Cardinal Nichols asks whether our schools live up to John Henry Newman's ideals
Cardinal Vincent Nichols has written a thoughtful book on Faith Finding a Voice (Bloomsbury). Methodically divided into four parts – God Revealed, Education for Life, Religious Dialogue and the Hope for Humanity and Ministry: Treasure in Earthenware Vessels – he builds a solid and personal case for the truths of the Catholic faith and how we can all respond to them more effectively in our daily lives.
He recalls with affection the memory of his mother teaching him to make a daily sign of the Cross as a very young boy; it gradually “opened a treasure trove of spiritual grace” for him. Both his parents were teachers and Nichols admits that “If I had not been ordained a priest, I would have been a teacher.” One can detect some of this alternative vocation in his clarity of style, his earnestness and his desire to explain and instruct.
Reflecting the preoccupations of John Henry Newman in The Idea of a University, Nichols asks, “Are our universities (and schools) able to understand themselves as being at the service of truth, fired by the conviction that reason, understand as the capacity of every human being to transcend the empirical, able to lead us forward not only in search of that overarching truth but also in our response to that truth in love?”
Looking at our institutions of higher education today, and the way they reflect – how could they not? – the moral and spiritual confusions of the wider society, I think the answer to Cardinal Nichols’ rhetorical question has to be “No they don’t.” But that does not mean that the question is not important; it simply means that Catholics and other Christians need more courage today to present the reasonableness of faith to their sceptical peers than was the case in Newman’s day.
As a public figure within a multicultural society where Christianity has to compete with more powerful voices, Nichols is sometimes too diplomatic in his approach; that is, he is reluctant to lay his cards on the table so as not to alienate other groups. For instance, he writes that “It is this high regard for the dignity and power of reason, enshrined in divine and natural law, which leads Catholicism – along with other religions, I’m sure – to affirm that religion and reason are not opposed but complement each other.” Yet Islam for instance, a large religious presence in the UK, certainly does not give the same importance to the relationship between reason and religion as Christianity does.
It is interesting to note that an author who has inspired Nichols in his “journey of faith” is the Dutch Jewish writer, Etty Hillesum, whose diary describing her longing for and discovery of God achieved posthumous fame after her death in Auschwitz. From a family of Dutch atheistic intellectuals and bohemians, Etty poured out in her diary her longing for closeness to the source of all love and her realization that “Is there indeed anything as intimate as man’s relationship to God?”