Newman and Vatican II

That Blessed John Henry Newman was one of the great influences on Vatican II is “a commonplace,” as Newman’s biographer, Father Ian Ker, puts it. But what does that mean? What influence did Newman have on a Council that opened 72 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 50th anniversary of its conclusion on Dec. 8?

Those are questions Father 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, Father 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 19th 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.”

Sound familiar?

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.

COMING UP: Q&A: USCCB clarifies intent behind bishops’ Eucharist document

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Last week, the U.S. bishop concluded their annual Spring meeting, during which much about the Church in the U.S was discussed. In particular, the bishops voted to draft a document on the meaning of Eucharistic life in the Church, which was approved by an overwhelming majority.

Since then, speculation about the nature of the document has run rampant, the chief of which is that it was drafted specifically to instigate a policy aimed directly at Catholic politicians and public figures whose outward political expressions and policy enactment do not align with Church teaching.

The USCCB has issued a brief Q&A clarifying the intent of the document, and they have emphasized that “the question of whether or not to deny any individual or groups Holy Communion was not on the ballot.”

“The Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life,” the USCCB said. “The importance of nurturing an ever
deeper understanding of the beauty and mystery of the Eucharist in our lives is not a new topic for the bishops. The document being drafted is not meant to be disciplinary in nature, nor is it targeted at any one individual or class of persons. It will include a section on the Church’s teaching on the responsibility of every Catholic, including bishops, to live in accordance with the truth, goodness and beauty of the Eucharist we celebrate.”

Below are a few commonly asked questions about last week’s meeting and the document on the Eucharist.

Why are the bishops doing this now?

For some time now, a major concern of the bishops has been the declining belief and understanding of the Eucharist among the Catholic faithful. This was a deep enough concern that the theme of the bishops’ strategic plan for 2021-2024 is Created Anew by the Body and Blood of Christ: Source of Our Healing and Hope. This important document on the Eucharist will serve as a foundation for the multi-year Eucharistic Revival Project, a major national effort to reignite Eucharistic faith in our country. It was clear from the intensity and passion expressed in the individual interventions made by the bishops during last week’s meeting that each bishop deeply loves the Eucharist.

Did the bishops vote to ban politicians from receiving Holy Communion?

No, this was not up for vote or debate. The bishops made no decision about barring anyone from receiving Holy Communion. Each Catholic — regardless of whether they hold public office or not — is called to continual conversion, and the U.S. bishops have repeatedly emphasized the obligation of all Catholics to support human life and dignity and other fundamental principles of Catholic moral and social teaching.

Are the bishops going to issue a national policy on withholding Communion from politicians?

No. There will be no national policy on withholding Communion from politicians. The intent is to present a clear understanding of the Church’s teachings to bring heightened awareness among the faithful of how the Eucharist can transform our lives and bring us closer to our creator and the life he wants for us.

Did the Vatican tell the bishops not to move forward on drafting the document?

No. The Holy See did encourage the bishops to engage in dialogue and broad consultation. Last week’s meeting was the first part of that process. It is important to note that collaboration and consultation among the bishops will be key in the drafting of this document.


Featured photo by Eric Mok on Unsplash