Newman on Vatican II

By Ian Ker

Oxford University Press, 2014

167 pages, $40

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Cardinal John Henry Newman (1801-1890) addressed two issues that still face the Church. In his journey from the ordained Anglican priesthood to the Church, he engaged deeply with the work of the early Church fathers, trying to determine how a Christian could distinguish legitimate doctrinal development from illegitimate. And as a bystander to Vatican I, Newman wrestled with the theological and ecclesial status of a council that sought to clarify Church teaching. These topics remain contemporary and important to any Catholic who wants to understand a Church that (in writer John Noonan’s terms) “can and cannot change.”

Perhaps the most famous English convert of the 19th century, Newman wrote a classic conversion narrative, Apologia Pro Vita Sua (1865), as well as fiction, theology and essays and his classic work on the purpose of education, The Idea of a University (1852). He is regarded not only as one of the English language’s greatest prose stylists, but as one of the Church’s greatest theologians and apologists.

Ian Ker, a Newman biographer and perhaps his greatest scholar, makes the case that Newman, as theologian, was both a precursor of, and a way to understand, the teachings of Vatican II.  

This is Newman “on” Vatican II, but, of course, Newman was not present for the Council. Ker instead draws from Newman’s writings a way of understanding the Council. This understanding anticipates that of Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict, rather than those who invoke an amorphous “spirit” of the Council. 

Newman famously refused to attend Vatican I, though he was clearly among the reformers of his generation. For this reason, it is sometimes believed he also would have been among the more extreme “reformers” of Vatican II. 

But as Ker shows, the heart of Newman’s project, running from his own conversion experience, was to reconcile the competing claims of change and continuity. Without change, continuity becomes stale, and the word of God becomes harder to hear. Newman faced this challenge in his own day when he recalled the Church Fathers from history and opposed a very dry interpretation of medieval scholasticism. But change without continuity is just as bad; it leads to corruption of Church teaching, rather than its development. 

In a chapter titled “The Hermeneutic of Change in Continuity,” Ker traces Newman’s thought on how doctrine develops. Newman identified seven general criteria by which one could examine whether a development in doctrine was a true one, elaborated in his “Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine,” left unfinished at the time of Newman’s entry into the Church in 1845. That work explained, in Ker’s words, that “n order to tell whether changes in Christian doctrine are developments or corruptions, then there must be some means of authenticating genuine developments.” Ker looks at the Vatican II document Dignitats Humanae in that light and concludes that — contrary to those who think this a departure from Church teaching — it in fact is a true development.

Ker next turns to Newman’s theology of Church councils, which he elaborated mostly in private letters during Vatican I. Newman understood that Church councils can be a mixture of the holy and mundane and, more importantly, that councils cannot settle every theological question. Even the questions they do address need further development and clarification; they do not constitute “new” teachings. In this, he was fully in accord with the “reform of the reform” propounded by John Paul II and Benedict. 

Ker provides a vigorous defense not only of Newman, but of an orthodox way of understanding Vatican II and contemporary Church development. The main drawback to the book is its price, which may prevent it from being as well-known among non-specialists as it should.



Gerald J. Russello is editor of The University Bookman.