consulted in matters of doctrine. The article was not well received by the priests and bishops, and he resigned a few months later.
For years he worked under something of a cloud, serving the church at the Birmingham oratory. In 1864, he published Apologia Pro Vita Sua, another milestone in English literature and one in which he defended his religious beliefs. And then, in 1879, Pope Leo XIII elevated Newman to the status of cardinal.
Strange focuses on Newman’s thinking and writings, placing them in the context of both England and the Catholic Church in the 19th century (it’s helpful to remember that Catholics in England were only granted full citizenship rights in the 1829, when Newman was 28, even though he was still Church of England at this time). And he approaches his subject much as Newman himself would have done, with a question if reverent perspective.
The book also taught me something else I didn’t know – Newman was a poet. One of his better known poems is “The Dream of Gerontius,” but he wrote a number of other religious poems as well.
A Mind Alive is a solid introduction to Newman’s thinking.
Photograph: The Birmingham Oratory in England, where Newman served for many years. Birmingham is also Newman’s birthplace.