The Relevance of Newman in Ireland today

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Pontifical Irish College – Embassy of Ireland to the Holy See




Speaking notes of  Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin Archbishop of Dublin

Pontifical Irish College, Rome, 11 October 2019


“Newman’s links with Dublin form an important part of his legacy. The canonization of Newman is an opportunity for me as Archbishop of Dublin and for the Catholic community in Dublin, to reflect not only on the presence and the work of Newman in Dublin in the nineteenth century, but also on the lessons which we must learn for Irish Catholicism and  Irish society today from Newman’s thought and activity.

Newman was invited to be Rector of the Catholic University of Ireland by my predecessor, Cardinal Paul Cullen. Cullen was – even from the time when he was Rector of the Irish College in Rome – an enthusiastic sponsor of the idea of a Catholic university in Ireland.  His model was that of the Catholic University of Louvain, a fully-fledged university with a profound Catholic ethos of seeking truth. Subsequently, when he returned to Ireland as Archbishop of Armagh and then Archbishop of Dublin, Cullen became the real leader of the project to establish a Catholic university in Ireland.

Cullen’s ambition to found an Irish Catholic University in Dublin reflected his views both on the place of the Church in society and on the importance of Catholicism in third level education.


The government proposal for higher education was to establish state universities called Queens Colleges that would be non-denominational but which the government hoped would be more attractive to Catholics than Trinity College Dublin, a University established to foster the Protestant tradition.


The Queens Colleges became known popularly as “godless colleges” and were condemned by Rome as unsuitable for Catholics.    At the National Synod of the Catholic Church held in Thurles in 1850, at which Cullen presided as Apostolic Delegate, the bishops resolved to establish a fully Catholic University.

Cullen appealed actively for support for the University from the United States and from the clergy and people of England.  The University, as he envisaged it, would be destined for the benefit not merely for the Catholics of Ireland, but also the Catholics of the English-speaking world.  Not all his brother bishops were as committed as Cullen was. Some of those who called themselves supporters were less active when it came down to getting the financial resources urgently needed for the project.

Newman hoped that the Catholic University would cultivate a more vibrant Catholic culture in the emerging place to which Catholics aspired in Irish society after Emancipation.


It was Cullen, above all, who sought the appointment of John Henry Newman as rector of the Catholic University.  Both Newman and Cullen were concerned about the lack of good education among both the laity and the clergy.  For both Cullen and Newman a Catholic University would help foster religious cultural presence against the prevailing nineteenth century European secularising currents to which, after his experience of republican uprising in Rome, Cullen was particularly sensitive.  Both Newman and Cullen recognised the importance that the development of intellectual life among Catholics had for the welfare of both individuals and the Catholic Church.


To invite Newman was quite a courageous decision by Cullen.  Newman was a controversial figure, especially among certain personalities of the Catholic establishment in England and in Rome who feared Newman’s theological openness.  Cullen would have known many of these personalities. Monsignor Talbot encapsulated that anxiety by calling Newman, because of his theological views, the “most dangerous man in Britain”.


It is interesting to see today that groupings linked with militant right wing theological thought have taken up those contemporary criticisms of Newman and utilize them in fostering a polarization within the Church today. In their blogs they show how unhappy they are that the Pope would canonise Newman.


Pope Francis only last week warned against those who are so attached to their own idea of orthodoxy in teaching.  They become tied up in their own views and do not allow the permanent newness of the Gospel message to challenge their hearts to constantly seek a deeper understanding of faith.


Newman in that sense is a model of a Catholic theologian in his ability to explore the development of doctrine and still be fully anchored in the teaching of tradition and in his loyalty to the Pope and to do this in the face of opposition.


Was Ireland ready for Newman’s university?  The predecessor of Cardinal Cullen as Archbishop of Dublin, Archbishop Daniel Murray, was one of the few Irish bishops who strongly opposed the Catholic University project because he considered it unfeasible. Murray was favourable towards the British Government’s project and felt that Catholics could attend the Queen’s colleges, without endangering their faith.


Murray considered the idea of an alternative Catholic University system in Ireland to be unfeasible.  What did he mean by that?     Certainly, there was a lack of a Catholic intelligentsia in Ireland needed to staff a University of such dimensions after a period in which Catholics had been excluded from higher education in the penal times.  There was an insufficient number of Catholic second level schools to provide students for the university.  Ireland was just emerging from the famine and people were more concerned about survival than providing funds for the higher education of a small few.  One must ask, if Ireland had a population large enough to embrace such a wide vision and could it realistically have expected a large student intake from abroad.   Without some form of government support, the University would never have the funds to develop.


Newman’s university therefore was not exactly a success. The number of university students was very small. Its degrees were not recognised. The British authorities were not prepared to approve degrees granted by private establishments. Newman wished the Trustees of the University to be above all lay people, while Cullen insisted that all the Trustees be clerics, something that made the British authorities even less enthusiastic.  It is interesting that, at that time, the Trustees of the National Seminary of Maynooth were principally lay people.


If we wanted to talk about the long term sustainability of a Catholic University in Ireland we would have to ask how the Catholic university would have survived later on, for example in the period of rigid Catholic orthodoxy in the Ireland of Archbishop Mc Quaid.  Could a Catholic University have survived as a place of openness and dialogue between faith and science if placed in a strait jacket of orthodoxy, control and fear?  Indeed one could ask how a Catholic University would have fared in the period of theological contestation that followed Vatican II.  We can look at the challenges faced today by the Louvain University, Newman’s model.

After the establishment of the university and Newman’s installation there, the Irish bishops remained divided.  At times, I feel that division may be the default position of the Irish bishops!    Archbishop Mac Hale continually put obstacles in Newman’s path.

The personal rapport between Newman and Cullen was difficult. Although Cullen was a strong supporter both of the university and of Newman, he was a complex figure and frequently left Newman waiting for answers to urgent questions. For his part, Newman was constantly absent from Dublin on Oratory business in Birmingham even at crucial moments for the university.

Cullen was a complex figure.  It is rarely noted that Cullen suffered from depression, something that might in part explain the lack of rapid responses to the requirements of Newman.  Cullen spent much time in Rome, especially during the winter months, at the suggestion of the Pope.

Cullen began taking decisions about the university without previously consulting the Rector and this was of major concern to Newman.  Cullen thought Newman was engaging too large a staff all of whom had to be paid from limited funds.  Cullen feared that Newman was too open to some aspects of Irish nationalism.


These details were however, signs of a growing rift in the very understanding of university between Newman and Cullen.  Newman realised that his university would only gain international standing if it had a wide ranging and competent staff.    Cullen failed to grasp the challenge of such a vision.


Cullen and Newman, each in his own way, personally dedicated enormous time, effort and energy to the Catholic University.  The University, however, proved to be a contentious, expensive and controversial project ultimately doomed to failure.

Newman’s “Idea of a University”, stressed the value of a liberal education and of a liberal education for Catholics.  In the Catholic university Gazette of 9 February 1855, Newman quotes from an earlier speech:

“One of the greatest disasters of modern times is the separation between religion and science and the perfection of knowledge is a combination of both …which makes men not only educated but good Christians.”

Newman wished for a well-instructed Catholic laity:

‘I want a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold and what they do not, who know their creed so well that they can give an account of it, who know so much of history that they can defend it’ (The Present Position of Catholics in England, ix, 390).


The question arises, and it is one of the most important challenges the Irish Catholic Church faces today, namely are we fostering such an educated Catholic laity to face the challenges of living their faith in the complex pluralist Irish society of today.


One of the negative results that flowed from the failure of the Catholic University is that the teaching of theology became restricted to the training of priests in a number of independent seminaries.  Laity were excluded and seminarians were educated, in general, outside the context of the interdisciplinary dialogue, which is the essence of a university.  Even where seminarians attended universities, as was the case between Clonliffe and UCD at least for philosophy, the seminarians remained isolated from the mainstream university culture.


A university is by definition a place of universal learning. Newman’s University was not to be a theological college or a glorified seminary.  His was to be true university with schools of arts and sciences, as well as medicine, engineering, classics, theology and philosophy. For Newman a university environment was one in which intellectual training, moral discipline and religious commitment would come together.  The lesson that comes from Newman is that there is sense in which this development of mature faith takes place optimally within a university.   Newman wanted to show his contemporaries that faith and reason do not conflict, but also that “reason could not be the sole arbiter of all truth”.


The development of university education in Ireland has lost this dream of Newman.  The main Universities proclaim themselves to be by definition exclusively secular and thus they shun any real place for religion in their culture.  On the other hand, adult faith formation suffers because it is deprived the interdisciplinary nature of a university.


Irish culture is becoming impoverished by a false dichotomy between religion and society and both sides of the debate are at fault.  We need a new relationship.  I liked the comment of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in his address to Pope Francis during his visit to Dublin, when he spoke of a relationship “between religion and State in a changing Ireland in which religion is no longer at the centre of our State, but continues to have a real and meaningful role on our society”


Today, there is a need for the transformation of dimensions of Irish culture for the sake of mature pluralism.  Exponents of Catholic culture have difficulty in recognising that Catholic culture in Ireland does not have the prominence that it had in the past.  However, it must not retreat from public space but must live as salt of the earth in a new way.


There are signs of the emergency of a new relationship.  As I look back on my time as Archbishop as it comes towards an end, I feel happy that one of my insights which will open up dialogue between faith and science, at least in a symbolic way, is linked with Newman. It is the idea of developing a centre for faith and dialogue at Newman’s own University Church in Saint Stephen’s Green in Dublin.  The rather eclectic Church owes it origins and its design to Newman himself.  It was not to be just the place where students could attend Mass, but it was to be the focal point of the dialogue between the faith of staff and students and the sciences taught in the university.


I am happy that the University Of Notre Dame has espoused my vision of making the Church today a place of dialogue but adding also another dimension by sending a distinguished Church musician to help develop it as a place of worship adapted to the search for faith in our contemporary world. The project is only at a beginning.  It is important that in Newman’s tradition of rigorous independent theological thought be retained and that the project does not become the exclusive home to any single grouping of Irish religious subculture.


Another welcome development is the working agreement at Dublin City University in which in the Institute of Education, the largest in Ireland, includes special centres for the preparation of future teachers in the Catholic and Church of Ireland traditions. This arrangement reflects the new pluralism in Irish education in which future teachers of schools of both religious and secular ethos train together within the framework of a university.

While a traditionally Catholic country, Ireland does not have a proportionate level of theological research. Among the laity, however, there is a thirst for faith formation. Institutes like the Priory Institute of the Dominicans provide a range of distance learning programmes and these are being repeated elsewhere in Ireland.  Sadly, the Jesuit Milltown Institute which attracted substantial numbers of lay men and women wishing to study theology had to close.

Recently the Irish Bishops held a special meeting to look at the future of faith education and education for future ministry. They have come up with an initial framework for a renewed vision of where this education should take place and of the role that Saint Patrick’s College Maynooth can play.

Maynooth has the potential to play a new role in forming a future Irish religious culture.   As it stands, however, it does not fulfil the basic acquirement of Church law to be a Catholic University as it effectively at the moment has only one fully active faculty. A university is by definition a place of universal learning.  The bishops however envisage a renewed and strong place for Maynooth in Irish Church life.


Pope Benedict noted in his homily at the beatification of John Henry Cardinal Newman noted his special talent:

“The definite service to which Blessed John Henry was called involved applying his keen intellect and his prolific pen to many of the most pressing ‘subjects of the day’. His insights into the relationship between faith and reason, into the vital place of revealed religion in civilized society, and into the need for a broadly-based and wide-ranging approach to education continue today to inspire and enlighten many all over the world”.

Newman’s vision for education continues to inspire.  The Church in Ireland has not yet understood the full extent of the cultural change taking place and often continues to act as if we were still simply living in a culture with a Catholic majority. On the other hand, there are those who feel that a pluralist Ireland must necessarily be a secularist Ireland.

As Ireland becomes secularised, a culture still steeped in formal religious values could inevitably degenerate into a form of civil religion, where there will always be a difficulty in developing a true debate on the relationship between faith and reason. If the Church becomes just a place where people gather to celebrate human experiences without a deep reference to God, then this civil religion ends up by being empty and does not respond to the search for God who is missing in the lives of many.

Faith is more than an intellectual assent to doctrinal propositions or submission to moral rules. Faith always contains an element of search and therefore of risk and the certainty of faith does not remove that element of risk.

Recently, a leader of one of the Protestant Churches in Dublin said to me that all our Churches were now wearing clothes that had been tailored for us when we were fatter. The answer to today’s religious challenges is not to seek more fashionable clothes to make us look better, but to have clothes that fit our measure and purpose.

The challenge is to foster an Irish Catholicism capable of living and witnessing to the importance of faith in life, even in a world not always favourable to the concept of faith.   The Irish Church has not been overly successful in our time in producing men and women “with keen intellect and his prolific pen” addressing “the most pressing ‘subjects of the day’”.  Irish Catholicism has rested on the margins of many of the dimensions of Irish culture.

It is necessary to revert to Newman’s ideas and to create in young people a new sense of Catholic faith.  Newman hoped that his university would generate Catholics not only with a passion for science, but also with a passion for truth — those “educated people, but also good Christians”. He dreamed of a generation of Irish Catholics who could take their place in public without being ashamed of their belief in the value of the contribution of their own faith to society. Ireland today — and not just Ireland — needs people so inspired by Newman’s vision on the relationship between faith and reason.

My reflections make me think of many “what ifs” in history.  What if the vision of Archbishop Daniel Murray was accepted and Irish young men and women attended State structures in education, not in Catholic enclaves?   Would Irish Catholicism be better equipped today to live in a pluralist more secular society? I find it interesting that many of the best seminarians no longer come from traditional all Catholic schools but from schools where the young man has already tested and strengthened his faith in a pluralist environment.

Another “what if” is the question of whether or not a Catholic university could have survived into today’s Ireland?   There are many Catholic universities around the world, which remain truly Catholic, and truly universities.  For me the one factor, which would have guaranteed the survival of Newman’s university, and the one factor, which will be key to faith formation in a secularised future, is “the Newman factor”, our ability to search honestly, with integrity and with rigour where our faith is truly rooted.

That factor is the human holiness, which will be recognised formally by the Church in these days.  ENDS