The Mind of Newman
by Fr. Ian Ker
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".
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
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