US Conference: 'Newman's Idea of a University'

US Conference: 'Newman's Idea of a University'

Msgr Michael J. Wrenn

Monsignor Michael J. Wrenn is Dean of the Institute of Religious Studies of St Joseph's Seminary, Dunwoodie, New York, a Master's Degree program which, under the direction of Cardinal Terence Cooke, he founded in 1977. His report on a recent Newman Conference also draws attention to the important role of the late Msgr James McMahon in promoting Catholic higher education in the United States.

On 11 November 2001, the Cardinal Newman Society sponsored a well-attended Conference at the Catholic University of America in Washington DC on "Newman's Idea of a University: The American Response." Speakers discussed Newman's thoughts on the place of theology in the university, academic freedom and individual conscience, and the university's objective to engage culture and build a distinct campus culture.

World-renowned Newman scholar, Fr Ian Ker of Oxford University, was one of a distinguished array of speakers as was one of the latest additions to the College of Cardinals, His Eminence, Cardinal Avery Dulles, whose banquet address indicated that the time has come for the renewal of Catholic universities.

His Eminence stated forthrightly: "In the United States, Catholic universities have been very apologetic, almost embarrassed by their objective to adhere to the faith of the Church ... The time has come for them to regain their confidence and proudly proclaim the faith that animates them. Shifting the burden of proof to the secular institutions, they should challenge the other universities to defend themselves and to show how it is impossible to find and transmit the fullness of truth if they neglect or marginalise the Word of God."

In his address on the Venerable Cardinal John Henry Newman, whose book, The Idea of a University, helped define Catholic higher education, Dulles asserted that Newman would have "enthusiastically embraced" the efforts of Pope John Paul II to restore closer unity between Catholic colleges and universities and the Church. Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the 1990 Vatican Constitution that governs the relationship between Catholic colleges and universities and the bishops, "sets forth the same general principles" that Newman embraced more than a century ago.

As I sat in Hannan Hall on the campus of Catholic University, listening to the excellent papers that were being presented, I began to feel uneasiness, not regarding the symposium, but rather its venue. You see, on 1 July of this year I finished fourteen years as pastor of St John the Evangelist Parish in Manhattan. Founded on what is the original site of the Cathedral of St Patrick on Fifth Avenue in 1841, and having undergone five site changes in the course of its 160 years of existence, the third pastor of St John's from 1850 to 1880 was Monsignor James McMahon, who upon retirement in 1880, would endow the fledgling Catholic University of America with $400,000. Right across the quadrangle, still standing today, is McMahon Hall, named in his honour.

Academic freedom

So here I am attending a meeting on the renewal of Catholic universities exactly 100 years after his death, being ten times removed from his tenure as pastor.

Who was Monsignor McMahon?

The Irish-born James J. McMahon saw the light of day in 1814. His mother's brother would one day become President of St Patrick's College, Maynooth, near Dublin.

Six years after his ordination, he published an edition of the New Testament which, while based on Challoner's English Version, had been improved by emendations deriving from his years of special study. Additionally, he was a master, not only of the organ but of organ design, and he would use $15,000 of his own money to purchase an organ for St John's, designed and installed by himself.

McMahon would die in April 1901 in his quarters at Catholic University. The eulogy over McMahon described him in this way: "The familiar presence of the aged priest, his gentle manner, his edifying piety, and his scholarly habits were no less an asset of the University than the princely gift immobilised in enduring granite."

Even earlier, Pope Leo XIII, in his acclaimed encyclical Longinqua Oceani Spatia (6 January 1895), referred to McMahon: "Nor is it long since we were appraised that thanks to the liberality of a pious priest, a new building has been constructed in which young men, clerics as well as lay, are to receive instruction in the natural sciences and in literature ..." .

The Catholic University of America was intended, as were all other Catholic colleges and universities, to be towers and seats of Catholic wisdom and piety. And so they were until the Land of Lakes statement of 1967 which called for independence of Catholic colleges and universities from ecclesiastical oversight and a stress on academic freedom. Coupled with this statement was the theological dissent emanating from Catholic University of America as a result of Humanae Vitae and the efforts of Father Charles Curran, a professor of moral theology there, to lead a national campaign of dissent against it.

Monsignor McMahon never would have believed what was to transpire on the campus he so liberally endowed, nor would he have envisioned that his 10th-removed successor, as Pastor of St John's, would be sitting on an autumn afternoon, 11 November 2001, feeling that those present at the Cardinal Newman Society meeting were, as it were, at another type of Ground Zero, attempting to recover and once more re-establish a clear Catholic identity in higher education.

I venture to say that Monsignor McMahon, whose wealth was the result of shrewd real estate investments, had indeed read and was inspired by Cardinal Newman's Idea of a University.

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