Newman and Vatican II

What influence did Blessed John Henry Newman have on a Council that opened 72 years after his death?

That Blessed John Henry Newman was one of the great influences on Vatican II is “a commonplace,” as Newman’s biographer, Father Ian Ker, puts it. But what does that mean? What influence did Newman have on a Council that opened 72 years after his death? And from this side of history, what might we learn from Newman about the proper way to “read” Vatican II, as we anticipate the 50th anniversary of its conclusion on Dec.8?

Those are questions Father Ker explores in Newman on Vatican II (Oxford University Press), a book whose brevity is inversely proportional to its depth. Ker is our best interpreter of Newman’s thought; and when Ian Ker says something about how Newman influenced and would “read” Vatican II, serious Catholics will pay attention. 

That Newman was a great influence on Vatican II means, in part, that the Council’s efforts to retrieve the wisdom of the Church Fathers and the great medieval doctors was presaged in Newman’s own work, going back to his Anglican days. As Ker writes, “A century before the theological revival that came to be known as the nouvelle  [new theology] began in France in the 1930s, Newman and his fellow Tractarians in the Oxford Movement were already seeking to return to the sources of Christianity in the writings of the Fathers.” And that “return” (often called ressourcement theology) was not a matter of pious nostalgia but of intellectual adventure: a movement that sought to enrich the Church’s reflection on her own nature and mission at a moment when theology risked falling into a sub-discipline of logic–something dry and abstract, detached from the explosive good news of the Gospel. 

That Newman had considerable influence at Vatican II isalso evident in the Council’s seminal Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum). There, the Council Fathers teach that the Great Tradition “that comes from the apostles makes progress in the Church, with the help of the Holy Spirit….as the centuries go by, the Church is always advancing toward the plenitude of divine truth, until eventually the words of God are fulfilled in her.” Thus did Vatican II vindicate Newman’s great work on the development of doctrine, which grew from a theological method that brought history, and indeed life itself, back into play as sources of reflection and growth in ourunderstanding of God’s revelation.

That Newman could make this contribution to the Catholic future was due to the fact that he was neither a traditionalist, who thought the Church’s self-understanding frozen in amber, nor a progressive, who believed that nothing is finally settled in the rule of faith. Rather, Newman was a reformer devoted to history, who worked for reform-in-continuity with the Great Tradition, and who, in his explorations of the development of doctrine, helped the Church learn to tell the difference between genuine development and rupture. 

One reason Newman can help us “read” Vatican II, Father Ker suggests, is because he was deeply versed in the history of ecumenical councils. He knew that virtually all such mega-events in Christian history began in controversy, were conducted in controversy, and led to controversy–and unintended consequences, more often than not. Thus to pose “conciliarism” as an all-purpose tool with which to fix what ails the Church would be, to Newman, an implausible idea, given the historical record.

Newman can also help us “read” the post-Vatican IIsituation in which the Church finds herself because he knew, in the late 19th century, that trouble was brewing: “The trials that lie before us,” he preached in 1873, “are such as would appall and make dizzy even such courageous hearts as St. Athanasius, St. Gregory I, or St. Gregory VII.” Why? Because a world tone-deaf to the supernatural–which Newman saw coming–would be a world in which Catholics were seen as “the enemies … of civil liberties and of human progress.”

Sound familiar?

If so, it’s because meeting that challenge is the challenge of our time, through the development of an evangelical Catholicism that lets the world hear rumors of angels once again.

Related on CWR“What Newman Would Have Made of Vatican” by Edward Short (Nov 20, 2014). A review of Fr. Ian Ker’s Newman on Vatican II.

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 George Weigel 491 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021), and To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II (Basic Books, 2022).