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The Mind of Newman

by Fr. Ian Ker

The sermon preached at the Mass for the end of the diocesan process in the cause of Cardinal Newman, celebrated in St Chad's Cathedral on June 19th, 1986.

But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart
(Lk 2, 19).

John Henry Newman chose these words from St Luke's gospel as the text for his famous sermon on
The Theory of Developments in Religious Doctrine which he preached in 1843 in the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford. Speaking still as an Anglican, he said: "St Mary is our pattern of faith, both in the reception and in the study of divine truth. She does not think it enough to accept, she dwells upon it; not enough to possess, she uses it; not enough to assent, she develops it; not enough to submit the reason, she reasons upon it; not indeed reasoning first, and believing afterwards, with Zechariah, yet first believing without reasoning, next from love and reverence, reasoning after believing." And he concluded that "she symbolises to us, not only the faith of the unlearned, but of the doctors of the Church also, who have to investigate, and weigh, and define, as well as to profess the Gospel."

Nearly 30 years before, Newman had received the gift of faith in his adolescent conversion of 1816, and during the succeeding years he pondered faithfully on what lie had received, until after much pain and soul-searching he came to believe that the fulness of the Christian revelation was only to be found in the Catholic Church. It was, he said, Oxford not Rome that had made him a Catholic, in the sense that it was his beloved folios of the fathers, over which he had pored so long and so intently in his study at Oriel, that had led him to the deep conviction that in order to be in communion with St Athanasius and St Ambrose it was necessary to enter into communion with Pope Pius IX. But for all his love of the early Church, he was to insist that a convert "comes to Catholicism as to a living system, with a living teaching, and not to a mere collection of decrees and canons", while to embrace only "the framework, not the body and substance of the Church" would "not only be unreal, but would be dangerous, too, as arguing a wrong state of mind". He also, however, was to claim that a convert becomes "gradually so indoctrinated in Catholicism, as at length to have a right to speak as well as to hear".

Like Mary, Newman "kept" the faith which he had received and he also kept to the life and practice of the Church which he had joined. Idealist and visionary as he was, Newman was also the most realistic of people, who was quick to discern dangers in an unreal nostalgia for the past: "Obsolete customs become present heresies," he once remarked. But like Mary, Newman also "pondered" over the faith as it was understood and expressed in his day in the Church. And it is no secret that as the years went by he became increasingly aware of the need for a radical renewal of the Church's life and thought in order to meet new difliculties and problerns.

Newman used often to say after the first Vatican Council, which ended so abruptly without completing its business, "there will be another Council", to balance and to modify the definition of 1870. Characteristically at the time Newman turned for guidance to the history of the early Church, where it seemed "as if the Church moved on to the perfect truth by various successive declarations, alternately in contrary directions, and thus perfecting, completing, supplying each other". He urged worried Catholics, "Let us be patient, let us have faith, and a new Pope, and a reassembled council may trim the boat."

This assured prophesy of the second Vatican Council is familiar to students of Newman. Hardly known at all is an earlier essay where Newman expressed his confidence in the extraordinary capacity of the papacy itself for initiating fundamental, even revolutionary, reforms. "The popes have been old men; but, wonderful to say, they have never been slow to venture out upon a new line, when it was necessary", and "never found any difficulty, when the proper moment came, of following out a new and daring line of policy. . . of leaving the old world to shift for itself and to disappear from the scene in its due season, and of fastening on and establishing themselves in the new." The particular historical example Newman himself gives of such a radical Pope, "a man of 80, of humble origin, the most conservative of popes, as he was considered", can hardly help but remind us of Pope John XXIII, the "caretaker" Pope. A religious conservative, in the bad sense of the word, Newman explains, is someone "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" - for "a great pontiff must be detached from everything save the deposit of faith, the tradition of the apostles, and the vital principles of the divine polity".

In his biglietto speech in Rome when he was made a cardinal, Newman alluded to the "
many trials" he had suffered in advocating the kind of progressive views, which one day would be fully vindicated by the council, which has aptly been called "Newman's council". But there was no inconsistency when he went on to say: "For 30,40, 50 years I have resisted to the best of my powers the spirit of liberalism in religion." Just as there is a false as well as a true kind of conservatism, so there is a wrong as well as a right kind of religious liberalism. And that spurious "liberalism in religion" which Newman warned against as "an error overspreading, as a snare, the whole earth", he defined as "the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as mother". In the Apologia he had described it as "false liberty of thought, or the exercise of thought upon matters, in which, from the constitution of the human mind, thought cannot be brought to any successful issue, and therefore is out of place". In the last great chapter of that classic work he had defended both the freedom of theologians and the authority of the Church's magisterium, not intending some equivocal and fudged compromise, but rather insisting that not only are the two compatible but that each lives off conflict with the other: "It is the vast Catholic body itself, and it only, which affords an arena for both combatants in that awful, never-dying duel. It is necessary for the very life of religion . . . that the warfare should be incessantly carried on." Sometimes, as in his own day, there might be an imbalance on the side of authority; at other times the excess might lie with the individual theologian, whom "the competent authority ought to silence".

Newman took Our Lady as the model for the way the Church both conserves and develops the faith. We may surely take Newman himself, both in his life and writings, as a prophetic guide for our own post-conciliar age. Deeply and profoundly conservative in his adherence to revealed truth and in his fidelity to authority and to tradition, Newman was at the same time keenly alive to the importance and inevitability of adaptation and development. The man who wrote, "From the age of 15, dogma has been the fundamental principle of my religion", was also the man who write, "To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often". Throughout a long life of much suffering and misunderstanding Newman held firm to both these complementary truths, and in doing so he witnessed heroically to the wholeness of Catholicity, which must contain both the conservative and progressive elements, not locked in irreconcilable opposition to each other, but integrated in a creative fusion. As he instisted at the time of the first Vatican Council, "The Church moves as a whole.. . it is a communion."

Copyright © 1986 Fr. Ian Ker

E-mail: ian.ker@theology.ox.ac.uk

Tel/Fax: 44 (0) 1993 823 219

Address: 171 The Hill, Burford, OX18 4RE, England

Version: 18th October 2002

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