St. Newman’s Idea of a Catholic University: An Alma Mater, not a foundry, mint, or treadmill

As we celebrate the canonization of John Henry Newman this week and re-read his publications on this subject, the gulf between his vision of Catholic education and what we currently have is stark.

(Image: j zamora |

Editor’s note: The following paper was delivered at The Angelicum, Rome, on October 12, 2019 to celebrate the canonization of John Henry Newman.

John Henry Newman famously described a Catholic University as ‘an Alma Mater, knowing her children one by one, not a foundry, or a mint, or a treadmill’. What he imagined was something like an Oxbridge College where a diligent Master knows the students by name, knows that a certain student has great leadership qualities, that another is very musical, yet another a prized rugby player, and so on. He did not see the purpose of a Catholic University being the provision of skilled professionals to satisfy the demands of the employment market, although this may be a happy secondary effect.

Newman was very much a creature of Oxford, described by Evelyn Waugh in one of the opening passages of Brideshead Revisited as a city of aquatint renowned for her autumnal mists, her gray spring-time and the rare glory of her summer days when the chestnut was in flower and the bells rang out high and clear over her gables and cupolas, exhaling the soft airs of centuries of youth’. When Newman wrote about a Catholic University what he imagined was a kind of Catholic Oxford.

In his preface to the Idea of a University Newman wrote that the object of a Catholic University should be to make its students gentlemen, not simply to ‘protect the interests and advance the dominion of Science’.1 A few paragraphs earlier he remarked:

Just as a commander wishes to have tall and well-formed and vigorous soldiers, not from any abstract devotion to the military standard of height or age, but for the purposes of war, and no one thinks it anything but natural and praise-worthy in him to be contemplating, not abstract qualities, but his own living and breathing men; so, in like manner, when the Church founds a University, she is not cherishing talent, genius or knowledge, for their own sake, but for the sake of her children, with a view to their spiritual welfare and their religious influence and usefulness, with the object of training them to fill their respective posts in life better, and of making them more intelligent, capable, active members of society.2

In his Discourse 7, titled ‘Knowledge viewed in relation to professional skill’ Newman went on to talk about the culture of the intellect and he recommended that instead of the intellect being formed or sacrificed to some particular trade or profession, it should be disciplined for its own sake, and he described such an intellectual formation as a liberal education.

A liberal education, which trains the intellect to operate well, is one of the hallmarks of a gentleman, and Newman declared that to train students according to the standards of a liberal education is precisely the business of a university. He also draw a distinction between Academies and Universities. He saw the Academies, for example, the Royal Academy for the Fine Arts, as places of research dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, while the university’s work was primarily to provide a liberal education for its students.

Many of these themes were highlighted in an article by Heinrich Bohlen in the journal Hochland published in 1952. Hochland was one of the most important journals of German Catholic culture in the first half of the twentieth century. Bohlen wrote that the name of Cardinal Newman will ‘remain forever linked to the questions of the educational ideal of a university’. This is because ‘Newman not only foresaw the crisis of modernism in theology, but [he also foresaw] the crisis of the university’, that is, the crisis about the university’s meaning and purpose. Bohlen stated that apart from Plato’s works, ‘nothing contributes more light on these [crises] than Newman’s reflections on the idea of a university’ and he described Newman as nothing less than the ‘greatest advocate for a formal liberal education on English soil’. Bohlen noted that a liberal education does not necessarily create a Christian, but it does often create a gentleman. With Newman, Bohlen asserted that ‘the nature and idea of ​​a university stands and falls with its task of producing gentlemen, that educational fruit of Plato, which for more than two thousand years has been the embodiment of Western humanism and the essence of the academic’.

Those words were written in 1952 some 16 years before 1968, after which time it is no longer self-evident that the university is the natural habitat of gentlemen or of western humanism or that being a gentleman is in any way the hallmark of the social type we now call an academic.

We will return to this problem, but for now it is important to note that for Newman the production of gentlemen was just the base-line achievement. What Newman wanted was not mere generic brand gentlemen such as was once produced by the great English public schools and the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge, typically infused with different strains of Anglicanism, some high Church, some evangelical, but more specifically Newman wanted a Catholic gentleman. As Bohlen wrote in German: Newmans Bildungsideal ist das des katholischen Gentleman”. (p.177).

There is no exact English equivalent of the German word Bildung but self-formation would come closest. The Germans, especially those influenced by the Romantic movement and its concept of the schöne Seele, or beautiful soul, have long associated education with the formation of the human soul, not with learning skills or absorbing pieces of information. It has been said that the Romantic movement of the nineteenth century to which Newman clearly belonged could be construed as a half-way house between nihilism on the one side and Catholicism on the other. Newman took the Catholic path and in the context of pedagogical questions he stood for the promotion of the Catholic gentleman as the Bildungsideal.

This conclusion begs the question, what is a Catholic gentleman? First, let us look at what Newman says about a common garden variety gentleman. In The Idea of a University he offers a rather long description that runs for several paragraphs. It includes the following highlights:

A gentleman…has his eyes on all his company; he is tender towards the bashful, gentle towards the distant, and merciful towards the absurd; he can recollect to whom he is speaking; he guards against unseasonable allusions, or topics which may irritate; he is seldom prominent in conversation, and never wearisome. He makes light of favors while he does them, and seems to be receiving when he is conferring…He never speaks of himself except when compelled, he has no ears for slander or gossip. From a long-sighted prudence, he observes the maxim that we should ever conduct ourselves towards our enemy as if he were one day to be our friend…He knows the weakness of human reason as well as its strength, its province and its limits.

That’s an abbreviated version of Newman’s portrait of the generic, no-brand gentleman. The Catholic gentleman however has extra qualities. He is not merely someone with a liberal education who has taken a few seminars on Catholic theology. He is not just someone who has read Ratzinger as well as Plato and Shakespeare, Dante as well as Goethe and Wordsworth. He is rather someone to whom, in addition to knowledge of great Catholic literature and music, philosophy and theology, has been added some “religious ore” or grace in other words – someone whose soul has been nourished by the sacraments. And when the word soul is used, for Newman this does not mean simply the will and the intellect, but also the imagination, the memory and the capacity of intuition, and above all the heart, the place of the integration of the entire human personality. A Catholic gentleman exists in a sacramental cosmos and he has a sacramental imagination. He is therefore at home with paradoxes, mysteries and analogies. He can think both deductively and synthetically. If someone were to suggest to him that they should spend their afternoon hunting orcs, he might respond with a line like: “will you be carrying the ring or are you giving that job to me?” But he wouldn’t look baffled by the proposition. The Catholic gentleman is at home with symbols and metaphors and playful banter. Like St. Philip Neri the Catholic gentleman understands the importance of music and picnics for the work of evangelisation.

So, where does all this leave us today?

First I would argue that most of our universities are what Newman would call factories, mints, and treadmills, that is, places where thousands of students, known to the university only by their student numbers, pass exams to qualify for employment in a particular field. Some small number of institutions do however retain an interest in the liberal arts and these cater mostly for students from upper middle class families where there is less concern about being trained for a particular job. However for many of these elite institutions the liberal arts are no longer linked to the transcendentals of truth, beauty and goodness, all of which are regarded as ‘bourgeois nonsense’. Instead in so many of these institutions the liberal arts have morphed into social theory subjects like gender studies and the objective is no longer to produce gentlemen but to form social activists, people who act like trained assassins against the last vestiges of Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian civilisation.

This leaves us with only a very small number of academic institutions anywhere in the world where something like Newman’s vision has any possibility of success. Most of these institutions operate at the level of liberal arts colleges that are specifically Catholic and have been established by visionary lay people who wanted their children and grandchildren to receive the kind of formation Newman set out in his Idea of a University. Some extremely small number of such institutions can be found at the higher university level. Excluded are numerous institutions with the adjective Catholic in their title where no attempt is made to offer a specifically Christian formation of every aspect of the soul, or a specifically Christian integration of the various disciplines, but where there are merely buildings named after local Catholic worthies, a chapel, a chaplain who is a priest if you are lucky, and lots of opportunities to improve the welfare of minority groups. The accountants who normally run such institutions might be members of the Catholic Church but the institutions themselves, their ethos, the content of their curricula, their marketing strategies, the beliefs of their faculty members, administrators, janitors and librarians and the bureaucratic idioms found in their policies are not only not Christian but in many cases simply the outcome of corporate ideology. Newman would not recognise these institutions as in any sense consistent with his own vision.

As we celebrate the canonization of John Henry Newman this week and re-read his publications on this subject, the gulf between his vision of Catholic education and what we currently have is stark.

Positively however, the canonization of Newman is an opportunity to present some constructive ideas on how to bridge the gulf between his vision and our reality. Obviously, the first thing we need to do is to take on board Newman’s ideas but expand them to include the liberal education of women, the other half of the human species, who also have memories, intellects, wills, imaginations and hearts, all in need of grace and development. Many of the principles are exactly the same except that a certain amount of time would need to be spent distinguishing between the hallmarks of a well-educated Catholic lady and the hallmarks of a feminist, or to put the idea differently, given the strength of feminist ideology in western culture today, we would have to include in the curriculum of any young Catholic lady, some seminars on the history of feminism, explaining the differences between first, second, third and fourth wave feminism, structuralist and post-structuralist feminism and between essentialist and constructivist feminism. The ideas contained in these intellectual cocktails would then need to be evaluated against a specifically Catholic theological anthropology such as one finds in the works of Karol Wojtyła and Edith Stein and contemporary scholars like Michele Schumacher and Margaret McCarthy who have built on the foundations of Wojtyła and Stein. In some areas convergences of principle will be found, in other areas, major anthropological differences would be highlighted.

Having attended to this issue, it would become clear that elements of feminist theory and its spin-offs, queer theory and gender theory, are but logical developments of moves made on the intellectual chess-board of the European intelligentsia in earlier centuries. Therefore in order to understand modern intellectual life our would-be Catholic gentlemen, as well as the would-be Catholic ladies, would need to have included in their curriculum an intellectual history of the collapse of the Christian synthesis of Jewish revelation and Greek philosophy from the fourteenth century down to the present. An understanding of the intellectual genealogies of the cultures of modernity and post-modernity would help young Catholics to understand the chaotic dictatorship of relativism into which they have been born. Subjects could easily be put together by drawing on the scholarship of people such as Christopher Dawson, Alasdair MacIntyre, Louis Dupre, and Remi Brague, in addition to some of Joseph Ratzinger’s essays that track the nihilist virus as it works its way through the system of the European intelligentsia, especially the German intelligentsia which has been the breeding ground of so much ideological thinking.

The German intelligentsia is especially important for understanding the contemporary attacks on the notion of truth. Newman’s idea of a university would be anathema to those immersed in the Frankfurt’s School’s critical theory which links truth to issues of class identity. In other words, one conclusion of German intellectuals in the 20th century was that there is no truth as Newman understood it. There is merely what the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci called “the bourgeois mystification of knowledge” and various Marxist and Post-Modern alternatives which take the form of deconstructing and destabilizing elements of the Judaic, Greek and Christian patrimony. Moreover, Newman’s idea that character and intelligence are linked, that education is about the development of the whole soul under the direction of grace, would not go down well with many contemporary social theorists who are not merely non-Christian but non-theistic.

As a consequence, yet another element in the curriculum of a contemporary Catholic university seeking to realize Newman’s pedagogical ideal would need to be a subject examining the theological presuppositions of social theories since social theories are never theologically neutral. John Milbank’s seminal work “Beyond Secular Reason” would be a helpful introduction to such a subject.

While these subjects would take the form of tracking the various assaults on Christian anthropology, moral theology and soteriology, and above all on the symbiotic relationships between faith and reason, nature and grace, history and ontology; another suite of subjects would need to be offered on the great works of the Patristic Church Doctors and the reception of the cultural capital of the Patristic era by the medieval authors, above all by St. Thomas Aquinas, his mentor St Albert the Great and his friend St. Bonaventure. In this way students would have an understanding of the Catholic intellectual tradition along with an understanding of its collapse into contemporary idealism, empiricism and post-modern neo-nominalism.

Finally, in this context of curriculum content, there would need to be a suite of subjects on the works of modern Catholic “Greats”, to use the Oxford parlance. This would include writers like Tolkien, philosophers like Maurice Blondel, Robert Spaemann and Alasdair MacIntyre, and theologians like de Lubac, Balthasar, Guardini, Przywara, Ratzinger and Newman. Not only did Newman make significant contributions to the field of theological anthropology with his attention to the love and reason relationship and the work of the human imagination, and to the field of moral theology with his treatment of conscience and to the field of ecclesiology with his ideas on the proper exercise of the Petrine Office, and to the field of fundamental theology with his famous Essay on the Development of Doctrine, but he can also be read as a powerful intellectual antidote to the world-view of Friedrich Nietzsche. As Gottlieb Söhngen, who was a young Joseph Ratzinger’s doctoral supervisor, noted:

Newman understood the problem of an ethical atheism. He understood that contemporary atheism had become a dogma, that is, a lived reality of which one is convinced and for which one is willing to die.

Newman understood that one cannot defeat this kind of atheism with mere logic, only with a counter-narrative, a counter-theological anthropology, a counter-Christian humanism that is more intoxicating than anything else on offer in the intellectual salons.

Having broadly highlighted some necessary elements in the curriculum of a Catholic University seeking to pursue Newmans Bildungsideal, another macro level issue is that of how do we bring together the formation of the whole person, especially of the heart and the imagination, the memory and the will, with the formation of the intellect, in an institutional context? Or, to put the question the other way around, what kind of institutional structure best facilitates the Catholic Bildungsideal?

One effective structure is that of the Catholic residential college under the governance of a religious Order. Here there are opportunities to join with others in playing sport and musical instruments, there is the fun of attending formal dinners together, the fun of dressing up in academic regalia, there are opportunities for spiritual formation through one on one mentoring and there is the possibility of being exposed to a couple of hundred other young Catholics who each have their own unique talents and gifts to share with others. A residential university college, limited to a couple of hundred students, can thereby be an ‘alma mater’ as Newman understood it.

Another structure that has worked well is that of having a Catholic Studies major offered within a non-Catholic university, such as the Catholic Studies program offered at the University of Chicago.

The residential Catholic Liberal Arts College can combine the goods of both of these structures. There are quite a few examples of such institutions in the Anglophone world. For example, there is Christendom College in Virginia, Benedictine College in Kansas and Campion College in Sydney to name but a sample. There are also small private Catholic universities such as the University of Notre Dame in Australia, Franciscan University in Steubenville and St. Mary’s University in Twickenham in the United Kingdom where the student numbers are small enough for the students to receive individual attention and a more well-rounded personal formation.

However, what it sometimes absent in these institutions is an immersion in the world of anti-Catholic ideas. Some students, the very brightest, will benefit from the intellectual equivalent of SAS style commando training behind enemy lines in classes conducted by people who no longer believe in truth. In other words, listening to the ideas of those who are hostile to the Catholic tradition or indeed to the notion of truth itself, is a good way to gain a deeper understanding of the thought-patterns of these social types.

In this context one is reminded of the distinction that Leo Strauss drew between what he called the gentleman and the philosophers. In Straussian parlance the gentlemen are those who receive a liberal education rendering them sufficiently versatile to occupy all kinds of positions in public life, while the philosophers are those who are the pure academic types. What I have called commando training is only for the philosophers. It is far too dangerous and violent and potentially career-destroying for those not built for a life of unremitting intellectual combat. I think that Newman would appreciate this Straussian distinction and would be in favor of Catholic institutions training the ladies and gentleman, while, at the same time, seeing the value in sending the intensely intellectual-destined-to-be-professional academics types, into the fray at the elite non-Catholic institutions, but with the proviso that they were supported by a network of soundly Catholic mentors, including at least one Dominican or Oratorian!

Nonetheless, since in any given generation there will only be a handful of philosophers in the Straussian sense, the accent should be upon the liberal education of young Catholic men and women in such a way that each faculty of their soul – their memories, their intellects, their wills, their imaginations and above all their hearts – are developed so that they are able to operate with equally high levels of competence across a range of social positions.

If the concepts of a lady and a gentleman sound too antiquated to contemporary ears another way to describe Newman’s Bildungsideal would be by using Hans Urs von Balthasar’s concept of ‘an integrated personality’. As Balthasar’s colleague, Jean Danielou, expressed the idea: ‘the real measure of history is not to be sought in the level of technical attainment, but in the more or less effective production of personalities, which represent the highest things we know in the mundane realm’.

Transposing Newman’s Victorian references to gentlemen into the more contemporary parlance of Balthasar and Danielou, we can say that Newman thought that the purpose of a Catholic university is to foster the education of integrated personalities. The hallmark of a graduate from a Catholic Oxford would be an integrated personality, a personality that is driven by a fully Catholic heart, intellect, memory, will and imagination, all nourished by sacramental graces, all seeking to participate in that which is true, beautiful and good. Some would do this in a feminine way and others in a masculine way.

In the final analysis a genuinely Catholic University following Newman’s Bildungsideal would be an alma mater, not a foundry, mint or treadmill, or what we today call a sausage factory, because it would dare to form the human soul with reference to all that true, beautiful and good.


1Idea of a University, XLI.

2Idea of a University, XXXIX.

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About Tracey Rowland 19 Articles
Tracey Rowland holds the St. John Paul II Chair of Theology at the University of Notre Dame (Australia) and is a past Member of the International Theological Commission and a current member of the Pontifical Academy of the Social Sciences. She earned her doctorate in philosophy from Cambridge University and her Licentiate and Doctorate in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome. She is the author of several books, including Ratzinger’s Faith: The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI (2008), Benedict XVI: A Guide for the Perplexed (2010), Catholic Theology (2017), The Culture of the Incarnation: Essays in Catholic Theology (2017), Portraits of Spiritual Nobility (Angelico Press, 2019), Beyond Kant and Nietzsche: The Munich Defence of Christian Humanism (T&T Clark, 2021), and Unconformed to the Age: Essays in Ecclesiology (Emmaus Academic, 2024).


  1. Higher education will die, maybe even completely, as the industrial state advances in collapse. It would be better for Catholics to adapt accordingly.

  2. “However, what it sometimes absent in these institutions is an immersion in the world of anti-Catholic ideas. Some students, the very brightest, will benefit from the intellectual equivalent of SAS style commando training behind enemy lines in classes conducted by people who no longer believe in truth…”

    Thank you Dr. Rowland. Some kids need sheparding and some need to understand for themselves why sheparding is important for the flock as a whole. It’s a fine line but we need the Border Collies of the future.

  3. Fascinating article that provides insight into needed changes in our universities. I would be interested in Dr Rowland’s input concerning the changes needed in our Catholic and in our public education systems so we adequately prepare young Catholics for the University education described in her article. In particular, how do we adequately form / catechize young Catholics, who do not have the opportunity to attend Catholic schools. And, how do we combat the secularism and moral relativity so present in our American public education system?

  4. I especially appreciate the need for “SAS training” in anti-Catholic thought. If possible, this should be heard from guest speakers with these views in order to encourage real dialogue.

    BTW – SWC (Seat of Wisdom College) in Canada is also an example of the small, residential college of which the author speaks.

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