The Newman at 75


The secretary of the Glasgow Circle of the Newman Association offers a person reflection on the development of the association on the occasion of its 75th anniversary, and its commitment to Newman’s vision of an educated laity.

The Newman’ is, we hope, a familiar name to the readership of Open House, but it may come as a surprise to some that it celebrated its 75th birthday on 11th April 2017.  In a post-Vatican II society with dwindling adherences to classical ecclesiastical structures and amidst a variety of other Catholic and Christian organisations, there is perhaps little recognition of the historical roots, the dynamism and, it might be hoped, the influence of the Association.

Whilst elements of its intellectual origins can be traced during the 1920’s and 30’s to the activities of Fr C.C. Martindale S.J in University milieux, the second World War, resistance to Nazi ideology and the sense of threat from Marxism and materialism provided a potent stimulus to Catholic intellectual action undertaken by graduates in reserved occupations, acting within the structure of the University Catholic Federation of Great Britain.

The UCF had originally developed through the formation of student Catholic societies, but by 1941 it was becoming clear that the existing structure was inadequate to meet the demands of the times.  Consequently, through the efforts of such as Dr Frank Aylward, Harold Parkinson and Dr Alfred Kieran, it was considered appropriate, in April 1942, at an AGM in Birmingham, to remodel the constitution of the University Catholic Federation so as to permit the foundation of the Newman Association as the graduate branch of the Federation.  This was to be a ‘national association of Catholic graduates in different professions for the wider cultural and intellectual apostolate’.  The Association took as its inspiration Newman’s ardent desire for an educated laity and his well known views on university education.

Regional meetings of the UCF served to nurture the emerging Association and make its objectives more widely known.  The principle of regional ‘circles’ of the Association evolved.  An Edinburgh Circle was formed in December 1943, while in Glasgow, informal regular Catholic graduate meetings led to a number of such graduates becoming members of the Association.  Formal documented meetings in Glasgow began in January 1944.  However, the Glasgow Circle had to await the appointment of Archbishop Donald Campbell in 1945 (the Archbishopbric being vacant following the death of Archbishop Mackintosh, after a protracted illness, in 1943) in order to obtain official recognition as a Catholic Society.

The energy of the membership in that era was little less than astonishing.  In addition to local circle activities often strongly linked to local University chaplaincies, the concept of residential Summer Schools, beginning in Ampleforth in 1944, evolved.  (The author has fond childhood memories of summer schools in the 50’s in Strawberry Hill, St Andrews and Ampleforth).  In these, a wide variety of religious, social, scientific and philosophical issues were addressed.  Centre and circles developed strong bonds with local universities to permit the evolution of distinctive extra-mural courses, drawing on distinguished, local, enthusiastic and energetic academics.

One highly distinctive element of activity arose from the recognition of an increasingly scientific age. Scientific development was accelerating dramatically in the 40’s and 50’s and distinguished scientists such as Professor E.T.Whittaker, the Edinburgh  mathematician, F. Sherwood Taylor, Director of the Science Museum, South Kensington and E.F. Caldin, later Professor of Chemistry at the University of Kent lent their support.  This culminated in the formation of the Newman Philosophy of Science Group, which was especially active between 1954 and 1967.  At one time it had over 700 members.  Philosophers, chemists, anatomists, mathematicians, physicists and many others contributed to meetings and regular bulletins, which ran to over sixty issues, containing book reviews and articles on a wide variety of scientific, philosophical and theological subjects.  Short monographs were published by Sheed and Ward under the auspices of the Newman Philosophy of Science Group.  Titles included Life and its Origin; The Structure of Chemistry; Science and Metaphysics.  The activities of this group clearly reflected the intellectual and moral importance of the subjects under study and they strove to emphasise the need for scientists to be active in the service of the Church and to ensure that scientific knowledge was not distorted in the media to the detriment of society.  The numbers in the Philosophy of Science Group reflect the size of the Association as it evolved.  In 1948-9 the number of subscription members was 1200 and by the mid/end of the 1950’s it was almost 3000.  One then has to ask why, despite a massive increase in Catholic graduates and loosening of the membership rules to admit non-graduates, the figure today is little more than 750.

The Association at the outset was and remains affiliated to Pax Romana, the International Catholic Movement for Intellectual and Cultural Affairs.  In this context and through the activities of the International Committee (particularly under the chair of Philip L. Daniel), it was hardly surprising that strong links developed with European Catholic thinking.  One may safely say, therefore, that as the second Vatican Council commenced and evolved, the Newman Association was both prepared for and receptive to the call.  What had begun in the late 1940’s in an almost fortress mentality was now reaching out to embrace the freedom and challenges implicit in the Council’s deliberations and conclusions.  In the ensuing years the Association and its circles sought, and still seek, to assist in bringing the work of Vatican II to full fruition.

To date, the results may be considered less striking than anticipated, whilst the scale of the Association and its profile in the wider community have diminished in varying degrees.  The reasons for this, I believe, are complex and would warrant careful historical analysis.  It is certainly clear that, in various locations, as enthusiasm for the promotion of Vatican II reform increased, distrust of the Association’s activities developed among certain segments of the clergy and hierarchy.  One suspects that blame can be attributed to both sides – enthusiasm disturbing another’s equilibrium can easily be perceived as ‘rebellious’.  Yet I would suggest that even in the discussion of controversial subjects the Association has never set out to be ‘disloyal‘ to the Church and its hierarchy.

These matters apart, other factors clearly made the operation of the Association more difficult.  Universities, so central in the formation of the Association, have changed radically in the intervening years.  Cost is omnipresent and facilities which might have been made available to such as the Newman for nominal charge are now out of the price range of the average circle.  The massive increase in student numbers, the trend towards vocational objectives and the demand for ‘value for money’ have placed enormous pressures on staff who are required to generate research income in order to be perceived as worthy of tenure.  It is hardly surprising therefore that the numbers of those prepared and available to make more than an occasional contribution to the activities of the Association have dwindled substantially.  In other professional areas, not dissimilar pressures have had the same effect.  Indeed a modern professional and societal ‘hyperactivity’ militates against the involvement of younger adults, particularly when occupied with bringing up families.  In the 40’s and 50’s that latter, more youthful cohort incorporated many of the original founders and activists of the Association whilst now the average age of members is, I believe, in excess of 68!

On a UK national basis the Association has even asked itself recently whether it was worth saving.  The answer was in the affirmative, but questions remain regarding form and structure.  In so far as rampant materialism and militant atheism are even more widespread than in the mid 20th century, the drivers for the formation of the Association have not really gone away.  Indeed, their siren songs are now even more persuasive in the wider community.  In such a context, I believe the Newman Association remains of significant value to the modern church and if it did not exist it might be necessary to construct something similar.

Its long term survival as a Catholic society will demand prayer and determination.  One would hope that this would be matched in ecclesiastical circles by a recognition that a question is not an indicator of disloyalty.  The innocent child’s enquiry of ‘why?’ cannot forever be dismissed by ‘because I said so’.  The human intellect demands understanding and it should therefore be evident that in the theological/doctrinal domain, satisfactory explanation should be possible in matters which lie outwith Revelation and the Mysteries.  We live in an era of widespread abandonment of faith and abundant doubt.  If Thomas was not condemned for his doubt then contemporary doubt does not deserve an authoritarian, dismissive response.  The Newman Association exists to foster a deeper understanding of the faith through wide-ranging study and debate.  It is inevitable that from time to time, it has to enter ‘conflict zones’ and one might ask should it not, like Médecins sans Frontières, deserve a little credit for doing so?

Arthur McLay is secretary to the Glasgow Newman Circle and is a retired NHS consultant pathologist.