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Newman, Defender of the Faith

As October 13 approaches, let us pray that God will send us more learned, eloquent and unafraid defenders of the faith like St. John Henry Newman

John Henry Cardinal Newman in 1887. [Wikipedia]

“In your opinion, what is the best book of Catholic apologetics?”

Although that question, put to me unexpectedly several years ago by someone I was chatting with, took me by surprise, I didn’t have to spend much time searching for the answer.

“Cardinal Newman’s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine,” I said confidently—just as I would do now if someone asked me the same thing.

I remembered this incident recently as I thought about John Henry Newman’s upcoming canonization as a saint, scheduled to take place October 13 in Rome. What is it, I asked myself, that makes this scholarly 19th century British churchman an object of continuing interest to so many people 129 years after his death?

The answer, I believe, is that Newman was and remains first and foremost a great defender of the faith—something we’re much in need of now.

A critic who hadn’t read the book might object that the Essay on Development is a poor example of defending the faith, since in the years following Vatican Council II “development” has often been used as cover for changing settled doctrine.

But a comment by theologian Father Louis Bouyer, like Newman a convert to Catholicism, deals neatly with that objection. In his foreword to the Ignatius Press volume of Newman’s Parochial and Plain Sermons, he remarks that the Essay is “not in the least an apology of change for the sake of changing but a most careful delineation between change which means real growth and change which is only corruption.”

It’s worth recalling, too, that Newman, an Anglican clergyman at the time, spent much of 1845 writing the Essay on Development. Finishing the project late in the year, he hastened to seek admission to the Catholic communion, having, one might say, written his way into the Church with this book.

In important ways, though, he was Catholic at heart long before that, a circumstance of which ample evidence can be found in the Parochial and Plain Sermons—along with frequent reminders that this gentlemanly scholar could also be stern—even tough. As in this, on preserving the faith, in a homily titled “The Gospel: A Trust Committed to Us”:

The plain and simple reason for our preaching and preserving the faith is because we have been told to do so. It is an act of mere obedience to him who has ‘put us in trust with the Gospel.’ Our one great concern as regards it, is to deliver it over safe….Did men feel this adequately, they would have little heart to indulge in the random speculations which at present are so familiar to their minds.

Or this, in a homily called “Tolerance of Religious Error”:

I wish I saw…this element of zeal and holy sternness spring up among us, to temper and give character to the languid, unmeaning benevolence which we misname Christian love. I have no hope of my country till I see it. Many schools of religion and ethics are to be found among us, and they all profess to magnify, in one shape or other, what they consider the principle of love; but what they lack is a firm maintenance of that characteristic of the Divine Nature…the wrath of God.

As October 13 approaches, let us pray that God will send us more learned, eloquent and unafraid defenders of the faith like St. John Henry Newman, and that all of us will be defenders of the faith in our own surroundings. The need is very great.


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About Russell Shaw 191 Articles
Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of 20 books, including Nothing to Hide and the highly acclaimed American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America.

4 Comments

  1. Wanna bet the Holy Father hasn’t read Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine and if he has, probably found it to be “too rigid?” ‘Why scare the faithful with words like “the wrath of God?”. I suspect John Henry Newman wouldn’t be made a Cardinal were he alive today, nor would Avery Dulles.

  2. In The Development of Christian Doctrine, Newman appeals, in part, to a biological analogy whereby growth (“development”) is one thing, while corruption is another. Unlike the novelty of a “New Paradigm” and New Church (!), he writes:

    “I venture to set down seven notes of varying cogency, independence, and applicability to discriminate healthy developments of an idea from its state of corruption and decay, as follows: “There is no corruption if it retains:

    (1) One and the same TYPE [doctrine/ natural law v. a disconnected degree of pastoral “accompaniment”?],
    (2) The same PRINCIPLES [sound philosophy v. neo-Hegelianism],
    (3) The same ORGANIZATION [the Barque of Peter v. all religions equivalently (?) “the will of God”?];
    (4) If its beginnings ANTICIPATE its subsequent phases [Catechism/Veritatis Splendor v. normalization of homosexual activity, etc.?], and
    (5) Its later phenomena PROTECT and subserve its earlier [VS/Familiarus Consortio v. the social-science “arc of history”?];
    (6) If it has a power of assimilation and REVIVAL [Evangelization v. Amazonia/Germania?], and
    (7) A vigorous ACTION from first to last…” [steadfastness (!) while/because also fully engaging new challenges v. double-speak?].

    With his canonization on October 13 (the same day as the last apparition at Fatima), let us hope that Newman is more read and taken to heart, rather than (Like St. John Paul II, etc.) ushered to the back shelf of alleged Old-Paradigm history.

    • Mr Beaulieu,

      I look forward to reading your highly learned comments as much, if not more, than many of the essays you have commented upon.

      God Bless,
      Jim Gill

  3. I agree that Newman is one of the premier defenders of the Faith, and that his “Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine” is a superb piece of apologetics, giving the substance of true religious doctrine in a manner equaled only by a relatively few people. No one should read it, however . . . until they have read his Apologia Pro Vita Sua, that is.

    The Essay tells us WHAT Newman thought. The Apologia tells us HOW Newman thought which is of inestimable value in getting an accurate understanding of where he was coming from and thus what he meant and how to approach his writings.

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