God Save the Rest (Including a lot of Oddballs): In Defense of Newman Centers


As a Catholic, Blessed John Henry Newman had two direct experiences with higher education. The first, the creation of a Catholic University in Ireland, is well known.  The second was his attempt to establish an oratory and a Catholic hall at Oxford University.  With a Catholic hall, the laity would have access to the best education available in England combined with a place for fellowship and Catholic formation.

Newman went so far as to purchase, at his own expense, prime real estate close to the university. While he was not naïve in regards to the dangers of bringing Catholics into a Protestant university, he considered the positives to outweigh the negatives. The opportunity to provide a first rate university education; to allow Catholics to interact with the future leaders of England and hence, the world, while being formed at a Catholic hall was a dream he relished with great hope and joy. His example is the reason why Catholic chaplaincies at universities are sometimes referred to as Newman centers.

Newman’s plans were harshly criticized, and ultimately thwarted, by more powerful and influential Catholics.  Out of fear of an educated laity and an overwhelming anxiety that young men could lose their faith, they convinced the English hierarchy to ban Catholic students from attending Oxford. It would be over 30 years, a few years after Newman’s death, before a Catholic hall would finally be established. It would not be until the 1990s that an oratory was founded in the city.

I reference this story because I can imagine that Newman’s reaction to his critics is similar to mine in regards to Tom Hoopes’ recent post on the inadequacy of an education at a secular university with an active and faithful Newman center in comparison to a Catholic college.

In a letter to a friend, Newman pointed out that some of the Protestant leaning Anglicans at Oxford rejoiced when his plans were suppressed by the machinations of other Catholics.  The Protestants at Oxford were happy, not because they were worried about the faith life of these young Catholic men.  They were happy because they did not want Catholics to sully the purity of Oxford with their strange beliefs and subversive obedience to the pope in Rome.  Both Newman’s Catholic critics and the Protestants at Oxford were able to get what they wanted; an Oxford University free of Catholic influence.

Tom’s implied proposal, that faithful Catholics should only attend Catholic colleges, would also be well supported by many people at secular universities, albeit for different reasons.  Just like Newman’s Catholic critics, he wants to protect the fragile faith of the students, a noble goal, and just like Newman’s  Protestant critics, some people at secular universities are very happy to keep out, (in their minds) such bigoted, foolish and unreasonable people.  Both the very faithful Catholics and the very secular minded would get what they want.

I do not want to argue against the great work Catholic colleges do, especially the one Tom works at.  I want to respond by making three points in defense of university chaplaincies at secular universities as they relate to Catholic colleges and universities.

1)      Both Newman centers and authentic Catholic colleges are oases

Tom compares Newman centers to islands of sanity in stormy seas, implying that our work has little hope of having a large impact.  Yet, Catholic colleges are faring no better, and in some ways worse.  The Newman Guide to Catholic Colleges lists 20 colleges that meet their criteria for providing a faithful Catholic environment.  But these schools have a total combined enrollment of less than 22,000 students.

Even if they could double or even triple their size, they are still reaching less than one percent of the five million Catholic students and an even smaller percentage of the 19 million currently in higher education.  For every college in the Newman Guide there are many more Newman centers reaching 5 to 15 times the number of Catholic students on their campuses.  Fewer students are “washing up on the shores” of canon law compliant Catholic colleges than at faithful and orthodox Catholic chaplaincies.

Until bishops, dioceses and religious orders are willing to drop almost everything else to build hundreds of more Catholic colleges and universities, law schools and medical schools, and then educate, form and hire the Catholic faculty necessary to run these institutions, we are still left with 4,978,000 Catholic college students and 18,978,000 non-Catholic students who would benefit from hearing the fullness of the Gospel Tradition taught and proclaimed.  Catholic chaplaincies are oases but are also on the front line of the new evangelization.

2)                  Newman centers are only now beginning to realize their potential. 

Tom writes about his college experience 25 plus years ago. He admittedly recognizes that things may have changed. While many centers still resemble what he witnessed so long ago, a new generation of bishops, priests and laity are realizing their untapped potential.  In many dioceses a large number of the vocations to the Priesthood are coming from Newman centers.  In the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas for example, all five men being ordained deacons this year are graduates of the University of Kansas.

One of the key components of Newman’s understanding of higher education was the complimentary role of the college and the university.  Cardinal Newman saw two distinct communities in higher education: the university and the college. The university provides the intellectual education; the college provides the formation of character.  He wrote, “It would seem as if an [sic] University seated and living in colleges, would be a perfect institution, as possessing excellences of opposite kind.”  Newman centers are prime candidates to act as the colleges to today’s universities but we are only beginning to bring this idea to reality.

Cardinal Newman had an idea for a great university surrounded by vibrant colleges.  Faithful Catholic chaplaincies at secular universities are poised to bring that idea to life.  The university provides the intellectual education and the chaplaincy can provide the moral and spiritual formation.   This in no way excludes the possibility of Catholic universities accomplishing the same task.

In the post, Tom also pointed out that a secular university can be toxic to a young person’s faith.  We see this sad reality every day. Yet it has also been shown to be an experience that can make their faith like “fire-tried gold.”  A good Newman center can provide a formation and education that makes them some of the most fearless witnesses to Jesus Christ and His Church.

Tom also correctly noted the inability of college students to stand up to the critiques and attacks on their faith when they arrive at a secular university.  He will get no argument from me on that point.  But the problem is not with the chaplain that just met the students; it is with those who provided the formation and preparation they received before they arrived.  He needs to direct his criticism at others on that point.

3)      Newman centers are efficient in their use of resources.

Tom makes a final comment that if he were to win the lottery, he would donate some money to a Newman center but endow 100 scholarships to an authentic Catholic college.  If he does, I will be sure to be one of the first to call on him. I may even go and ask him sooner than that.

I do not even disagree with his proportion of giving to the two institutions.  That is because a university chaplaincy does not need to pay for chemistry labs, football stadiums, athletic teams or the thousands of other things that make up a great university experience. The university does all that and does it much better than I can.  All our energy and resources are devoted to one purpose: reaching out and forming Catholic students.   Our energy and resources are fully directed at evangelizing, educating and forming future leaders for the world, the family and the Church.

The post ends with this remark about Catholic colleges. “You won’t have to be an oddball, and you won’t have to be restless and alone. When the Catholic faith is everywhere, you can finally relax and fit in.”   At Newman centers, we welcome the oddballs, the restless and lonely. And they can relax and fit in.  But being Catholic is not just about relaxing and fitting in. It is about following Jesus Christ and, as Cardinal Newman, Vatican II, and all our recent popes clearly proclaim, it is about winning the world for Jesus Christ.  In many ways good Newman centers are situated to do that better than anyone else.


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