Newman and secularism

Newman saw the beginning of post-Enlightenment times, when rationalist ideas were already working their way into society and the university; and it is remarkable how observant he was about contemporary trends and how accurate in his diagnosis of educational policies which distorted the true nature of education.

The historian Christopher Dawson comments that ‘Newman was the first Christian thinker in the English-speaking world who fully realised the nature of modern secularism and the enormous change which was already in the process of development, although a century had still to pass before it was to produce its full harvest of destruction.’ (‘Newman and the sword of the spirit’, 1945)

In order to address its shortcomings, Newman sought to get to the root of secularism and understand it, and to discern its manifestations. He identifies the chief dangers of the professorial system which neglects the pastoral or collegiate dimension of education – the system which predominates in the West today – when he asserts, ‘These may be called the three vital principles of the Christian student, faith, chastity, love; because their contraries, viz., unbelief or heresy, impurity, and enmity, are just the three great sins against God, ourselves, and our neighbour, which are the death of the soul.’ (Rise and progress of universities) It is easy to see the results in today’s students: religious infidelity and indifferentism, sexual licence of every kind, and an unpleasantly narcissistic individualism.

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