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.

​How to continue reading…

This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week

The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection