Inevitably, whenever Newman’s ideas on the developing understanding of doctrine are mentioned, there will be those who see in it an excuse for justifying any change in doctrine; that is usually a sure sign of one of two things: they have either not read Newman’s essay, or they have not understood it. Newman was a great opponent of what he called ‘liberalism in religion’ – that is the idea that dogma and doctrine did not matter; it was because they mattered profoundly that he crossed the Tiber – even though, from every earthly personal point of view, that was a step away from the fame he had enjoyed in the Church of England.
Newman’s thinking on the developing understanding of doctrine was anchored in his Patristic studies, not least in his great work on the Arian crisis. What he saw, as he worked out the ways in which Christians had tried to make sense of what it meant to say Jesus was the Word Incarnate, was at the basis of his idea of development. As he put it:
The development of an idea [like Christianity] is not like an investigation worked out on paper, in which each successive advance is a pure evolution from a foregoing, but it is carried on through and by means of communities of men and their leaders and guides; and it employs their minds as instruments
As he wrote in 1868:
the apostles had the fulness of revealed knowledge, a fulness which they could as little realise to themselves, as the human mind, as such, can have all its thoughts present before it at once. . . in an apostle’s mind great part of his knowledge is latent or implicit. . . I wish to hold that there is nothing which the Church has defined or shall define but what an apostle, if asked would have been fully able to answer and would have answered, as the Church has answered, the one answering by inspiration, the other from its gift of infallibility
By this he meant that, had someone asked the Apostles if they believed in the Trinity, they might have asked for an explanation of the word (which is used nowhere in Scripture), but would have understood what it meant and affirmed the doctrine.
Those who use the idea of development as an excuse to justify any change they want, ignore this, and they ignore the seven tests which Newman himself thought should apply to any claim of ‘development’. Those tests amounted to whether the developments could be read within what Benedict XVI called the hermeneutic of continuity. So, something, for example, like the ordination of women could not be considered an authentic development: the Church has never practised it; it is not implicit neither can it be read from Scripture or tradition; neither can it be deduced from Catholic teaching on the role of the priest at Mass; still less is it in accord with the teaching of the Fathers. To call such a thing ‘development’ would be like claiming that an ash tree could grow from an acorn.
Newman was soaked in the works of the Fathers, and it was this intimate knowledge of how Christians. Newman had studied closely the growth in the development of the understanding of Divine Truth, and his theory of development was not a systematic attempt to explain how doctrine develops, but rather how our understanding the Apostolic Deposit is advanced. Those in his own time, and later, who argue that the discontinuity between the Church of the apostles and contemporary Roman Catholicism, is too great to make it possible that the two are even connected, were, Newman argued, ignoring the fact that the acorn develops into the oak tree. To those who asked how it was possible that anyone could judge rightly between differing theological views, Newman’s riposte was twofold: first, in any Church guided by the Spirit, there would be lively debate (as had been the case from the beginning); and that the Church founded by Jesus Christ had a teaching Magisterium with the authority to bind and loose, and to make the necessary judgment as to whether a claimed development in understanding was, or was not, authentic. These were great claims to make – but not, Newman argued, to make of Christ’s Church and the successors of St Peter. It was for that reason – that he had found the authority which could make such claims, and a Church which had developed the understanding of the Apostolic deposit by it – that he left the comforts, emoluments and fame of Oxford for the discomforts, poverty and obscurity of the Birmingham Oratory. He had found the pearl of great price.
Those who have read and understood Newman, know that any attempts to employ his words to justify radical changes, are an illegitimate use of them. As he said in 1879 on receiving his Cardinal’s hat:
Liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another, and this is the teaching which is gaining substance and force daily. It is inconsistent with any recognition of any religion, as true. It teaches that all are to be tolerated, for all are matters of opinion. Revealed religion is not a truth, but a sentiment and a taste; not an objective fact, not miraculous; and it is the right of each individual to make it say just what strikes his fancy
The right reception of what the Blessed John Henry wrote is that the Church founded by Jesus Christ has nothing to fear from debate and discussion – that was the way in which the Church hammered out the doctrines of the Trinity and the two natures of Christ in one hypostasis – what the Church has to fear most, is the absence of discussion and debate – that way would lie stagnation caused by fear.
Trust me, rather than the world, when I tell you, that it is no difficult thing for a Catholic to believe; and that unless he grievously mismanages himself, the difficult thing is for him to doubt. He has received a gift which makes faith easy: it is not without an effort, a miserable effort that any one who has received that gift, unlearns to believe
Inquiry proceeded faith, and no-one, he thought, should become a Catholic without without a firm purpose of taking her [the Church] word in all matters of doctrine and morals, and that, on the ground of her coming directly from the God of Truth
Only those determined to do so, can derive from the works of the Blessed John Henry Newman an excuse for justifying the introduction of novelties into the Church.