Newman – Ahead of his time?

Address by Fr. Jonathan Redvers Harris for “Saint Newman Morning” – 19th October 2019, the Priory School of Our Lady of Walsingham at Whippingham

First, all the usual caveats and disclaimers. I don’t pretend to be a Newman scholar, as would become rapidly apparent should anyone subject me to penetrating questions at the end. What follows, is drawn from my limited reading of Newman, in the course of some canon law studies a few years ago. I was exploring the notion of sensus fidei – the sense or instinct of faith possessed by all the baptised, by which we, as Christ’s sheep, recognise the voice of the Good Shepherd. I was looking at this in relation to the Church’s teaching authority in the First and Second Vatican Councils, and more recently. And I was considering how teaching is given to, and received by, the People of God with this supernatural appreciation of the faith, and doing so with a kind of “Newmanian” lens.

Newman (1801-1890) spanned almost the entire nineteenth century, and while not physically present at Vatican I (1869-1870), he was closely involved with its deliberations. He wasn’t, of course, physically present at Vatican II, but he can be seen to have anticipated some of its direction, and is sometimes referred to as an, if not the, “invisible father at Vatican II”.

At the outset it needs to be acknowledged that Newman was a complicated and nuanced scholar, priest and poet, and can’t readily be put in anyone’s pocket to champion a particular position. It is often said that a variety of viewpoints may claim support from Newman – which is not surprising, given that his works spanned different phases of his life, addressed different audiences, and included many personal comments in his rich wealth of private letters and diaries.

My own starting point for this brief address is an essay written by Newman in 1859, some 14 years after his conversion to Catholicism – an essay entitled On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine. Not the snappiest of titles, but titles were not then. In this essay Newman was undoubtedly “ahead of his time”. Now, of course, “the faithful” means all of Christ’s faithful – clergy, religious, laity – but Newman’s writings do show that he had the lay faithful in mind especially. Without the laity, in his oft-quoted words, “the Church would look foolish”. Newman’s commitment to a theology of a well-educated and participating laity drew hostility from both the hierarchy at home and from Rome itself. One reaction to Newman, from Rome, was given by Monsignor Talbot: “What is the province of the laity? To hunt, to shoot, to entertain. These matters they understand, but to meddle with ecclesiastical matters they have no right at all…”

It’s important not to make Newman’s Consulting the Faithful work overtime. He didn’t mean consulting in the sense of taking counsel, going into small groups and getting people’s opinions. No, he meant “consult” as in looking to the fact of the faithful’s belief, as a witness to apostolic tradition, more in the way of consulting a barometer. The voice of the faithful, in this constant witness, their consensus, “is the voice of the Infallible Church,” said Newman. And, in his essay, he goes back to the Arian controversy of the fourth century, when at times, it was the fidelity of the faithful, as opposed to the failings of the bishops, which did more to uphold the divine dogma of our Lord’s divinity. Put another way, the Ecclesia docta (that’s the people in the Church who are taught – the punters at the bottom, if you like) was more constant to the apostolic faith than the Ecclesia docens (the people in the Church who deliver the teaching, from the top). This gained Newman particular flak, so much so that Bishop Brown of Newport (in Wales, not here in the Isle of Wight), made a formal complaint about this “most unfortunate essay”, to the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith in Rome.

Newman was writing this just four years after the definition of the Immaculate Conception in 1854. Several years before that definition was made, Pius IX had addressed all the bishops of the Church asking that they let him know about “the devotion which animates your clergy and your people regarding the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary and how ardently glows the desire that this doctrine be defined by the Apostolic See” [Encyclical Ubi primum, 1849]. What Newman noticed in particular was that when the dogma of the Immaculate conception actually came to be set forth [Apostolic Constitution Ineffabilis Deus , 1854], the Pope, just before the very defining words of the doctrine, wrote of the “singular common-breathing” of the bishops and faithful. This conspiratio – a breathing together, or the combined breathing – of pastors and faithful, was a phrase that became one of Newman’s favourites. And so, in this same essay, Newman said:

“…no portion [of the Church] can safely be neglected. Though the laity be but the reflection or echo of the clergy in matters of faith, yet there is something in the ‘pastorum et fidelium conspiratio’ which is not in the pastors alone. The history of the definition of the Immaculate Conception shows us this, …that by that very definition we are all reminded of the part which the laity have had in the preliminaries of its promulgation.”

So in this famous essay, Newman presented the “teaching Church” (Ecclesia docens) and the “learning Church” (Ecclesia docta) as an organic unity, and the noble position which he emphasised in relation to the laity was advanced for its time.

Ten years after this essay, in 1869, came the First Vatican Council, convoked by Pius IX (picture – above), and Newman’s letters and diaries in the years beforehand, and during the Council, show that he was repeatedly urged to travel to Rome to the Council. It seems that the Pope himself was minded to name Newman as a consultor to the Council, to help with work on a preparatory commission. But Newman declined on grounds of his health, his work, and his unease about participating in boards and committees. Others urged Newman to attend the Council in an advisory capacity – the Bishop of Orleans was keen to have him as his theologian, pressing him at least twice to join him. But it appears that the apprehension of some residual Roman hostility, arising from the denunciation of his essay on consulting the faithful, lay at the back of Newman’s mind in his refusal to attend. Nonetheless, although physically absent, Newman’s correspondence, with letters to and from bishops and others in Rome, shows how caught up he was the Council’s deliberations.

The presenting issue of Vatican I was the very subject of formally defining papal infallibility. Newman personally accepted papal infallibility but he didn’t believe that it needed to be defined as such – there was, for instance, no particular heresy around at the time which needed to be knocked on the head with such a definition. But there were other factors prompting a move towards reasserting papal primacy, such as the political threat of the possible loss of the Papal States, and the continuing influence of conciliarism which sought to limit papal power and make it subject to a general council.

Despite Newman’s initial reservations, papal infallibility – or, more accurately, the quality of infallibility with which Christ endowed his Church – was defined as a dogma revealed by divine origin, in Vatican I’s second Constitution [Pastor Aeternus] in 1870. Somewhat paradoxically, or at least ironically, Newman’s own writing on the development of Christian doctrine may have helped pave the way for the definition of infallibility. He wrote that essay – on the development of doctrine – just before being received into the Church in 1845, and in it he accepted the inevitability that “the doctrine of the infallibility of the Church” would grow. In his letters and diaries, he said, “I have, I almost think, said that the definition of the Pope’s infallibility was to be expected – So people say, but I have not read my book since I wrote it, and don’t know where to look for the passage”.

“I will not believe that the Pope’s infallibility will be defined, till defined it is,” he wrote, and even after it was defined he was not immediately convinced about its validity because of the opposition of over 80 Council fathers to it, and he wondered whether they might, perhaps, organise themselves into opposition to seek to modify the definition. In the event, the minority opposition melted away, and Newman then accepted the definition as having moral unanimity in the Council. Universality, for Newman, was an important principle: that the whole Church needs to judge something to be right, or “brought home to us as authentic” – this was how he understood a maxim of St Augustine’s, securus judicat orbis terrarum which he, Newman, came to favour, that the whole Church at length needs to rest and acquiesce in the rightness of a definition or judgment [JHN, Apologia pro Vita Sua]. Or, as Newman wrote in a letter to a friend, that any declaration of the Pope’s rests ultimately with what he called “the general Catholic intelligence.”

Of course, this act by the First Vatican Council didn’t attract universal enthusiasm. And the Liberal British Prime Minister William Gladstone (picture – above) was fierce in his opposition, claiming that it would affect the civil allegiance of Catholics to the state, and as a result he issued a pamphlet called “A Political Expostulation” in 1874 after he lost the general election that year, and Newman commented on Gladstone’s hostility in his own essay, known as a Letter Addressed to the Duke of Norfolk.

It was in that same Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, that Newman made his celebrated, and often misunderstood remark about conscience:

“Certainly, if I am obliged to bring religion into after-dinner toasts, (which indeed does not seem quite the thing) I shall drink – to the Pope, if you please, — still, to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards.”

As one scholar has said, “the idea that a Catholic may conscientiously dissent from the magisterium’s moral teachings would have amazed Newman” [Ker]. No, Newman was responding to Gladstone’s claim that the infallibility definition would compromise the allegiance of Catholic citizens to the state if papal orders commanded them to obey otherwise. In this sense, a properly formed and informed conscience – including formation by the magisterium – would indeed take priority over a pope’s fallible political decrees. For Newman, conscience is, as he put it, “the aboriginal Vicar of Christ”, with the delegated sovereignty of God Himself, not the private autonomy of the individual. [Certain Difficulties].

But to return to the Church’s Councils. We’ve become quite used to the word, “prorogation” in recent weeks. Well, the first Vatican Council was prorogued in October 1870, following the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war, and effectively was suspended until the Second Vatican Council, as it never reconvened. In the year following the suspension of Vatican I, Newman uncannily seemed almost to predict the Second Vatican Council. In a letter commenting on how in the sweep of Church history the Church progresses to “the perfect truth” by a series of balancing and counter-balancing actions, “perfecting, completing, supplying each other,” to use his words, he went on to say: “Let us be patient, let us have faith, and a new Pope, and a reassembled Council may trim the boat.” This comment has been seen as “a remarkable prophecy of the Second Vatican Council.” [Ker]

We have already noted that Newman’s thought was complex and nuanced, and that no one Church party can easily claim him for its own. But, that said, he does seem to have been something of a via media figure. In the infallibility debate of Vatican I, he steered a middle way between the ultramontanist Archbishop Cardinal Manning and the non-infallibilist Döllinger. And, had Newman been alive after Vatican II, he would doubtless have rejected both the traditionalist Lefebvrists and the progressives like Hans Küng. In Benedict XVI’s language, Newman might well be seen as supporting a “hermeneutic of change within continuity”.

Scholars differ as to whether Newman himself had any direct influence on Vatican II, in terms of its proceedings and its texts. He surely had some indirect influence – for instance, the theologian Yves Congar was involved in the Council, bringing expertise and influence, including help in drafting conciliar texts. And Congar was well-versed in Newman’s thought, and he himself was already writing about the role of the laity in the decades before the Council. Newman’s own essay on consulting the laity, written back in 1859, was itself republished in 1961 – significantly, surely? – on the very eve of the Second Vatican Council.

One of the most important documents of Vatican II was of course Lumen gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. This text, in a revolutionary way, begins with the Church as “the People of God”, a mystery, indwelt by the Spirit – rather than getting immediately caught up with Tridentine distinctions of clergy and laity. The ecclesiology here is one of organic communion, as found in the Scriptures and the Fathers, just as Newman would have understood the Church – all that is spelt out before any treatment of hierarchical structures. Most of us are now familiar with the principle of the participation of the whole people of God in Christ’s threefold office of Prophet Priest and King, by virtue of baptism, another part of this Constitution on the Church; this was a theme extending back centuries, and treated by Newman himself in his own writing [Via Media, 1877, 3rd edn.]. And in this sharing of Christ’s tria munera, the prophetic office of Christ is fulfilled not only through the hierarchical teaching authority, but also through the laity, whom Christ has made “His witnesses and gave them understanding of the faith [sensus fidei] and the grace of speech.” If that’s not Newmanian, I don’t know what is!

One principle of Vatican II, again from Lumen gentium, that Newman did not anticipate, was that of episcopal collegiality – that the bishops as successors of the apostles form a “college”, and from within this college and over this college stands the Vicar of Christ himself. Newman, as we have noted, spoke, almost prophetically, of a future Council “trimming the boat” – and this is just such an example, as the somewhat jurisdictional approach of Vatican I, in which the authority of pope and episcopate are almost set in opposition, is now redressed and balanced by the principle of collegiality in which the head and members of the college have entrusted to them the Church’s teaching office.

I’ve already referred to Newman’s essay on the Development of Doctrine. This idea doesn’t mean that the Church conjures up new doctrines, or changes traditional morality, to keep up with the tides and fashions of the times. No, his theory of the development of doctrine, is that – well, I can’t improve on Newman’s own words:

“That the highest and most wonderful truths, though communicated to the world once for all by inspired teachers, could not be comprehended all at once by the recipients, but, as being received and transmitted by minds not inspired and through media which were human, have acquired only the longer and deeper thought for their full elucidation.” [Development, 29&30]

(I suppose it’s a bit like the “New evangelisation” – the Evangelisation isn’t at heart new, and certainly the Gospel, or Evangel, at its core, is not new, but what should be new is its ardour, its methods and means of expression.) And Newman’s theory of development of doctrine – in which things already communicated receive fuller elucidation – just as it enabled Newman himself to accept the infallibility definition of Vatican I, despite his initial reservations, this same theory of development was perhaps the most significant Newmanian influence on Vatican II.

As one commentator has put it, it was “the issue that lay continually below the surface of all the conciliar debates” [John Courtney Murray, in ed. Abbott The Documents of Vatican II]. And it bubbled up to the surface, it seems, in the Dogmatic Constitution on Revelation, Dei verbum, which at one point speaks of apostolic tradition developing or progressing in the Church with the assistance of the Holy Spirit. Just to give a flavour of the text in Dei verbum:

“There is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down … . As the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfilment in her.”

One scholar cites this as the “one text in the documents of Vatican II where Newman’s influence can be directly felt.” [Ker]. And this Constitution on the Word of God goes on to speak of the Word of God – both sacred tradition and sacred Scripture – being entrusted to “the entire holy people” so that they remain faithful, with “on the part of the bishops and faithful a remarkable common effort” – echoes perhaps there of Newman’s beloved phrase about the conspiratio between pastors and faithful.

Well, I’ve probably gone on for too long, but I hope what I have said gives something of a flavour of Newman, in relation to both Vatican Councils. It was Pope Saint Paul VI who spoke of Vatican II as being “Newman’s hour” (in an address in 1975), while others have dubbed him “a Father of Vatican II” or the “unseen Council Father”. While scholars may argue about the extent to which Newman influenced, whether directly or indirectly, the work of the Second Vatican Council, it seems undoubtedly the case that he anticipated many of its strands. As one scholar (suspicious of any claim of direct influence by Newman on the Council’s debates) puts it, “during the Council the Catholic Church ‘caught up’ with Newman” [Lash, “Newman and Vatican II” article in New Blackfriars]. So, yes, he was ahead of his time.

Fr Jonathan Redvers Harris