The Catholic University of America

March 7, 2011

Newman on Intellect and Virtue

WASHINGTON (CNS) – The saints have no need for worldly honors. When the church elevates them, it does so not for their benefit but for ours. It is the church’s way of educating us about lives worth studying and imitating.

So when Pope Benedict XVI beatified Cardinal John Henry Newman in September, he did so to draw our eye to his example and teachings -- particularly to the vision he had for Catholic intellectual life in the modern world.
It was a vision already at odds with the prevailing views of Cardinal Newman’s day, and certainly out of step with the modern world’s preconceptions. Yet it is the vision we strive to live by at The Catholic University of America, and one that all Catholic scholars and Catholic universities should look to for inspiration.

When Cardinal Newman delivered his famous discourses about “The Idea of a University,” the British Parliament was trying to quell sectarian tensions in Ireland by creating universities there in which religion would simply be de-emphasized. And since Newman’s time, this model has become the norm. In most public and private schools, the faith is treated as fantasy, distraction or even a cause of social harm -- certainly not as a source of knowledge.

This modern way of thinking presents an intellectual opposition between science and revealed truth. How, we are asked, can God have created the world and the human soul when science seems to suggest otherwise?

Once this simplistic premise is accepted, the very idea of a Catholic university becomes an oxymoron. At best, we are left trying to find a place for Bibles and papal decrees between our telescopes and microscopes.

But Newman presented an alternative vision in which religion is not downplayed but rather holds a central place in the intellectual life. We come to know God better through every field of human knowledge. Newman tells us that the church, understanding this, founded Catholic universities in the first place “to reunite” intellect and virtue, “which were in the beginning joined together by God, and have been put asunder by man.”

The authentically Catholic university certainly includes theology in its curriculum and gives it an important role. Cardinal Newman spent his first four discourses making this point. But in addition to teaching intellectual truths about God and about what sort of life brings human happiness, it is the business of every Catholic university to point its students toward that happiness, to cultivate virtue among them.

This should not be understood as a mere accessory to our intellectual work, or as a distraction from it, but rather as an essential part of it. As Aristotle tells us, “virtue makes us aim at the right mark.”

In one of my favorite of his sermons, Cardinal Newman invoked the story of St. Augustine to turn on its head the modern notion that any moral problem can be solved through education. In fact, it is often quite the opposite.

Augustine had to abandon his empty and dissolute life before he could become genuinely open to the truth. Likewise, in many human fields of study, virtue opens our hearts to finding the truth where it challenges us most deeply, instead of seeking it within our comfort zones of concupiscence, careerism or rigid ideology.

When my university, The Catholic University of America, was founded, Cardinal Newman wrote to our founder, Cardinal James Gibbons, saying that the event “will rejoice the hearts of all educated Catholics in these islands.”

I hope it is the prayer of every Catholic university in America and elsewhere that our faithful, collective pursuit of knowledge and virtue still brings joy to Cardinal Newman, the saints in heaven and -- most important -- to God himself.