Thursday, July 09, 2009

Newman, Continuity and Vatican II according to Fr. Ian Ker

Fr. Tim Finigan pointed out this Catholic Herald piece today. The piece encompasses the theme of Benedict's "hermeneutic of reform in continuity" in relation to the Councils and Newman's own approach and understanding of the Church's Councils and their relationship to each other.

Fr. Ian Ker proposes that in the context of the imbalances of our own day -- which would either see the Second Vatican Council utterly rejected, or, by contrast, the effective rejection of what came before the Second Vatican Council -- Newman can offer light as a corrective influence.

Here is an excerpt.

[...] If there has been one keynote of Benedict XVI's pontificate, it has been "the hermeneutic", or interpretation, "of continuity". By that the Pope means that the post-Vatican II Church needs to be understood in continuity, rather than disruption, with the Church of the past. It is not that the Pope denies the significance of the achievements of the Second Vatican Council but that he insists that that Council did not somehow cancel out all the other Councils or constitute so radical a disruption as to be equivalent to a revolution. It is above all in this respect that I am sure that the Pope will see the beatification of Newman as being of great importance for the Church.

Newman has often been called "the Father of Vatican II" in the sense that he anticipated key themes of the Council. One thinks particularly of what the Council had to say about Revelation, the Church, the Church in the modern world, religious freedom and ecumenism. But if Newman was an innovative or radical theologian, he was so only because he was a deeply historical theologian. In his classic Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine Newman wrote: "To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant." He would say today with Pope Benedict: "To be deep in history is to cease to be a Vatican II liberal Catholic" - that is, the kind of Catholic who thinks that Vatican II represented a complete break in the history of the Church, a new dawn analogous to the Reformation as seen by Protestants.

Where Newman anticipated the Council in his theology, he was always careful not to exaggerate, not to lose his balance. It is well known, for example, that Newman championed the cause of the laity, but he never conceived of some kind of lay as opposed to clerical Church. From his study of the Greek Fathers he understood the Church to be primarily a sacramental communion, the organic community that Vatican II embraced in the two opening chapters of the Constitution on the Church. The Church was not primarily hierarchical, as post-Tridentine theology assumed, but nor was it a lay democracy. Again, for instance, Newman understood Revelation to be primarily the revealing of God in Christ rather than the revealing of doctrinal propositions, but because his theology of Revelation was personal rather than propositional that did not mean that he did not think doctrinal truths to be essential for our apprehension of God in Christ.

The mini-theology of Councils that Newman sketched out in private letters at the time of the First Vatican Council provides an invaluable hermeneutic for both Vatican II and for subsequent developments and corruptions of the Council's teachings.

The chaos and dissension that followed the Council Newman would have seen as the inevitable fall-out from a Council, especially one so far-reaching in its agenda. The result of Vatican I was the triumphalism of the extreme Ultramontanes on the one hand, and on the other hand the excommunication of Döllinger and the Old Catholic schism. Vatican II also saw the emergence of two extreme interpretations of the Council as revolutionary: on the one hand the excommunicated Lefebvre and his followers, and on the other the extreme liberals, headed by Hans Küng. As at Vatican I, the two extreme parties agreed very closely on the revolutionary nature of the Council.

Deep in history, Newman understood very clearly that Councils move "in contrary declarations.... perfecting, completing, supplying each other". Vatican I's definition of papal infallibility needed to be complemented, modified by a much larger teaching on the Church, so, Newman correctly predicted, there would be another Council which would do just that. But equally Vatican II needs complementing and modifying. Newman keenly appreciated that Councils have unintended consequences by virtue both of what they say and what they don't say. The tendency is for the former to be exaggerated, as happened in the wake of Vatican II, when one might have supposed that the Church had no other business except justice and peace, ecumenism, inter-religious dialogue, and so on. But what Councils do not deal with, and therefore neglect, is also of great significance: thus Vatican II was deafeningly silent about what was to become the main preoccupation of the pontificate of John Paul II: evangelisation.

In conclusion, my prediction is that history will see Newman not only as "the Father of Vatican II" but as the Doctor of the post-Conciliar Church.

Ian Ker's John Henry Newman: A Biography, first published by Oxford University Press in 1988, was re-issued on July 3

Source: Catholic Herald Online

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