Responding to a recent piece by Anne Hendershott on the decision of Cardinal Sean O’Malley not to attend the commencement at Boston College because Irish prime minister (and abortion-rights advocate) Enda Kenny was selected for an honorary degree and address to the graduates, a letter-writer in the Wall Street Journal thinks he has his “gotcha” for the Boston archbishop in a quotation from Cardinal John Henry Newman. J. Dennis Delaney of Vermont writes that O’Malley should have “consulted” Newman:

In Newman’s remarkable “The Idea of a University,” he wrote that he had no intention of bringing “the authority of the Church, or any authority at all.” At the time he was rector of the Catholic University of Dublin.


Among the blessings of the information age (along with its curses) is that so much textual matter is now searchable. The invaluable website The Newman Reader has placed online, so it appears, everything John Henry Newman ever published. The few words Delaney quoted might be rapidly located by people with particularly dog-eared copies of Newman’s famous Idea of a University , but in a split second those of us with less familiarity can find them on the website.

Delaney’s quotation comes from the first of the “discourses” in the book, simply titled “Introductory.” Here Newman is, so to speak, clearing his throat, and explaining that he will attempt to give an account of the university and its purposes that will be intelligible to all readers, whatever their own religious views, and that he will in fact take his bearings—initially—from what had been done and said regarding “liberal education” in the great Protestant universities of England. Here is the quotation (in bold below) in its native paragraph:

And here I may mention a third reason for appealing at the outset to the proceedings of Protestant bodies in regard to Liberal Education. It will serve to intimate the mode in which I propose to handle my subject altogether. Observe then, Gentlemen, I have no intention, in any thing I shall say, of bringing into the argument the authority of the Church, or any authority at all ; but I shall consider the question simply on the grounds of human reason and human wisdom. I  am investigating in the abstract, and am determining what is in itself right and true. For the moment I know nothing, so to say, of history. I take things as I find them; I have no concern with the past; I find myself here; I set myself to the duties I find here; I set myself to further, by every means in my power, doctrines and views, true in themselves, recognized by Catholics as such, familiar to my own mind; and to do this quite apart from the consideration of questions which have been determined without me and before me. I am here the advocate and the minister of a certain great principle; yet not merely advocate and minister, else had I not been here at all. It has been my previous keen sense and hearty reception of that principle, that has been at once the reason, as I must suppose, of my being selected for this office, and is the cause of my accepting it. I am told on authority that a principle is expedient, which I have ever felt to be true. And I argue in its behalf on its own merits, the authority, which brings me here, being my opportunity for arguing, but not the ground of my argument itself.


Now one would want to read the several paragraphs that begin the discourse before this point to get the full context; after all, Newman is introducing a third point and we cannot see here what the first two were. But there is enough here to see that Newman is so far from affirming what Mr. Delaney appears to believe he was affirming that it would be fair to say, just on the basis of this paragraph alone, that he rejects the sort of “all views are equally worthy of honor and respect” nonsense that Delaney espouses. It is certainly quite ridiculous to enlist John Henry Newman in the cause of rejecting “authority” tout court , whatever that would mean if any intelligent person attempted it. (Have any?)

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