Newman on Councils and Their Aftermaths

Author: Ian Ker

Newman on Councils and Their Aftermaths

Ian Ker

On 22 and 23 November [2010], an International Symposium with the theme "The Primacy of God in the Life and Writings of Blessed John Henry Newman" organized by International Centre of Newman Friends, the event was held at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. Among the various speakers, Prof. Ian Ker, the author of a biography on Newman described by Henry Chadwick as "a very splendid book", gave a paper, published here in a version shortened by the author.

Before, during, and after the First Vatican Council, Newman adumbrated what I think we can call a mini-theology of Councils of the Church, which has much relevance for our own post-conciliar time. The first point to be made is that Newman was in no doubt that Councils had always caused great trouble and dissension in the Church. Then there was the effect of a definition like that of papal infallibility: although in theory it might say very little, less than what the Ultramontanes had pressed for, its practical effects were far greater. The more general point here is that Councils have unintended consequences, larger consequences than the actual conciliar texts would seem to warrant; the more specific point is that a conciliar teaching cannot be taken in isolation out of context, or rather in this case lack of context, since the indefinite suspension of Vatican I meant that the definition was unaccompanied by a more general teaching about the Church which would have qualified the definition. That the Church had to wait for another Council for this to happen would not have surprised Newman: his study of the early Church showed how Councils completed and modified each other. This point also applied to Vatican II. And Newman means by completion not augmenting what has already been taught — which in the case of Vatican I would have meant a strengthening of the definition — but teachings that emphasise other aspects of the Christian revelation. In the case of Vatican II, it would suggest not a Vatican III on the same lines as Vatican II but rather a Council that would took up very different points.

Although Vatican II was not for the most part a dogmatic Council, nevertheless its teachings caused and still cause considerable disunity. After Vatican I Newman had observed that the Church had had three hundred years to absorb and digest the Council of Trent, but that now the Church had to absorb the definition of papal infallibility into its system. The unhappy fact was, Newman pointed out, that Councils threw theology into turmoil, and led to acrimonious controversy. Conciliar teachings required interpretation: they hardly spoke for themselves, although after Vatican II there was much talk of "implementing" its teachings as though they were self-evident. Newman thought the whole Church is involved in this: not only the magisterium and the theologians but all the faithful.

After Vatican I Newman could hardly have been surprised by either the Old Catholic schism led by Döllinger or the extremism of the Ultramontane party in exaggerating the scope of the definition of papal infallibility. Nor would he have been surprised by the analogous if reverse situation after Vatican II when both Lefebvre and his followers and the liberals on the opposite wing united in exaggerating the revolutionary scope and meaning of the Council and its rupture with the Church's tradition. However, although Newman deplored the way Döllinger appealed to history against the Council as analogous to the Protestant appeal to Scripture against the Church, he could not deny he had been provoked by the extreme Ultramontanes like Cardinal Manning of Westminster who had employed extraordinary rhetoric in his pastoral letter of October 1870, which gave the impression that papal infallibility was unlimited. Similarly, he would no doubt have sympathized with the Lefebvrists to the extent that he would have deplored the aggressive extremism of
the liberal "the spirit of Vatican II" party.

To these reflections on Councils and their aftermaths should be added a striking point that Newman makes at the beginning of his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. In the first section of the first chapter, where he is speaking about the process of development in ideas, he points out that a living idea cannot be isolated "from intercourse with the world around". But he argues that this intercourse is actually necessary "if a great idea is duly to be understood, and much more if it is to be fully exhibited". In Newman's terminology, Christianity is such an "idea".

But there is an obvious objection to the argument: namely, that the further anything moves from its origin or source, the more likely it is to lose its original character. Conceding that certainly there is always a risk of an idea being corrupted by external elements, Newman nevertheless insists that, while "It is indeed sometimes said that the stream is clearest near the spring", this is not true of the kind of idea he is talking about.

Whatever use may fairly be made of this image, it does not apply to the history of a philosophy or belief, which on the contrary is more equable, and purer, and stronger, when its bed has become deep, and broad, and full. It necessarily rises out of an existing state of things, and for a time savours of the soil. Its vital element needs disengaging from what is foreign and temporary...

In other words, the philosophy or belief becomes more rather than less its true self as it changes or develops in time. And it is ironic that the famous words which appear in the conclusion to this section are regularly quoted out of context to mean the opposite of what Newman intended: "In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often". The point is not that Catholicism has to change or develop in order to be different but in order to be the same, as the preceding sentence makes clear: "It changes with them [that is, external circumstances] in order to remain the same". (An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine [Longmans uniform ed.], 39-40)

Now if Newman is correct in what he says about an "idea" such as "a philosophy or belief' becoming "more equable, and purer, and stronger" as it develops, then the teachings of Vatican II will become "more equable, and purer, and stronger" as time goes on. Those who participated in the Council no doubt thought they understood perfectly well the meaning of its teachings. Both Küng and Lefebvre had no doubt in their minds about how the Council was to be understood (as a rupture with Tradition), and, ironically, like Döllinger and Manning, were in close agreement about its significance. In retrospect, we can see much better the very limited scope of the definition of papal infallibility and appreciate the accuracy of Newman's interpretation. But for both Döllinger and Manning the definition signified far more than Catholic theology has since understood it to mean.

If we may take Newman, often called "the Father of the Second Vatican Council", as our guide, then, we may legitimately use that passage in the Essay on Development to argue that those who participated in or lived through the Second Vatican Council are less likely to understand the true meaning and significance of the Council's teachings than posterity. The "idea" of Vatican II will, if Newman is correct, grow "more equable, and purer, and stronger" as the "stream" moves away from the "spring" and "its bed has become deep, and broad, and full". Far from taking place in a historical void, the Second Vatican Council met at a time of enormous upheaval in Western society, a time of optimistic euphoria but also a time of great moral and spiritual devastation. It took place in a period of revolution and inevitably "savoured" of the "soil" of the 1960s, of, to use Newman's words, the "existing state of things" of that decade. Consequently, its "vital element needs disengaging from what is foreign and temporary".

This brings us to the second kind of development that Newman speaks of in his mini-theology of Councils, the consideration that Councils open up further developments because of what they don't say or stress. In the case of Vatican I, Newman saw that the isolated teaching on the papacy and the lack of a general teaching on the Church must open up the kind of development that would reach fruition nearly a century later in Lumen Gentium. The priorities similarly had to change after Vatican II, both because of unbalanced exaggerations of its teachings and because of the emergence of new problems. This change in fact began to happen very soon after the Council. After only nine years had elapsed, Pope Paul VI issued Evangelii Nuntiandi in 1974, in which he called for a new evangelization. Apart from the decree on the foreign missions, Vatican II was virtually silent on evangelization, the great proccupation of this and the last pontificate.

These two kinds of development have come together in a wholly unexpected post-Vatican II phenomenon, which is vitally connected with the new evangelization, and which exemplifies both the two kinds of Newmanian development that I have been speaking of. The rise of the new ecclesial communities and movements, some of which in fact pre-date the Council, on the one hand can be said to represent a response to what the Council failed or omitted to speak about, and on the other hand to make much clearer and more luminous what must surely be the key text of the Council, the first two chapters of the Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, where the Council, which was a Council almost entirely concerned with the Church, offers its fundamental definition of the nature of the Church. The scriptural and patristic ecclesiology of these two foundational chapters, "The Mystery of the Church" and "The People of God", is the same ecclesiology that Newman had discovered as an Anglican from his reading of the Greek Fathers, who saw the Church as primarily the communion of those who have received the gift of the Holy Spirit in Baptism. For the whole point, one might say, about these communities and movements is precisely that they are not lay communities and movements, although they have been often called such, but ecclesial communities and movements. They are ecclesial and not lay because they consist not only of lay members but also of clergy, bishops, and religious or consecrated lay members. For what is so significant is that they bring together the baptised, whatever their particular status in the Church, into an organic communion, as opposed to a Church in which clergy and laity are, as it were, ranged against each other.

What Pope Benedict XVI sees as the fifth great movement of the Spirit in the history of the Church ("The Ecclesial Movements: A Theological Reflection on their Place in the Church", Movements in the Church: Proceedings of the World Congress of the Ecclesial Movements, Rome 27-29 May 1998 [Vatican City: Pontificium Consilium pro Laicis, 1999], 23-4) is entirely in continuity not disruption with the Church's tradition as it is simply another manifestation of the Church's charismatic as opposed to hierarchical dimension, a dimension referred to three times in the first two chapters of Lumen Gentium, the rediscovery of which Pope John Paul II described as one of the most important Achievements of the Council. (Address, op. cit., p. 221)

The Anglican Newman well understood this dimension, and the need for it to be regulated by the hierarchical dimension, when he wrote about the great importance of monasticism for the early Church and the serious lack of it in the Anglican Church. As a Catholic, he wrote not only about St Benedict but hoped to write a book in which he would contrast the Benedictine, Dominican, and Jesuit charisms — a book that was unfortunately never completed. But he did write at some length about St Philip Neri and the Oratorian charism, where he reveals how like in its origin the Oratory was to a modern ecclesial community. As an Anglican, of course, he had himself inspired and led the Oxford Movement, which was not so unlike a contemporary ecclesial movement in the way it brought clergy and laity together into a common mission.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
15 December 2010, page 8

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