Newman’s message of tolerance needed more than ever

From The Irish News, October 15 2019

As I type these words, 1,500 miles away in Rome a Catholic convert is being elevated to the sainthood. John Henry Newman is the first Englishman of modern times to be canonised.

If ever a nation needed a saint, it is England – a country collapsing in on itself and dragging the rest of us with it.

Cardinal Newman’s worldview was very much the antithesis of contemporary Britain. He believed in a world dedicated to improving people’s lives, in an England that looked outward, and through a faith that was truly universal.

The Prince of Wales, writing in The Times at the weekend, said of Newman: “He could advocate without accusation, could disagree without disrespect and perhaps most of all could see differences as places of encounter rather than exclusion.”

That final phrase – seeing “differences as places of encounter” – is worth holding on to. In an increasingly polarised world this is becoming more and more difficult.

Polarisation puts America first, ahead of innocent children on the Turkish-Syrian border; it puts England first, ahead of a family of nations that has secured peace and stability for more than half a century; and it puts Ulster first, ahead of a society built on respect and tolerance.

One of the disappointing aspects of the events leading up to the canonisation was the reluctance of University College Dublin to send an official representative to the ceremony on the basis that it was now a secular institution. It eventually relented.

UCD would not have existed were it not for Newman. Even with the u-turn it has disgraced itself. But there are more in higher education than the leaders of UCD who owe a debt of gratitude to Newman.

Newman’s philosophy about universities and their role in society, enunciated when he was the first rector of the Catholic University of Ireland, provides the foundation for the sector in Ireland and Britain today.

UCD’s ‘secular’ defence is more than ironic. In his ‘The Idea of a University’, Newman writes that a university’s primary purpose is to be “a place of teaching universal knowledge”, not (even for a Catholic university) religious instruction.

“Its object is… intellectual not moral,” he writes.

Furthermore, he insists there should be no exclusion zones in universities. “The very name of University is inconsistent with restrictions of any kind.” Student Unions who insist on banning people because they hold uncomfortable opinions, or indeed institutions that uphold such bans, should reflect on that. Today, more than ever, we need to explore those interfaces between what is acceptable and unacceptable – whether that be on issues of politics, gender and sexuality, or race.

Underpinning Newman’s belief in the importance of education as a force for good is the idea of education as a human right, rather than something to be bought and sold.

We are losing sight of that too. We live now in a world where higher education is increasingly commoditised; where students enter the world of work burdened by debt, and where access to education can often depend on the fatness of a parent’s wallet.

There are those who argue, with some justification, that students should be expected to make a contribution for the benefits they receive. But that ignores the fact we all benefit from living in a society that is educated, innovative and enterprising.

Universities produce our doctors and nurses, our social workers, our educators, our engineers and scientists, our community workers, our writers and poets.

They are more productive, and a greater force for good, than the billions wasted on a so-called independent nuclear deterrent designed to deal with a scenario in which none of us will survive.

Many today approach faith on a ‘take it or leave it’ basis. In a world of sinners, saints are often approached with caution. But if you are tempted to pray, Newman – patron saint of liberal values – is worth spending some time with.