The need for Newman?s theory of development
The need for Newman?s theory of development

The need for Newman?s theory of development

Stephen Morgan is the first author since Newman’s canonization to present a well-argued explanation and defence of the theory of his Essay on Christian doctrinal development.

He traces the evolution of Newman’s theory leading up to his history of the Arian crisis and the abolition of dioceses in the Irish Church Temporalities Act in 1833. In two further chapters the journey reaches the condemnation of Tract 90, the incongruous appointment of the bishop of the United Church of England and Ireland in Jerusalem in 1841, and Newman’s departure to Littlemore. The fourth chapter sees the final resolution of the theory of development. Morgan has read widely around the subject and made himself familiar with the whole Newman corpus – analyzing and using what the various authors have said, but also
pointing out flaws in some of their arguments.

The problem of heresy

Particular attention is rightly paid to Newman’s correspondence with Jean-Nicholas Jager as playing a significant role in the process that many have tended to disregard. He uses the expression ‘Catholicism of the Word’ to explain how Newman placed his reliance on the famous Vincentian Canon (‘what has to be believed everywhere, always, and by all’) and the ‘Discipline of the Secret’ as pivotal to an understanding of the Church of the early centuries. These were seen to be crucial in order to be faithful to the primary role of Scripture but which ultimately resulted in a textual fundamentalism. When this proved unsustainable, Newman fell back on the Church of England as ‘possessing’ the real features of the apostolic Church, with the note of holiness present, only to come up against the irreconcilable problem of heresy.

The ‘idea’ of Christianity

Morgan emphasizes the profound impression made on Newman by Dr. Wiseman’s three articles in the Dublin Review in 1838 and 1839 and the correspondence with his brother Francis between May and November 1840 in which Newman maintained that the unity and integrity of the Church from earliest times provided the test for the legitimacy of any development. Eventually he found a more durable solution by fixing upon the ‘idea’ of Christianity which lives in the minds of the faithful. The idea develops in a way that its identity is preserved and corruptions avoided “through engagement with historical and cultural frameworks” with “the unity in communion with the Bishop of Rome”.

Development and Pope Francis

Anyone who is looking to see Newman’s mind at work will find Morgan’s investigation of the theory eminently readable. The subtitle of the book is ‘Encountering Change. Looking for Continuity’. Morgan insists that Newman’s theory needs to take a more prominent place in theology, in order to deal with both a tendency of retreating into a fortress mentality and to resist the relentless pressure of contemporary liberalism so that it is “better known, more thoroughly understood and widely adopted.” He argues that the Church must believe in development on the one hand and reject open-ended change on the other. He takes issue with Pope Francis with whom, he says, “the only constant has been change,” but who, as a result, has brought the whole question of change and continuity into focus. He considers that these  changes appear “to signify alterations in the understanding of the sacraments themselves and the theology of grace which have unsettled a number of theologians, the author among them.”
He faults Pope Francis’ amendment to paragraph 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the death penalty which has now been labelled ‘inadmissible’. St John Paul II argued for a restriction of its morally licit use. Morgan says that the amendment does not qualify as a true development. I cannot see the strength of his argument, even if we do not consider this as his own preferred opinion. Newman considered that the Pope did have a personal role as Doctor Ecclesiae which would include making such precision but not involve infallibility. Morgan argues that we need to “conceive of that living authority operating in its proper context”. But on the matter of communion to the divorced and remarried in footnote 351 of Amoris Laetitiae, he is on stronger ground, especially bearing in mind the Catechism of the Catholic Church n. 1665, Code of Canon Law n. 915 and St John Paul’s clear teaching in Veritatis Splendor and Ecclesia de Eucharistia. But this also might be considered a personal opinion.



This handsomely produced book is based on Morgan’s Oxford doctoral thesis, for which he is to be congratulated. As with any work under pressure, such as a thesis, there are occasional lapses.

Some references need to be checked, and there is no 1836 two volume Via Media of the Anglican Church: Illustrated in Lectures, Letters and Tracts Written between 1830 and 1836. Lectures on the Prophetical Office of the Church was issued as a single volume in March 1837. The two volume Via Media. Written between 1830 and 1841 was not published until 1877 with the second volume containing ancillary material, Newman’s footnotes and an important third preface.
Stephen Morgan has had an interesting career: as naval officer, accountant, seminarian, married deacon of Portsmouth diocese and chairman of diocesan finance officers. I hope that his new position as Dean of the Faculty of Religious Studies at the University of St Joseph in Macao will not prevent him from embarking on further important research.

Father James Tolhurst is working on a critical edition of Newman’s Via Media, Volume I.


John Henry Newman and the Development of Doctrine by Stephen Morgan, Catholic
University of America Press, 315pp. $70.50., £67.32. Review by James Tolhurst

Faith Magazine

September - October 2022 2022