John Henry Newman would rejoice in ‘Towards an Assembly’ day — Seamus Devitt CSsR

Blessed John Henry Newman, and Monday May 7th, 2012: -‘Towards an Assembly of the Irish Catholic Church’.
John Henry Newman, probably the greatest writer/theologian of the 1800’s,  was made Cardinal, but only at the age of 78, and by the newly elected Pope Leo XIII. His predecessor, Pius IX , and a lot of bishops in England, had regarded Newman with suspicion. Much of this suspicion related to his views on the role of the Catholic Faithful.
‘On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine’ , a famous article, was first published in July, 1859 in the Rambler. It was the immediate cause of great controversy both in Rome and in England. Newman did not withdraw his views, though he did not reprint the article.  In this long article, Newman shows how, in the course of the history of the Church, the laity protected and saved the Church, even from its bishops, in times of great peril. As a young Anglican Minister, Newman had done a long study of Arianism  (Arius and his many followers denied the Divinity of Christ) in the 4th Century, and wrote how this was eventually defeated by the preaching and writings of St. Athanasius together with the fidelity of the faithful, when great numbers of the hierarchy had fallen into error.
Newman was consistent in his views of the importance of the voice of the faithful, within the Church. Only in Vatican 2 did this importance find universal acceptance. In an earlier address to the Brothers of the Little Oratory in Birmingham in 1851, we find this: What he desired in Catholics, he said  ‘is the gift of bringing out what their religion is — I want a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men (sic) who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold and what they do not, who know their creed so well that they can give an account of it, who know so much of history that they can defend it. I want an intelligent, well-instructed laity — I wish you to enlarge your knowledge, to cultivate your reason, to get an insight into the relation of truth to truth, to learn to view things as they are, to understand how faith and reason stand to each other, what are the bases and principles of Catholicism …  In all times the laity have been the measure of the Catholic spirit; they saved the Irish Church three centuries ago and they betrayed the Church in England. You ought to be able to bring out what you feel and what you mean, as well as to feel and mean it.’
He wrote in the Rambler, in 1859: ‘… the body of the faithful is one of the witnesses to the fact of the tradition of revealed doctrine, and… their consensus through Christendom is the voice of the Infallible Church.’
John Henry Newman was treated with great suspicion by bishops and by Rome. His wisdom was only publicly recognized by Rome very late in his life when he was made Cardinal . Our present Pope Benedict even declared him ‘Blessed’.  I wonder what would have happened if Newman had been writing today. There’s hope, therefore for other voices who seek to speak the truth with love, and who are silenced or mocked for being ‘self-serving’.
Just twenty years ago, this June, Yves Congar, a theologian much maligned by many, but later made Cardinal, died.  NCR (National Catholic Reporter) in their edition of July 14, 1995, reflected on his passing:  his life ‘is a vivid reminder of the church’s tendency to brutalize innovative thinkers, only to later herald them for pushing the church to new insights and directions.’  I think Blessed John Henry Newman and Yves Congar would rejoice to see this gathering on Monday May 7th, ‘Towards an Assembly of the Irish Catholic Church’.  But will Rome?
Seamus Devitt, C.Ss.R., Esker, Athenry, Co. Galway.
May 2 was the feast of St. Athanasius – for a time, a much-reviled cleric and bishop, five times imprisoned, later a Saint and Doctor of the Church.
Note: ‘Newman and the Laity’ by Paul Chavasse, is a rich source of information on all of this, and can be found in http:// www.catholiceducation.org.

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  1. Eamonn Keane says:

    Blessed John Henry Newman contributed so much to the progress of Catholic theology that he may one day be declared a doctor of the Church. While Newman’s writings were notable for their innovative approach to various questions, he was anything but a dissenter.
    Newman held that since God in his wisdom deemed it necessary to provide us with the gift of Divine Revelation, it follows logically from this that he would also put in place an authoritative teaching office to guarantee the conservation of this revelation. In this regard we can note how Vatican II states that the integrated structure of Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition and the Magisterium is expressive of the “the supremely wise arrangement of God,” and that by “working together, each in its own way, under the action of the Holy Spirit, they all contribute effectively to the salvation of souls” (Dei Verbum 10).
    Newman was acutely conscious of the implications for the life of faith of the answer one gives to the question of how in any given era one is to correctly discern the contents of the Tradition which has come down to us from the Apostles. The answer he gave to this question was instrumental in causing him to enter the Catholic Church. He said: “The gift of discerning, discriminating, defining, promulgating, and enforcing any portion of that tradition resides solely in the Ecclesia docens” (On Consulting The Faithful in Matters of Doctrine, Collins, London 1986, p. 63). By the term Ecclesia docens, Newman means the teaching authority of the Church. This statement by Newman is based on the fact that while the faithful as a whole bear witness to the Gospel, this does not however render superfluous the role of the Magisterium.
    Newman’s awareness of the need at times for direct intervention by the Magisterium in order to specify the content of the Deposit of Faith was based on his observation that on occasions the sensus fidelium (the sense of the faithful) is not always clearly visible due to the impact of heretical ideas on the consciousness of some Catholics. In this regard, Newman cited the example of many Catholic laity who during the Arian crisis of the fourth century allowed their faith to become contaminated by the teaching of corrupt Arian Bishops “who got possession of the sees and ordained an heretical clergy” (ibid. p. 75.
    Newman contributed much to our understanding of how doctrine develops in the Church. In his book Essay On The Development of Christian Doctrine, he developed a set of criteria for distinguishing between the development and the corruption of a doctrine. Amongst these criteria he included the following: i) Preservation of Idea, ii) Continuity of Principles, iii) Logical Sequence, iv) Preservative Additions.
    For Newman, “the corruption” of a doctrine is “a development which undoes its previous advances” (Essay On The Development of Christian Doctrine, Pelican Classics, Middlesex, 1974, p. 121). Therefore, the loss of one of a doctrine’s central ideas during the course of its development is tantamount to its corruption according to Newman. Not only is the loss of one of its central principles a corruption of doctrine, so too is any “alteration of the principles” upon which the doctrine in question has developed (ibid. p. 127). On the basis of these ideas, Newman summed up the method of distinguishing authentic doctrinal development from its counterfeit by saying that developments “which do but contradict and reverse the course of doctrine which has been developed before them, and out of which they spring, are certainly corrupt” (ibid. p. 141).
    The Catholic Church cannot change its teaching on questions like the reservation of the ministerial priesthood to men alone and the intrinsically evil nature of contraceptive acts, for to do so would amount to a corruption of doctrine.

  2. Soline Humbert says:

    John Henry Newman preached a famous sermon on the theme of the “Second Spring”. The time for a catholic spring is now….

  3. Mary O'Connor says:

    I would like to share two quotes from Newman and Congar.
    In Newman’s essay On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine (The Rambler (July 1859), pp. 238-41.) , he refers to the “conspiratio fidelium et pastorum” or the “breathing together of the faithful and the pastors.” Newman saw beyond the division which had existed in Catholic thought since the 16th century between the teaching Church and the learning Church. He envisaged that the Bishops would learn by consulting the faithful, as well as prayerfully studying Scripture and Ttradition, before teaching authoritatively.
    Yves Congar said that “the Church’s machinery, sometimes the very institution, is the barrier obscuring her deep and living mystery, which they can find, or find again, only from below” (as quoted by Murphy-O’Connor,Cormac.Fired by the Spirit.2003 The Tablet, London.)

  4. Joe O'Leary says:

    The very annoying hijacking of Newman by conservatives, led by Ian Ker, must be countered. Newman brought a refined Anglican and Evangelical sensitivity with him to Rome, 30 years of intense theological reflection. This did not disappear overnight. The ecumenical significance of the Protestant undercurrents in Newman’s Catholic writings should be recovered.

  5. JeannieDunphyGuzman says:

    Many people all over the world are praying for a 2nd Reformation in the Roman Catholic Church. My prayer is that it will begin in Ireland and spread like wild-fire around the world. It’s been almost 500 years since the First Reformation. The Vatican, along with Cardinal Brady have shown how little they know of repentance and the true Gospel of Christ. Isn’t it time that they be taught a lesson that history will not forget? May Ireland lead the world in a quest for true holiness and godliness and a love for the Word of God as found in the Bible, NOT in Canon Law. John Henry Newman Day would be a good day for it to begin!

  6. John Healy says:

    References to John Henry Newman being highjacked, or being hitched to a radical bandwagon are a bit rich. “Never let the facts get in the way of a necessary distortion” appears to be the principle. Fr Ian Ker is – by common acceptance – the leading international authority on Newman. As a former Anglican, who was for many years a Catholic layman, before becoming a priest, he is all too aware of the Protestant background to Newman, as he is expert in his writings. Invoking John Henry Newman (doubtless based partially on the habitual distortion of the reference to toasting conscience before the Pope) is frankly ludicrous. At this rate, Archbishop Lefebre will be invoked in support of a radical agenda too. I can almost hear it: “if Archbishop Lefebre were alive, he would have supported women priests…” etc, for when facts do not matter anything is possible.

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