The Church Needs the Laity: The Wisdom of John Henry Newman

Pontifex Minimus Blog: Presidential Reflections on the Catholic Intellectual Tradition

By Dr. Michael W. Higgins, President and Vice-Chancellor of Corpus Christi-St. Marks at UBC


This week my book, The Church Needs the Laity: The Wisdom of John Henry Newman, had its e-launch.  Well, actually it was more in the nature of a webinar and the questions that surfaced during the Q and A were pointed, clever, and probing.

The book is quite short—a hundred pages in all.  It originated as an after dinner address to a worthy platoon of publishers in Chicago a couple of years ago. The senior academic editor of Paulist Press was present and she invited me to turn the speech into a book.  And so that is what we have: an essay, really, laced with autobiography, timely I hope in its content and focus, and potentially useful as an introduction to the mind and sensibility of the great Victorian as well as a reflection on his relevance for our time.  Too ambitious by half.  But still a fun assignment, if nothing else.

There are five specific headings under which I consider the Newman legacy—each of which only alights on the range and complexity of his genius—and here are some snippets and shards:

Newman as a model of a public Catholic intellectual:

“Newman’s keen attention to the secular—his refusal in either deriding or dismissing the new or novel—situates him as an ideal exemplar for the Catholic intellectual. . . .He would have no truck with every passing notion; he was neither faddish nor latitudinarian in temperament or intellectual disposition.  But he wasn’t frightened of fresh thinking.”

Newman as advocate for the liberal arts:

“In a time when political chambers and the halls of commerce profess only a minimalist commitment to the ideals of a higher education liberated from a utilitarian objective, recovering Newman isn’t just an exercise in historical memory.  Recovering Newman is a way of salvaging from the ruins a more humane though tough approach to our curriculum, our various teaching styles, and our educational vision.”

Newman as promoter of the laity:

“The laity, he proposed, held firm when episcopal authority wavered and theological opinion collapsed into the din of Babel.  There is a voice for the laity, and there is a place for the laity, not only in articulating the sense of the faith, but in providing an intelligent and critical reception of church teaching.”

Newman as a foundational thinker:

“What is essential is the free interchange of ideas—an interchange by means of which truth emerges.  This interchange is not an exercise in one-upmanship, culminating in the overthrow of an opponent’s argument.  . . .It is, rather, a ‘collision of intellects’ struggling to produce a deeper understanding of what is known, of what is believed.”

Newman as saint:

“The saints are not an antidote to our agnosticism.  They are a still point in the whirligig that is life, an aperture to wholeness. Newman is a model of light, serenity and sanity in our dark and polarized time.”


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