I don’t have a lot to add here, which in fact, surprised me. On first read, I thought I’d have a wall of text of my own with a much shorter quote. But as I read through it a few times, I found it less and less necessary to pick it apart. But it is still important. There’s something here that speaks to me as a conservative both in the church (although neither Rome nor Canterbury) and as a politically aware American conservative.
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.
Well, OK, but I think the author misses something in his definition of conservative. Conservatives usually are quite willing to change things, that need to be changed, it’s the principles that we cling to. Maybe that’s why, Catholic or Protestant, we admire Newman so.
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.
There is a discussion of the seven notes here, I won’t go into them here, or we’ll have a book, but I will list them for you.
- The First Note: Preservation of Type
- The Second Note: Continuity of Principles
- The Third Note: Assimilative Power
- The Fourth Note: Logical Sequence
- The Fifth Note: Anticipation of Its Future
- The Sixth Note: Conservative Action on Its Past
- The Seventh Note: Chronic Vigor
I have read the link, but have not digested it yet, but on first reading, it strikes me as a very viable set of rough principles in accommodating changes. Or at least I think so, which may be why I’m a blogger and someday (fairly soon) Newman will be a Doctor of the Church.
And in truth, I find them just as persuasive in a political context, perhaps especially the American one, which features unchanging dogma (so to speak) of its own, and still must always change.