Saturday, January 12, 2019

And now, a giddy romp through the funny papers of an allegedly more innocent time....

From Walt Kelly's Pogo, June 8, 1953, featuring a certain "Simple J. Malarky," reprinted in The Complete Syndicated Comics, Vol. 3, Fantagraphics Books

Saturday, January 5, 2019

The continuing relevance of Dr. Newman

Kingsley addressed him principally as "Dr. Newman" in the attacks that led to the Apologia.  Since his death he has more customarily been called "Cardinal Newman," raised to the Sacred College in his eighties by Leo XIII.   During the pontificate of Benedict XVI he was recognized as "Blessed John Henry Newman."  Many hope to see him canonized, and even named a Doctor of the Church--which would bring us back around, I suppose, to "Dr. Newman."

I recently came across and purchased a used copy of the University Sermons, in part because these various homilies on faith and reason, theology and science, conclude with an address entitled "The Theory of Developments in Religious Doctrine."

The achievements of Newman are many and varied.  He was a leader in the Oxford Movement, the effort to return the Church of England to a more Catholic sense of order and doctrine, ending, notoriously, in his conversion to the Church of Rome.  His English is remarkably beautiful, best known through the autobiographical history of his religious opinions, Apologia pro Vita Sua, and his hymn, "Lead, Kindly Light."  The Idea of a University is a significant contribution to the literature of Christian humanism and a classic defense of the inherent value of liberal knowledge.  And many consider his Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent an important analysis of the psychology of and justification for belief (though I have to confess I've never gotten much further than the first few pages).

But, in my view, Newman's greatest significance lies in the theory intimated in that last University Sermon, and set out most fully in his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine.

Now this sense of significance happens to turn on some personal circumstances.  The development of doctrine was at the center of Newman's concerns at the very moment of his conversion.  And as a convert myself from Protestantism I was, very conventionally, asking many of the same questions and turning over many of the same concerns addressed by the Development of Christian Doctrine.  Given a life-long Protestant distrust of Catholic innovations, and to the undoubted Catholic additions to the Christian creed, how could those additions, always termed by Protestants "corruptions" or "traditions of men," be justified?

Newman begins with a forthright turning of the tables:  "[W]hatever history teaches, whatever it omits, whatever it exaggerates or extenuates, whatever it says and unsays, at least the Christianity of history is not Protestantism.  If ever there were a safe truth, it is this."   Change happens, and always happens.  Human beings can't help but think about their religion, and raise new questions, which leads to theology, which leads to disputes, and which therefore require a resolution (or a schism).

So the question is not change or no change.  The question is appropriate change, what Newman calls a "development," as opposed to a "corruption."  And this puts Newman in a peculiar place in regard to current Catholic wars between "traditionalists" and "progressives."

On the one hand Newman was always adamant that the touchstone of his life's work was opposition to theological "liberalism."  As stated in the first appendix to the Apologia:

"Whenever men are able to act at all, there is the chance of extreme and intemperate action; and therefore, when there is exercise of mind, there is the chance of wayward or mistaken exercise. Liberty of thought is in itself a good; but it gives an opening to false liberty. Now by Liberalism I mean false liberty of thought, or the exercise of thought upon matters, in which, from the constitution of the human mind, thought cannot be brought to any successful issue, and therefore is out of place. Among such matters are first principles of whatever kind; and of these the most sacred and momentous are especially to be reckoned the truths of Revelation. Liberalism then is the mistake of subjecting to human judgment those revealed doctrines which are in their nature beyond and independent of it, and of claiming to determine on intrinsic grounds the truth and value of propositions which rest for their reception simply on the external authority of the Divine Word."

But if reason, criticism, judgment, cannot touch these first principles, the truths of revelation, they necessarily take them up and work with them.  In his final University Sermon Newman takes his text from Luke's nativity account:  Mary pondered all these things in her heart.  Mary thereby becomes, not only a pattern of faith in her "Fiat," but a pattern of theology in her reflection.

In fact many traditionalist Catholics deeply distrust Newman, and see his theory of development as providing a back door for the entry of an earlier-disavowed theological liberalism.  If the result of a development is a hitherto unarticulated doctrine, how is that any different from a direct critique of revelation using unaided human reason?

It is not an unreasonable question, but surely history and experience have shown that there is no workable point at which Christian doctrine can say, "Thus far and no farther."  However much some have asserted that the closing of the canon, or the completion of the four common councils, or the seven common councils, have answered all questions, our experience is that there can be no ending of moral or theological or liturgical or ecclesiastical questions.  That continuous ferment does not mean that all these remain permanently "up for grabs."  But it does imply that these expressions will remain permanently subject to controversy, even with a commitment to the idea that the foundational revelation remains unchanged.  How, then, is one to steer between the unrootedness of simple theological liberalism and the impossibility of honestly maintaining the existence, since the first century, of a static and unchanged dogmatic? 

In his University Sermon Newman does little more than assert and defend the idea of development.  In his later book-length Essay he goes further and tries to set out criteria (or "notes") for differentiating unjustified changes ("corruptions") from legitimate ones ("developments").  These are (1) preservation of its type, (2) continuity of its principles, (3) assimilative power, (4) logical sequence, (5) anticipation of its future, (6) conservative action on its past, and (7) chronic vigor.

The exposition of these notes provides an instructive and readable overview of and justification for the emergence of a variety of doctrines, some distinctly Catholic, others more broadly held across the professing Christian world.  But, in my view, they provide little actual guidance for determining, today, whether a proposed addition is justified or unjustified, other than providing a vocabulary for controversy.

For example, in his exposition of the first note, Preservation of its type, Newman sets out three chapters reviewing Church history:  the early ages, the fourth century, and the fifth and sixth centuries,  ending each chapter with a series of characteristics plainly pointing to characteristics of the contemporary Catholic Church.  Here is his conclusion to the third one:

"If then there is now a form of Christianity such, that it extends throughout the world, though with varying measures of prominence or prosperity in separate places;—that it lies under the power of sovereigns and magistrates, in various ways alien to its faith;—that flourishing nations and great empires, professing or tolerating the Christian name, lie over against it as antagonists;—that schools of philosophy and learning are supporting theories, and following out conclusions, hostile to it, and establishing an exegetical system subversive of its Scriptures;—that it has lost whole Churches by schism, and is now opposed by powerful communions once part of itself;—that it has been altogether or almost driven from some countries;—that in others its line of teachers is overlaid, its flocks oppressed, its Churches occupied, its property held by what may be called a duplicate succession;—that in others its members are degenerate and corrupt, and are surpassed in conscientiousness and in virtue, as in gifts of intellect, by the very heretics whom it condemns;—that heresies are rife and bishops negligent within its own pale;—and that amid its disorders and its fears there is but one Voice for whose decisions the peoples wait with trust, one Name and one See to which they look with hope, and that name Peter, and that see Rome;—such a religion is not unlike the Christianity of the fifth and sixth Centuries."

This is a marvelous example of Newman's rhetoric, as well as a very specific set of defenses against various contemporary attacks on Catholic claims in Newman's day.  But a defense of specific positions, practices and shortcomings is not quite the same as a criterion for present controversies.  Reading this passage, one can see how a similar conclusion, with different antecedents, could be made for the Orthodox Church, or various Protestant Churches.  History consists of real and objective (if not always entirely ascertainable) events, but its enormity makes it a convenient source of justification for a wide variety of present courses.  

That said, Newman remains an important theologian for tackling, head-on, the issue of change and continuity in theology.  (The Reader is referred to an earlier post, dated August 17, 2012, "The More Things Change," in which I tried to summarize and contrast three nineteenth century models of historical change, Hegel's dialectic, Darwin's evolution, and Newman's idea of development.)  The contemporary Church is, as usual, divided and in an uproar about various doctrines and practices which some seek to modify, some to change, and some to defend--all with the conviction that the fate of the Faith lies with the correct resolution.  

From the evidence of the internet it is a source of anxiety for many--an unfortunate result, because such perennial controversies rarely touch the heart of the faith, and can provide a convenient rationale for our failing to do what, in fact, we know we ought to do (do justly, and love mercy, and walk humbly with God).  Newman's "notes" are, I have suggested above, very little help in resolving these controversies.  But Newman's work helps establish how the cycle of controversy is indeed ubiquitous, and he suggests that, even if one one plunges into it, all will nevertheless be well, and that, even if nothing is finally settled, beyond any further possibility of development, we need not be unsettled ourselves about that.