Religious instruction at Newman’s university

In Michaelmas Term 1855, students of Newman’s Catholic University were required to attend catechetical instructions four evenings a week given by the University Catechist in Creed and Scripture, as well as a course of lectures on the Roman Catechism on Sundays, before High Mass.

Newman ensured that no student could go through the academic course without any direct teaching of a religious character; furthermore, religious knowledge would form part of the subject matter for the exams for degrees.

Rather than sharpen and refine the young intellects (in secular subjects) and then simply leave them to exercise their new powers on the most sacred of subjects, at the risk of making mistakes, the University – Newman felt – was under an obligation to feed these minds with divine truth as they gained in appetite and capacity for knowledge. What it should teach would vary with the age of the students, for ‘as the mind is enlarged and cultivated generally, it is capable, or rather is desirous and has need, of fuller religious information’.

The subject of religion should be treated simply as a branch of knowledge: just as students studied general history, literature and philosophy, so they ought to have ‘a parallel knowledge of religion’ and study sacred history, Biblical literature and Christian philosophy.

As regards sacred history, Newman reckoned the student should have some idea of the early spread of Christianity; the Fathers and their works; the Christological controversies and heresies; the religious orders; the Crusades. ‘He should be able to say what the Holy See has done for learning and science; the place which these islands hold in the literary history of the dark age; what part the Church had, and how its highest interests fared, in the revival of letters’.

As regards Biblical literature, students should be ‘invited to acquaint themselves with some general facts about the canon of Holy Scripture, its history, the Jewish canon, St Jerome, the Protestant Bible; again, about the languages of Scripture, the contents of its separate books, their authors, and their versions’.

As regards Christian philosophy and theology, Newman wanted to confine coverage to a broad knowledge of doctrinal subjects as contained in catechisms of the Church and in the writings of the lay faithful. ‘I would have them apply their minds to such religious topics as laymen actually do treat, and are thought praiseworthy in treating.’ By ‘Christian knowledge in what may be called its secular aspect, as it is practically useful in the intercourse of life and in general conversation’, Newman meant the four ‘notes’ (One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic) of the Church and the ‘evidences’ of Christianity. (Newman to the dean of the arts faculty, June 1856)

‘Half the controversies which go on in the world arise from ignorance of the facts of the case; half the prejudices against Catholicity [or, indeed, Christianity] lie in the misinformation of the prejudiced parties. Candid persons are set right, and enemies silenced, by the mere statement of what it is that we believe.’ What was not satisfactory was for a Christian to say, I leave it to the theologians, or, I will ask a priest. Instead a Christian ought to gratify the curiosity of even those who speak against Christianity by giving them information, because it was generally the case that ‘such mere information will really be an argument also’.

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