Cardinal Newman, the Synod, and the “Kasper Proposal”

If Blessed Newman had intervened at the Synod, how would he have applied his seven tests for gauging authentic development of doctrine?

Is Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics a true development of Christian doctrine? Although some think it is, analysis of the concept of development of doctrine indicates that it is not a true or authentic development. Blessed Cardinal Newman (1801-1890) elaborated the idea of development of Christian doctrine put forth by St. Vincent of Lérins in the fifth century and commonly accepted in the Church. Newman was present at the First Provincial Synod of Westminster in England, and in some way his voice was also present at the recent Extraordinary Synod for the Families in Rome.

Understanding authentic development of doctrine

Christian doctrine develops over time in the Church with the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the discernment of the Church’s Magisterium. This notion of development or growth, which does not admit of contradiction of previously held doctrines, is a source of misunderstanding for many and misconstrued by others for their purposes.

In his recent CWR article, “Development of Doctrine or Change in Teaching?” (Oct 19, 2014) Prof. Eduardo Echeverria correctly describes the concept of development of doctrine quoting St. Vincent of Lérins’ Commonitorium and Pope Francis. Echeverria also notes the words of the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, who paraphrases the common teaching of St. Vincent.

In recent decades, it has become fashionable to say that various teachings are part of the development of doctrine in the Church, and to allude to Cardinal John Henry Newman in support of whatever is proposed. This constitutes a misrepresentation of Newman and his concern with faithfulness to the Church’s doctrine. My purpose here is to briefly enumerate the tests Cardinal Newman set forth as requirements to call something true development. This was a matter Newman took very seriously. He wrote An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, first published in 1845, precisely to make his final determination on whether certain doctrines held by Catholics were development or corruption of early Christian teaching. Once he determined that there are tests which validate authentic development in the Catholic Church he made the final decision to convert from Anglicanism.

St. Vincent had explained that growth in doctrine could be compared to the development of a child. His body grows but he remains substantially the same person. And this is the key to true growth: identity of the first with the latter. Newman similarly argued that to live is to grow. The Church’s doctrine grows as does the Church’s understanding of doctrines previously taught. Newman identified seven tests of the unity and identity of an idea with itself through all the stages of its development:

To guarantee its own substantial unity, it must be seen to be [1]one in type, [2] one in its system of principles, [3] one in its unitive power towards externals, [4] one its logical consecutiveness, [5] one in the witness of its early phases to its later, [6] one in protection which its later extend to its earlier, and [7] one in its union of vigor with continuance, that is, its tenacity. (206) [The numbers are additions to Newman’s text].

A brief explanation of these tests, also called notes, may be helpful.

Although Newman wrote about things in the distant past to judge whether or not they developed in an authentic way, his criteria can certainly be used to judge much more recent beliefs and practices, assessing whether or not they are true developments that should be accepted by the Magisterium. And in 1989, the International Theological Commission accepted the validity of Newman’s criteria in a document titled “The Interpretation of Dogma”.

Newman’s seven tests are as follows:

1. Preservation of the type or identity happens when a doctrine or belief retains its type from start to end. Newman gives as an example the external development of Christianity into the Roman Catholic Church. Throughout the ages it has maintained its identity as “a religious communion claiming divine commission,” a well organized and disciplined body” which faithful to its founder is considered as fanatical, superstitious and ignorant by its persecutors. The Church remains true to its type in the view of the world, and this unity of type serves as a guarantee of its development.

2. By continuity of principles, Newman explained: “A development, to be faithful, must retain both the doctrine and the principle with which it started.” He enumerates various Catholic principles such as: dogmas as irrevocable supernatural truths, the principle of faith, the sacramental principle derived from the doctrine of the Incarnation, the mystical interpretation of Scripture also derived from the doctrine of the Incarnation, and the principle of grace (325-326).

3. Assimilative Power refers to interpenetration of doctrines. “A living idea becomes many, yet remains one” (186). Newman referred to doctrines and rites, which were assimilated slowly and carefully and with much difficulty over time.

4. Logical Consequence does not refer to a syllogism, but to a gradual growth that, although unintentional, has a logical character, and an “evident naturalness” (191).

5. Anticipation of its future means that there are “early intimations of tendencies which afterwards are fully realized (…) in accordance with the original idea” (196).

6. Conservative Action requires new doctrines to protect earlier doctrines. In the words of St. Vincent quoted by Newman, it is profectus fidei non permutatio (progress in faith not its change into something else). He gives as an example devotion to St. Mary that, far from corrupting doctrine about Christ’s unique mediation, “subserves, illustrates, protects the doctrine of our Lord’s loving kindness and mediation” (202).

7. Lastly, chronic Vigor (or vigorous action from first to last) refers to the duration of ideas whereas something corrupt cannot be long standing.

Applying these tests, Newman came to believe that Catholic doctrine on Purgatory, original sin, devotion to the saints, prayer for the deceased is true doctrine. He was aware that there were disagreements between the hierarchy before a teaching was settled. He explained in support of the existence of doctrinal development:

I grant that there are ‘Bishops against Bishops in Church history, Fathers against Fathers, Fathers against themselves,’ for such differences in individual writers are consistent with, or rather are involved in the very idea of doctrinal development, and consequently are no real objection to it; the one essential question is whether the recognized organ of teaching, the Church herself, acting through Pope or Council as the oracle of heaven, has ever contradicted her own enunciations. If so, the hypothesis which I am advocating is at once shattered; but, till I have positive and distinct evidence of the fact, I am slow to give credence to the existence of so great an improbability. (120-121)

One example of true doctrinal development is the dogma of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. We can verify this by applying to it the seven tests Newman described:

1. The Role of Mary is not changed; there is preservation of the type or identity.

2. Mary is honored because she is the Mother of God, which is a continuity of principle of the honor given to God.

3. Although Christians believed early on that the saints intercede in heaven for their brethren on earth, the belief in the Virgin Mary’s special intercession as the Mother of God grew among Christians.

4. It stands to reason that Christ would honor his mother. The dogma is a logical consequence of Christ’s teaching and example.

5. The Archangel announced to Mary her mission, and at the Visitation Elizabeth and Simeon praised her. In this, we see an anticipation of future honors given to her.

6. Celebrating this Marian privilege reminds us of Mary’s Role. Thus, the liturgy has a conservative action on its early beliefs and practices.

7. Chronic vigor or vitality can be observed in the celebration of Mary’s life and her union with Christ, which exerts new energy in the life of the faithful of all ages.

The question of Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics

Having examined Newman’s tests, we now examine if they apply to the doctrine that Communion for divorced and remarried persons is an authentic development. In other words, what would Cardinal Newman have said in his intervention at the Synod for Families?

First, however, we should reaffirm, as Pope John Paul II did in the Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio, that divorced and remarried Catholics remain part of the Church. As members of the Church, they should be accepted and helped to live the faith. They should be encouraged to pray and to seek a path of reconciliation with God. Those who have a just cause should be helped to obtain a declaration of nullity of the previous bond and helped to receive the sacrament of marriage. All should be understood and supported with prayer and friendship.

It should also be mentioned that in the Church’s history there have been doctrinal developments in matters regarding marriage. A notable one is the doctrine on the canonical form of marriage. The Council of Trent mandated that a sacramental marriage should have as witness a qualified representative of the Church, normally the pastor of the parish church.

Although marriage situations vary, the following is an application of Newman’s tests to the general consideration of the proposed doctrine of Communion of divorced and remarried persons.

1. Acceptance of Communion for divorced and remarried persons does not preserve the type of marriage, which entails indissolubility. The type of marriage with Christ’s permanent love for the Church, his bride, is broken.

2. This new doctrine establishes a new principle, namely that in some cases marriage is dissoluble; marriage is not permanent. There is thus a discontinuity with earlier doctrine.

3. The proposed doctrine seems to assimilate the Christian practice of mercy and forgiveness, but it contradicts others such as justice with regard to the obligations that derive from the nature of marriage. It is doubtful that it can pass the test of assimilative power.

4. Communion in these circumstances does not follow the penitential practice present since the early Church by which a person in a state of sin must leave the situation of sin and follow a path of conversion before being reconciled to the Church, thus coming into Communion.

5. Christ’s teaching about the permanence of marriage and the sin of adultery does not anticipate in any way this new doctrine of divorce and remarriage, and less of Communion for those who are sadly in this situation.

6. Admission to Communion of divorced persons who have entered a second bond does not have a protective action on the practice of marriage in the Church. Instead of having a conservative action, it weakens marriage by removing one of the consequences to divorce and remarriage.

7. Newman would also argue that the proposed doctrine would not add vitality to the Christian reality of sacramental marriage. On the contrary, the practice of divorce and remarriage, and in some places of Communion for persons divorced and remarried, have become more accepted.

Given this analysis, it is very doubtful that the doctrine on Communion for divorced and remarried persons proposed by Cardinal Walter Kasper can be considered authentic development of doctrine. Fr. Juan José Perez Soba has pointed out the doctrinal errors of Cardinal Kasper’s position on the marriage bond (Zenit.org, March 25, 2014). It is in no way the doctrinal development that St. Vincent of Lérins and Blessed Cardinal Newman envisioned. At the Synod Newman would instead argue how Sacred Scripture and Church Tradition uphold the indissolubility of the marriage bond.

Furthermore, Newman would caution against haste in questions of possible doctrinal development: “The theology of the Church is not random combination of various opinions, but a diligent, patient working out of one doctrine from many materials. The conduct of Popes, Councils, Fathers, betokens the slow, painful, anxious taking up of new truths into an existing body of belief” (366).

Caution and courage

Where the future of sacramental marriage is at stake, the Church must be even more cautious, carefully examining the study of biblical, theological, and canonical implications of a change in doctrine. I have no doubt that after a nuanced study of the history and arguments at hand, Cardinal Newman would tell the synod fathers that Communion for divorced and remarried persons is contrary to earlier doctrines and the Tradition of the Church. He would be no less compassionate for those in this situation while pointing out that mercy and pastoral charity are inseparable from truth and justice.

When Newman addressed the First Provincial Synod of Westminster in July 1852, the English Catholic hierarchy had only just been re-established after three centuries. He reminded the synod fathers of the courage they must have to face the difficulties before them:

Yes, my Fathers and Brothers, and if it be God’s blessed will, not Saints alone, not Doctors only, not Preachers only, shall be ours—but Martyrs, too, shall reconsecrate the soil to God. We know not what is before us, ere we win our own; we are engaged in a great, a joyful work, but in proportion to God’s grace is the fury of His enemies.

Newman might have said something similar to the fathers meeting in Rome. The renewal of Christian marriage and the family will come through much prayer, suffering, and faithfulness to the Church’s Tradition.


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About Rev. Juan R. Vélez 0 Articles
Rev. Juan R. Velez is a priest of the Prelature of Opus Dei, residing the greater Chicago area. He holds a doctorate in dogmatic theology from the University of Navarre. He is author of Passion for Truth, the Life of John Henry Newman (TAN/St. Benedict’s Press, 2012). Visit him online at www.newmanbiography.com.