Newman and the Church

If, as now seems likely, the Pope is going to beatify Cardinal John Henry Newman in the not too distant future, Catholics all across the ideological spectrum will celebrate the event. Why that’s so tells a lot — about Newman and about the Church.

People are beatified for holiness, not their accomplishments. The  needed testimony to Newman’s holiness apparently resides in the miraculous cure of a permanent deacon in Massachusetts named Jack Sullivan from a seemingly incurable spinal ailment. That said, however, Newman’s accomplishments also deserve taking into account.

During his long life — the eminent British churchman lived from 1801 to 1890 — he did and was many notable things: leader of the Anglican reform effort called the Oxford Movement, distinguished but controversial convert to the Roman Catholic Church, founder of the Oratory in England, founding president of a Catholic university in Ireland, noted preacher, author of books now deemed classics.

But his principal accomplishment can be summed up in one word: development.

As Newman pondered the idea of coming over to Rome throughout 1845, he worked steadily on a book. At the end of the year, with the book finished, its author converted. Book and conversion were closely linked.

The book is called An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. A scholarly work reflecting its author’s theological and historical acumen, the Essay is a richly illustrated explication of doctrinal development and how it works.

Doctrinal development is not doctrinal change, nor is it the discovery of new doctrines. As Newman uses the expression, it refers to a process of expanding insight into the meaning of the body of truths entrusted to the Church. In the parable of the mustard seed and other such passages, he points out, Scripture itself anticipates “the development of Christianity, both as a polity and as a doctrine.”

The Essay illustrates its central thesis meticulously by the examination of doctrine after doctrine. In sum, Newman says: “No one doctrine can be named which starts complete at first, and gains nothing afterwards from the investigations of faith.” Development, one might say, is the rule, not the exception.

Cardinal Newman often is called the great precursor of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). The theology of development explains why. Here, over a century before the fact, he accounted for the developments which took place during the Council  in the Church’s thinking about many matters, from the role of the laity to religious liberty.

Pope Benedict XVI is a fan of Cardinal Newman, and it’s easy to see why. In a notable speech to the Roman Curia at the end of 2005, the Pope contrasted two opposed approaches to understanding Vatican II, which he called the “hermeneutic of change” and the “hermeneutic of continuity.”

The first sees the Council as a sharp, definitive break with the Christian past; the second sees it as a stage in a process of development, in vital communion with the tradition of the Church. Needless to say, Benedict held the second way to be the correct approach.

Doctrinal development supplies the underpinning of Pope Benedict’s hermeneutic of continuity. It is that which makes Newman’s thought of central importance to a correct understanding of Vatican II. The Church and its doctrine are not museum pieces but living organisms in which the Spirit continues at work, with development — “an internal element of life,” as Newman called it — as His instrument.

And that is why such a broad range of Catholics will celebrate John Henry Newman’s recognition as “Blessed” when the time for that finally comes.

Russell Shaw

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Russell Shaw is a freelance writer from Washington, D.C. You can email him at RShaw10290@aol.com.

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  • gk

    Newman is a genius. Eventually I will read some of his works. But I have a long row to hoe before I can get there. Thanks Russell for this impactive article.

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