The impending canonisation of Blessed John Henry Newman opens the way to his recognition as one of the great theologians
Canonisations vary greatly in their significance. The canonisation of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who devoted her life to the care of the dying, was not just the recognition of a very holy woman, it also highlighted the sanctity of life in a culture of death. Blessed John Henry Newman, who is soon to be canonised, was clearly a very different kind of saint, but his canonisation, like that of St Teresa, is also of great significance.
When Benedict XVI spoke to politicians in Westminster Hall on his 2010 visit to England to beatify Newman, he memorably insisted that “The world of reason and the world of faith need one another, and should not be afraid to enter a profound and ongoing dialogue”. Newman saw very clearly that religious faith is not something peculiar and sui generis but simply one of the many kinds of faith that make up life, ranging from the basic act of getting up and leaving one’s house in the morning to forming relationships with other people.
His seminal Oxford University sermons, preached while he was still an Anglican, explore with great originality and subtlety the relationship of faith and reason. For him the reasoning involved in religious faith is simply one of many kinds that are not strictly logical or scientific but which nevertheless are fully reasonable or rational. He thereby enlarged a limited, narrow post-Enlightenment conception of reason which failed to do justice to the actual ways in which the human mind reasons.
In today’s secular world, where holding even basic Christian moral convictions is regarded as “extremist” and therefore by definition irrational, Newman is a powerful champion of the reasonableness of faith. Indeed, he is himself one of the great Christian apologists, who continued his defence of Christianity as a Catholic in his philosophical magnum opus, the Grammar of Assent.
The canonisation is also significant in that it opens the way to the Church’s recognition of Newman the theologian as a “Doctor of the Church”. Often called “the Father of Vatican II”, he is surely the counterpart in the post-conciliar Church of St Robert Bellarmine, the Doctor par excellence of the Tridentine Church.
A century before the theological revival that began in France in the 1930s, which paved the way for the Second Vatican Council, Newman and his fellow Tractarians in the Oxford Movement had already begun seeking the sources of Christianity in the writings of the Fathers. The leading French theologians of the 20th-century revival were seeking to escape from the desiccated neo-scholasticism that was then the dominant theology of the Catholic Church, a theology which had lost touch not only with the Fathers but with St Thomas Aquinas himself.
In Newman, these French theologians found not only a man whose theology was based on that of the Fathers, but one who was clear that theology should not be separated from history, and whose principal work was on the development of doctrine. He was a theologian who emphasised the real and the concrete as opposed to the theoretical and abstract, the personal and experiential as opposed to the impersonal and notional, and who believed that he was the first theologian to make “life the mark of a true Church”.
It is true that there is only one text in the documents of Vatican II where Newman’s influence can be directly felt, namely in the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum), where the Council acknowledged the fact of doctrinal development. Nevertheless, there are several other important documents that Newman anticipated, particularly the Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) – surely the most important document of a Council that was almost exclusively concerned with the Church, and to which his writings provide a valuable, not to say corrective, hermeneutic, where the meaning of the texts has been exaggerated, distorted or neglected.
Newman is regularly quoted selectively, usually in support of a liberal interpretation of the Council, less often of a highly conservative one. But the truth is that Newman cannot be categorised as simply liberal or conservative. He was both conservative and radical, a reformer but also a traditionalist. And his own theological development evinces both change and continuity, exactly in accordance with his theory of doctrinal development.
In his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, he wrote that Christian doctrine changes not to be different but “in order to remain the same”. Pope Benedict XVI practically echoed these words when in 2005, at the beginning of his pontificate, he contrasted two rival interpretations of the Second Vatican Council. On the one hand, there was “an interpretation” that he “would call a ‘hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture’”; on the other hand, there was “the ‘hermeneutic of reform’, of renewal in the continuity of the one subject-Church which the Lord has given to us. She is a subject which increases in time and develops, yet always remaining the same.” Or, as Benedict put it five years later, “The Council did not formulate anything new in matters of faith, nor did it wish to replace what was ancient. Rather, it concerned itself with seeing that the same faith might continue to be lived in the present day …”
There can be no question that Newman would have at first strongly supported the reformist bishops at Vatican II. However, reformers tend sooner or later to divide into moderate and more extreme factions; thus after the Council there were those who wished to interpret its documents as they stood (and in the light of tradition), and, on the other hand, those who preferred to invoke what they called “the spirit of Vatican II” in order to advocate a hermeneutic of discontinuity with tradition, calling for a Third Vatican Council that would supply whatever they deemed inadequate in the conciliar texts. Newman would undoubtedly have aligned himself with the moderate reformers, together with the young bishop Karol Wojtyła, the future Pope John Paul II, the young theologian Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, and all those who wished to interpret the Council in accordance with the hermeneutic of reform in continuity.
For the theology that emerged in the documents of Vatican II was the same kind of theology that Newman had himself pioneered, in the face of great opposition, as a result of his returning to the sources of Christianity in the Scriptures and the Fathers. And Newman’s writings on those subjects offer a balanced, and often corrective, commentary. Moreover, the theology of Councils that Newman adumbrated in private letters, only published several years after the conclusion of Vatican II, contains a number of highly relevant and salutary warnings and predictions that could have provided an illuminating commentary on the interpretations and so-called implementations of the Council in the years that followed.
Fr Ian Ker’s most recent book was Newman on Vatican II