John Henry Newman, Anti-Modernist – Part I

“It is very plain, that a Divine Being and a University so circumstanced cannot co-exist.”

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Editors’ Notes

In Discourse II (‘Theology a Branch of Knowledge’) of his The Idea of a University, John Henry Newman considers the arguments of those who would exclude the teaching of theology from university – as was common at the time – and draws out the implications of these arguments.

These ideas – and the philosophy behind them – were later treated by Pope St Pius X under the label of ‘modernism’ – and Newman’s analysis, reasoning and condemnation of this matrix of ideas are strikingly similar to that given in the encyclical Pascendi Dominic Gregis.

In this first part of the discourse, Newman prepares the ground for his treatment of what we could call ‘proto-modernism’. The classic work from which it is taken deals with the nature of university education, and so this discourse is naturally not as systematic an exposition as St Pius X’s Encyclical. Nonetheless, it remains a perceptive analysis of early modernism – and an insight into Newman’s own thoughts on the matter.

Perhaps this sort of perceptiveness is why Pope St Pius X wrote the following to Bishop O’Dwyer following the publication of his pamphlet Cardinal Newman and the Encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis:  

‘We wish to assure you that your pamphlet, in which you show that the writings of Cardinal Newman, far from differing with Our Encyclical Letter Pascendi, are in reality in closest accord with it, has our heartiest approval.  

‘You could not better have served both truth and the merit of the man.’

A.S.S., XLI, 1908, 200-2. Translation taken from E.D. Benard, A Preface to Newman’s Theology pp 155-6, B. Herder Book Co., London, 1945.

As this discourse is quite lengthy, we will be publishing it in parts. All headings have been added by The WM Review, and we have also added some line breaks and edited some punctuation for ease of reading.

Discourse II – Theology a Branch of Knowledge
Part I
The Idea of a University
John Henry Newman
This edition taken from
Longmans, Green & Co., London 1907

THERE were two questions, to which I drew your attention, Gentlemen, in the beginning of my first Discourse, as being of especial importance and interest at this time:

First, whether it is consistent with the idea of University teaching to exclude Theology from a place among the sciences which it embraces;

Next, whether it is consistent with that idea to make the useful arts and sciences its direct and principal concern, to the neglect of those liberal studies and exercises of mind, in which it has heretofore been considered mainly to consist.  

These are the questions which will form the subject of what I have to lay before you, and I shall now enter upon the former of the two.  

“Universal knowledge” (1)  

It is the fashion just now, as you very well know, to erect so-called Universities, without making any provision in them at all for Theological chairs. Institutions of this kind exist both here and in England.  

Such a procedure, though defended by writers of the generation just passed with much plausible argument and not a little wit, seems to me an intellectual absurdity; and my reason for saying so runs, with whatever abruptness, into the form of a syllogism:  

A University, I should lay down, by its very name professes to teach universal knowledge.

Theology is surely a branch of knowledge.

How then is it possible for it 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?  

I do not see that either premiss of this argument is open to exception.  

As to the range of University teaching, certainly the very name of University is inconsistent with restrictions of any kind. Whatever was the original reason of the adoption of that term, which is unknown, I am only putting on it its popular, its recognized sense, when I say that a University should teach universal knowledge.  

That there is a real necessity for this universal teaching in the highest schools of intellect, I will show by-and-by; here it is sufficient to say that such universality is considered by writers on the subject to be the very characteristic of a University, as contrasted with other seats of learning.  

Thus Johnson, in his Dictionary, defines it to be “a school where all arts and faculties are taught;” and Mosheim, writing as an historian, says that, before the rise of the University of Paris,—for instance, at Padua, or Salamanca, or Cologne,—”the whole circle of sciences then known was not taught;” but that the school of Paris, “which exceeded all others in various respects, as well as in the number of teachers and students, was the first to embrace all the arts and sciences, and therefore first became a University.”  

If, with other authors, we consider the word to be derived from the invitation which is held out by a University to students of every kind, the result is the same; for, if certain branches of knowledge were excluded, those students of course would be excluded also, who desired to pursue them.  

Is it, then, logically consistent in a seat of learning to call itself a University, and to exclude Theology from the number of its studies?  

And again, is it wonderful that Catholics, even in the view of reason, putting aside faith or religious duty, should be dissatisfied with existing institutions, which profess to be Universities, and refuse to teach Theology; and that they should in consequence desire to possess seats of learning, which are, not only more Christian, but more philosophical in their construction, and larger and deeper in their provisions?  

The implications of excluding theology from a University  

But this, of course, is to assume that Theology is a science, and an important one: so I will throw my argument into a more exact form.  

I say, then, that if a University be, from the nature of the case, a place of instruction, where universal knowledge is professed, and if in a certain University, so called, the subject of Religion is excluded, one of two conclusions is inevitable,  

  • Either, on the one hand, that the province of Religion is very barren of real knowledge
  • Or, on the other hand, that in such University one special and important branch of knowledge is omitted.

I say, the advocate of such an institution must say this, or he must say that; he must own, either that little or nothing is known about the Supreme Being, or that his seat of learning calls itself what it is not. This is the thesis which I lay down, and on which I shall insist as the subject of this Discourse.  

I repeat, such a compromise between religious parties, as is involved in the establishment of a University which makes no religious profession, implies that those parties severally consider – not indeed that their own respective opinions are trifles in a moral and practical point of view ­– of course not; but certainly as much as this, that they are not knowledge.  

Did they in their hearts believe that their private views of religion, whatever they are, were absolutely and objectively true, it is inconceivable that they would so insult them as to consent to their omission in an Institution which is bound, from the nature of the case – from its very idea and its name – to make a profession of all sorts of knowledge whatever.  

The nature of compromise, even when legitimate (2)  

I think this will be found to be no matter of words. I allow then fully, that, when men combine together for any common object, they are obliged, as a matter of course, in order to secure the advantages accruing from united action, to sacrifice many of their private opinions and wishes, and to drop the minor differences, as they are commonly called, which exist between man and man.  

No two persons perhaps are to be found, however intimate, however congenial in tastes and judgments, however eager to have one heart and one soul, but must deny themselves, for the sake of each other, much which they like or desire, if they are to live together happily. Compromise, in a large sense of the word, is the first principle of combination; and any one who insists on enjoying his rights to the full, and his opinions without toleration for his neighbour’s, and his own way in all things, will soon have all things altogether to himself, and no one to share them with him.  

But most true as this confessedly is, still there is an obvious limit, on the other hand, to these compromises, however necessary they be; and this is found in the proviso, that the differences surrendered should be but “minor,” or that there should be no sacrifice of the main object of the combination, in the concessions which are mutually made.

Any sacrifice which compromises that object is destructive of the principle of the combination, and no one who would be consistent can be a party to it.  

Parallels with inter-protestant endeavours  

Thus, for instance, if men of various religious denominations join together for the dissemination of what are called “evangelical” tracts, it is under the belief, that, the object of their uniting, as recognized on all hands, being the spiritual benefit of their neighbours, no religious exhortations, whatever be their character, can essentially interfere with that benefit, which faithfully insist upon the Lutheran doctrine of Justification.  

If, again, they agree together in printing and circulating the Protestant Bible, it is because they, one and all, hold to the principle, that, however serious be their differences of religious sentiment, such differences fade away before the one great principle, which that circulation symbolizes – that the Bible, the whole Bible, and nothing but the Bible, is the religion of Protestants.  

On the contrary, if the committee of some such association inserted tracts into the copies of the said Bible which they sold, and tracts in recommendation of the Athanasian Creed or the merit of good works, I conceive any subscribing member would have a just right to complain of a proceeding, which compromised the principle of Private Judgment as the one true interpreter of Scripture.  

These instances are sufficient to illustrate my general position, that coalitions and comprehensions for an object, have their life in the prosecution of that object, and cease to have any meaning as soon as that object is compromised or disparaged.  

Applied to the university  

When, then, a number of persons come forward, not as politicians, not as diplomatists, lawyers, traders, or speculators, but with the one object of advancing Universal Knowledge, much we may allow them to sacrifice, – ambition, reputation, leisure, comfort, party-interests, gold; one thing they may not sacrifice – Knowledge itself.  

Knowledge being their object, they need not of course insist on their own private views about ancient or modern history, or national prosperity, or the balance of power; they need not of course shrink from the cooperation of those who hold the opposite views; but stipulate they must that Knowledge itself is not compromised; – and as to those views, of whatever kind, which they do allow to be dropped, it is plain they consider such to be opinions, and nothing more, however dear, however important to themselves personally; opinions ingenious, admirable, pleasurable, beneficial, expedient, but not worthy the name of Knowledge or Science.  

Thus no one would insist on the Malthusian teaching being a sine quâ non in a seat of learning, who did not think it simply ignorance not to be a Malthusian; and no one would consent to drop the Newtonian theory, who thought it to have been proved true, in the same sense as the existence of the sun and moon is true.   If, then, in an Institution which professes all knowledge, nothing is professed, nothing is taught about the Supreme Being, it is fair to infer that every individual in the number of those who advocate that Institution, supposing him consistent, distinctly holds that nothing is known for certain about the Supreme Being; nothing such, as to have any claim to be regarded as a material addition to the stock of general knowledge existing in the world.  

If on the other hand it turns out that something considerable is known about the Supreme Being, whether from Reason or Revelation, then the Institution in question professes every science, and yet leaves out the foremost of them.  

In a word, strong as may appear the assertion, I do not see how I can avoid making it, and bear with me, Gentlemen, while I do so, viz., such an Institution cannot be what it professes, if there be a God.  

I do not wish to declaim; but, by the very force of the terms, it is very plain, that a Divine Being and a University so circumstanced cannot co-exist.     

In the next part, we will see Newman’s analysis of some objections, as well as his profession of the objective nature of theology and revelation as a body of knowledge.

Further Reading

John Henry Cardinal Newman – The Idea of a University

Bishop E.T. O’Dwyer – Cardinal Newman and the Encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis

E.D. Benard – A Preface to Newman’s Theology

Newman on “The Eternal See”

Did Cardinal Newman want to “rethink” the papacy?

Bishop Ullathorne’s vindication of Newman’s writings on Our Lady

Should converts set themselves up as teachers? Newman’s answer


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