Newman, Vatican II and the Imperative of Development

Editorial FAITH Magazine September – October 2012

“I have yet many things to say to you" (Jn 16:12)

"Well, you seem quite healthy..." Thus the doctor summed up this writer's annual check-up and indicated the door. Patients want to be told that in all likelihood there is no lingering disease, and with that assurance they can carry on until the next visit.

Although the analogy is not exact, we need to feel that our faith is firmly based. To be told that we are clinging to words and ideas, to plans and false securities, instead of listening to the inspirations of the Spirit is not much consolation. The Tablet recently put it more succinctly: "The history of the Church shows repeatedly that ideas rejected by one generation can become the orthodoxy of the next." They continue to peddle the line that there is "no method of re-evangelisation" that will turn back the "rational" rejection of the Church by large numbers of Catholics. This prominent British interpretation of Vatican II's call for development has been a significant cause of the weakening of the virtue of faith in our land. Yet we do need true development, and the failure toacknowledge this has been a more long-term cause of such weakening.

The Building up of the Body of Christ

Let us admit at the start the activity of the Holy Spirit. The third Person of the Trinity prompts from within - coming to our aid in prayer and inspiration; and in the outpouring of ideas in those who can be termed prophets or theologians. But at the same time, he brings to mind and gradually fulfils the whole ministerial structure of the Church in an ordered way "for building up the body of Christ until we all attain to the unity of the faith" (Eph. 4:12-13). The gifts of the Spirit are thus both hierarchic and charismatic.

The author of the Ephesians is not talking about some future horizon so much as the actual and present means for edifying, for "building up" the Church; so that she can preach the fullness of Christ's message of salvation and so serve the holiness of its members. He goes on to remind his listeners that they are "no longer children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine..."

We say that the Church is the body of Christ, meaning that it is a living organism and not just a concept. An organism has a dynamic equilibrium which allows it to assimilate and respond to a changing environment in order to preserve its unique identity. A tomato seed will take in nutrients in order to become a tomato plant and not a jacaranda tree. A young John Henry Newman realised this, partly as a result of attending Professor William Buckland's geology lectures. He subsequently preached - as early as 1825 - on the analogy between the growth of living things in the natural world and "the gradual revelation of the Gospel."
A Matter of Development

Newman would eventually work out his ideas in the Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. It is not Newman's most difficult work (that was another essay: A Grammar of Assent) but be warned! Newman himself came to see that the circumstances of the 1845 edition argued to a complete recasting of the text, and what we usually possess is the 1878 edition, not the 1845 original (which was itself an immediate best-seller). Both texts, however, make the same argument. The effort we are prepared to put into grasping Newman's thought process will help to introduce us to the three important ingredients of our faith: worship, devotion and interrelated dogmas, which must be joined in our minds because together they provide the strong foundation for our faith.

It is interesting that the Essay was rapidly translated into French and Spanish by modernist theologians who felt that it chimed with their thoughts. They would argue that the Christian Gospel can and should be modified and adapted to the cultural and intellectual attitudes and demands of successive generations and indeed originates in them. This could be said to depend on the view that humanity is the result of a purposeless and materialistic process that did not have God in mind, which many conceived as one aspect of the theory of evolution itself. Pius X's Syllabus Condemning the Errors of the Modernists contrasts the view that human society, being subject to "perpetual evolution", was linked to the same process in the organic constitution of the Church.

The Essay was at the time suspect in the eyes of Thornist scholars. There was the fear both of opening a Pandora's box of inevitable progress uncontrolled by man - and by extension the Church - and of the worship of any form of ineluctable progress. Giovanni Perrone, the Jesuit theologian at the Collegio Romano, was sympathetic to Newman's point that different views of the council fathers become the seeds from which an apostolic definition arise, but felt bound to comment, "I should not be so bold as to say that." The prevailing reaction was that there was too little philosophical deduction (Newman would call this "paper logic") and too much inherent sentiment and broad assumption within an historical package.

The Central Idea

Newman started from the premise of the Incarnation as the central idea of Christianity. This is the very heart of the Essay. Grasp this and the rest follows. But the very word idea had different meanings for Neo-Scholastics and for Newman. ForThomists, the idea was largely a logical construct, but for Newman it was both the apprehension of the object "which may vary in the separate consciousness of individuals [and] no one term or proposition will serve to define it", and the object itself. In the case of the Incarnation, the idea is received subjectively into the minds of individuals and then becomes objective in the dogmatic expressions used by the Magisterium.

There is obviously a place for logical deduction in the actual formulation of dogmatic decrees, but Newman interposes a kind of deep internal sense which enters the mind through the grasp of faith before being formulated objectively. Continuing the analogy of natural growth, we could say that there is this gradual assimilation in the embryonic stage of the seed (which is not obviously observable from the outside) before it puts out shoots above ground.

The central idea of Christianity is a burgeoning growth which takes hold of the Church with all the power of Pentecostal wind and fire. The Second Vatican Council's Dei Verbum could say: "There is a growth in insight into the realities and words that are being passed on ... [coming] from the intimate sense of spiritual realities which they experience... The Holy Spirit himself constantly perfects faith by his gifts, so that they may be more and more profoundly understood." Newman would claim that such chronic vigour or chronic continuance (in the 1845 edition), as one of his seven Tests or Notes, was a lasting dynamism.

If we consider the history of the Church and the mix of intellectual activity from saints and scholars, together with the attacks of persecutors, it would be expected that the Church would succumb to corruption if not extinction. But in spite of all apparent failures, dogmatic definitions arose, and precisely in their long-lasting continuance contrasted with the always short-lived heresies which flourish and gain adherents for a while but then fade into obscurity.

Development Not Change

This is no licence for mere change. As Fr Edward Holloway remarks: "Development is something other than change. It is an increase of being in accordance with, and substantial to, the nature of a thing in its primordial condition" (unpublished manuscript). Newman would write that Christian dogmas were in the Church from the time of the Apostles. "They were ever in their substance what they are now; that they existed before the formulas were publicly adopted." He would provide a profile of the early Church which was "a religious communion claiming a divine commission, and holding all other religious bodies around it heretical or infidel, a sort of secret society binding its members together by influence and engagement, spread over the whole world, a natural enemy to governments,intolerant and capable of dividing families and breaking laws. It is gross superstition, charged with the vilest of crimes and despised by intellectuals." He then provides a picture of the Church in the first five centuries and finds a remarkable preservation of type.

But in this development there is also the power of assimilation. Newman would maintain that no idea could last without making use of external sources. Such development, far from implying corruption, implies incorporation. If an idea coalesces with certain other ideas it does not show undue influence or corruption but "an antecedent affinity to them. But if it is really strong and vigorous, the more it is able to trust itself to throw off corruption and exult in its strength." He would argue that forms, subscriptions, or articles of religion were indispensable when the principle of life is weak, and would add prophetically: "We have yet to see whether the Free Kirk can keep its present theological ground."

It is because Catholicism has a living tradition that it can dispense with such forms, because the organism has the power to filter what it receives into itself, and the capacity to absorb and to reject. The precise balance is always difficult to assess but growth in nature and in Christianity involves interaction with the environment in which it operates. Newman would argue: "As fresh and fresh duties arises, or fresh and fresh faculties are brought into action, they are at once absorbed into the existing inward system and take their appropriate place in it."

In the case of Arianism, Newman said: "Certain it is that the true faith never could come into contact with the heathen philosophies without exercising its right to arbitrate between them." This is not some theological apportionment but the result of an awareness of what resonates with the idea itself. The Church, said Professor Joseph Ratzinger, is the living presence in every age, not the petrification of what once was.

But there must be an interconnection which in one sense is logical, but not by a process of reasoning from premise to conclusion. Rather it develops in the mind step by step and is higher than that which is logical. The Apostles knew without putting into words all the truths pertaining to theology which have subsequently been reduced to doctrinal formulae: the Holy Spirit would show them the things that were to come. (John 16:13) When we look back we can see what Newman called the logical sequence. When we look forward, it is anticipation of the future.

It is also possible to notice that what seems new illustrates and corroborates the body of thought which precedes it. Newman would cover this under the name of preservative additions (which became, in the 1878 edition, conservative action on the past). In other words it is one process which does not destroy what has gone before but draws it on to a new plane, just as Jesus came, not to destroy but to fulfil; whereas a corruption tends of its nature towards decay and destruction.

The school of Socinus maintained that belief in the Trinity went against belief in Monotheism but in fact belief in the Trinity takes into consideration the previous doctrine and enriches it. The dogma of the Immaculate Conception is still considered by Anglican theologians as an unwarranted addition to Christian doctrine: unproved from Scripture and not logically deduced from apostolic teaching. However, Pius IX pointed out that nothing had been added or taken away from the deposit of faith but that the Immaculate Conception "always existed in the Church as a doctrine that has been received from our ancestors" and was implicit in Scripture.

But above all there must be consistency. Newman refers to continuity of principles. The life of doctrines "may be said to consist in the law or principle which they embody". There is the dogmatic principle which argues that supernatural truths committed to human language are necessary and definitive of their very nature. The sacramental principle is the direct expression of the doctrine of the Incarnation, as is the principle of grace.

But all of these aspects of the development of doctrine depend fundamentally on making that assent to the fact that the Church was founded by Jesus Christ and perpetually guided by the Holy Spirit into all truth. One must expect to see in the present Church the realisation of what has gone before. Newman himself followed his own logic and did not add the final touches to the Essay because he wanted to be received into the Roman Catholic Church which fulfilled all the criteria he had set out beforehand.

Contemporary Reactions

Since Newman's time, and especially in the last 50 years, we have seen a development in the understanding of the Church's role in the world. Of course, there is a duty to uphold the deposit of faith but also an awareness that the Church is uniquely placed to offer Christ as the one who unifies and perfects the best in humanity, because he is its Saviour. This is at the heart of the continuing ecumenical debate, where attention is drawn to "the hierarchy of truths... which vary in their relation to the foundation of the Christian faith". In this context we can appreciate the contribution of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, which is bringing into the Church the influence of the Sarum rite in the Book of Common Prayer for an English Evensong now to be completed byBenediction.

But the organism which is Catholic Christianity must react when its integrity is jeopardised. This danger has always emerged from within rather than from without. Instead of regarding heterodox opinions as invasions to be repulsed, it is more helpful to see them against the background of a natural reflex to a pathogen. Newman would say: "Truth is wrought by the indirect operation of error and sin." It is all too easy to treat theological research as somehow isolated from that leading into all truth which the Church is consecrated to pursue, under the influence of the Holy Spirit. Newman's words in 1860 still have relevance: "To unsettle the minds of a generation, when you give them no landmarks and no causeway across the morass, is to undertake a great responsibility."

However, historically from Arianism there arose eventually the Nicene Creed and, in the case of Protestantism, the teaching on Grace and Original Sin. Of course sin and error are wounds inflicted on the Church, but the central idea maintains itself and

develops, using the dreadful experience as an opportunity for reform. Subsequently the Church puts out new shoots - at the time of the Reformation these were seen in the rise of new religious orders and seminaries for the training of the clergy; since Vatican II, after the tide of militant atheism had passed, they have been evident in the opening of a dialogue with the world - and, as a direct result of the Council, in the rise of liturgy in the vernacular and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Together these developments provide a renewed expression of the faith, what Pope John Paul II would call "a new Advent". This has provided the momentum to press for a greater commitment, and has strengthened our faith to face the challenges which a new, internationally connected andculturally diverse society needs.

The Test of a True Development

For Newman there is always the possibility that what may appear innovative doctrines are in fact implicit in the total understanding of the faith, and yet not necessarily subject to some logical deduction. Into that equation must be put that sense of the faith which comes from an anointing by the Holy Spirit and manifests itself "from the bishops to the last of the a universal consent in faith and morals". But the final touch, we might say, of what is a genuine development remains always the Magisterium, which possesses "the sure charism of truth". As Vatican II pointed out this is not a question of a bicameral juridical process. Rather, it is a universal consent that arises from within the Church but is articulated by the Pope and bishops who have been mandated by Christto oversee the concrete articulation of the faith entrusted to them. It was witnessed at the Council of Ephesus when the bishops pronounced that Mary was the Mother of God and therefore Jesus was true God and true man. The people outside broke into song, glorifying God and praising Mary as Deipara, the Mother of God.

There needs to be that joyous enthusiasm for the faith, but it must not be merely a prompting of the heart. There must also be an appeal to the mind - one which can take in the necessity of advancing in wisdom and knowledge and which at times demands the capacity for growth and change. Newman's gift was to explain, before Darwin put pen to paper, how the growth of new ideas does not involve jettisoning what has gone before but taking it on to new levels. The Church is not committed to a process of arbitrary change - that is not how to understand Newman's phrase "to be perfect, is to change often".

Newman presents us with a means to comprehend any new and genuine development. He also largely explains why the Church can reject what many believe to be a valid expression of faith but which must be authoritatively excluded. In this way he prepares us to see that there is a pattern behind the changes taking place because the Church always possesses a chronic vigour. It is that continually dynamic life which carries us in its stride. For the Church goes boldly forward "amid the persecutions of the world and the consolations of God", and so should we with her.

Faith Magazine

September - October 2012