At a commemoration for cardinal Newman’s service to Irish university education, Bishop Leo O’Reilly announced a new all-Ireland initiative: Catholic Schools Week staring on 26 January 2009.
I welcome the opportunity to offer some reflections on the legacy of John Henry Newman as we mark the centenary of his departure from Ireland. He had come to Ireland at the invitation of Cardinal Cullen to found a Catholic University and he was rector of the Catholic University of Ireland from 1851 to 1858.
We have come to this beautiful church, Newman’s Church, to remember his service to Irish Education and to thank God for sending such a holy and gifted man to us. We remember his great contribution to educational thought contained in his Discourses On The Scope And Nature Of A University Education, which were delivered in 1852 to launch the university, and which we are familiar with under the title, The Idea of a University.
Cardinal Newman loved this church. He thought it “the most beautiful in the kingdom”. May I congratulate Father Pearse Walsh who has done so much to preserve and maintain it. From this pulpit Cardinal Newman preached his Dublin sermons and it is from here that he articulated some of the great Newman principles.
One such principle is the unity of faith and reason. He wanted the intellect to range with the utmost freedom and religion to enjoy an equal freedom. But he did not want an artificial division. Religion and intellect should be found in one and the same place and exemplified in the same persons. He wanted “the intellectual layman to be religious and the devout ecclesiastic to be intellectual”.
It was this principle of the unity of faith and reason that was the foundation of one of the major themes of the Discourses, namely that religious teaching should not be excluded from any university curriculum. In Cardinal Newman’s opinion a university curriculum should treat of all knowledge. We believe that the same principle applies all the more to education at primary level.
In recent times there have been calls for the teaching of religion to be removed from primary schools. This is totally at variance with a Catholic philosophy of education and indeed with Cardinal Newman’s understanding of education. It is the logical consequence of a secular worldview which would deny the claims of religion to objective truth. Hence it would reduce religion to a purely private pursuit and banish any expression of it from the public sphere. Cardinal Newman was utterly opposed to such artificial divisions between our intellectual and spiritual lives.
Religious instruction is an integral part of the curriculum of the Catholic school and permeates the whole life of the school. The pupil is the same person, whether in the classroom or in the church. As Catholics, we are believers when we study. We are rational when we pray.
However the Catholic Church supports change and choice so that no child has to attend a school where their family’s faith or conscience is compromised. We acknowledge parents’ rights to decide, in accordance with their own religious beliefs, the kind of religious education that their children are to receive. We will work with other patron bodies and the Government to respond to Ireland’s changing educational and religious needs. There is need for a variety of patron bodies and for greater choice. There is also a need for Catholic schools to be more conscious and confident of their identity and mission.
In a system which offers greater choice, patrons of Catholic schools will be obliged to provide greater support and opportunities for teachers, principals and boards of management to reflect more profoundly on the religious ethos of our schools. We must also assist Catholic parents, so that when it comes to choosing schools for their children, they will be able to make the choice for faith reasons as well for educational reasons.
Another of Cardinal Newman’s great themes – one which also found expression in the Discourses – was that cultivation of mind is the primary purpose of a university. The aim is to enable students to learn how to think rather than what to think. And almost any subject, literature, science, ethics or theology, can provide the content for such learning. The important thing for him was developing the ability to reason. I think he would be pleased to find that his wisdom in this regard, as well as in relation to the partnership between faith and reason, has not been forgotten.
The Bishops’ Conference pastoral letter on education: Vision 08: A Vision for Catholic Education in Ireland, which was launched on the 12 May last in St Patrick’s Primary School, Drumcondra, echoes Cardinal Newman’s thought when it says:
Catholic education has always placed a high value on reason, both intellectual and practical . . . [I]t regards education and the cultivation of intellectual life as precious in themselves. It sees the use of rational thought and scientific analysis as essential to the advancement of technology and human progress. Therefore, scientific and technological studies are a very important part of education. However, it rejects those diminished and mechanistic notions of rationality which attempt to limit the concept of truth to what can be scientifically established and the concept of progress to what can be technologically achieved. On the contrary, it believes a reasonable balance must be maintained between the humanities and technology in education. Faith and reason must be seen as vibrant partners in the human quest for understanding and ultimate fulfilment which is pursued in Catholic schools.
Our pastoral letter goes on to state that, while Catholic schools should seek educational excellence, they should resist the pressures of merely pragmatic, utilitarian approaches to education.
It is too easy to get sucked into the race for points and a high place in the league tables. “We believe”, the pastoral letter continues, “that an over-emphasis on competition, a too narrow preoccupation with examinations and specialising at too early an age on highly specific courses are inimical to true education.”
As we celebrate the great educational legacy of Cardinal Newman, I take the opportunity here today to announce a new all-Ireland initiative designed to build on his legacy. The initiative is called “Catholic Schools Week”. This event will be held in the week beginning the 26 January 2009 and will take place annually thereafter. We have taken the theme for this, the first Catholic Schools Week, directly from our pastoral letter. The theme is: “Catholic Schools – A Vision for Life“.
During this week we have planned that schools and parishes will have the opportunity to study the pastoral letter and reflect on it. There will be seminars on Catholic education in Dublin and Belfast to explore this significant theme in greater depth. Information on Catholic Schools Week will be made available in the weeks leading up to the event.
Cardinal Newman’s influence was enormous during his lifetime both as an Anglican and as a Catholic. His influence has grown since his death. Through his writings he speaks to us today with an extraordinary relevance and force. He addresses our hearts. He highlights the problems of an unbelieving age. So many of his contemporaries have receded into the distant past.
Why is he still so relevant? Surely because of his holiness. Whether it is St Francis of Assisi or St Therese of Lisieux or Padre Pio – holiness does not fade. Let us hope that the Church will soon be able to give recognition to Cardinal Newman’s sanctity.
We thank God today for sending such a man among us. All his efforts did not prosper in the short term but they are bearing fruit in the long term. May they continue to bear much fruit in the Church and in Irish society today.
Bishop Leo O’Reilly is Bishop of Kilmore and Chair of the Education Commission of the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference.
The Bishops’ pastoral letter on education Vision 08: A Vision for Catholic Education in Ireland is available in English, Irish and Polish on www.catholicbishops.ie
This month marks the 150th anniversary of the completion by John Henry Cardinal Newman in November 1858 of his seven years as Rector of the Catholic University of Ireland.
John Henry Newman was rector of the Catholic University of Ireland from November 1851 when the Bishops of Ireland invited him to become Rector until November 1858. John Henry Newman, the leader of the Oxford Movement in the Anglican Church was received into the Catholic Church in 1845. He was appointed Rector of the Catholic University of Ireland in 1851 by the Irish bishops and served in that role until 1858. While in Dublin he gave his famous lectures on university education, the first edition of which was published in Dublin in 1852.
The Catholic University was based in what is now Newman House on St Stephen’s Green. Also on the Green, Newman built University Church. The University’s Medical School was based in Cecilia Street in Temple Bar. Newman’s University was the forerunner of University College Dublin.
Cardinal Newman was declared Venerable on 22 January 1991.