Oxford University Newman Society

Trinity College's bust of John Henry Newman

For Newman Centers around North America see Newman Centre.

The Oxford University Newman Society (est. 1878) is Oxford University's oldest Roman Catholic organisation, named as a tribute to Cardinal Newman, who advanced the cause of Catholicism at Oxford both as an Anglican striving to recover Anglicanism's Catholic roots and subsequently as a convert to Catholicism. It exists to promote Catholic faith and culture within the University, and has served as the model for Catholic student societies throughout the English-speaking world.



Foundation: 1878-96

The founders of the Catholic Club, 1878; second-from-right, Gerard Manley Hopkins

Founded as the Catholic Club in 1878, it was not until 1888 that the club was renamed the Newman Society. At the time, the renaming of the society was not uncontroversial; Lord Acton, whose son Dick was amongst those involved in the changing of the name, counselled him to be careful. Owen Chadwick describes his letter of advice thus:

[He] felt it to be awkward. On one side was the pride of Trinity College in Newman as one of its eminent graduates; and of Oriel too, connected as it was ‘with the period of his fame’. But on the other side Newman still had enemies in Oxford and they no small men – Max Müller ‘probably’ his worst, but perhaps Jowett also, and then several secular minds. [Acton’s] advice to Dick on this matter was ‘Do nothing too conspicuously.’[1]

Meetings of the society originally took place at the parish church of St Aloysius Gonzaga or in members' rooms. Speakers were frequently undergraduates, as records show, and topics were wide-ranging. Quoting from surviving minute books, Walter Drumm notes:

At the twenty-fourth meeting, on 2 November 1890, Mr. Parry (University College) read a paper on ‘Lake Dwellings in Switzerland’. ‘A desultory discussion followed, most of the speakers professing ignorance of the subject’. Mr. Urquhart read a paper on ‘Christian Socialists in France’ and Lord Westmeath on ‘De Quincy and Opium Eating’. Hilaire Belloc was probably the best known of the early members of the Newman; on 11 June 1893, when he was still an undergratuate at Balliol, he spoke on ‘The Church and the Republic’. In the following year, the Society fielded a football XI, although the title ‘Newman Football Team’ was not approved by all members.[2]

When the Catholic Chaplaincy to the University was established in 1896 the society found a natural home there, often meeting in the Chaplain's rooms. The same year also saw the society's hundredth meeting, which took the form - on 18 June 1896 - of "a dinner at the Clarendon Hotel. Bishop Ilsley of Birmingham, the Duke of Norfolk and thirty-two others, which was practically the whole membership, consumed at 10/- per head: lobster bisque, sole dauphinoise, poussin (method of cooking unstated), gateaux and fromage."[3] The New York Times reported the dinner, observing that "the real point of the festivity... was not its apparent occasion. The main topic was the final settlement... of the long-contested question of the recognition by the Roman Church of the education of Catholics... at Oxford and Cambridge."[4]

Twentieth century: pre-1960s

Ronald Knox wrote of his experiences with the Newman

The minutes for the period 1898 to 1907 have been lost; "the records of the Newman Society are very sparse until the 1940s, from which period society cards have survived."[3] However, as Drumm has emphasised, what records do remain all point to the fact of the Newman's being central to Catholic life in Oxford:

...we can see from the earliest records that the newly arrived undergraduate at the turn of the century would have been welcomed not only by his chaplain... but by his fellows who met at the Newman.[3]

By 1926, when Ronald Knox became chaplain to Oxford, the society's speakers were no longer predominantly drawn from the ranks of students. Meeting in the long room on the first floor of the Old Palace[5] - then known as the Newman Room - the society frequently attracted important figures. Such was the Newman's importance that it even laid claim to some of the Old Palace's furniture; Knox records that the Newman Room's "larger sofa... was presented to the Society by Mgr Barnes, who assured me that it was the sofa on which his father proposed marriage to his mother".[6]

Meetings during Knox's period as chaplain were generally held on Sunday evenings. In a description of a typical Sunday, Knox wrote:

At five or ten minutes to seven the Newman speaker, duly washed, must be taken off to whatever club the Committee is dining at. He and the Committee must be lugged back to the Old Palace about 8.10 and given port in the chaplain's room. The chaplain will keep a look-out to see when the members have mostly arrived (he may even send an S.O.S. to Campion to ask if a few people will turn up and conceal the sparsity of attendance); then he will take the Committee down to the Newman Room... and come to roost in a comfortable chair if he can still find one. During the five minute interval after the paper, the chaplain invites one or two of the more distinguished people present... to come up after the meeting. During question-time he tries to keep things going... The visitors probably retire at eleven or soon after and the chaplain (unless he has the speaker to entertain) can now enjoy his own company.[7]

When Knox finally retired from the role of chaplain in 1939, his impact on the Newman Society and Catholic life in Oxford generally had been such that his farewell included "a dinner at the Randolph Hotel at which the Newman Society presented him with an early folio of the Douay Bible, a silver mug, a water-colour of the Old Palace, and £50."[8] His involvement with the society was not over, however. Women had been admitted to Oxford in 1920, and became members of the Newman Society and of the congregation at the Old Palace in 1941, having previously been cared for by a separate chaplaincy. Knox - who had been called on to return to Oxford but was unenthusiastic - proposed the merger to the Archbishop of Birmingham as a solution to the unexpected vacancy he was being asked to fill; as a confident Evelyn Waugh would later put it, Knox "was the author of the temporary amalgamation, which persists to this day."[9]

In 1945 the Newman was sufficiently established to merit two mentions in Waugh's "Oxford novel", Brideshead Revisited. The first reference comes in the course of Lady Marchmain's comments to Charles Ryder about her son, Sebastian:

I want Sebastian to have all sorts of friends, not just one. Monsignor Bell tells me he never mixes with the other Catholics, never goes to the Newman, very rarely goes to mass even. Heaven forbid that he should only know Catholics, but he must know some.

The society participated in the refurbishing of the Chaplaincy which followed the Second World War; with Newman funds purchase was made of 'a new wireless set and an electrically operated gramophone'.[10] Socially, the Newman continued to reflect the character of Catholicism among Oxford students; Baroness Williams of Crosby has recorded that while she "went occasionally to the Newman Society", she "was never part of the exclusive Catholic groups, usually young men and women from distinguished recusant families."[11] Francis Muir has written of being introduced (by then-chaplain Mgr Valentine Elwes) to Elizabeth Jennings at a "Newman Society bun-fight" during this period.[12]

The academic year 1956-7 saw the society hosting a disputation conducted by Oxford's Dominicans. In 1959 the society held a dinner at which the Vice-Chancellor was represented, and which was attended by Archbishop of Westminster William Godfrey, who had become a cardinal in the previous year. The latter took the opportunity to announce the resignation of Mgr Elwes.

Twentieth century: 1960-1990

Following the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, the 1970s proved a turbulent decade in the life of the Church. Karl Rahner, who loomed large in the theological battles of the period, was one of several high-profile speakers at the Newman whose presence served to underline the era's changes. The situation at the Chaplaincy, then under the authority of Crispian Hollis, was bleak, as the system of catechetical Sunday sermons - established in the time of Ronald Knox for the purpose of promoting students' doctrinal and spiritual formation - collapsed:

Many regularly practising Catholics seldom or never went to the Mass at which the sermon was preached. If they did, they were as likely to be regaled with jokes and anecdotes and a little moral exhortation as with solid doctrine. There was no intelligible link between one Sunday's sermon and the next; an undergraduate who was vague about doctrine and totally ignorant of theology would be no better off in these respects at the end of the year than at the beginning... Father Hollis' reports in these years sound an anxious note, unparalleled in earlier or later years.[13]

In the midst of widespread ignorance, doctrinal confusion, and moral rebellion, the Newman staked out its position in 1973, hosting an address by Elizabeth Anscombe titled "Contraception, Sin and Natural Law" - a philosophical defence of Pope Paul VI's encyclical on artificial birth control (Humanae Vitae). Yet the society was not so inflexible as to refuse to accommodate some new social realities; a 1972 termcard expressed the hope "that activists, gnomes, ravers and potential saints will be inspired by this... term's programme."

By 1982 fashions had changed again, so that the year of Pope John Paul II's apostolic voyage to Britain also saw the Newman organising a "Boaters and Bloomers" event - a prize being offered for the "best Brideshead dress". The Pope's visit was itself advertised by one enterprising president as a Newman Society event: Oxonians were informed that "His Holiness the Pope will address Newman Society members and others in Coventry."

In 1985, in an episode which would end up in the pages of the Society of St Pius X's Angelus newsletter, the Newman arranged a talk on the legacy of Vatican II. Michael Davies was one of the scheduled speakers. Controversy over the choice of speaker led to a change of location, but the lecture was, he reported, "well received - too well received as there were hostile questions from only one person, which made it rather dull."[14] Similar tendencies were on display five years later, when one talk went so far as to ask in its title, "Archbishop Lefebvre: Saint or Sinner?" The speaker was Fr Edward Black, now District Superior of the SSPX in Australia.[15] Writing later that decade, a Usenet commentator would observe of this period that "the Newman Society... always appeared to be in 'right-wing' hands".[16]

Twentieth century: 1990-2000

A minor controversy was generated by the invitation of traditionalist apologist Gerry Matatics in 1995, though his speech predated his adoption of the sedevacantist cause. By this point the Newman had ceased to be the University's sole Catholic society, following the creation by the University chaplains of the Oxford University Catholic Society in 1990 to "counter-act the overt conservatism of the Newman Society."[17] In 1996, the society organised a Sarum Rite Mass for the feast of the Translation of St Frideswide.[18] Another such Mass was organised by members of the Newman at Merton College in 1997, for the feast of Candlemas. Videos of this latter Mass can be viewed on YouTube.[19]

The society marked the end of the 20th century with a number of events, culminating in a visit by George Pell, then Archbishop of Melbourne and not yet a cardinal. The Catholic Chaplaincy’s Annual Review records that:

[H]e was the chief celebrant at the termly Mass for the Newman Society, which took place at St. Aloysius... [and] was followed by lunch in Merton... the Archbishop later spoke on the need for educated Catholic lay people to promote the Gospel in public life.[20]

Twenty-first century: Benedict XVI's reign

Following the election of Pope Benedict XVI, mentions of the Newman Society and its events appeared in the Catholic and secular press on a number of occasions.[21][22][23][24][25][26][27][28] During the Regensburg affair of 2006, the society's voice was heard with the publication of a letter in The Daily Telegraph from the then-President:

I understand that the Pope's words prompted some Indian Muslims to protest by burning an effigy of the Pontiff. How extraordinary that this old English custom should appear there so many years after the Empire fell. I assumed the eccentrics in Lewes, East Sussex, were practically peerless in the practice of pope-burning... [M]arvellous that, even if they failed to read the context of the Pope's remarks, these people still managed to wheel out a centuries-old English tradition.[28]

Newman Mass in the 1962 extraordinary form of the Roman Rite, 2007

In November 2007, following Pope Benedict's motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, the Society attracted attention within the Catholic blogosphere[1][2][3][4] after organising a High Mass in the 1962 extraordinary form of the Roman Rite to mark the centenary of co-founder Hartwell de la Garde Grissell's death. The incumbent President was quoted in a press release on the subject of the Mass:

In his recent document the Holy Father said ‘young persons too have discovered this liturgical form, felt its attraction and found in it a form of encounter with the Mystery of the Most Holy Eucharist.’ This is certainly true of a large number of students here at Oxford. We were delighted to be able to hold this Mass and are praying that God give us many blessings through it.[29]

2009 saw a visit to Oxford by Bishop Patrick O'Donoghue.[21] Speaking on the subject of his document Fit for Mission? Church, Bishop O'Donoghue implored students to recover those elements of Catholicism obscured in recent decades in the United Kingdom:

Embrace the Tradition of the Church. To counter the rejection of the past, I want you to sacrifice the modern compulsion for novelty and fashion through embracing the Tradition of the Church, which is nothing more than the source of God’s revelation, along with Scripture... I want you to re-discover the devotions of the Church, such as praying the rosary, the Stations of the Cross, Benediction. I want you to embrace the discipline of praying the daily Office of the Church; the practice of regular confession.[30]

Bishop O'Donoghue went on to call on students to "embrace obedience to the teachings of the Church... [t]o counter the infiltration of secular ideas such as relativism, utilitarianism, and hedonism into the Church".[30]

The same term saw the society addressed by its Patron, Cardinal Pell, on the subject of religious and secular intolerance, and their implications for contemporary Christian witness. Giving the inaugural Thomas More Lecture in the University's Divinity School, the Cardinal spoke of the totalitarian tendencies of modern liberalism, and the dangers for the Church posed by the rise of "anti-discrimination legislation" and "human rights tribunals". He concluded his address with a call to arms for contemporary believers:

Christians have to recover their genius for showing that there are better ways to live and to build a good society; ways which respect freedom, empower individuals, and transform communities. They also have to recover their self-confidence and courage. The secular and religious intolerance of our day needs to be confronted regularly and publicly. Believers need to call the bluff of what is, even in most parts of Europe, a small minority with disproportionate influence in the media. This is one of the crucial tasks for Christians in the twenty-first century.[31]

During his week-long visit to the Newman Society the Cardinal presided at a Solemn Latin Mass organised by the society in intercession for Newman’s beatification, and Solemn Vespers in the 1962 form. He also attended further functions at Campion Hall, Blackfriars, St Benet's Hall, Exeter College, Merton College, Keble College, the University's Catholic Chaplaincy, the Birmingham Oratory, and Newman's College in Littlemore.

Notable speakers

Previous generations

The society has been addressed by prominent and influential Catholics - as well as non-Catholics of interest to a Catholic audience - throughout its history. Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins was a founding member, and in the Newman's early years both he and author Robert Hugh Benson - also a member - gave papers. Maurice Baring's Punch and Judy was written for the occasion of his addressing the society, and it was at a meeting of the Newman that Christopher Dawson heard Newman biographer Wilfrid Ward speak. A biographer has argued that the experience was an influence in Dawson's conversion.[32]

Evelyn Waugh addressed the Newman as a member

Evelyn Waugh, Hilaire Belloc and G. K. Chesterton all spoke to the Newman; it was while attending a talk by Chesterton that Waugh first met Harold Acton, to whom he would later dedicate Decline and Fall.[33] The 17th Duke of Norfolk would later in life speak of his "vivid recollections of meeting G. K. Chesterton when I... attended some of his lectures to the Newman Society, which I will never forget."[34] When Waugh himself addressed members in 1956, it was with an apocalyptic tone: "Our whole literary world is sinking into black disaster... I am sure that those who live for the next thirty years will see the art of literature dying."[35]

Other distinguished speakers who addressed the society in the course of the 20th century include Baron Friedrich von Hügel, Fr Ronald Knox, Fr Martin d'Arcy, Sir Alec Guinness, Arthur Michael Ramsey, HRH The Princess Royal, Rowan Williams, John Finnis, Malcolm Muggeridge, Lord Longford, Immanuel Jakobovits, Viscount Monckton, Maurice Wiles, Terry Eagleton, William Rees-Mogg, Hans Adolf Krebs, Basil Mitchell, Dorothy Hodgkin, Auberon Waugh, Richard Southern, F.R. Leavis, Ninian Smart, Dan Berrigan, Herbert McCabe and Martin Gilbert.

Recent terms

Recent terms' speakers of note have included Piers Paul Read on the reality of Hell; Fr Timothy Finigan on 'Humanae Vitae'; Fr Thomas Weinandy on the Incarnation; Fr John Saward on the character of Heaven, and, separately, on the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum; Fr Aidan Nichols on the centenary of Pope St Pius X's condemnation of Modernism; Professor Geza Vermes (in debate with Dom Henry Wansbrough) on the historicity of the Gospels; Rt Hon Ann Widdecombe MP on being a Catholic politician; Sir Anthony Kenny on the Oxford Movement; and Baroness Williams of Crosby on the relationship between God and Caesar.

The society often hosts prominent speakers at its termly dinners. In Hilary Term 2004 the Duke of Norfolk spoke on Catholicism in England. The Michaelmas 2006 after-dinner speaker was Fr Paul Chavasse, actor causae of Cardinal Newman's cause for canonization and Provost of the Birmingham Oratory. As part of the society's 130th anniversary celebrations in 2008 a dinner was held in Trinity College attended by HRH The Duchess of Kent and 150 students. More recently Baroness Scotland, Attorney General for England and Wales, spoke on the role faith can play in informing public conscience.

The contemporary Newman

Current ethos

Today the society continues to provide a place for Oxford's Catholics who, in the words of Waugh's fictional Lady Marchmain, "must know some" of their co-religionists, while also promoting Catholic faith, learning and culture within the broader University. At least once a year the society tends to hold a talk on some aspect of Newman's life or work, seeking also to inform Oxford students of the ongoing cause for his canonization.

The Newman Society committee and friends, 2005

The society has as its patrons Cardinal George Pell (Archbishop of Sydney), The Duchess of Kent, Arthur Roche (Bishop of Leeds), Peter Elliott (Auxiliary Bishop of Melbourne) and Paul Chavasse (of the Birmingham Oratory).

Term structure

The average term involves a drinks party, five weeks of weekly speaker meetings, a trip or other event on a Saturday afternoon and an end-of-term Mass and dinner with guest speaker; the specific form of any given term is, however, ultimately determined by the society's President. The President is assisted in his duties by a committee which includes a Senior Treasurer (Senior Member), Past-Presidents in residence, President-Elect, Treasurer, Secretary, and such other persons as are determined by the society's rules. In recent years, members have been afforded the opportunity to dine with speakers before meetings; such dinners have generally either taken place in members' colleges or in the University Catholic Chaplaincy.

In Trinity terms, the Newman has revived the practice of organising sporting events. A recent term saw the attempted assembly of a rowing Newman VIII, and although football was once the society's main sport, it is now more usual for termcards to feature punting and other leisurely pursuits.

The Newman Foundation

The Newman Foundation was established in 2007 and exists to support the activities of the society. Since its creation the foundation has incepted the 'Thomas More Lectures', an annual series of lectures examining the relationship between religion and society. The foundation is assisted by an Academic Board composed of Oxford academics. The members of the board include, among others, Fr. Richard Finn, Prof. John Finnis, and Fr. John Saward.

In 2009 Cardinal George Pell launched the foundation's 'Faith in Oxford' appeal, which is intended to raise an endowment for the Newman Society.

Motto and tie

The Society's motto is the phrase first used by St Augustine of Hippo (in the Donatist controversy), and subsequently adopted by Cardinal Newman: "Securus judicat orbis terrarum" ("the world's verdict is secure"). The Society tie features stripes of papal gold, cardinal red, and Oxford blue; it can be bought at Walters of Oxford. On 13 May 2007 the Newman tie appeared in the Oxford section of the Channel 4 documentary Make Me a Tory. It was also featured in the 24 February 2010 edition of Country Life, in a piece titled, 'Are You in the Club?'.[36]


  1. ^ Chadwick 1998, p. 131.
  2. ^ Drumm 1991, p. 47
  3. ^ a b c Drumm 1991, p. 48.
  4. ^ "NEWMAN'S DREAM REALIZED.; Provision for Catholic Students Making at the English Universities". The New York Times. 1896-07-18. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=9A07E4D61338E233A25750C1A9619C94679ED7CF. Retrieved 2008-10-12. 
  5. ^ Waugh 1959, p. 209.
  6. ^ Waugh 1959, p. 210.
  7. ^ Waugh 1959, p. 219-20.
  8. ^ Waugh 1959, p. 273.
  9. ^ Waugh 1959, p. 289.
  10. ^ Drumm 1991, p. 94.
  11. ^ Williams 2003, p. 4.
  12. ^ http://groups.google.com/group/rec.arts.books/msg/9e599c392c1d1c48
  13. ^ Drumm 1991, p. 125.
  14. ^ "Random Thoughts". The Angelus. 1985-04-01. http://www.angelusonline.org/print.php?sid=2496. Retrieved 2008-10-12. [dead link]
  15. ^ "Our Priests". Society of St Pius X, District of Australia. http://www.sspx.com.au/priests.html. Retrieved 2010-01-04. 
  16. ^ http://groups.google.com/group/bit.listserv.catholic/msg/79ca096b974dd365
  17. ^ http://web.archive.org/web/20070929103200re_/www.catholic-chaplaincy.org.uk/foundation_and_mission-the_sec.html
  18. ^ http://romanmiscellany.blogspot.com/2008/02/sarum-memories.html
  19. ^ http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=h4iOqek9Y4Q
  20. ^ Newby 1999, p. 5.
  21. ^ a b "Lancaster bishop tells faithful: challenge your bishops". The Catholic Herald. 2009-02-06. http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/articles/a0000472.shtml. Retrieved 2010-01-03. 
  22. ^ "Cardinal Pell boosts ‘Faith in Oxford’ appeal". The Catholic Herald. 2009-03-06. http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/life/cl0000240.shtml. Retrieved 2010-01-03. 
  23. ^ "Cardinal: confront secular intolerance". The Catholic Herald. 2009-03-13. http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/articles/a0000495.shtml. Retrieved 2010-01-03. 
  24. ^ "‘Nothing is being thrust upon anyone’". The Catholic Herald. 2009-03-20. http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/features/f0000388.shtml. Retrieved 2010-01-03. 
  25. ^ "Ambassador calls for a return of religion to policy". The Catholic Herald. 2009-06-05. http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/life/cl0000335.shtml. Retrieved 2010-01-03. 
  26. ^ "Newman beatification announced". The Times. 2009-07-03. http://timescolumns.typepad.com/gledhill/2009/07/pope-benedict-promulges-newman-decree/comments/page/1/. Retrieved 2010-01-03. [dead link]
  27. ^ Jennings, Peter (2009-03-06). "Cardinal Pell says Mass in Newman's room". The Times (London). http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/faith/article5857704.ece. Retrieved 2010-01-03. 
  28. ^ a b "Pope Benedict has every right to speak on religious issues - as does anyone else". The Daily Telegraph (London). 2006-09-18. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/letters/3632384/Letters-to-The-Daily-Telegraph.html. Retrieved 2008-10-12. 
  29. ^ http://the-hermeneutic-of-continuity.blogspot.com/2007/11/newman-society-mass.html
  30. ^ a b "Talk to Oxford Newman Society". Christendom Awake. 2009-01-27. http://www.christendom-awake.org/pages/bishop-o%27donoghue/newman-soc-talk.htm. Retrieved 2010-01-03. 
  31. ^ "Varieties of Intolerance: Religious and Secular". Catholic Culture. 2009-03-06. http://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?recnum=8812. Retrieved 2010-01-03. 
  32. ^ Scott 1984, p. 50.
  33. ^ Patey 1998, p. 10.
  34. ^ Pierce, A "In memory of the creator of Father Brown". The Times. 1993-07-07. Retrieved 2008-10-12.
  35. ^ Patey 1998, p. 320-1.
  36. ^ http://newmansociety.blogspot.com/2010/07/are-you-in-club-newman-tie-featured-in.html


  • Chadwick, O (1998). Acton and History, Cambridge University Press.
  • Drumm, W (1991). The Old Palace: A History of the Oxford University Catholic Chaplaincy, Veritas Publications.
  • Newby, P (1999). Oxford University Catholic Chaplaincy Annual Review, Family Publications.
  • Patey, D (1998). The Life of Evelyn Waugh: A Critical Biography, Blackwell Publishing.
  • Scott, C (1984). A Historian and his World: A Life of Christopher Dawson, Sheed & Ward.
  • Waugh, E (1959). Ronald Knox: A Biography, Cassell.
  • Williams, S (2003). God and Caesar, Continuum.

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