The Father of Vatican II

Author: Ian Ker

The Father of Vatican II

Ian Ker

The life of John Henry Newman

The volume "John Henry Newman. A Biography" has recently been republished (Oxford, Oxford University Press, pp. 784, €30). The 1988 edition has been expanded to include an afterword that refutes the recent insinuations about his burial. The author of the volume, a well-known expert on the character and work of Newman, traced a brief outline of the life of Newman for L'Osservatore Romano.

The Venerable John Henry Newman will be the first Englishman to be raised to the altars of the Church since the Reformation who was not also a martyr. He did, however, endure much suffering in his life: having been vilified as an Anglican, when through the Oxford Movement he attempted to recover the Church of England's Catholic heritage, subsequently as a Catholic his work for the Church was undermined by the extreme Ultramontanes who suspected him of liberalism, while he was attacked by liberal Catholics for his obedience to authority.

Although never martyred like St Thomas More, the author of Utopia and friend of Erasmus, Newman too was a great humanist. The altar of his private chapel at the Birmingham Oratory is surmounted by pictures not of St Philip Neri (the founder of the Oratory) but of the great humanist saint of the Counter-reformation, St Francis de Sales, whose saying "cor ad cor loquitur" Newman took for his cardinalatial motto. He had already quoted the words in The Idea of a University (1873), a classic of English prose as well as the most influential work ever written on university education. Indeed, Newman once wrote, "Now from first to last, education... has been my line". As a young man, he had pioneered the tutorial system at Oxford; later he was the founder of the Catholic University of Ireland and of the Oratory School in Birmingham. As a writer, he ranks among the foremost of English prose writers, while his poem The Dream of Gerontius (1865) was set to music by Edward Elgar in his famous oratorio.

During the Oxford Movement Newman preached in the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, of which he was vicar, not only his academic Oxford University Sermons (1843), but also many pastoral sermons, which were eventually collected together as Parochial and Plain Sermons (1868). These sermons, which are steeped in Scripture and the Fathers, have become a classic of Christian spirituality. His Oxford University Sermons, his most seminal work, explored the relationship between faith and reason, an exploration that would be completed in his Grammar of Assent (1870). The originality and penetration of his philosophy of religion has only been fully appreciated in recent years.

When Newman became a Catholic in 1845, he was the most important convert to the Church since the Reformation. His Scriptural and Patristic theology was alien to a Church that was then dominated by a scholastic theology and untouched by the later Scriptural, Patristic, and Thomist revivals. It was the Second Vatican Council, of which he is often called "the Father", that finally vindicated his theology. The late Cardinal Avery Dulles called him the most seminal Catholic theologian of the 19th century. His classic Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845), which fell under the suspicion of the two leading Roman theologians of the day, is the starting-point for modern Catholic theology of development. His On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine (1859), which was denounced to Rome by one of the English and Welsh hierarchy, predated by more than a hundred years the Second Vatican Council's Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity and the chapter on the laity in the Constitution on the Church. The final chapter of the latter on the Blessed Virgin Mary was the result of the Council's decision not to have a separate document on Our Lady; its Scriptural and Patristic theology is in accord with Newman's own Mariology in his A Letter to Pusey (1866). Newman's interpretation of the First Vatican Council's definition of papal infallibility in his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk (1875) was unwelcome to the extreme Ultramontanes but was vindicated in his own time in True and False Infallibility by Bishop Fessler, who had been Secretary-General of the Council, a book that received the official approval of Pope Pius IX. Newman's famous "toast" to conscience in the same work referred to the possibility of conscientiously refusing to obey a papal order, not to the possibility of so-called conscientious dissent from papal teachings, as is often falsely alleged.

But if Newman is "the Father of the Second Vatican Council", he will, in the event of his canonisation, surely be declared a Doctor of the Church. And if so, he will be seen, I am convinced, as the Doctor of the post-conciliar Church. For his theology, that seemed so radical, even dangerous in his own time, was always deeply historical and sensitive to the Tradition, as well as respectful of the teaching authority of the Church. He once famously wrote, "To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant". The idea that Vatican II represented a complete break in the history of the Church, a new dawn analogous to the Reformation as viewed by Protestants, would have seemed to him not only to show an extraordinary ignorance of history and indifference to Tradition, but also a contempt for the Church's ongoing Magisterium. Like Pope Benedict XVI, he believed in "the hermeneutic of continuity". He wrote at the time of Vatican I, "We do not move at railroad pace in theological matters, even in the 19th century".

The mini-theology of Councils that Newman sketched out in private letters at the time of the First Vatican Council provides an invaluable hermeneutic for both Vatican II and for subsequent developments and corruptions of the Council's teachings. The chaos and dissension that followed the Council Newman would have seen as the inevitable fall-out from a Council, especially one so far-reaching in its agenda. The result of Vatican I was the triumphalism of the extreme Ultramontanes on the one hand, and on the other hand the excommunication of Döllinger and the Old Catholic schism. Vatican II also saw the emergence of two extreme but opposed reactions to the Council, both of which were in close agreement as to its revolutionary nature.

Deep in history, Newman understood very clearly that Councils move "in contrary declarations... perfecting, completing, supplying each other". Vatican I's definition of papal infallibility needed to be complemented, modified by a much larger teaching on the Church, so, Newman correctly predicted, there would be another Council which would do just that. But equally Vatican II needs complementing and modifying. Newman keenly appreciated that Councils have unintended consequences by virtue both of what they say and what they do not say. The tendency is for the former to be exaggerated, as happened in the wake of Vatican II, when one might have supposed that the Church had no other business except justice and peace, ecumenism, interreligious dialogue, and so on. But what Councils do not deal with, and therefore neglect, is also of great significance: thus Vatican II was deafeningly silent about what was to become the main preoccupation of the pontificate of John Paul II — evangelisation.

In the decades that preceded Vatican II, Newman was a source of encouragement and inspiration to those seeking the renewal of the Church. The return to the Patristic sources that characterised the Oxford Movement, of which Newman was the leader as well as its leading theologian, anticipated the great twentieth-century French ressourcement of Jean Danielou, Henri de Lubac, and Yves Congar, without which the renewal of the Second Vatican Council would hardly have been possible. In the post-conciliar time in which we are living, I believe that John Henry Newman is an invaluable guide to a true understanding of the Council, free from distortions and exaggerations, an understanding that is informed by a sense of history and the development of doctrine, as well as by an appreciation of the limitations of Councils and their relationship to each other.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
22 July 2009, page 7

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