It cannot be long before Cardinal Newman is not only canonised but becomes a Doctor of the Church – so it’s important we understand his theology

I wrote the book Newman on Vatican II for two reasons. First, I hoped to settle once and for all the question that always hangs around Newman: was he a conservative or a liberal theologian? Once Newman has been canonised – which is likely to be soon now that he has been beatified – it is certain that he will be declared a Doctor of the Church, and the question therefore becomes all the more pressing.

The reason why this question comes so regularly to the fore is that it is all too easy to quote Newman selectively and out of context, especially since he expresses himself with such vigorous distinctness and trenchancy.

For example, one can quote his forthright statement in the Apologia that dogma was the “fundamental principle” of his religion – “I know no other religion”, or his insistence in the speech he made on being made a cardinal that “for 30, 40, 50 years I have resisted to the best of my powers the spirit of liberalism in religion” – and conclude from these two uncompromising statements that Newman was extremely conservative and traditionalist.

On the other hand, one might quote Newman’s famous words, “I shall drink – to the Pope, if you please – still, to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards”; or his downright assertion: “Theology is the fundamental and regulating principle of the whole Church system” – and conclude that Newman was a forerunner of the liberal, “spirit of Vatican II” kind of theologian who justifies dissent from Church teachings and advocates a parallel magisterium of the theologians.

The truth is that Newman was neither simply conservative nor liberal. He is best described as a conservative radical or reformer. This is true both of his Anglican and his Catholic periods. For example, his first book, The Arians of the Fourth Century, was clearly aimed at their contemporary equivalent, liberal Anglicans and Protestants, in cahoots with the Whig government that was threatening to force reforms on the Church of England. And yet the conservative editors of the theological library for which the book was intended were alarmed by the radicalism of several of Newman’s ideas. Similarly, the last chapter of the Apologia on the one hand unequivocally upholds the authority of the magisterium, but on the other unequivocally defends the legitimate freedom of theologians.

The second reason I wrote the book was that, while much has been written about how Newman anticipated Vatican II, I wanted rather to consider how he would have responded to the Council’s documents and what his view of their post-conciliar interpretation and implementation would be.

Newman’s conservative, as well as radical and reforming, theological stance was consistent with his view that the Church “changes … in order to remain the same”. In other words, he would have said the Church changed with Vatican II in order to remain the same, not to be different. To test whether a change was a development or a corruption, he proposed seven notes, which have been routinely dismissed by his commentators but to which he held fast, and which beautifully illuminate how the most controversial of the conciliar documents, Dignitatis Humanae, the Declaration on Religious Freedom, was certainly a major change but a change in continuity.

In his private letters before, during and after Vatican I, Newman adumbrated a mini-theology of councils, noting how they both modify and complete previous councils, cause considerable confusion and conflict, and require interpretation by the whole Church. He thought that teachings like those of the Vatican councils became clearer in time, and that they lead to new developments because, paradoxically, of what they don’t say.

The new ecclesial (not lay) communities and movements are not only a loud response to Vatican II’s almost deafening silence about evangelisation. They also illuminate by realising in concrete actuality the most important text of the Council, a Council almost entirely about the Church: namely, the first two chapters of the Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium. These define the essential nature of the Church not in the usual terms of clergy and laity but as the organic communion of those who have received the Holy Spirit in baptism.

The two chapters refer three times to the charismatic, as distinct from the hierarchical, dimension of the Church, the importance of which Newman was well aware both as an Anglican (with his writings on the Benedictine charism) and as a Catholic (with his writings on the charism of St Philip Neri and his aborted project to write a book contrasting the charisms of St Benedict, St Dominic, and St Ignatius Loyola).

Finally, Newman anticipated, while at the same time providing a corrective to post-conciliar distortions and exaggerations, the documents on: Revelation (Dei Verbum), which is essentially personalistic but also propositional; the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes), whose emphasis on justice and peace could and did lead to gross exaggerations; and the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate), about which Newman had been more radical while at the same rejecting any kind of religious pluralism.

When Newman is declared a Doctor of the Church, he will surely be seen as the doctor par excellence of the post-conciliar Church.

This article first appeared in the December 16 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here