Newman and the Purpose of the University

Reading Time: 10 minutes

Ben Duphiney, The Catholic University of America

St. John Henry Newman lived his early, Anglican life in the classrooms and libraries of Oxford. As a central hub for studies and learning, Oxford shaped Newman beyond academics When he converted to Catholicism on October 9, 1845, Oxford and the Anglican church, along with the rest of his dear friends, turned their backs on Newman. The following September, he travelled to Rome to begin priestly formation, and it was there that he lived in an oratory, spending his time in prayer, studies, and fellowship. After being the superior of the oratory for some years, he began his academic career at the University of Dublin in April 1851. It was upon the request of the Archbishop that led Newman to found a Catholic university in Ireland. During this process of founding the university, John Henry Newman composed The Idea of a University. Beginning as a series of nine lectures titled Discourses on the Scope and Nature of University Education, Newman pictured a place to educate the minds of men, not merely “an academical system, [that] will result in nothing better or higher than in the production of that antiquated variety of human nature and remnant of feudalism.”[1] Newman looked down upon the idea of the “gentlemen” at Oxford because they tended to misinterpret knowledge, appealing to themselves and acquiring mere amateur knowledge. A university is a place where liberal education forms the intellect through an academic life. With an end in education and intellectual formation, moral formation is a remote end that follows a properly formed intellect; it leads to a proper disposition to order one’s private life toward God. The roots of Newman’s academic life at Oxford and radical conversion to the Catholic faith inspired The Idea of a University; his masterpiece beautifully merged the academic world and the Church, placing intellectual formation at the core of a Catholic university. A Catholic university, unlike a seminary, engages with the secular world through dialogue with literature, sciences, and other subjects. A seminary places theology at the center of everything, specifically the soul and moral formation. Theology in a Catholic university properly orders the ends of all subjects, thus properly ordering the intellect. Theology is the highest discipline because its subject is God, the end of universal knowledge, and it properly orders all other disciplines. The Idea of a University, inspired by Newman’s academic life at Oxford and radical conversion to Catholicism, centers education as a cultivation of the mind, ordering knowledge towards Theology[2], its proper end.

“A university should teach universal knowledge,” according to Newman.[3] This definition argues that even Theology should not be expelled from the curriculum because it is a discipline; all disciplines ought to be taught because they are classified under universal knowledge. Using the modes of liberal education (ie. grammar and linguistics, rhetoric and logic, the space of things, and composition of English and Latin through poetry) a Catholic university is “directed simply to the consideration of the…principles of Education.”[4] A Catholic university educates students “to fill their respective posts in life better, and of making them more intelligent, capable, active members of society.”[5] It is through these tools that a student can learn and shape their intellect accordingly, without being overwhelmed and remaining engaged. With these principles, students can learn beyond the classroom; students can engage in dialogues, arguments, and debates with fellow students. I believe that Newman was inspired by his experiences at the oratory which emphasized learning beyond the classroom; he himself engaged with peers and learned about new ideas far beyond the classroom and late into the hours of the night. The knowledge at the university reflects the universe. A liberal education “brings the mind into form,—for the mind is like the body.”[6] Liberal or cultivated education encompasses the formation of intellect and outside recreation, such as discussions with fellow peers. This holistic approach to a university brings each student to his fullest intellectual potential. All disciplines are properly ordered towards Theology, the highest discipline. If the duty of a university is to teach universal knowledge, then it must point to the Creator of the universe, which is the subject of Theology.

In most universities, “the subject of Religion is excluded”[7]; many would say “that a Divine Being and a University…cannot co-exist.”[8] Yet Newman’s understanding of a Catholic university places theology at the end of all disciplines: “admit a God, and you introduce among the subjects of your knowledge, a fact encompassing, closing in upon, absorbing, every other fact conceivable.”[9] Excluding one discipline is nonsensical, especially the discipline of theology. The thought of C. S. Lewis, a fellow Oxford scholar, nicely summarizes Newman’s argument: “Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.”[10] If theology is the end in which universal knowledge is ordered, then it must be studied as the highest science. Theology is surely a branch of knowledge: “how then is it possible for [a university] to profess all branches of knowledge, and yet to exclude from the subjects of its teaching one which, to say the least, is as important and as large as any of them?”[11] All other disciplines depend on theology because theology properly orders them. If theology were expelled, other sciences would not cease to exist; they would, however, be disordered and lack a totality of truth.

God encompasses all other facts and disciplines, exhausting universal knowledge because God pertains to every other science and aspect of life (class lecture notes). The importance of sciences comes from its subject matter. Therefore, Theology is the most important subject because its subject matter is God. Even just the word “‘God’ is a theology in itself, indivisibly one, inexhaustibly various, from the vastness and the simplicity of its meaning.”[12] God, according to the teaching of Monotheism…is an Individual, Self-dependent, All-perfect, Unchangeable Being…who created and upholds the universe…and who thereby necessarily becomes the subject-matter of a science.”[13] If theology is excluded from the university, the integrity and totality of truth of the other disciplines is lost, thus failing to adhere to its role as a university.

All branches of knowledge are properly ordered when Theology is their end; they no longer participate in the totality of truth when their end averts from God. Students lose the truth when universities omit theology because theology gives light to the entire truth and “no one science, no two sciences, no one family of sciences, nay, not even all secular science, is the whole truth.”[14] Theology reveals the end of humanity, not science or literature.[15] Similarly, Augustine argues that “because [God] has made us for [Himself], and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in [God].”[16] Theology properly orders the disciplines just as it orders human nature; their end is not in themselves, but in God. Once the theology is removed, disordered disciplines enter the stream of education, thus the stream of thought and intellect. Theology properly orders disciplines because it is the highest discipline; the removal of God removes the foundation of truth, tainting each subject into distorted disciplines. For example, the centrality of the Holy Family was prevalent in European artwork before the Protestant Reformation; quickly after, the Holy Family shrank and eventually was omitted from art, leading to secular landscape art, void of God.[17] The end of art was disordered because true beauty ceased to be its end. Similarly, the secularization of medicine has warped the true end of science, thus becoming a pseudo-theology that places humans at the center of knowledge. Medicine began as discovering ways to help and save lives, expanding the understanding of the human body; the focus was on saving lives. The end was ordered because it took the human life as precious, good, and deserving of being saved. Because modern medicine is disordered, it can now be used to do quite the opposite–to manipulate and control the human body. Examples of this include abortion, bodily modification, plastic surgery, and euthanasia. These are the results of medicine lacking the totality of truth and a properly ordered end in God. The danger lies below the surface of these advances because they developed over a long period of time. The world we live in today looks at these disordered advances as ordinary; it has become the new normal and people accept it as truth. All of these practices are disordered because the very subject that encompasses them does not find its end in Theology. Similar to medicine, economics becomes a race for money; art becomes distorted beauty; science becomes a desire for godly knowledge; philosophy places the human mind as the highest good; psychology becomes a tool for manipulation; knowledge becomes a privilege. Ordering subjects properly allow them to participate in the totality of truth because they are properly ordered towards Theology. Economics becomes a way to end poverty; art becomes a portrait of true beauty; science becomes a means to save lives; philosophy orders the mind around truth; psychology becomes a means to be understanding and compassionate; and knowledge becomes a human right. Moreover, if other disciplines are built on theology, then there must be a standard for the foundation of theology.

The duty of the Church is to protect theology from the intrusions of the secular world. The church solidifies doctrine and has the final say on disagreements and misunderstandings. Besides solidifying doctrine, it also affirms revelation. The Catholic faith is true, therefore “a University cannot exist externally to the Catholic pale, for it cannot teach Universal Knowledge if it does not teach Catholic theology.”[18] Because the Catholic university is built upon theology, “a direct and active jurisdiction of the Church over it and in it is necessary…[because]…the Church is the representative of the religious principle.”[19] This jurisdiction may sound constricting and overwhelming; on the contrary, this allows for the whole truth to guide knowledge, thus authenticating each discipline and properly ordering them. The presence of the Catholic Church within universities allows for spiritual needs to be attended to, not merely academic needs. Spiritual direction is essential for crafting intellectual formation, as well as nurturing a personal relationship with God. The sacraments, specifically Holy Communion and Reconciliation, tend to the personal needs and spiritual life of each individual; invaluable knowledge is found within these rich sacraments and traditions. Without the presence of the Church, what is motivating students to continue to learn? What is stirring a desire in their heart and soul if it is not the Church? What teaches beyond the classroom, extending into each personal life?

The saints are perfect examples because their intellects were formed and overflowed into all aspects of their lives. What inspired Mother Teresa to venture into Calcutta’s dangerous and dirty slums? What inspired Joan of Arc to accept her brutal death of fire by the English? What inspired Thomas Aquinas to use his intellect to further the human understanding of God? What inspired John Henry Newman to leave his entire life behind him, stepping into the unknown? It was their insatiable desire to know God. This desire to know is manifested in forming one’s intellect around God. When Mother Teresa found the courage to go into the slums, it was only after hours in prayer and studying; her knowledge of multiple languages, medicine, and the Indian culture allowed her to do her work in the most adequate way possible, which was ordered towards God. Joan of Arc accepted her brutal death because she was taught by the voice of God; her knowledge (and faith) allowed French forces to regain land taken from the English, pushing them out of France. Thomas Aquinas contributed volumes–to say the least–of knowledge towards the Church only because of his extensive understanding and intellectual training in philosophy, ordered towards God. John Henry Newman was able to leave Oxford and the Anglican faith because of the truth he learned, which was ordered towards God. The saints were inspired because their intellect was correctly formed.[20] This does not mean they all had degrees of higher education; many saints were not even educated by societal standards. They did, however, understand the truth, goodness, and beauty of God and the desire to know more was manifested in their love. Because they knew God, they loved God; because they loved God, they wanted to know more about God. Their love for God was manifested and driven by a desire to know God. The Church cultivates the mind and soul, creating a mutual cycle of inspiration, learning, and the will to improve one’s life. Furthermore, if the Catholic Church has a duty to protect and solidify the theology, then it must apply to universal knowledge because that is the proper end for which universal knowledge is properly ordered towards. Each discipline is unique, yet they all find their end in Theology, the highest discipline.

The Idea of a University challenges not secular universities but the entire world; it affirms that each discipline, properly ordered, points to the Supreme Being of the universe, God. A Catholic university orders the intellect to its proper end. If universities fail to comprehend that order, it will lead to a plethora of problems and chaos. Perhaps it is even more dangerous to omit theology in universities because the disorder will happen over a long period of time, examples being medicine and art. This slow degradation gradually becomes the new normal, thus leading to false ideologies and disciplines with disordered ends: the secularization of the world.

John Henry Newman would be proud of The Catholic University of America. The motto Deus Lux Mea Est speaks of God as a light. This image places God as a light in the darkness of the world; it is only through knowledge, intellectual formation, that brightens each student to be a light in the world. As a theology major, my intellect is being formed each day. In the classroom, I learn about the mystery of the Trinity, the lives of the saints, the role of the Church, and the word of God in the pages of scripture. This knowledge changes the way I live. I have talked, laughed, and argued about the mysteries of God with many friends into the late hours of the night; these small moments of fellowship are only possible with the intellectual formation that happens within the university. These conversations overflow from the thoughts and topics discussed in class, and many of my friends are in these classes. I find it difficult sometimes to speak about Theology with my siblings and family because they are not even aware of some of the modes of Theology, but there are other ways. Taking a lesson from the saints, the knowledge of God manifested is love; therefore I can love them by doing simple things. With her intellect properly ordered to God, Mother Teresa started by doing “small things with great love.”[21]

St. John Henry Newman loved God and that love stirred a desire in his heart to know God. The Idea of a University properly orders the intellect of students towards God, thus ordering all disciplines towards Theology. The ends of other disciplines are ordered away from God without Theology. The lives of the saints reflect an ordered intellect and an overflow of the desire to know God, which is manifested in love. A Catholic university is a place that orders the intellect towards Theology, which brings an extraordinary depth to my Catholic education and personal relationship with God.


“Home of Quotes.” Home quotes,

Newman, John Henry Cardinal. “Idea of a University (9 Discourses).” Newman Reader – Idea of University,

Various class notes by Dr. Hüetter from John Henry Newman – TRS 377

Website, The Official. “C. S. Lewis: The Official Website for C. S. Lewis and His Works.” Official Site |,

[1] Note from Dr. Huetter’s course of the life of John Henry Newman

[2]studying God as revealed to us

[3]Discourse 2, Section 2

[4]Preface, Page 9

[5]Preface, Page 2

[6]Preface, page 7

[7]Discourse 2, Section 1

[8]Discourse 2, Section 2

[9]Discourse 2, Section 3


[11]Discourse 2, Section 1

[12]Discourse 2, Section 3

[13]Discourse 2, Section 7

[14]Discourse 4, Section 1

[15]class lecture notes

[16]Confessions, 1.1.1

[17]class lecture notes

[18]Discourse 9, Section 1

[19]Discourse 9, Section 1

[20]The saints also cooperated with grace and divine revelation.


One Response

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Follow Us!