Cardinal Newman’s sixth note

Following the publication of Spadaro and Figueroa’s confused essay in Civiltà, critiquing, well, whatever it was they were critiquing, a secondary controversy sprang up. You see, dear reader, many of the initial critics of Spadaro and Figueroa’s essay—Matthew Schmitz at First Things and Ross Douthat at the New York Times—were converts. And the progressives pounced upon this fact. The converts were holier-than-thou reactionaries bent on accusing the Holy Father of heresy, resisting his agenda, and many other delicts besides. (It was a rare delight to see people for whom ultramontanism was a four-letter word between October 1978 and February 2013 rushing so gallantly to the defense of the rights of the Roman Pontiff.) However, a point has been overlooked. In many of the critiques of the converts, Bl. John Henry Cardinal Newman’s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine was invoked. The argument, stated with the usual imprecision of the progressive, was that the converts want the Church to remain as it was when they converted—and they converted because the Church confirmed them in their prejudices—but any real Catholic knows, as Cardinal Newman tells us, that doctrine develops. The converts, then, are the ones out of step with the mind of the Church, as expressed by Cardinal Newman.

First, a biographical note. The controversy over converts struck us as bizarre to say the least. (Part of the reason we didn’t weigh in at the time is because we found it so bizarre. The other reason is that we were a minor, minor player in the original controversy. All in all, it seemed like a good time to take a little vacation.) For one thing, we are not a convert. We have, in fact, not wandered very far as such things go. We hear Mass in the sight of the font in which we were baptized. We often have business in the sacristy in which we made our first confession. And we often make our communion in exactly the same spot at which we made our first communion those many years ago. However, that ultimately does not much matter. In the Church, the question is whether one is baptized—that is, whether one has accepted God’s call to become through baptism His adopted son or daughter. The progressives’ emphasis on baptism seemed to be yet another example of identity politics; only those noble so-called cradle Catholics could understand the enormously subtle arguments offered in support of Spadaro and Figueroa’s farrago of invective. Because we are not a convert, we did not get our back up at the progressives’ insults.

But we did notice the occasional references to Cardinal Newman’s teachings in all these responses. (Almost as choice as the delight of watching a bunch of aging liberals take up the banner of ultramontanism is the delight of watching them use Newman, the greatest convert of his age, as a cudgel against other converts.) The progressives are good modernists, and, either through guile or ignorance, know or suspect that they’ll find no support in Pascendi or Lamentabili for their assertions about the development of doctrine. But they feel that the mere invocation of Cardinal Newman is enough to justify those assertions. (St. Pius X thought otherwise.) This is, as they imagine, a devastating own in the parlance of the day. Schmitz or Douthat or whoever is against Cardinal Newman, who says doctrine can develop! However, we shall see in a moment that the progressives cannot have understood Newman any more than Spadaro and Figueroa could have understood integralism. Indeed, the developments of which the progressives are so proud are not developments at all, but corruptions of doctrine.

How do we know that? Because Cardinal Newman tells us so.

In the Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (page 171 of the standard 1878 edition), Newman identified seven “notes”:

of varying cogency, independence and applicability, to discriminate healthy developments of an idea from its state of corruption and decay, as follows:—There is no corruption if it retains one and the same type, the same principles, the same organization; if its beginnings anticipate its subsequent phases, and its later phenomena protect and subserve its earlier; if it has a power of assimilation and revival, and a vigorous action from first to last. On these tests I shall now enlarge, nearly in the order in which I have enumerated them.

(Emphasis supplied.) That is, Newman sets forth seven features of authentic developments of doctrine; if a putative development has those notes, it just might be an authentic development. If not, well, that’s a problem. It occurs to us, in the wake of the fight over Spadaro, Figueroa, and the converts, that almost no one ever talks about these notes, least of all the progressives. Indeed, almost no one ever talks about the content of the Essay. It is bandied about largely in support of a broad assertion that doctrine can “develop,” which rather oversimplifies Newman’s actual argument in the Essay. And certainly no one ever talks about the notes in the context of the teachings—or supposed teachings—that are being defended against the onslaught of the conservatives.

And with good reason. The dog, dear reader, don’t hunt. Let us consider but one example. Newman’s “sixth note”  (pp. 199–200) is as follows—it’s actually quite a beautiful passage separate and apart from the theological content:

As developments which are preceded by definite indications have a fair presumption in their favour, so those which do but contradict and reverse the course of doctrine which has been developed before them, and out of which they spring, are certainly corrupt; for a corruption is a development in that very stage in which it ceases to illustrate, and begins to disturb, the acquisitions gained in its previous history.

It is the rule of creation, or rather of the phenomena which it presents, that life passes on to its termination by a gradual, imperceptible course of change. There is ever a maximum in earthly excellence, and the operation of the same causes which made things great makes them small again. Weakness is but the resulting product of power. Events move in cycles; all things come round, “the sun ariseth and goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.” Flowers first bloom, and then fade; fruit ripens and decays. The fermenting process, unless stopped at the due point, corrupts the liquor which it has created. The grace of spring, the richness of autumn are but for a moment, and worldly moralists bid us Carpe diem, for we shall have no second opportunity. Virtue seems to lie in a mean, between vice and vice; and as it grew out of imperfection, so to grow into enormity. There is a limit to human knowledge, and both sacred and profane writers witness that overwisdom is folly. And in the political world states rise and fall, the instruments of their aggrandizement becoming the weapons of their destruction. And hence the frequent ethical maxims, such as, “Ne quid nimis,” “Medio tutissimus,” “Vaulting ambition,” which seem to imply that too much of what is good is evil.

So great a paradox of course cannot be maintained as that truth literally leads to falsehood, or that there can be an excess of virtue; but the appearance of things and the popular language about them will at least serve us in obtaining an additional test for the discrimination of a bonâ fide development of an idea from its corruption.

A true development, then, may be described as one which is conservative of the course of antecedent developments being really those antecedents and something besides them: it is an addition which illustrates, not obscures, corroborates, not corrects, the body of thought from which it proceeds; and this is its characteristic as contrasted with a corruption.

(Emphasis supplied.) In other words, a true development does not contradict what came before it. There is no moment in the development of doctrine at which point the doctors and masters in debate may say, “formerly all men were mad.”

A little later, Newman adds, by way of preface to some examples of his sixth note:

It is the general pretext of heretics that they are but serving and protecting Christianity by their innovations; and it is their charge against what by this time we may surely call the Catholic Church, that her successive definitions of doctrine have but overlaid and obscured it. That is, they assume, what we have no wish to deny, that a true development is that which is conservative of its original, and a corruption is that which tends to its destruction. This has already been set down as a Sixth Test, discriminative of a development from a corruption, and must now be applied to the Catholic doctrines; though this Essay has so far exceeded its proposed limits, that both reader and writer may well be weary, and may content themselves with a brief consideration of the portions of the subject which remain.

It has been observed already that a strict correspondence between the various members of a development, and those of the doctrine from which it is derived, is more than we have any right to expect. The bodily structure of a grown man is not merely that of a magnified boy; he differs from what he was in his make and proportions; still manhood is the perfection of boyhood, adding something of its own, yet keeping what it finds. “Ut nihil novum,” says Vincentius, “proferatur in senibus, quod non in pueris jam antea latitaverit.” This character of addition,—that is, of a change which is in one sense real and perceptible, yet without loss or reversal of what was before, but, on the contrary, protective and confirmative of it,—in many respects and in a special way belongs to Christianity.

(Emphasis supplied.) This, of course, is true. No heretic would ever openly admit that he is breaking definitively with the doctrine of the Church. Historically, the argument is that accretions of that much-discussed and little-loved (if hugely lovable) institution, the medieval Church, have distracted from the pure apostolic doctrine of the early Church. The modernist, however, finds that taste cloying—who wouldn’t after 400 or 500 years—and prefers instead to push the boundaries. But, as we noted, no one ever seems to get around to making the argument in terms of Newman’s notes.

Perhaps there is good reason for this strange silence. Could one, keeping particularly the sixth note in mind, make an argument that some of the innovations the modernists are so proud of these days are true developments of doctrine? Could they do it keeping in mind that an argument is more than a mere assertion? Could one, for example, defend the more extreme interpretations of Amoris laetitia (separate and apart from the text itself or the interpretations offered by some cardinals and bishops) as “conservative of the course of antecedent developments”? Could one defend the recent push to normalize the gay movement within the Church as “an addition which illustrates, not obscures, corroborates, not corrects, the body of thought from which it proceeds”? Or is it, perhaps, more natural to say that these interpretations of Amoris laetitia and these sudden calls for “dialogue” and “inclusions” are but contradictions and reversals of “the course of doctrine which has been developed before them”? Certainly the proponents of the putative developments have a view. But, against them, Cardinal Newman warns us that “a corruption is a development in that very stage in which it ceases to illustrate, and begins to disturb, the acquisitions gained in its previous history.”

Such a demonstration ought to be expected from the progressives who contend that their pet developments are entirely consonant with the apostolic faith of the Church. After all, it is they who have brought Newman into the debate in defense of the concept of development. They are not articulating mere points of theological or historical interest. Still less are they providing us with an introduction to Newman’s thought. They mean to justify their arguments as developments. It would be natural, therefore, for them to set forth an argument in Newman’s own terms that their putative developments have all the signs of a true development, rather than the absence of such signs indicating corruptions of doctrine. Yet we are unaware of any such demonstrations. Of course, we admit, as you may have guessed, that we think such a demonstration would be exceedingly difficult. And we suspect that the progressives are not hugely interested in demonstrating that their ideas are true developments.

In all of this, it seems awfully hard to avoid Newman’s statement that “overwisdom is folly.”

Of course, one hardly faults the progressives for their desire to transform the development of doctrine into the abrogation and redrafting of doctrine. It is always easier to find reasons to replace what is out of step with the world with what is in step with the world. It is always exciting to set to one side the beliefs of one’s father in exchange for something apparently new. But we must remember what Newman says, “This character of addition,—that is, of a change which is in one sense real and perceptible, yet without loss or reversal of what was before, but, on the contrary, protective and confirmative of it,—in many respects and in a special way belongs to Christianity.” That is, the Christian lives within tradition. We might deepen our understanding of doctrine, we might find an answer in the tradition to a new question, but we never leave the tradition. And we certainly do not abandon one part of it for something new.

It is little surprise, therefore, that we see Newman so often invoked and so infrequently quoted. One finds Pascendi and Lamentabili extremely inconvenient—and rightly so—when one wants to begin to recast the doctrine of the Church. The modernist wants Cardinal Newman on his side—needs Cardinal Newman on his side—but one, upon even cursory inspection, finds Newman to be very much not their man. And it seems to us that one could very profitably run the progressives’ pet doctrines through all of Newman’s notes in greater detail than done here, just to see what happens. We already know, of course, but sometimes such an étude is profitable for other reasons. And it might finally convince the progressives that there’s no future for them in solemnly telling us that Cardinal Newman is on their side.