Cardinal Newman and Vatican II

john-henry-newmanI have written extensively on Blessed Cardinal Newman, and in particular I have examined what Newman’s reaction to Vatican II would have been. There are two reasons behind this choice.

First, I wanted to set the record right as to whether Newman was a conservative or liberal theologian, particularly in regard to the ways in which he has been misinterpreted concerning Vatican II.

It is all too easy to quote him selectively, without taking into account the context and what he says elsewhere on the subject in question.

Thus, for example, one can quote his apparently uncompromising assertion in his Apologia pro Vita sua 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 thirty, forty, fifty years I have resisted the to the best of my powers the spirit of liberalism in religion’ (that ‘great mischief’) – and conclude that Newman was an extremely conservative 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 apparently uncompromising words,

Theology is the fundamental and regulating principle of the whole Church system

– and conclude that Newman was a forerunner of the contemporary ‘spirit of Vatican II’ theologian who believes in a kind of parallel magisterium of theologians.

But these sort of black and white categories are not applicable to Newman. He is best described as a conservative radical or reformer. Newman makes the paradoxical point in his Essay on Development, that for things to stay the same they need to change, not to be different but to be the same. In other words, change, yes, but always in continuity.

john_henry_newman_by_sir_john_everett_millais_1st_btSecond, I wanted to look not so much at how Newman anticipated (and in one case clearly influenced) the teachings of Vatican  – but rather at how he would view the most important of the documents and their subsequent implementation and reception.

As a conservative radical, his notes or tests of authentic development are most illuminating for understanding the most controversial conciliar document, the Declaration on Religious Freedom, and how it represents a change in Church teaching but a change in continuity with past teachings.

I looked at the mini-theology of Councils that Newman adumbrated in his private correspondence in the years before, during, and after the Council, reflections that provide an illuminating hermeneutic for Vatican II. And I turned next to what must be the most important document of a Council almost exclusively concerned with the Church, the Constitution on the Church.

While the chapters on the bishops and the laity have received far and away the most attention since the Council, in fact the first two chapters – where the Council sets out its vision of the essence and nature of the Church – are the most significant and the most fundamental conciliar texts (albeit they have been largely ignored), which are the Council’s response to Pope John XXIII’s two reasons for calling the Council – the reunion of Christians and the renewal of the Church.

Significantly, the new Ecclesial Communities and Movements exemplify in the concrete the ecclesiology of these first two chapters. Their rediscovery of the charismatic dimension of the Church is especially important. One of the points Newman stresses in his mini-theology of Councils is that Councils have unintended consequences, a point I apply to Vatican II’s Constitutions on Revelation, the Church in the Modern World, on Liturgy, and the Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions.


Fr Ian Ker is author of Newman – His Life and Legacy

His book Newman on Vatican II (published in 2014 by Oxford University Press) has been re-issued this year in paperback.


To read more on Blessed John Henry Newman:
Mind of Cardinal Newman, From His Own Writings – Understanding the ideas of Cardinal Newman, by Charles Stephen Dessain
Newman Prayer Book, Pray for the canonisation of Cardinal Newman with this new prayer book, by The Birmingham Oratory (ed)

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