Newman's intellectual legacy to Ireland is deep and long-lasting


RITE & REASON:Let us celebrate in Cardinal Newman a saint and scholar for our times, writes Pádraic Conway.

JOHN HENRY Cardinal Newman is remembered in Ireland as among the more benign of failed interventions on the part of prominent Englishmen in the affairs of this land. As momentum gathers in the process leading to his canonisation, it is timely that we should begin to reassess his lasting legacy to Dublin and to the world.

The trajectory of Newman's career in Dublin began with a visit to the Birmingham Oratory - which he founded - in July 1851 by Paul Cullen, then archbishop of Armagh. The archbishop had seen how Oxford had been transformed from a conservative, ecclesiastical institution into a liberal, secular one in a short time.

He feared that the establishment of the Queen's Colleges would have a similar effect in Ireland. So he asked Newman to become rector of a proposed Catholic University of Ireland. By the time he delivered his first five Discourses on the Scope and Nature of University Education in May-June 1852, however, Newman was acutely aware that many Irish bishops, clergy and laity were opposed to the venture.

Newman finally arrived in Dublin on February 7th, 1854 and quickly realised that to plan the establishment of the university was, in his own words, "to attempt an impossibility". He set up the University Gazette, articles from which were subsequently published as Lectures and Ideas on University Subjects. He began a scholarly magazine, The Atlantis, engaged professors and secured premises for the first Catholic medical school in Dublin.

His university was officially opened on November 3rd, 1854 in what is today Newman House, St Stephen's Green, Dublin. On May 1st, 1856, the adjoining University Church was opened, funded in various ways by Newman himself. He also donated a large part of his salary to student support and is reported as having had "the support of his entire professorial staff". Neither trait has been omnipresent in the subsequent history of Irish university leadership.

It is a mark of Newman's character that when the time came to resign on November 12th, 1858, he made no mention of the various interpersonal difficulties he had encountered in Ireland.

While Newman today is more likely to be invoked, at least in theological circles, as a traditionalist and guardian of orthodoxy, it is not long since he was being trumpeted as the harbinger and herald of aggiornamento. But, as Nicholas Lash has pointed out, it is only second-rate scholarship which reduces Newman or comparable figures to the private expression of a single party, to say "we've got him on our side".

The folly of such an approach is underscored when one visits Newman's Birmingham Oratory and gets a sense of the vastness of the Newman archive. He lived into his 90th year and was a prolific writer for most of his life. Like Karl Rahner in the 20th century, he engaged passionately with the questions of his contemporaries.

Consequently, his letters and more formal writings are less an academic or a systematic theology and more, in the deepest sense, a personal response: to paraphrase his motto, cor ad cor loquebatur or "heart spoke continuously to heart". In educational terms, whatever Newman's difficulties in Dublin, it was "the occasion and stimulus for the composition of works of outstanding value", as one postulator has put it. His discourses of 1852 were published with his Gazette lectures as Parts I and II of The Idea of a University on February 2nd, 1873 - nine years to the day before the birth of James Augustine Joyce, the most celebrated graduate of the Catholic University's successor institution, UCD.

The Idea is probably the most referenced - if not always the most read! - work on university education ever published. Its classic statement of the value of a liberal - as opposed to an instrumental - education is captured in the title of his fifth discourse, "knowledge is its own end". The work as a whole has been described as a response to Tertullian's question: what has Athens to do with Jerusalem? In fact, Newman understood and skilfully navigated the tensions and paradoxes involved in this juxtaposition. He was a classic "both-and" thinker.

Dr Pádraic Conway is UCD Vice-President for University Relations and Director of the UCD International Centre for Newman Studies.