That Blessed John Henry Newman was one of the great influences on Vatican II is “a commonplace,” as Newman’s biographer, Fr. Ian Ker, puts it. But what does that mean? What influence did Newman have on a Council that opened seventy-two years after his death? And from this side of history, what might we learn from Newman about the proper way to “read” Vatican II, as we anticipate the fiftieth anniversary of its conclusion on December 8?
Those are questions Fr. Ker explores in Newman on Vatican II (Oxford University Press), a book whose brevity is inversely proportional to its depth. Ker is our best interpreter of Newman’s thought; and when Ian Ker says something about how Newman influenced and would “read” Vatican II, serious Catholics will pay attention.
That Newman was a great influence on Vatican II means, in part, that the Council’s efforts to retrieve the wisdom of the Church Fathers and the great medieval doctors was presaged in Newman’s own work, going back to his Anglican days. As Ker writes, “A century before the theological revival that came to be known as the nouvelle theologie [new theology] began in France in the 1930s, Newman and his fellow Tractarians in the Oxford Movement were already seeking to return to the sources of Christianity in the writings of the Fathers.” And that “return” (often called ressourcement theology) was not a matter of pious nostalgia but of intellectual adventure: a movement that sought to enrich the Church’s reflection on her own nature and mission at a moment when theology risked falling into a sub-discipline of logic—something dry and abstract, detached from the explosive good news of the Gospel.
That Newman had considerable influence at Vatican II is also evident in the Council’s seminal Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum). There, the Council Fathers teach that the Great Tradition “that comes from the apostles makes progress in the Church, with the help of the Holy Spirit . . . as the centuries go by, the Church is always advancing toward the plenitude of divine truth, until eventually the words of God are fulfilled in her.” Thus did Vatican II vindicate Newman’s great work on the development of doctrine, which grew from a theological method that brought history, and indeed life itself, back into play as sources of reflection and growth in our understanding of God’s revelation.
That Newman could make this contribution to the Catholic future was due to the fact that he was neither a traditionalist, who thought the Church’s self-understanding frozen in amber, nor a progressive, who believed that nothing is finally settled in the rule of faith. Rather, Newman was a reformer devoted to history, who worked for reform-in-continuity with the Great Tradition, and who, in his explorations of the development of doctrine, helped the Church learn to tell the difference between genuine development and rupture.
One reason Newman can help us “read” Vatican II, Fr. Ker suggests, is because he was deeply versed in the history of ecumenical councils. He knew that virtually all such mega-events in Christian history began in controversy, were conducted in controversy, and led to controversy—and unintended consequences, more often than not. Thus to pose “conciliarism” as an all-purpose tool with which to fix what ails the Church would be, to Newman, an implausible idea, given the historical record.
Newman can also help us “read” the post–Vatican II situation in which the Church finds herself because he knew, in the late nineteenth century, that trouble was brewing: “The trials that lie before us,” he preached in 1873, “are such as would appall and make dizzy even such courageous hearts as St. Athanasius, St. Gregory I, or St. Gregory VII.” Why? Because a world tone-deaf to the supernatural—which Newman saw coming—would be a world in which Catholics were seen as “the enemies . . . of civil liberties and of human progress.”
If so, it’s because meeting that challenge is the challenge of our time, through the development of an evangelical Catholicism that lets the world hear rumors of angels once again.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. Weigel’s column is distributed by the Denver Catholic, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Denver.