The Newman–Louvain (Leuven) Connection

The Louvain Newman Society (LNS) is proud of both its patron and the University of which it is a part. Of all societies newmanian, the LNS has a unique and privileged connection to Newman.

In 1834, the Belgian bishops resurrected the Catholic University of Louvain. About two decades later, John Henry Newman led the project to establish the Catholic University of Ireland. Much has been written on this venture and the ultimate failure of the CUI. Quite obviously, Newman’s Idea of a University has outlived the institution which the writings inspired; but the institution which inspired the writings is still alive.

It is well known that Newman’s University project was, in large part, inspired by the Catholic University of Louvain. Upon the recent success of Louvain’s re-establishment, Newman and the Irish bishops looked at Belgium as the home to a model institution, Louvain, the Catholic University par excellence!

Throughout the development of the CUI, Newman was in correspondence with the then rector of Louvain, Mgr. De Ram. In a letter to him, Newman wrote, “I find that the Sacred Congregation of Progaganda much approves the anxiety I have ever felt to conform our University to that of Louvain…Under these circumstances, I shall do well to draw the lines closer still, which unite your great institution with those, with which I…am …connected here.” (Letter to Mgr. de Ram 1856)

Why was Louvain, for Newman, such a “great institution” worthy of being emulated? In point of fact, one should rephrase: Considering Louvain as a model instantiation of a Catholic University ideal, what was there not to like? In addition to Louvain’s governmental structure, its academics and student life appealed to Newman.


The C.U.I.'s Sedes Sapientiae

The intellectual character

On the academic side of things, Newman revered Louvain because it had successfully maintained the medieval ideal of a unity of knowledge. The university sought to teach universal knowledge and, as such, was called to cover the whole field of human knowledge, including the liberal arts. Such maintenance manifested itself in the curriculum which directed the intercourse between the traditional faculties of law, medicine, theology, and their prerequisite, the arts (letters and sciences).  Developing the culture of the mind, for Newman, was the primary end of the university. It was through liberal education that one was to develop this ‘philosophical habit of mind’; any university which deviated from this task by dismissing the necessity of the liberal arts compromised its claim to be a university.

The moral character

It may sound absurd today, but (believe it or not) Newman admired the management of student discipline at Louvain as “combining freedom in the students with the safeguard of Catholic morality.” (Letters, 1853). Newman believed that recreation was essential to fostering a constructive social life of students, which in turn, would contribute to expanding the mind and developing moral character. Newman himself insisted upon encouraging students to attend the theatre; he made sure there was a billiard table and cricket grounds; he encouraged a free spirit of student debate in a society precisely because the University was Catholic; Newman also, no doubt, gave pride of place to music and the cultivation which accompanies both its listening and performance. And finally, he saw to it that a few rooms be reserved for “private parties, breakfast,  or wine extra.”


The K.U.L.'s Sedes Sapientiae

Here in Leuven, we can substitute ‘beer’ for ‘wine’ and already be one step closer to Newman’s ideal. The K.U.L. has an incredible tradition, not just in its theology, but in its academic culture generally, and in its ability to coordinate the discourse between faith and reason– between fidelity and inquiry. Newman and others in the 19th c. witnessed this, and the LNS today seeks to continue this witness.

I’ll let Newman have the last word. He says that the mind,

As intellectual…apprehends truth; as moral, it apprehends duty. The perfection of the intellect is called ability and talent; the perfection of our moral nature is virtue. And it is our great misfortune here, and our trial, that, as things are found in the world, the two are separated, and independent of each other; that, where power of intellect is, there need not be virtue; and that where right, and goodness, and moral greatness are, there need not be talent. It was not so in the beginning…

(Preached before the CUI (at High Mass!).  “Intellect, the Instrument of Religious Training”, published in Sermons Preached on Various Occasions)

Andrew Meszaros (president of the LNS)

Further Reading

Colin Barr Paul Cullen, John Henry Newman, and the Catholic Unviersity of Ireland, 1845-1865 (UND Press, 2003).

Angelo Bottone The Philosophical Habit of Mind: Rhetoric and Person in John Henry Newman’s Dublin Writings (Zeta Books, 2010).

A. Dwight Culler The Imperial Intellect: A Study of Newman’s Educational Ideal, (YUP, 1955).

Alasdair MacIntyre, “The Very Idea of a University: Aristotle, Newman and Us,” New Blackfriars 91 (2010) 4-19.

Fergal McGrath Newman’s University, Idea and Reality (Richview Press, 1951).