What Newman Would Have Made of Vatican II

Father Ian Ker’s Newman on Vatican II is thoroughly researched and masterfully written.

In the course of his long career as priest, poet, historian, philosopher, educator, theologian, novelist, and satirist, Blessed John Henry Newman (1801-1890) became something of a connoisseur of what he called “the tin-kettle accounts of me which rattle to and fro in the world.”  When he learned that someone was putting about the rumor that he had lost his mind, he nicely deplored the calumny as a “grave, sleek, imposing lie, which made one smile. People sucked it in greedily and smacked their lips.”  He was particularly amused by the rumor that a friend had heard in London that “I carried my austerity to such an extent that I would not let my wife wear anything but sad-colored ribbons in her bonnet.” In 1850, he wrote his fellow Oratorian Frederick Faber, “The report grows stronger and stronger here, that I am married, and have shut up my wife in a convent.”  After he converted to Catholicism, he was constantly rumored to be unhappy in his adopted communion and ready to rejoin the Church of England, despite his repeated denials.  “‘Make up my mind to return,’” he wrote one correspondent, “Why, I could as easily ‘make up my mind’ to be a Garibaldian or a Siamese twin. Be sure there is as much chance of my turning an Anglican again as of my being the Irish Giant or the King of Clubs.” 

Since his death, distortions of this fascinating figure have only intensified, though none has been more misleading or more mischievous than the contention that he would have approved of liberal interpretations of the Second Vatican Council.  Since such misinterpretations of the Council and, indeed, of Newman have influenced some of those involved in the recent synod—Cardinal Kasper, for example, claimed that the radical developments recommended in the relatio would have met with the approval of the author of Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845)—it is good to have so reliable an authority as Father Ian Ker sorting out what Newman would have truly thought of the Council.  The author of the definitive intellectual biography of Newman and several other incisive books about the great convert, Father Ker is the perfect person to address this vexed matter and here he does so with acuity and élan.  Newman and Vatican II is a superb study, which anyone with any interest in Newman or the Council will find richly rewarding. 

Father Ker begins his study with an excellent overview of the subtlety of Newman’s thought, which so many commentators get wrong, choosing to see him either as a “Tory of Tories” (as Avery Dulles gave out) or a misunderstood liberal (as Eamon Duffy contended).  In fact, as Father Ker shows, Newman was never a party man, whether in the political or the religious sense. 

Although prepared to support the Tories when they were willing to support Catholic purposes—Newman supported the Earl of Derby’s conservative government when it agreed to make Catholic chaplains available to prisoners in English prisons—he was never particularly keen on conservatism per se, which he saw as inimical to the necessary integrity of the Church.  While he recognized that “the Roman Pontiffs owe their exaltation to the secular power and have a great stake in its stability and prosperity…[and] cannot bear anarchy…think revolution an evil…pray for the peace of the world and the prosperity of all Christian States, and…effectively support the cause of order and good government,” he also saw that “the Pope never is, and cannot be” conservative in the party sense of the word, for that “means a man who upholds government and society and the existing state of things…not because it is good and desirable, because it is established, because it is a benefit to the population, because it is full of promise for the future,—but rather because he himself is well off in consequence of it, and because to take care of number one is his main political principle. It means a man who defends religion, not for religion’s sake, but for the sake of its accidents and externals; and in this sense Conservative a Pope can never be, without a simple betrayal of the dispensation committed to him.” 

With this critical view of conservatism, Newman naturally looked askance at the Ultramontane view of papal infallibility (the issue at the heart of the First Vatican Council in 1870), which he thought at once inopportune and untenable.  At the same time, for all his distrust of conservatism, Newman was never less than orthodox, always insistent that the living, organic, perdurable principle of semper eadem, which he had learned from his close reading of the Fathers, must always safeguard the authority of the Church’s teachings.  In a moving passage from A Letter to the Duke of Norfolk (1875), he gave eloquent expression to the abiding appeal that this principle had for him, even when he was an Anglican.

I have one thing more to say on the subject of the “semper eadem.” In truth, this fidelity to the ancient Christian system, seen in modern Rome, was the luminous fact which more than any other turned men’s minds at Oxford forty years ago to look towards her with reverence, interest, and love. It affected individual minds variously of course; some it even brought on eventually to conversion, others it only restrained from active opposition to her claims; but none of us could read the Fathers, and determine to be their disciples, without feeling that Rome, like a faithful steward, had kept in fulness and in vigour what our own communion had let drop. The Tracts for the Times were founded on a deadly antagonism to what in these last centuries has been called Erastianism or Cæsarism. Their writers considered the Church to be a divine creation, “not of men, neither by man, but by Jesus Christ,” the Ark of Salvation, the Oracle of Truth, the Bride of Christ, with a message to all men everywhere, and a claim on their love and obedience; and, in relation to the civil power, the object of that promise of the Jewish prophets…. No Ultramontane (so called) could go beyond those writers in the account which they gave of her from the Prophets, and that high notion is recorded beyond mistake in a thousand passages of their writings.

And as a result of his own fidelity to the ancient Church, Newman had no objections to the eventual definition of infallibility upheld by the First Vatican Council.  In fact, he welcomed it, seeing it as a legitimate development of the infallibility that the faithful had virtually accorded the pope for centuries.  Moreover, it defined the pope’s individual power (his infallibility being limited to ex cathedra statements on faith and morals) while strengthening the papacy for the storms ahead in a Europe where, as Newman saw so clearly, “the great apostasia” was expanding apace.

As for liberalism, Newman might have recognized that there were some aspects of the liberal agenda that were acceptable—for example, he singled out the concept of justice—but he was all his life opposed to what he regarded as the relativism and indeed arrogance implicit in the liberal creed, especially when it sought to dispose of truths of which it could have no proper understanding.    After all, in the lives of his own brothers, Newman had seen liberalism degenerate into what he referred to as “the all dissolving, all-corroding skepticism of the intellect,” and he was intent on dissuading others from falling prey to a set of political and religious ideas that were antagonistic alike to good order and true religion.  As he wrote in one famous passage, “Liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another… It is inconsistent with any recognition of any religion as true.  It teaches that all are to be tolerated, for all are matters of opinion.  Revealed religion is not a truth, but a sentiment and a taste, not an objective fact.”  Here, in addition to anticipating the fallacy of the positivist atheism of Bertrand Russell and Freddy Ayer, Newman anticipated the even more calamitous fallacy of those ecumenists within the Catholic hierarchy who wish to imagine Islam on a par with Catholicism.  Of course, for Newman, “We can believe what we choose.” Yet, “we are answerable for what we choose to believe.” 

Father Ker nicely encapsulates Newman’s view of conservatism and liberalism when he observes:  “Having abandoned the attempt as a Tractarian Anglican to construct a via media or middle way between Rome and Geneva, Newman found that he had to forge another via media as a Catholic between the Ultramontane and liberal wings of the Church.  Neither simply conservative nor liberal, he is best described…as a conservative radical or conservative reformer.”  A good example of this is the way in which Newman took issue with both the Ultramontane Cardinal Manning and the liberal Johann Ignaz von Döllinger over the definition of infallibility.  As Father Ker is careful to point out, while Newman was “open to development and reform,” he was nonetheless unwavering in his recognition that these would always have to be consistent with the tradition of the Church, or what Pope Benedict in his summation of what ought to be the just interpretation of the Second Vatican Council referred to as the “hermeneutic of continuity,” rather than the “hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture.” 

One does not need to belabor the point to see how pertinent such a distinction is to any sound response to the issues broached by the synod.  In addition to being a most solicitous father of souls, Newman was a prophet, and one of the reasons why Father Ker’s book is so welcome is that it addresses issues that are of paramount importance for the future of the Church, a future which, as Newman foresaw, is proving fraught with grave challenges.  In one letter, written to a correspondent in 1877, Newman described the nature of those challenges, which, in light of our own tragic experience, can only confirm the accuracy of his prophecy. 

As to the prospects of the Church, as to which you ask my opinion, you know old men are generally desponding—but my apprehensions are not new, but above 50 years standing. I have all that time thought that a time of widespread infidelity was coming, and through all those years the waters have in fact been rising as a deluge. I look for the time, after my life, when only the tops of the mountains will be seen, like islands in the waste of waters.  I speak principally of the Protestant world—but great actions and successes must be achieved by the Catholic leaders, great wisdom as well as courage must be given them from on high, if Holy Church is to be kept safe from the awful calamity, and, though any trial which came upon her would but be temporary, it may be fierce in the extreme while it lasts.

Newman does not make the explicit point here but throughout his Catholic writings he was careful to stress the crucial role that the laity must perform in ensuring that the Church continue faithful to the depositum fidei, especially in circumstances where, as in the fourth century, the episcopate proved less than faithful.  While Father Ker points out that this is certainly one legitimate reason why Newman can be seen as a formative influence on the Second Vatican Council, he also stresses how Newman’s understanding of the faithful laity included the faithful clergy.  To make this point, Father Ker quotes from Newman’s pivotal essay, “On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine” (1859), though even in The Arians of the Fourth Century (1832), the Anglican Newman had shown how the laity and clergy preserved the Church from false developments, in which the episcopate connived. 

The episcopate, whose action was so prompt and concordant at Nicæa on the rise of Arianism, did not, as a class or order of men, play a good part in the troubles consequent upon the Council; and the laity did. The Catholic people, in the length and breadth of Christendom, were the obstinate champions of Catholic truth, and the bishops were not. Of course there were great and illustrious exceptions; first, Athanasius, Hilary, the Latin Eusebius, and Phœbadius; and after them, Basil, the two Gregories, and Ambrose; there are others, too, who suffered, if they did nothing else, as Eustachio’s, Paulus, Paulinus, and Dionysius; and the Egyptian bishops, whose weight was small in the Church in proportion to the great power of their Patriarch. And, on the other hand, as I shall say presently, there were exceptions to the Christian heroism of the laity, especially in some of the great towns. And again, in speaking of the laity, I speak inclusively of their parish-priests (so to call them), at least in many places; but on the whole, taking a wide view of the history, we are obliged to say that the governing body of the Church came short, and the governed were pre-eminent in faith, zeal, courage, and constancy.

Another way that Father Ker shows what might have been Newman’s favorable response to Vatican II is by showing how the “Declaration on Religious Freedom” (Dignitatis Humanae), the most controversial of the Council’s documents, meets the seven notes of legitimate development set out in Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, a finding which parries the objections of Archbishop Lefebvre and his implacable friends to a document that they clearly misunderstood.  Apropos Lefebvre and his theological opposite, Hans Küng, Father Ker makes the insightful observation, “Both Lefebvre and Küng had no doubt as to how the Council was to be understood, and of course paradoxically, like Döllinger and Manning, were in close agreement about its meaning and significance: for both it was a revolutionary event signaling a rupture with the past and tradition.”  Here, we can see how attentive Father Ker is to the illuminating parallels of history, a quality he shares with Newman, whose reading of history is still not adequately appreciated.  

If Father Ker is good at showing how Newman influenced the actual Second Council, he is also good at showing how Newman differed from those who argue for what they claim to be the “spirit of Vatican II.”  This spirit, as Father Ker rightly shows, is the fabrication of “the liberal…kind of theologian who justifies dissent from the Church’s teachings and believes in a kind of parallel magisterium of the theologians.”  Since this “parallel magisterium” is often justified by liberal theologians appropriating Newman’s understanding of conscience, Father Ker shows how misleading the appropriation has been.  Regarding Newman’s celebrated toast to conscience in his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk—in which he wrote how, “Certainly, if I am obliged to bring religion into any 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”—Father Ker provides the historical context for the statement without which it cannot be understood.  In fact, Newman was refuting the contention Gladstone had made in The Vatican Decrees in Their Bearing on Civil Allegiance (1875) that, “No one can be [Rome’s] convert without renouncing his moral and mental freedom and placing his civil loyalty and duty at the mercy of another”; he was not recommending or condoning conscientious dissent from the Magisterium on the part of those claiming to be faithful Catholics.  Yet, rather than paraphrase Father Ker, one should quote him directly, since he makes his case with characteristic precision.

Although it is true that Newman did, in accordance with Catholic tradition, hold that conscience is indeed supreme in the sense that it is—to use his own evocative phrase—“the aboriginal Vicar of Christ,” with its obvious allusion to the pope who is traditionally called “the Vicar of Christ,” this famous toast was never intended by Newman to mean that a Catholic may be led by his conscience to dissent from Church teachings.  Of course, he would have agreed with St. Thomas Aquinas that a Catholic may, indeed should, follow an erroneous conscience even if it means leaving the Church.  But a believing member of the Church has a conscientious duty to believe the teachings of the Church, not to pick and choose what to believe…

Moreover, an erroneous conscience might prompt an individual to deviate from Church teachings on, say, abortion, divorce, or sodomy, but for Newman such a conscience would have ceased to be a Catholic conscience because it would have been formed without any understanding of the binding truth of the Magisterium.  For Father Ker, “Newman’s theology of the conscience and its relation to the teaching authority of the Church upholds the sovereignty but not the autonomy of the individual conscience.”  In such elegant discriminations, one can see the command Father Ker has of his subject’s finely judicious thinking.

This is one reason why Newman on Vatican II is such a vital read, though there is much else about the book to recommend it.  Deeply researched and wonderfully well-written, it is full of insights that go to the very essence of both the Second Council and Newman.  In his penultimate chapter, for example, “Secularization and the New Evangelization,” which includes a splendid reading of Newman’s neglected novel of conversion, Callista (1856), Father Ker shows how Newman both anticipates and exemplifies the genuine spirit of Vatican II by extolling the love of Christ that will always bind the faithful to Him and His Holy Church.  Here, Father Ker also presents a portrait of the true Newman, in all his faithful caritas and wisdom, which will enlighten liberals and conservatives alike.  

Newman on Vatican II
by Ian Ker
Oxford University Press, 2014
167 pages; $36

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Edward Short 38 Articles
Edward Short is the author of Newman and his Contemporaries, Newman and his Family, and Newman and History, as well as Adventure in the Book Pages: Essays and Reviews. His latest book, What the Bells Sang, includes essays on poets, moralists, novelists, historians, and Saint John Henry Cardinal Newman. He lives in New York with his wife and two young children.