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Book review: Newman is a sure guide to life after Vatican II

Blessed John Henry Newman (Photo: CNS)

Newman on Vatican II by Ian Ker, OUP, £25

Newman was not a systematic theologian; he himself insisted that he was, rather, a controversialist. In this he seems instinctively to have identified himself with the fathers of the early Church who, as he pointed out, “rather than writing formal doctrinal treatises… write controversy”. Newman wrote voluminously in response to particular occasions. Sometimes, this meant writing a book (The Idea of a University, the Apologia Pro Vita Sua) or a sermon or a series of lectures (Certain Difficulties Felt by Anglicans in Catholic Teaching); most, often perhaps, a letter, of which there are at least 20,000 extant.

Sometimes Newman’s controversial instinct, normally expressed gently, produced polemic of wonderful wit and acid brilliance, as with his defence, in the Apologia, of his own integrity and that of his Church against the contemptuous attacks of Charles Kingsley. Kingsley was generally seen at the time as having been quite crushed by Newman’s response, and in the second and subsequent editions of the Apologia Newman, magnanimous in victory, consigned his most swingeingly cutting opening chapters to an appendix. Normally, he is more gentle in his argumentation; but he responds unfailingly to the issues in which he finds himself engaged or which are brought before him: much of his thought is contained in his correspondence, on which Dr Ian Ker has drawn heavily in this new book, his brilliant, indispensable and pithily entitled Newman on Vatican II.

It is a real question. How, indeed, would this controversialist “Father of Vatican II” have responded to the manifold controversies of these post-conciliar times? Everyone, liberal or conservative, attempts to recruit Newman for their own point of view. For myself, I cannot see how theological liberals can claim him as one of themselves, if they have read (perhaps they missed it?) his definition of heresy in Development of Christian Doctrine (chapter 8), which is an implicit description of the liberalism he observed taking over the established Church of his own day. Among its principles, he wrote, were these: “that truth and falsehood in religion are but a matter of opinion; that one doctrine is as good as another … that there is no truth; that we are not more acceptable to God by believing this than by believing that; … that our merit lies in seeking, not in possessing;… that we may safely trust to ourselves in matters of Faith; and need no other guide”. Could there be a more incisive or more accurate delineation of the so-called “Spirit of Vatican II”?

Dr Ker argues that Newman would have understood the Council in a broadly similar way to that in which Pope Benedict explained it; thus, we can see Newman not merely as the “unseen Father of Vatican II” but also as a guardian of its aftermath. Just as Benedict XVI said, explaining his ideas on “The Hermeneutic of Change in Continuity” (one of Dr Ker’s chapter titles), that the Church “increases in time and develops, yet always remaining the same”, so Newman had said, in his “Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine”, that Christianity “changes in order to remain the same”. But when, Newman and Dr Ker say, an “idea” like Christianity changes only to become something different, then what has taken place is not an authentic development but a “corruption”. Thus, of those theologians in our own times who actually want something different, Dr Ker writes (in a chapter entitled “Towards a Theology of Councils”) that just as Newman was critical of Manning and those ultramontanes who argued for a “papal infallibility …unlimited in its scope”, he “would surely have been at least as critical of Hans Küng and so-called ‘progressive’ Catholics” who today “regularly appeal to ‘the Spirit of Vatican II’ in order to advance an agenda for which there is no warrant in the text of the documents of that Council”. On the other hand, Dr Ker says, “so too Newman would have rejected the Lefebvrists’ appeal to tradition against the teachings of Vatican II”.

Those Catholics who find themselves confused and sometimes distressed by the state of the Church in these post-conciliar times should find this book both illuminating and in one way reassuring. Newman pointed out that the kind of chaos in which we are still living (despite all the positive signs of recovery from the worst excesses) always follows a General Council. In one of the book’s most fascinating chapters, “Some Unintended Consequences of Vatican II”, Dr Ker writes that, if as some claimed, “the understanding of revelation and faith was overly propositional [ie more about dogma than personal faith] before the Council, the pendulum now swung to the opposite extreme, as Newman could have predicted. It was in this anti-propositional theological climate that a book could appear entitled Has Dogma a Future? by a well-known theologian. This climate explains the widespread hostility to Pope John Paul II’s decision in 1985 that a Catechism of the Catholic Church should be published as it duly was nine years later. By this time this anti-propositional theology had percolated down to the level of parish and school, with very serious consequences for catechesis and preaching.” Mrs Daphne McLeod, in other words, got it dead right; and John Henry Newman, today, would have been one of her supporters, not one of her detractors.

Newman, says Dr Ker, criticised “the common mistake of supposing that there is a contrariety and antagonism between a dogmatic creed and vital religion”, and quotes a long passage from Newman’s Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (1870) which, he says, “should have been compulsory reading for catechists and educators after Vatican II”. It ends with these words: “Devotion must have its objects; those objects, being supernatural, when not represented to our senses by material symbols, must be set before the mind in propositions. The formula, which embodies a dogma for the theologian, readily suggests an object for the worshipper”.

Alas, a real knowledge of what Newman actually believed and taught is as rare among those who think that he was in favour of “development” for its own sake (irrespective of any question of authenticity) as is their real knowledge and understanding of the texts of the Council whose “Spirit” they claim to embody. But anyone, liberal or traditionalist, who with an open mind carefully reads Newman on Vatican II – which will now surely be increasingly acclaimed as a classic text in its own right – will know (and perhaps even understand) a great deal more about both Newman and the Council, than they did before.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Catholic Herald (5/9/14)


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