Why not Newman?

It occurred to us, after writing about Cardinal Newman’s sixth note of an authentic development, set forth in his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, that some may resist approaching contemporary questions through Newman’s schema. But this presents a serious problem, to our mind: where else is the notion of development set forth? That is, if you do not approach the question through Newman, how do you approach the question? We will see that not every notion of development has met with ecclesiastical approval. Indeed, St. Pius X condemned in strong terms the sort of development that many progressives today want to employ. However, we shall see in a moment that St. Pius X provides us with a way forward—under the terms recently articulated by Archbishop Fernandez in defense of Amoris laetitia. The answer? Newman’s notes.

The question is of course more than merely academic. The progressives want—need—some doctrine of development in the Church. Otherwise, their project is dead in the water. Hopelessly, irretrievably dead. Of course, they could simply abandon it, but one does not abandon the stuff which careers are made of. At any rate, they want development, but they do not always want Cardinal Newman’s development. Sure, it’s great to mention Cardinal Newman in an essay. The mere mention of his name evokes all sorts of warm feelings of theological brilliance and English charm. Unfortunately, one does not always want to let Newman say very much. Why? Well, it turns out that Newman was just as ready to find corruptions of doctrine as authentic developments. Readier, perhaps, when one goes through the seven notes carefully. Newman’s project, at least superficially, was to show that the faith of Leo XIII and the faith of St. Peter were indistinguishable, not to open the door to communion for bigamists or same-sex “marriage.” Therefore, while Newman is a fine mascot, he’s by no means as tame as the progressives would like; accordingly, they are leery of giving him too much say. However, without Newman the proponents of development are left in a sticky situation.

The fact of the matter is that Lamentabili and Pascendi both come down, quite strongly, against some ideas of development. Consider this passage from St. Pius X’s Pascendi:

To finish with this whole question of faith and its shoots, it remains to be seen, Venerable Brethren, what the Modernists have to say about their development. First of all they lay down the general principle that in a living religion everything is subject to change, and must change, and in this way they pass to what may be said to be, among the chief of their doctrines, that of Evolution. To the laws of evolution everything is subject – dogma, Church, worship, the Books we revere as sacred, even faith itself, and the penalty of disobedience is death. The enunciation of this principle will not astonish anybody who bears in mind what the Modernists have had to say about each of these subjects. Having laid down this law of evolution, the Modernists themselves teach us how it works out. And first with regard to faith. The primitive form of faith, they tell us, was rudimentary and common to all men alike, for it had its origin in human nature and human life. Vital evolution brought with it progress, not by the accretion of new and purely adventitious forms from without, but by an increasing penetration of the religious sentiment in the conscience. This progress was of two kinds: negative, by the elimination of all foreign elements, such, for example, as the sentiment of family or nationality; and positive by the intellectual and moral refining of man, by means of which the idea was enlarged and enlightened while the religious sentiment became more elevated and more intense. For the progress of faith no other causes are to be assigned than those which are adduced to explain its origin. But to them must be added those religious geniuses whom we call prophets, and of whom Christ was the greatest; both because in their lives and their words there was something mysterious which faith attributed to the divinity, and because it fell to their lot to have new and original experiences fully in harmony with the needs of their time. The progress of dogma is due chiefly to the obstacles which faith has to surmount, to the enemies it has to vanquish, to the contradictions it has to repel. Add to this a perpetual striving to penetrate ever more profoundly its own mysteries. Thus, to omit other examples, has it happened in the case of Christ: in Him that divine something which faith admitted in Him expanded in such a way that He was at last held to be God. The chief stimulus of evolution in the domain of worship consists in the need of adapting itself to the uses and customs of peoples, as well as the need of availing itself of the value which certain acts have acquired by long usage. Finally, evolution in the Church itself is fed by the need of accommodating itself to historical conditions and of harmonising itself with existing forms of society. Such is religious evolution in detail. And here, before proceeding further, we would have you note well this whole theory of necessities and needs, for it is at the root of the entire system of the Modernists, and it is upon it that they will erect that famous method of theirs called the historical.

(Emphasis supplied.) Consider also some propositions condemned in Lamentabili:

  • “Revelation, constituting the object of the Catholic faith, was not completed with the Apostles.”
  • “Dogmas, Sacraments and hierarchy, both their notion and reality, are only interpretations and evolutions of the Christian intelligence which have increased and perfected by an external series of additions the little germ latent in the Gospel.”
  • “Christ did not teach a determined body of doctrine applicable to all times and all men, but rather inaugurated a religious movement adapted or to be adapted to different times and places.”
  • “Scientific progress demands that the concepts of Christian doctrine concerning God, creation, revelation, the Person of the Incarnate Word, and Redemption be re-adjusted.”

These, and other propositions, cut strongly against the proposition that the Church broadly approves the notion of the development of doctrine. In sum, we can say that Pius was deeply suspicious of the idea of development or evolution.

Now, the clever progressive will at this moment cite Dignitatis humanae 1, which talks about bringing forth new things from the treasury of the Church’s doctrine and about developing the doctrine of recent popes on the rights of man and the constitution of states (i.e., Pius IX and Leo XIII). Ah, this hypothetical clever progressive will assert, the Church says doctrine can develop, and therefore we do not need Newman. Two responses come to mind. First, it is true: Dignitatis humanae says these things. But, as Francis and Archbishop Guido Pozzo have said in their comments about the situation with the Society of St. Pius X, the magisterial weight of Dignitatis humanae is by no means clear or clearly great. Second, what theory of development does Dignitatis humanae actually propose? It makes some broad assertions about development, but it also observes that “it leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ” (DH 1). It touches therefore only upon “immunity from coercion in civil society” (DH 1). So, in addition to lacking an overarching hermeneutic of development, it is unclear how much development Dignitatis humanae itself actually does. Now, we admit that this is a greatly disputed topic, with all sorts of arguments advanced one way and the other, but we are by no means sure that citation to Dignitatis humanae will save the progressive who wants to chuck Newman for a broader idea of development.

And turning to the progressives’ idea of development more broadly, that is, the process by which development is supposed to take place, consider Pius’s description of the methods of the modernists:

Still continuing the consideration of the evolution of doctrine, it is to be noted that Evolution is due no doubt to those stimulants styled needs, but, if left to their action alone, it would run a great risk of bursting the bounds of tradition, and thus, turned aside from its primitive vital principle, would lead to ruin instead of progress. Hence, studying more closely the ideas of the Modernists, evolution is described as resulting from the conflict of two forces, one of them tending towards progress, the other towards conservation. The conserving force in the Church is tradition, and tradition is represented by religious authority, and this both by right and in fact; for by right it is in the very nature of authority to protect tradition, and, in fact, for authority, raised as it is above the contingencies of life, feels hardly, or not at all, the spurs of progress. The progressive force, on the contrary, which responds to the inner needs lies in the individual consciences and ferments there – especially in such of them as are in most intimate contact with life. Note here, Venerable Brethren, the appearance already of that most pernicious doctrine which would make of the laity a factor of progress in the Church. Now it is by a species of compromise between the forces of conservation and of progress, that is to say between authority and individual consciences, that changes and advances take place. The individual consciences of some of them act on the collective conscience, which brings pressure to bear on the depositaries of authority, until the latter consent to a compromise, and, the pact being made, authority sees to its maintenance.

(Emphasis supplied.) In other words, Pius condemns no less strongly the idea that the development of doctrine is some kind of negotiation between progressives and reactionaries. Therefore, in Pascendi, one finds a strong condemnation of the sort of development that a lot of commentators want to enshrine in the Catholic faith. They seem to envision progressive theologians battling reactionary theologians until the pope decides the question definitively, usually opening up a little room for the progressive opinion without forcing the reactionaries into schism. This little room, then, becomes an authentic development. (The fact that it was a compromise extracted from authority through disobedience and dissent is, like a first marriage, politely passed over as soon as the case is closed.) Not so, St. Pius X tells us, not so.

Now, of course, one can pause here to critique the revolutionary, Hegelian approach adopted by the progressives. Note that, to put it in those terms, Pius condemns the idea of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. And it is obvious that the progressives intend to make a revolution in the Church through these means, as they have intended for many years. But such a critique is unnecessary at this moment. It is enough to know that their method was condemned, even if it was successful, oh, not quite sixty years after Pascendi was promulgated. It is more than enough to recall that the goal of the method is fundamentally revolutionary.

At any rate, without Newman, the progressives have a hard time articulating a coherent vision of development that has not been itself condemned by competent authority. But there is an argument, following lines recently advanced, that Newman’s vision of development has been approved by competent authority. Since—as Archbishop Fernandez has told us recently, citing Lumen gentium‘s citation in the supplementary notes of a letter of Pius IX to the German bishops—the correspondence of a pope can, as if by magic, bestow magisterial authority upon various documents, we must consider St. Pius X’s 1908 Letter to the Bishop of Limerick Tuum illud opusculum, A.S.S. 41 (1908) 200–02, which approved the tract by Bishop O’Dwyer, demonstrating that Newman’s works were entirely consistent with Pascendi and Lamentabili. There, Pius stated:

We hereby inform you that your essay, in which you show that the writings of Cardinal Newman, far from being in disagreement with Our Encyclical Letter Pascendi, are very much in harmony with it, has been emphatically approved by Us: for you could not have better served both the truth and the dignity of man. It is clear that those people whose errors We have condemned in that Document had decided among themselves to produce something of their own invention with which to seek the commendation of a distinguished person. And so they everywhere assert with confidence that they have taken these things from the very source and summit of authority, and that therefore We cannot censure their teachings, but rather that We had even previously gone so far as to condemn what such a great author had taught. Incredible though it may appear, although it is not always realised, there are to be found those who are so puffed up with pride that it is enough to overwhelm the mind, and who are convinced that they are Catholics and pass themselves off as such, while in matters concerning the inner discipline of religion they prefer the authority of their own private teaching to the pre-eminent authority of the Magisterium of the Apostolic See. Not only do you fully demonstrate their obstinacy but you also show clearly their deceitfulness. For, if in the things he had written before his profession of the Catholic faith one can justly detect something which may have a kind of similarity with certain Modernist formulas, you are correct in saying that this is not relevant to his later works. Moreover, as far as that matter is concerned, his way of thinking has been expressed in very different ways, both in the spoken word and in his published writings, and the author himself, on his admission into the Catholic Church, forwarded all his writings to the authority of the same Church so that any corrections might be made, if judged appropriate.

(Emphasis supplied.) Pius concludes his letter, ringing with denunciations of the modernists by saying:

Would that they should follow Newman the author faithfully by studying his books without, to be sure, being addicted to their own prejudices, and let them not with wicked cunning conjure anything up from them or declare that their own opinions are confirmed in them; but instead let them understand his pure and whole principles, his lessons and inspiration which they contain. They will learn many excellent things from such a great teacher: in the first place, to regard the Magisterium of the Church as sacred, to defend the doctrine handed down inviolately by the Fathers and, what is of highest importance to the safeguarding of Catholic truth, to follow and obey the Successor of St. Peter with the greatest faith.

(Emphasis supplied.) If Francis’s politely appreciative letter to the Argentine bishops about their norms for the implementation of chapter 8 of Amoris laetitia is enough to invest those norms with magisterial authority or to constitute an authoritative interpretation of Amoris laetitia, then it seems unavoidable that Pius’s letter to Bishop O’Dwyer is enough to invest not only his pamphlet but also Newman’s work with some magisterial authority. At the very least, it is sufficient to spare Newman’s notion of development, including his seven notes, from the condemnations of evolution and development in Lamentabili and Pascendi.

Therefore, we see that the progressives disregard Newman at their own peril. For one thing, development of doctrine has not met with uniform favor from the Church. Pius X condemned in strong terms the sort of development that one sees most commonly advanced by progressives, furthering their revolutionary agenda. It is true that the Second Vatican Council, notably in Dignitatis humanae, spoke of development, but it is impossible to say more than that without wading into controversy and uncertainty. On the other hand, Pius X approved Bishop O’Dwyer’s pamphlet showing that Newman was by no means a modernist and the pope recommended warmly Newman’s writings. Following the recent argument of Archbishop Fernandez regarding Francis’s letter to the Buenos Aires bishops (and Pius IX’s letter to the German bishops), we can say that Pius X’s letter has provided some measure of official approval to Newman and Newman’s theory of the development of doctrine. And all of this brings us back to Newman’s notes.